October 31, 2017

The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Why it's Really a Non-Issue

Almost 38% of the earth's terrestrial surface (32.1 billion acres) is agricultural land (12.1 billion acres). "Agricultural land" refers to the sum of all arable land, permanent crops and permanent meadows and pastures. This means it encompasses all land used to grow crops and land used for grazing livestock on. (Source: World Bank Data on Agricultural Land)
"At present some 11 percent (1.5 billion ha) of the globe's land surface (13.4 billion ha) is used in crop production (arable land and land under permanent crops)."
From World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030. Ch. 4: Crop Production and Natural Resource Use
"Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface."
From Livestock and Landscapes Quick Facts and FAO Animal Production.
"About 60 percent of the world's agricultural land is grazing land, supporting about 360 million cattle and over 600 million sheep and goats."
From FAO's Livestock on Grazing Lands.

"'If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,' David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, reported at the July 24-26 meeting of the Canadian Society of Animal Science in Montreal. Or, if those grains were exported, it would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year, Pimentel estimated."
From: U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists--Cornell Chronicle

After reading all that, you may be wondering what the purpose of all that kind of research was.

The answer is quite simple. Statistics can be interpreted in multiple ways, to shock people, or to inform. Rather, I was giving you a taste as to why these land-use arguments even exist. 

These kind of stats are commonly used in land-use debates all over the Internet to create shock-and-awe or to drive home the sentiment that somehow livestock are bad and they take up way too much land, way too much space, are too inefficient to feed in the current commercial agricultural system where many are confined, etc. 

Here's the caveat: These sentiments aren't something to be disagreed with; they do have a certain element of truth. 

David Pimentel touched on that in the quote above. That's why, in my prequel post, The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Breaking Down the Numbers, I specifically made the point that I am not denying nor ignoring the fact that you most definitely can and will produce a lot more "plant-based food" (i.e., vegetables, starches, fruits, and grains) on an acre of land than you can meat (be it from cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep, or goats).

What Pimentel is targeting is the problem around the industrialized, centralized, standardized, globalized, consumer-driven food system that is still called "agriculture." It's the system where most crops are grown as monocultures, and most animals are raised in intensive confinement operations--and I'm talking predominantly poultry, pigs, and dairy cattle. It's the system that is environmentally, socially, economically, and even culturally a major problem. 

Now, I didn't create this post to rant and rave about commercial agriculture. But, it does play a very big role here. 

What I'm most concerned about and really want to address is the overly simplistic view of comparing one (plant-based foods) versus another (animal products), as far as the very sentiments expressed above:
  • Efficiency of Resource Use
  • Space Requirements
  • Question of Quantity
I may be out to lunch with this thought, but my thoughts are that these memes follow precisely in the footsteps of what is industrial agriculture, with CAFOs, and with monoculture crop production. And that is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of all.

You see, while I will continually acknowledge the fact that it certainly does take less space and less resources to grow more plant-based foods on one or 1.5 acres, it consistently ignores the various hidden costs associated with just looking for better efficiency, higher quantity, and saving space.

And it's those particular costs that are associated with our current food production model which are posing an enormous, global issue today. I believe that we can address those costs by simply regarding this land-use argument as a non-issue.

Before we do that though, let's take a nice in-a-nutshell look at our current food production practices.

Cropping Agriculture

The vast majority of crops are cultivated and grown as monocultures, requiring artificial, chemical inputs to be grown. Fuel and machinery are needed from preparing the ground for seeding to harvest, and further equipment (and more fuel) for distribution upon sale. Irrigation is necessary in areas where rainfall is not enough to meet cropping water demands (and for other reasons I'll mention below). The primary focus on producing crops is quantity produced (yield). The higher the yields, the more income the farmer is expected to get. Compared with animal agriculture, cropping agriculture seems to be more the more lucrative venture.

