Livestock: A Powerful Tool
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“Everything we humans do is 1,000% dependent on agriculture. Yet if you looked at our world from space you would consider us a desert-making species.”
That blunt observation comes from Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist, livestock farmer, and president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He offers a remedy, however, for what he describes as the “desertification” of much of our planet: livestock grazing.
“Livestock is the most powerful tool we have.”
Savory’s holistic approach to resource management suggests most grazing lands should have more livestock added, not fewer. He argues for managed grazing systems that mimic the millions of bison that grazed for thousands of years in North America. By intensely grazing pastures for short periods then allowing for lengthy rest periods, Savory says grasslands are restored and soils are revitalized in a way that provides for substantial — possibly earth-saving — levels of carbon sequestration, meaning increasing the density of cattle can help protect against climate change.
Livestock grazing is also proposed as a potential solution for wildfires such as those that have devastated several western states this year. Researchers with the University of California Cooperative Extension are evaluating how much fine fuel — grasses and other plants known to start fires — cattle eat. Without cattle grazing, they estimate there would be hundreds to thousands of additional pounds of fine fuels per acre of land, leading to larger and more severe fires.
“Reducing fire hazard is not as simple as grazing rangelands to bare soil or even to low levels of fuel,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “Widespread and severe wildfires are predicted to increase over time in California. This ‘new reality’ requires that we take advantage of all the tools in our management toolbox to protect public safety while meeting our broader rangeland management objectives.” The researchers say cattle provide opportunities to improve fire safety.
Utilizing techniques such as those advocated by Savory, Tom Wind, in Jamaica, Iowa, has seen dramatic improvement to his farm’s west-central Iowa soils in just four years. He had noticed spots on his crop farm with poorer soils, areas he believes deteriorated from lost topsoil after the prairie was plowed under decades ago. Regenerating the health of his farm’s soil led Wind to join Practical Farmers of Iowa where he learned soil can be regenerated much faster than he thought.
“The important things to remember are to keep soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, increase diversity of plant life, keep roots in the soil as long as you can and put livestock on the land,” Wind says.
Wind’s conservation self-assessment was critical to restructuring his farm’s production systems. After 10 years of no-till corn production, Wind removed 50 acres of the poorer soils from crop production and planted forages. Next, he partnered with neighbor Jim Funke who has a cow-calf herd to graze the pasture under intensive rotational grazing.
The result? “These areas now produce forage versus nearly nothing like they did in the past,” Wind says. Using the Haney Test for Soil Health calculation on the pasture, Wind says the value has increased from about 7 to 15. The calculation combines various measurements of nutrients in soil to generate a number between zero and 50.
Cattle are moved on Wind’s farm from one paddock to the next daily, with a goal of grazing half the forage in a paddock and leaving the other half. While consuming the forage, cattle also deposit manure and their hoof action spreads and incorporates the manure into the soil.
Reintroducing livestock to land that has been continuously cropped can restore soil health. Now scientists are seeking ways to distribute manure from large-scale livestock operations onto croplands in an effort to achieve similar results.
Since the 1950s, according to the Agricultural Research Service, the increasing development of large-scale livestock feeding operations and larger row crop farms has severed the symbiotic relationship where the excess nutrients created by the manure had productive uses. Though some animal farms typically use some manure to grow feed, most feeding operations have insufficient land for all their manure. The surplus can pose an environmental threat to air and water quality, ARS says. Yet manure contains phosphorus and nitrogen, which are key nutrients supplied by commercial fertilizers.
“The question is what to do with the manure from livestock operations with surplus manure nutrients, and how to get it to farmland where it is needed most,” says Sheri Spiegal, an ARS scientist in Las Cruces, N.M.
Spiegal and her colleagues proposed creating “manuresheds” or systems that reconnect crop and livestock production so more manure can be used to fertilize more crops. The concept is designed to promote practices, technologies and management systems that would clean up manure while building healthy soils and supporting crop yields. It also illuminates the challenges of sustainable manure use and creates a framework for addressing the problem sustainably.
An ARS study of 3,109 counties across the U.S. collected data on manure produced by feeding operations and fertilizer needed for crops. The data was used to classify the counties as either manure sources or sinks. Results showed there is potential to redistribute manure from source to sink counties.
Redistribution of manure is already underway. Truckers from western Pennsylvania, for instance, now haul hay to mushroom growers in the east and pick up poultry litter for the return trip west, effectively exporting poultry litter from the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
While livestock production has been maligned as a climate change culprit, a comprehensive life-cycle assessment by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and The Beef Checkoff found widely accepted measures related to beef cattle’s impact on the environment in the U.S. are often overestimated.
Designed to scientifically quantify the sustainability of U.S. beef production, the research collected data from more than 2,200 cattle operations. Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the study found beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.3% of U.S. GHGs. That’s dramatically lower than the often-misapplied global livestock figure of 14.5%. Further, continuous improvements in production suggests cattle producers have avoided 2.3 gigatons of carbon emissions since 1975.