News from the Noteworthy
Our column, The Life of the Land, is an exploration of local agricultural practices. Several of our pieces will focus on farms which raise grass-fed animals; here we address the environmental implications of locally raised livestock.
It is indisputable that industrial livestock management is an ecological disaster. This has led to pronouncements from numerous authoritative agencies to eat “less meat” or even “no meat”. Yet grass-fed production of livestock is an important and growing component of our local agricultural economy. For those of us who wish to support these farms, is their meat actually environmentally “better meat”?
From an ethical and nutritional point of view, meat eating remains debatable and controversial. But from an ecological point of view the jury is in: proper livestock management can be carbon neutral, radically improves soil, and recycles local nutrients into food for us. The key to this is regenerative farming.
Industrial beef begins life on continuously grazed rangeland, where selective consumption of favored forage eventually erodes and degrades the pasture. Later, after transportation to feed lots, the animals are fed high-energy feeds such as corn. Large amounts of fossil fuels are consumed in livestock transportation, and in cultivation of these feeds.
“Grass-fed” animals may briefly receive high-energy foods just before slaughter, though not always. But the great majority of their lives is spent on pasture, ideally regeneratively managed. This is a practice which encourages brief periods of intense grazing from multiple pastures which are rotated to allow periods of regrowth. Regenerative grazing in fact serves as a carbon sink, putting more carbon in the ground than is released. This is due to the burial of manure (containing methane and nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas) by the crowded herd’s hoofs on the sod. The robust regrowth of grasses rapidly sequesters CO2.1
All ruminants produce methane during the digestion of cellulose, and much has been made of the fact that grass-fed beef cattle produce more than corn-fed. The formulae which are universally used to compare these apples and oranges — methane and CO2 — are controversial. They overstate the damaging aspects of methane, which does break down in the atmosphere, versus CO2, which is almost forever.2 Yet even using these metrics, regenerative grazing buries more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere.
Additionally, although both feedlot and grass fed animals all require large amounts of water over a lifetime, the economic and environmental costs of providing it are much less for pasture-raised animals with locally available water.
In our hilly landscape, with its many patches of marginal land unsuitable for cultivation, livestock production can be a sensible and sustainable practice. As other agricultural areas of the country are ravaged by climate change, livestock production should provide some measure of economic stability and food security for our region.
Authored by Sustainable Otsego. Since 2007 we have promoted ecologically sound practices — locally, regionally, and nationally. We call for sustainable living, economic independence, and home rule. Visit at sustainableotsego.net or facebook.com/SustainableOtsego.