Over the past few years there has been a shift in the conservation/sustainability world. Many are starting to shift their mindset away from previously conceived notions regarding the environmental impact of raising livestock across the United States. Many people have moving their diets away from red meat as to do their part in helping mitigate some of the methane produced from cows and their impacts on the atmosphere.
Apart from ethical dilemmas, many vegans, vegetarians, and scientist argue that the production of beef is detrimental to the climate and landscape due to the high concentrations of methane produced. Methane negatively impacts the climate similar to carbon dioxide molecules, thus accelerating the impacts of climate change. There is also historical evidence expressing loss of native biodiversity due to overgrazing and the desertification of our grasslands.
Ranching culture is also associated with habitat removal and the extirpation of the gray wolf across the United States, but the use of this “new” ranching method could help rebuild soil health, revive grassland diversity, and put carbon back in the ground that was once in the atmosphere. The implementation of this method could mitigate some of the wrong caused by the industry throughout the years.
I was introduced to this concept during a permaculture design course I took back in 2021 after watching a TED talk with Allan Savory in class. It really opened my eyes to the potential regenerative nature that grazing could possess if done correctly. It made sense to me that these grasslands/rangelands would benefit from having large groups of herbivores on them as many of them coevolved with various grazing species over thousands of years.
Recently I watched the documentary Carbon Cowboys or Soil Carbon Cowboys after getting some of their reels on my Instagram/YouTube feed. The documentary reinforces what Allan Savory was speaking on, but gives more insight from hands on experiences with ranchers coming from various perspectives across the United States. The documentary was so moving for me that it actually inspired me to reach out to various farms/ranches and see if I could get any experience working with cattle or bison using the rotational method(s) and compare it to ranch land I typically see across my state.
Cows and bison can revive our grasslands, we just have to be brave enough to go against “traditional” views and take the risk in working with the land to get better results without the need for so many inputs. I will continue this thought process below while also highlighting the history of ranching across the United States and the benefits of rotational grazing.
1. The Destructive History of Ranching to Grasslands
Even though it may seem that cows are killing the planet based on what you hear in the news, many people know only what they are told. I hope to show the truth beyond all the anti-cow/meat noise pushed by animal rights activists, vegans, and climate activists. I will not disagree that cows in large number when improperly managed can have a negative impact on their environment, but this is not specific to cows, it is specific to how we as humans use them and create artificial environments for them as to beef up the carrying capacity/productivity within a given lot.
Cows were first brought to the United States in the early 1600’s by immigrants for personal family use It wasn’t until people started living in cities and moving from rural environments that we begin to see more industrial styles of ranching for dairy and meat production. It was at the turn of the industrial revolution that people first started to really notice the impacts of cattle on the land. Deforestation was now becoming a larger issue to make room for cattle to graze as well as the loss of biodiversity across the grasslands due to overgrazing.
President Theodore Roosevelt was even noted to have noticed the impacts of overgrazing on his own personal ranches as well as others and claimed that it was unsustainable in one of his books. The impacts of improper land management later cost him his ranches as half of his cows would either freeze to death during the winter or starved in the branches of trees attempting to eat new growth. He then cut his losses and said farewell to the ranching industry.
2. The Methane Argument
Beyond the land use/range management issues previously mentioned, there is a more modern issue that is raising some alarm with scientist and climate activists. That being the impact of methane and the rate at which the Earth warms. Cows and other livestock are estimated to produce about 40% of the methane emissions globally. NASA expresses that methane (CH4) is the second largest contributor to climate change behind carbon dioxide (CO2). This is where it is easy for groups to argue against various societies reliance on animal based products as to potentially mitigate a hefty percentage of the methane produced globally. This is where people often begin to promote plant based lifestyles (veganism) and diets such as vegetarianism
3. How Rotational Grazing Works
Despite these tough criticisms against the cattle/livestock industry, there has been a new wave of thinking, a way which appeases both ranchers and climate activists by working toward greater holistic land management practices and overall greater ecological regenerative efforts. The general idea of rotational/regenerative grazing is that originally, the Great Plains grassland coevolved for thousands of years to have American bison and other large megafauna grazing the landscape. The bison and megafauna would graze an area in great numbers/efficiency while also smothering/trampling grasses. There the grasses breakdown and grow back healthier while also benefiting from the decomposition of bison droppings.
