By Robert Turner
People sometimes ask how I can be a conservationist, a food politics commentator and a meat-eater, all at the same time. “Isn’t meat bad for the environment?” they might say.
My answer is usually something like this: “It’s not the cow; it’s the how.” Then the conversation usually turns to grass because I raise grass-fed beef at Creekside Farm, and I’ve learned about grass.
Confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), where most of our beef comes from, are bad for the environment on multiple levels. But pasture-raised beef can actually improve soil health and sequester carbon, if done right.
If you’ve ever taken a road trip through Montana, through the endless miles of rolling, native prairie grassland, then you probably have a pretty good sense of what large parts of North America looked like for thousands of years. Grasslands once blanketed more than a quarter of North America, a region stretching roughly from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
That was before homesteaders began plowing up the prairie to plant crops. Now, just a third of the native prairies still exist, says The Nature Conservancy. The prairie continues to shrink, with another 2.6 million acres of US and Canadian grasslands plowed under between 2018 and 2019, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Grasslands still cover nearly 40 percent of the landmass of the globe, excluding Antarctica and Greenland. The Great Plains and Northern Great Plains hold a vast stretch of grassland that runs from Texas up to Montana and the Dakotas and far into Canada. Why is that important?
Researchers are just now discovering how grasslands play a vital role in carbon sequestration and climate change because they suck up so much carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—from the atmosphere. Several studies estimate that grasslands contain as much as 30 percent of the carbon stored in the Earth’s soil. Plowing up grasslands to plant crops releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and breaks up the natural carbon cycles that have existed on the plains for millennia.
Poor grazing practices, like overgrazing or allowing animals to stay on the same patch of land for too long, in the prairies of the Great Plains, the savannas of Africa, the steppes of Eurasia and the Pampas of South America, have threatened vast grassland areas with desertification. Overgrazing and the plow are decimating this massive carbon sink.
But with proper management, new research shows how cattle and other livestock can actually restore and improve the soils and grassland ecosystem. Ecologist Allan Savory famously proved the regenerative powers of intensive cattle rotation in Africa starting in the 1970s, transforming what had become essentially desert back to healthy, productive grasslands. How is that possible?
Animals and livestock are not enemies to the land; they have evolved with the grasslands in a symbiotic relationship over time that benefits both. Millions of buffalo, for example, once roamed the prairies, eating down the grass in highly condensed herds and fertilizing it with their urine and manure, and then moving on. Their hooves break up hard ground and allow moisture to penetrate. There are ecological systems, like the prairie, that need large ruminants to help cycle nutrients into the land.
They graze in dense herds for protection from predators, whose very presence kept the herd always on the move. Seasonal migratory patterns also kept them moving, so that the herd might not return to one patch of ground for a year or more. The grasses evolved under this pattern of intensive grazing and recovery, and learned to thrive under those conditions.
In regenerative grazing, farmers and ranchers typically concentrate herds into small paddocks with temporary fencing, which makes this system of rotational grazing more labor-intensive because they must move the cows frequently, in some cases daily. But this system mimics how predators, including wolves, once kept herds of buffalo moving across the landscape, and it maximizes ecosystem function and productivity.
The animals leave behind trampled grass and remnants that cover the ground, which helps capture and retain moisture, keeps the ground cooler and limits evaporation, and they leave lots of manure for fertilizer. As the grasses grow back, they extend their roots deeper into the soil and pull more carbon from the air, storing most of it in the ground where it belongs.
A 2015 study in the science journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment estimated that better, rotational grazing methods could sequester perhaps 300 million tons of carbon dioxide per year worldwide. At the same time, it would improve soil and ecosystem health and diversity, and increase the carrying capacity for ranchers. Ranchers and conservationists, once opposing forces, are now starting to come together, touting the economic and biodiversity benefits of healthier land through proper livestock management.
In one of the great mysteries of modern man and agriculture, we plowed under the grassland and planted corn to feed cows. But cows evolved to eat grass. Corn can cause ulcers in a cow’s stomach, which then requires lots of antibiotics. And the monocropping system of corn production in the Midwest to feed all these animals is degrading our soils and polluting our waterways from heavy chemical applications. It’s time we got cows back on pasture—it’s better for them and for the planet.
If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, look for grass-fed beef. Some local farms, like Hickory Nut Gap Farm (whose products are found at Ingles), use the intensive, rotational grazing methods described above.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.