Animal Agriculture

Like with cropping agriculture, commercial raising of livestock is also primarily done on a monoculture basis, in a matter of speaking. Most animals raised in intensive confinement are pigs, poultry, and dairy cattle. Intensive confinement typically is within a building that is climate-controlled (occasionally open-air ones, like with a lot of dairy facilities) which follows a system of harvested feed hauled in, manure hauled out. Feed grown and harvested for these animals is predominantly through the means already described above, with some exceptions depending on the farming operation, such as herbicide use, and use monoculture crops (most hay produced for dairy cattle is either primarily alfalfa, or a mix of alfalfa, timothy grass, and orchard grass). Beef cattle are the luckiest out of the four groups--three species--because they get to spend most of their lives on pasture, with most only seeing intensive confinement--outdoors dirt lots primarily--during the last four months of their lives. Animals that are harvested for their meat are not killed on-farm, but rather shipped anywhere from one to several hours away from where they were last held and fed. The slaughter plants follow a factory-style production system, which often are not so accommodating for different-sized animals.

Land-Use Arguments are the Bases for Environmental Concerns: But Soil is of Utmost Importance

With both types of agricultural systems, there are inherent and serious environmental issues at play. And it's these particular issues that neither have a monetary value attached to them, nor an economic price tag, and certainly not the kind of public relations nor attention that they deserve to have.

I often notice the kind of environmental issues that exist today, from desertification to soil erosion to ocean dead zones, get the wrong kind of PR from those who want to point fingers at anyone besides themselves and continually fail to see the whole picture of what's actually going on.

That has to stop.

And the only way to stop it is to continually educate, educate, educate.

So, the costs associated with the current food model are those costs that largely get ignored by the big-time agricultural establishments, as well as the extremist groups that consider the use of animals for food, among other things, an abomination. (Precisely the memes I used in my previous post are most certainly vegan memes. I do feel that these extremist groups largely depend on the industrial agricultural concept to push their ideologies forward; why else do you think those two memes from Cowspiracy and VeganStreet even exist, let alone can actually come to pass?) It may be argued that they do not, but I challenge that assertion.

I challenge it based on one particular resource that is largely ignored, misunderstood, neglected, abused, and treated like dirt. Literally.

And that resource is about the soil.

Therefore, my top reason as to why this meat vs. plant-foods land-use argument is a trivial waste of time is because of the soil. It's not something more... sexier, I guess, like the whole romantic and nostalgic aspect of raising livestock on the land. No, it's far deeper than that.

Dear God I can go nuts with all those soil puns...

Jesting aside, I am dead serious about this. The context of soil is very important if we are to understand how these meat vs. vegetable land-use arguments are unimportant compared with finding ways to improve and regenerate a seriously degraded resource. Once more and more people wake up to that thought, these environmental issues so often talked and debated about actually begin to fix themselves, with the help of us humans as a society, a multitude of cultures, and as a people.

Because, really, the entire basis of such arguments is about concerns for the environment. As I mentioned before, though, they're the misdirected kind of concerns that really do ignore the context of...

The Soil. 

This is were things get messy (pun not intended...). You see, soil itself is a resource that forms the basis for the support all plant life, and therefore of animals too. Because of that, this starts gathering a whole range of discussion spin-offs, from why there is such a range of different "plant communities" no matter where you go, to how land can be healed from conventional cropping production practices.

The Soil as a Resource for Growing Things

Here's your crash course on dirt *ahem* soil.

It's made up of geological material--stuff from ground-up rocks and minerals--called "parent material." It also has an organic component that is made of dead, decomposed or decomposing organisms. That organic component also has living organisms made up of detritivores, plant roots, and a microbial component comprised of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and archaea.

The most important resource for plants is in the top three inches. That's where most of the activity happens, and where most of the nutrients and moisture are acquired by the plants themselves. Even though many areas can develop a soil organic matter layer--let's call it SOM from now on--that goes much deeper than six inches, the other soil layers below that are called subsoil layers.

Soil scientists have particular labels of identifying those layers based on various parameters including depth, structure, geological history, etc., in order to essentially classify a type of soil. Use of that classification is sure-fire means of identifying what plants can grow where, just as the plant species that will actively grow in an area are indicators of what type of soil exists beneath.

What every gardener and farmer--and rancher--needs to be the most interested in is what kind of soil is making up the top six to eight inches. This is because that's where most of the root biomass is going to be. Three main things of concern are: How much organic matter is there, what kind of texture is the soil, what kind of structure is the soil, and what nutrients are available for plants.

