Monday, January 8, 2018

A New View on Cattle

I love to set my stories on cattle ranches. I grew up riding horses, worked on a farm and have always been fascinated with the American west. So writing western romance is a perfect fit for me in many ways.

Yet I'm also a California girl with a degree in environmental studies. So I've written about ranching with a twinge of guilt. Cattle ranching can be bad for the earth. We should all eat less beef, experts tell us, not just to preserve our health but to help tackle global warming. And living in the warming, drought-ridden west, I definitely want to help with that problem!

Then today, I read a fascinating article. Allan Savory, an esteemed ecologist, is arguing that raising cattle is not the problem that's contributing to climate change. It's how we raise cattle. It's feeding them corn instead of the grass their bodies were designed to ingest. It's sending them to feed lots instead of allowing them to graze freely over big parcels of land.

According to Savory, the earths' grasslands evolved along with large populations of hoofed grazing mammals. Here in America, we had deer, bison, antelope and others. When they ate and trampled the grass, they made room for new grass to grow. Their droppings fertilized the prairies. When they moved on to new grazing lands, the grassland regenerated behind them.

Without these animals, if we follow Savory's reasoning, the grassland slowly dies. New plants can't make their way through the old dead grass. Other plants move in and colonize, or, as has happened in places like Africa, the land becomes desert.

Even the British royals agree with this idea, and since many of us romance readers are excited about the May wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, let's hear from Harry's dad. Prince Charles summarized this research in a 2012 speech, saying "If you take grazers off the land and lock them away in feedlots, the land dies."

And apparently grasslands hold a whole lot of carbon down in their roots. A ton of carbon per acre. So if we could make them thrive again, we could sequester some of the carbon currently floating about causing trouble in the atmosphere.

Now all this is good in theory, but how do we know it's true? Well, in Zimbabwe, where grasslands turning into deserts is a large problem, they did an experiment. Here is what the article says about the results.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management has restored desertified grasslands by running 400% more livestock than it originally did.
"Through two recent serious droughts they have increased livestock further and the river that had gone dry in most years is once more flowing perennially in most years supporting a great increase in animal life,” Savory writes. “New permanent water pools, complete with water lilies and fish have appeared where not previously known in living memory."
Pretty neat, right? Not only are they trapping carbon in the grasslands, but they are restoring habitat and making the land more resistant to drought.  
After reading this article, I did some more research, which cast a different, much dimmer light on Allan Savory's theory. Although it sounds good on paper, it hasn't worked when researchers have tried to put it into practice. The grass didn't regenerate. The cattle didn't thrive.
But I'll leave you with this. If Allan Savory and his colleagues are correct, or at least, somewhat correct, wouldn't it be amazing if we could close the feedlots, break down fences and let the cattle roam? How wonderful to have large swaths of healthy prairie, and delicious grass-fed beef that could benefit us all! 

Who knows? Maybe one of my future heroes or heroines will take down their fences and see the grasslands start to thrive! 
If you'd like to learn more about these ideas, here are a few resources I found.
The original article I read:
Allan Savory's website:
A Scientific American Article that explores his ideas:
The Sierra Club article that explores and then ultimately disagrees with Allan's ideas:
An article from that vehemently disagrees with his ideas:


Stephanie said...

It's so nice to read a well thought out article that doesn't demonize the livestock industry. We live in the high desert and most ranchers here use rotational grazing to accomplish the same thing while they own the cattle. They do sent cattle to the feedlot as it's the only current way to market them. I'm sure many of them would be interested in this. Thanks for posting.

Claire McEwen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claire McEwen said...

Hi Stephanie, Thanks so much for your comment! I agree... I think many ranchers are using these methods already. And more would, I'm sure, if they could get access to more grazing land. I was excited to read about these ideas too. I also though the Sierra Club and Slate articles were interesting because they definitely make the point that this intensive grazing idea won't work everywhere. Which reminds us that every part of the earth is different and we have to try to understand the unique qualities of it. I wish there were more options for ranchers than feedlots because I think that's one place where our system falls apart, both for the environment and the well-being of the animals themselves. Anyway, thanks again for your comment!!

dstoutholcomb said...

I have several dairy farmers in my family, and to m knowledge, they raise the cattle responsibly.


Kim Turner said...

My grandfather had a diary farm when I was growing up. I always loved it there. When I was small he would sit me up on a wall to watch as he and my uncles did the milking. Atlanta Dairies came by to purchase the milk and he would only drink the milk from them. Up at 4am and 4pm every vacations. He and my grandmother lived simple with hard work. Miss them both. He loved his cows and drove an old truck through the pastures to check on them every day.

Agnes Alexander said...

Interesting blog. Having lived in a southern city most of my life, I had no idea that when the free range began putting up fences it would cause problems in the future.