Food for Thought: Are Cattle Ruining the Environment?
Hey! Caroline here. Welcome to part one of my new series, Food for Thought.
I've learned a lot in the five years that I've been ranching. Let me tell you - the learning curve was steep. At the start of my ranching journey I'd seen the same documentaries (I call them "shockumentaries" now) about livestock and the environment that everyone else has seen, and I thought that made me a food and sustainability expert. I cringe now at the arrogance implicit in all my assumptions.
While I may never consider myself an expert, I've certainly been schooled. And what I've learned along the way might surprise you. Based on the messaging we hear all the time, you might think a deep understanding of food production would give me reason to despair. But in fact, the opposite happened. The deeper I got into food and sustainability topics and the more my first hand experience stacked up, the more reasons I found for optimism. I've met fifth generation ranchers who have been implementing regenerative agriculture practices for decades. Attended conferences where we learned about methane digesters on dairies and seaweed that can reduce methane emissions from cattle. Encountered so many first generation folks diving in to this important, challenging work and bringing new food options to their communities.
That said, we certainly face challenges in our food system, and I've got thoughts. I'm very excited to share what I've learned with you all through this series. These food sustainability topics are often full of jargon, decontextualized data, and hot takes that they're difficult to untangle even for folks within the industry. My goal is to break it all down by unpacking key questions and concepts into bite sized pieces with ~nuance~ and good sources. Think of me as your translator, from the perspective of someone who's been both inside and outside the industry. No topic is too thorny; we'll talk methane, the beef production system, water use, and allll the hot topics.
The first topic we'll be tackling is a big one: The claim that cattle are ruining the environment.
So let's dive in.
You've probably seen those jarring headlines, by now. But of course, it's all about perspective. If you live in the midwest surrounded by mega feedlots, you might look at the beef industry with a critical eye. If you live in Montana, where we have 2.5 cows per person and we are known as the Last Best Place, you might find the idea that cattle are ruining the environment to be simply out of touch.
Here in Big Sky Country we play host to over 10 million visitors each year who come from far and wide to explore our national parks and abundant open spaces and species of wildlife, many of which are found on, you guessed it, cattle ranches. In fact, I see enough wildlife daily to make a visit to one of our parks almost redundant.
The more I learned about cattle, the more I realized that they are not "good" or "bad." Like any other animal, they play an ecosystem purpose. And to really understand whether cattle are a hindrance or a help to the environment, we have to first take a step back and understand the purpose of ruminants in the wild.
So, what is a ruminant?
Cattle, along with many other grazing animals like bison, goats, elk, giraffes, and more, are ruminants. They are hoofed, grazing mammals with a unique digestive system and role in the carbon cycle. Cattle were domesticated from the Aurochs, but their grazing habits and ecosystem impact did not change. Their digestive system allows for ruminants to convert fibrous plant material into energy in ways that other domesticated livestock, like pigs and chickens for example, can't, and they spend around 1/3 of their lives just grazing. And while that statistic might seem staggering, you might be surprised to learn that ruminants and grass likely depend on each other for survival.
In fact, it’s hypothesized that grass and grazers co-evolved. The saliva produced by ruminants during grazing has even been shown to stimulate grass growth, and grazing itself encourages a plant to become stronger and grow faster. Managed grazing of cattle also helps spread seeds, and their manure acts as fertilizer. And the entire process, when in sync, builds up soil carbon. The long and short of it is this: carbon is stored in soil, and much of the world's soil has lost its carbon over the last several centuries from tillage and erosion. Managed grazing builds top soil, pulls carbon back into the soil, and regenerates the land. Mismanaged grazing on the other hand can lead to erosion and depleted land.
This video does a great job explaining the role that ruminants play in soil regeneration and restoration:
I think Diana Rodgers said it best when she said "It's not the cow, it's the how." Though cattle can cause negative effects on ecosystems, it's important to consider that that does not occur without outside influence. When grazing animals are allowed to overgraze, when they are taken off pasture entirely, when large quantities of manure aren't managed properly, when we truck in feed from far away, or raise livestock in an ecosystem that is not appropriate for them (ie the rainforest), we are in many ways working against what cattle do best. At that point they can become an environmental hindrance, not a help. See what I mean about ~nuance~ ?
Where are cattle most suited to live? Grasslands. And grasslands are actually the world's most threatened ecosystem, where large ruminants have long reigned as keystone species. In North America, the bison historically grazed our grasslands and built the rich topsoil on our foothills and prairies. While most of the bison were eradicated by colonists, cattle now play a hugely contributing factor in the preservation of what remains. Ruminant presence on grassland is so important that without intermittent grazing, over time, grasses can choke themselves out on their own overgrowth.
We've only just gotten started, but I'll leave you with these concepts to consider for now. Everything else we discuss will be built on this understanding of cattle as ruminants. So, are beef ruining the environment? To fully answer that question, we have a lot more to discuss. Stay tuned for our part 2, where we'll talk about methane and emissions.