Lately, more farmers--and gardeners--are looking at soil at a different way. More are looking at soil not as a growing medium that holds a certain nutrient cocktail for plants, but rather as a biological, living entity.

If you were to do a soil test on your property, typically you'd send it into a lab that does a nutrient analysis--Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Sulphur. It's optional for the lab to do a texture analysis. And, for extra payment they'll also look at pH (acidity/alkalinity), EC (salinity measurements based on "electric conductivity"), and "micronutrients"--Calcium, Magnesium, Boron, Iron, Selenium, etc. While I'm no expert on how these kind of tests are actually done in the lab, basically it's around the fact of treating soil as a growth medium, NOT as a living ecosystem.

And the funny thing is, the way I've heard it, is that you can send the exact same soil sample from the same hole you dug from the same property with the same soil and soil type to several different labs and--get this--get different results from each lab.

I personally will need to try that some time, just see what I get. It would be interesting.

Now, if you were NOT to send a soil sample to a lab that does the nutrient analysis, but instead a lab that does a soil health assessment, you'd get some really interesting results.

A soil health assessment looks at the soil not for its nutrients so much as for the structure and biology that exists in the soil itself. (I'm not saying it abandons the whole nutrient analysis whatsoever, but rather looks at it in an entirely different way.) The Haney test looks at soil by how much organic matter is there, what level of compaction or hardness is there, aggregate stability, water retention capacity, respiration (soil microbial abundance and activity), and others.

On-site soil health assessments can be easily done: All you need is a shovel. Digging up a clod of soil can reveal a whole lot, from compaction layers to where the roots are, to even evidence of mycorrhizal fungi and earthworm activity.

What I'm getting at is that soil should be looked at more from the aspect of biology, not just chemistry or just physically. The biological component is often ignored to satisfy the question of the other two aspects of the soil.

Some Key Things on Soil Biology

Soil organic matter is made up of dead, decaying or decayed things, yes--I already mentioned that. But actually, it's the plant roots that contribute up to 60 to 80 percent of the soil's organic matter, not the litter material; not even the dead and decaying or decayed plant and animal remains.

In the top three inches if soil, there is more soil organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there is people on Earth. These soil organisms are largely bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protozoa. And plants need these organisms to make soil nutrients more readily available for absorption through the roots.

How do they do it? It's a little more complicated than this, but basically through bribery, seduction, selectivity, and bartering. Plants take the carbon they get through photosynthesis from the air, push it down into the roots, and release it to the microbes through root exudates, essentially feeding the microbes, and exchanging that carbon for nutrients only the soil microbes could extract with their enzymatic activities. Plants can use these microbes to communicate with other plants, protect themselves against pathogens, find more nutrients, and survive--or ensure the survival of their offspring--the unpredictable changes of their environment.

Mycorrhizal fungi are a part of those soil microbes that benefit plants. The Latin term literally means "fungi + roots", and, literally, refers to the mutual coexistence between fungi and plants. The benefits plants get from this partnership is an extension of their root system beyond what the plant can grow itself. Fungi have these very, very fine, hair-like projections called "hyphae" that expand through the tiniest spaces between soil particles to access water and nutrients.

The advantage of mycorrhizal fungi for the soil itself is its ability to form soil aggregates. It does this, rather indirectly, through glomalin, a glycoprotein produced by the mycorrhizal fungi as a means to coat the hyphae to keep water and nutrients from getting lost to and from the plant.

You see, the purpose of glomalin is more to ensure the exchange of nutrients and cations goes smoothly rather than to act as a glue to knit soil particles together. But in order for this exchange to occur, glomalin is needed so that these "pellets" remain a good source of nutrients that resist erosion, break-down by water and other microbes, as well as high temperatures (up to 121ºC or 250ºF). This is what creates aggregates that increase porosity, water retention and infiltration, and hold soil particles together during a heavy rain event.

Essentially, hyphae is the frame upon which soil particles collect, while the glomalin glues them together and protects them.

More can be read here: What is Glomalin? Does it Hold your Farm Together?

It's that partnership between plants and these microbes that enable plants to grow even in the most questionable places. Like a tree in a rock. Someone who doesn't consider the power of biology would still be scratching their head at how a plant can do such a thing!

