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Do ALL Cows Harm Our Planet?

Jun 1, 2023 | Advocacy & Policy, Support for Local Farmers, Sustainability | 0 comments

By Robin Hoy and Lisa White

Cow Farts!  It has been all over the news that methane from cows is contributing to our changing climate.  In industrial agriculture and confined animal operations, we agree that is true.  Yet regenerative, sustainable agriculture and raising of livestock, such as is practiced by so many of our local farmers, is a whole different ball game. In fact, raising animals in this way may help to solve our climate dilemma. 

The short answer is that 100% grass fed cows are actually a net positive for climate change as perennial pasture grasses, in combination with livestock, store incredible amounts of carbon in the soil. It turns out it is HOW the cow is raised (and on what food source) not cows themselves. Read on for full details and research on this topic!

In an email about goings on at the farm, Sean of Tussock Sedge Farm wrote:

During the past few weeks, much time has been spent repairing fencing and cattle irrigation lines in the fields so that all of our herds, roughly 300 cows, can begin their intensive rotational grazing for the next 7 months.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, rotational grazing is at the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture practices.  It involves giving animals just enough pasture to consume for a specific time frame – for us that is typically one day.  The herds will quickly graze down the field before moving ahead the following day.  Paddocks that have been grazed are then allowed to rest and regrow for at least 1 month before the animals return.  This action very much mimics nature, as the most nutritious plants are consumed and less desirables are often trampled into the ground.  This trampling action incorporates plants and animal manure into the soil, increasing organic matter and sequestering carbon.  Recent studies have shown that truly pasture raised, 100% grass fed meat has a negative carbon footprint – meaning that it captures more carbon that it requires to produce.  Perennial pastures that are not tilled or turned over, have the ability to store massive amounts of carbon in the soil. Here are the hard numbers for comparing net total emissions per pound of meat raised (the lower the number the better):
 

  • Conventional Beef: +33
  • Conventional Pork: +9
  • Conventional Chicken: +6
  • Beyond Burger & Impossible Burger: +4
  • Pasture Raised, 100% Grass Fed/Grass Finished Meat in a regenerative agriculture setting: -3.5”

 

Sean and Tonya of Tussock Sedge Farm

This amazing bit of science came from a study by Quantis International, a consultancy company that “guide(s) top organizations to define, shape and implement intelligent environmental sustainability solutions.” Here is a link to the study. It was done for White Oak Pastures, a farm in Bluffton, Georgia and General Mills (who sources from White Oak Pastures for their EPIC brand products).  An article about the study, White Oak Pastures, and its history makes for interesting additional reading and is found here. This article by prnewswire.com, states that “The research team was so astounded by White Oak Pastures LCA that they called in academics from other universities and institutes to confirm the methodology.  Their results were so compelling that the lead researcher, Dr. Jason Rowntree of Michigan State University, plans to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.” Studies found that as cattle graze, some of the grass roots die and are trapped in the soil, enriching the soil with organic matter, sequestering the carbon from their roots, and making crops more resilient to droughts and floods. 

 

It’s becoming clear that the belief that cows are the ones causing the problem is a false one. In reality the problems arise from the way in which the animals are being raised: it is the ‘HOW’ not the ‘COW.’ 

 

Carbon footprint breakdown per kg of White Oak Pastures’ beef from Quantis report, page 6

But where the cattle are grown is important for the carbon footprint as well. While 100% grass fed beef is available at many grocery stores now, 75% of it is actually raised in New Zealand and Australia, with a huge carbon shipping footprint. But it can be labeled “Product of the USA” because all imported meat is required to go through USDA inspection stations at the border, permitting it to be labeled “Product of the USA.” 

While the carbon emission facts alone are compelling when comparing the impacts of industrial and regenerative beef production methods, in addition:

  • The corn, soy and other GMO crops that are used to feed cattle in the industrial system are grown with heavy applications of herbicides (like Roundup), synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The runoff from these crops have created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is now larger than the area of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. 
  • Roundup negatively impacts our own gut biome, weakening our immune system, and has been linked to cancer. 
  • The chemicals used to raise feedlot cattle feed wreak havoc on the soil biome, pollinators and ecosystems we depend upon. 
  • The concentrated manure from feedlots used to “finish” cattle for the last 3-6 months causes life-threatening water and air pollution as well as economic loss to the nearby communities. 

Alternatively, cattle raised on 100% grass require no chemical inputs and their manure is transformed into healthy living soil through eons-old biological processes. Soil, air, water, climate and healthy food production are protected.

So, if you eat beef and want to protect life on our planet, purchase it from the many BCFA local farmers who use these carbon capturing, regenerative and sustainable practices. Find them at our farmers’ markets or on the Local Food Map on our website, bucksfoodshed.org  And spread the word!

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