Rotational grazing is working to emulate what bison were originally doing, but on a smaller scale. To achieve the desired results one must first let some areas of their land rest for some time. Then begin to break up their field into quadrants or “paddocks” from there you let a group of cattle graze, trample, and defecate in an area until there is no more forage, then you move them to the next paddock/quadrant while letting the previous one rest and breakdown. You continue this into the winter as well, eliminating the need for hay which is known to be quite expensive and damaging to the soil which the hay is harvested from.
The reason paddocks are important with cattle is because it forces the cows to eat within a highly competitive environment, forcing them to eat browse or forage that they might not exactly prefer to eat if given an entire pasture to roam. I compare it to that of a toddler being able to pick what they want for dinner. If the toddler could have it their way they would prefer to have cookies and pizza for dinner and completely overlook the steamed broccoli or buttered peas. Everything is done to emulate the bison, though the bison are a bit less picky to native forage and are more drought tolerant.
4. Ecological Impacts of Regenerative Grazing
Despite regenerative grazing not being as impactful as reintroducing large bison herds back to the plains, I would argue that there is still a large amount of benefits associated with the concept of rotational grazing. One of which being that they can be used to revive the soil health/ecology leading to higher productive return of soil carbon sequestration and the increased diversification of plant species within the grassland. Organic matter is also built up on the soil rather than removed as seen occurring in numerous farming and ranching operations.
Not only does the increase in soil health/function increase plant/insect biodiversity and carbon sequestration, but it also can prevent flooding and helps save an area during a time of drought as the watershed is able to hold onto all the water it can while leaving access for plants if they can reach it with their roots.
With the addition more native plant diversity this leads to the creation of habitat for various other wild animals. This could be the solution that helps bring back upland bird populations as habitat is the main variable keeping populations from being what they once were. I write more about this in my previous post in regards to pheasants which I will link here.
5. Economic Impacts of Regenerative Grazing
These ecological impacts are important economically as well, so important that corporations are considering paying ranchers to help mitigate some of their CO2 emissions as to help make their company run more “green” and environmentally aware/conscious. Not only does this way of grazing help reduced the need to import external resources/inputs to be able to keep a cattle herd going in the late fall and winter months, but it also prevents the cost of flood damage to the land and surrounding properties due to the improved permeability of the soil.
Beyond cutting expenses on the ranch and mitigating property damage in localized areas regenerative grazing also improves the quality of the land so much that it can increase the overall value of said property. This is a smaller benefit, but a benefit nonetheless.
The cattle industry in the United States and globally has caused harm to our ecosystems and the land/water in the last few hundred years. The amount of methane produced by these animals is not being sequestered at the rate that it should be due to broken ecosystems and poor range management. It is obvious that if we plan to keep the industry going in a sustainable fashion that we begin to make the changes that are required to ensure that ranching can continue to be practiced by small farms/ranchers rather than corporate giants.
There are many people who are skeptical of this new way of grazing and many are slow to make the switch, but science is slowly starting to show evidence that it isn’t all smoke and mirrors. The potential for great change is here and it is time that we allow food to become localized again. It is tiring to hear farmers and ranchers claim “you can’t feed the world using this method” though we should be asking why we need to feed the world? Other countries have their own farms and farmers. Why should it be the American farmers job to sustain the other continents, it just doesn’t make sense long term.
I hope this article has given you the resources to look into the amazing change that is happening across the world and feel a sense of relief that people are trying their best to work with nature to fix the mess that we have created.