And it's that kind of thinking--that paradigm, or preconceived notion--that persists in that plants require soil as a growth medium in order to grow, and nothing else. The concept of organic elements, of living organisms and soil biology does not exist in such a frame of thought.

But where did this come from?

The Advent of Soil Chemistry and Modern Agriculture

A lot of events and famous people had lead to where modern commercial agriculture has come about today. From Charles Darwin's discovery if the concept of evolution, to Henry Ford's creation of the automobile and the adaptation of mass production and the assembly line, to the first steel plow created by John Deere, and finally to German chemist Justus von Liebig.

Now, it wasn't Liebig who was the one who discovered plants pulled nutrients from the air. That all started with Jan Baptiste von Helmont in1634 during house-arrest as commanded by the Church. During his forced stay he was trying to figure out just how plants grew. He didn't quite put two and two together (one where plants grew by taking on water, and the other that burning the plant material produced more gas and ash than expected) like Swiss chemist Nicolas-Theodore de Saussure put it all together and, in 1804, discovered the process of photosynthesis: Plants did not pull carbon from humus, but rather from the air! 

But the quandary about where plants get other nutrients from was still puzzling scientists after this discovery. After all, the old understanding that manure helped plants grow still remained, and seemed to have countered de Suassure's discovery. And that despite scientific attempts to prove that this material--and other rotting organic matter--couldn't possibly be absorbed by plants because it wasn't water soluble.

But then, Justus von Liebig in 1840 picked up the thread and lead the way to discrediting the humus theory of plant nutrition. He wrote an influential treatise on agricultural chemistry where he reasoned that carbon in soil organic matter did not fuel plant growth because, as de Saussure had shown, plants obtained the carbon they needed from the atmosphere. And, the nutrients in plants--nitrogen and phosphorus--somehow were already there by demonstrating the mineral content of the ashes after incinerating the plants. He reasoned that the matter left over in the ash was what nourished plants, and therefore, soil chemistry held the key to soil fertility. 

So sprang the "Law of the Minimum" that is still used today: The nutrient in shortest supply relative to the plant's needs limits plant growth. 

Liebig and his followers took no time to identify five key elements essential for plant growth: Water (H2O), Carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K), the latter two which are rock-derived elements. They then jumped to the conclusion that organic matter played no important role to creating and maintaining soil fertility. 

So began the mining efforts to develop a supply of N, P, and K, starting with the Peruvian guano islands nearly mined into oblivion for nitrogen-rich fossilized bird droppings, the search for more rock phosphate, and then going into the First World War with he Haber-Bosch process of obtaining ammonium nitrate; initially used in bombs, later found to be useful for incredible boosts in yields of crops, despite the required substantial energy inputs. 

Today, ammonium nitrate is illegal to obtain and use because of the usefulness of it in making home-made explosives.

Through World War II, governments compelled farmers to increase their use of chemicals to apply to crops, and in doing so, paid a portion of their costs in subsidies; also subsidizing the development of the fertilizer industry. And the subsidies weren't about making bigger, better harvests: factories that made fertilizers could easily be converted to munitions manufacturing and vice versa. 

Of course the start for such conversions came about at the end of the First World War at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, where the Allies stipulated that the Germans, as part of the agreement, to share the then-secret of nitrogen fixation (which was discovered initially by German chemists Hermann Hellriegel and Hermann Wilfarth when studying the nodules of peas), and therefore the Haber-Bosch process. 

The consequences were felt across the Atlantic when the Tennessee River was dammed to generate cheap electricity so that fertilizer plants could be converted to munitions plants on short notice--that easily done so when the war started, and back again to fertilizer factories after the fall of Berlin in 1945. Such factories preserved the option of quick conversion of production should another war start up again. But really, the war never really ended; instead of war against nations, it turned into a war on the soil, which is still all too common in commercial agricultural practices today.

Environmental Costs Associated with Modern Agriculture

"Our soils are naked, hungry, thirsty, and running a fever."
                              -- Ray Archuleta, Soil Health Specialist and Conservation Advocate

Combining the use of fertilizers with tillage, as well as other inputs needed to grow a high-yielding crop has revealed a whole web of environmental concerns that have largely been ignored or ridiculed for the last 70 years, and only recently have more and more people began to wake up to. Myself included.

Since the end of the war and Liebig's treatise on the theory of the Law of the Minimum, the soil has been literally treated like dirt; like nothing more than a growing medium. The physical and chemical make up of the soil has garnered far more attention than the biological component which, in Nature, is equally the largest component that enables plants to grow and thrive without human inputs.

Because of that, many ecological issues have raised their ugly heads, despite the conservation and nutrient management plans and efforts to provide bandaid solutions to cover up the elephant in the room:

Erosion via wind and water. Poor water infiltration and holding capacity, creating runoff and flooding problems, and perpetual droughts. Compaction. Salinization. Infertility. Weed issues. Disease issues. 

Desertification. Deserts are getting bigger and bigger, and spreading out more. Why do you think that is? It's not only because of overgrazing by livestock, that's for sure.

So how do we fix it? And do we actually know what the problem is? Because, you know, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Well, our soils are damn broke alright. And they need fixin'. NOW.

Tillage (particularly excessive, "recreational" tillage) is the biggest culprit out there. It is a major disturbance that brings soil to the surface where it becomes oxygenated and wakes up these organic-matter eating, biotic-glue-digesting bacteria called "R-strategists" or copiotrophic bacteria. Their job seems like a bad thing until you realize that these organisms set the stage for what's called "primary succession."

What they do, while they break down organic matter, litter, glomalin, and other material, giving off carbon dioxide as they go along, is to create an environment suitable for what most consider "weeds" to help heal this damaged ground. When they die, they release nitrates (consider bacteria only have a 20 minute lifespan), which is an easily-absorbed nutrient source for weed plants to take up as they germinate and grow.

Most farmers are surprised to hear that all of their land has a weed seed bank in the ground. It's common thought that if you spray with something like glyphosate (RoundUp®), or other herbicides, the weeds will go away and not come back. Of course that isn't true, not especially when tillage continues to turn up new seeds to the surface, creating perfect conditions for those seeds that can sit dormant for decades at a time to germinate.

So tillage exacerbates the destruction of the biotic glues (glomalin) that holds soil particles together. What that means is destroyed aggregate structure and stability, which becomes much more sensitive to severe rain events and wind storms; both end up washing soil particles and nutrients away, never to return.

The rainfall simulator. The front jars is water that ran off. The back jars are what
has been infiltrated. Note the extra soil/water that ran off beyond the
run-off catchment jar on the far left.
It also destroys the ability of the soil to infiltrate and hold water. Water has a much more difficult time filtering through soil that doesn't have the large pore spaces in between either aggregates or particles. Water will filter through more quickly in sand versus clay, but it will also filter more quickly through soil with vertical ped (short for "pedestal-like") structure, compared with that with compacted layers, or a with a hard blocky structure. Instead, it ends up sitting on the surface for a long period of time, or, if gravity permits, runs off into streams or to the lowest part of the field, creating a large puddle or pond.

Growing up on the farm I've always heard my folks say that the reason for the huge puddle at the bottom part of the field was because, "the soil got so saturated from all that rain." I know now that that's not true; it's because the soil has poor water infiltration due to the damage caused by excessive disturbance of the soil.

And where does all that water go? Well, most of it eventually gets evaporated. For a lot of cropping areas, the minerals (largely salts) left behind after the water evaporates makes it unsuitable for crop production. ( Especially with monoculture crops, a lot of these areas remain bare, or get covered by weeds that the farmer *tries* to get rid of with spraying and yet more tillage.

It's no wonder farmers are feeling the hit so bad now with more severe droughts and flooding than "what's been seen in decades."

And what about compaction? Compaction comes about with tillage, that breaks up the natural structure of a soil that is created and maintained with the mutual partnership between mycorrhizal fungi and a perennial plant cover, as well as raindrop impact: A heavy rainstorm on disturbed ground helps "mold" the soil particles tighter together, creating a crust at the soil surface that can become impenetrable. Wheel traffic also creates compaction problems, as does a lack of diversity in crop rotation. You can read more about compaction here: Soil Compaction: Causes, Effects, and Control - U of MN Extension.

Finally, soil heating via solar energy is disastrous for soil microbes. Exposed soil tends to absorb heat, whereas plants dissipate heat. Bare soil can generate at least a 10-degree increase above air ambient temperature, making it feel hotter than it actually is. Soil microbes can only stand soil temperatures that get to 100ºF; above that, they start to decline in activity. At higher temperatures they'll either go dormant, or eventually die if they are continually denied nutrients they need to survive.

The truth is, the vast majority of farms today are not adapted to climate change. They are run by what Ray Archuleta calls "ancient sunlight," and have become very fragile, non-resilient systems.

A lot of pastures are also not adapted to climate change.

The reason for this is also largely due to management--mismanagement, rather.

The mismanagement is in the lack of actually managing the land itself. By that I mean farmers and ranchers just throwing out their animals to a large area for them to graze all season long.

The reasoning behind this form of grazing--which is called "continuous grazing"--is that animals are free to choose whatever, whenever, and wherever they graze with no restrictions. They can choose what is most palatable and nutritious to them, and ignore what isn't. Some would consider this "free ranging." Basically it's a "management practice" that suits individual animals, but certainly not the land--both the soil and the plants.

It's truly the most lazy way of grazing animals, as far as I'm concerned. You don't need much for fencing, and you don't need to be out every day moving animals. In the short-term it seems like it's not all bad, but over the long term that pasture becomes less and less healthy, with plenty of patches of overgrazed and undergrazed growth, more weeds, more compacted soil, less diversity, and reduced soil fertility. Costly fixes--I call them "band-aid solutions"--include pelleted fertilizer, or breaking up the pasture entirely, cropping it for a year before reseeding it back to forages again.

Rangeland areas that can't be broken up just become more weedy or, especially if the mentality that there's "too many animals on the land," more woody plants begin to come in and take over what was once predominantly true grassland. And, what grasses that die in order to regrow in the spring accumulate dead material.

In arid regions especially, if that arid material is not stomped into the ground by hooves or eaten because there are not enough animals on the land (or, as in the "protected" areas, none at all), it oxidizes and reduces a grass plant's efficacy and vigour in regrowth. Eventually the plant just dies because it gets snuffed out by the accumulation of its own dead material. The more dead plants there are, the further that area goes into desertification. Alan Savory has noted that desertification is not just about overgrazing, but rather due to severe undergrazing and under-utilization of a dying natural forage resource.

And if that's not bad enough, continuous grazing animals allows for excessive manure disposal around their loitering and watering areas. Uncontrolled animal movement can be severely detrimental to riparian zones of any natural or man-made water source, reducing water quality and impacting the wildlife that depend on these areas for their own needs.

But fortunately, there is hope. And it all begins by realizing that we can fix the soil by diversity and incorporating animals into the farming operation. This is where these land-use arguments become non-issue.

Regeneration and Healing is Possible--Regenerative Agriculture is Humans Working With Nature

Things will get worse before they get better. But as I said and also believe, there is hope. 

Hope is in the realization that the soil is a living, biological entity, a "sub-aquatic" ecosystem full of billions of organisms that work together.

Hope, especially is the changing of millions--perhaps billions--of minds to understand soil function, and of looking at the system and systems within a larger system holistically. 

Finally, hope is the fact that the Earth is a biological system in and of itself that is capable of healing and regeneration, even after the damage that has been caused by human activity and ignorance.

The thing is, I can't even begin to describe the thousands of different methods that any farmer anywhere in the world can apply to their own farm or ranch to help enhance this regeneration process. But the principles that apply to all remain the same. They are:

  1. Understand your social and ecological context
  2. Cover the soil at all times (with dead and living plant material)
  3. Grow a [diverse] living root 24/7
  4. Synergize with diversity: Crop rotations & Cover crops
  5. Integrate diversity of animals
  6. Reduce chemical, biological, and physical stress
Now, I cannot go into details on every single point, but because I'm reminded again of what this post is actually about, the aspect of integrating the diversity of animals is very pertinent here.

This land-use argument incites fear about "too many animals" and "too much land/crops used" for these animals. I'm saying that's nothing to be afraid of. 

When you're integrating livestock into the farming operation, you are doing so by changing the way you manage them. Manage them by mimicking the movements of the great bison herds in response to predation: Mob-graze them. Utilize short-duration grazing where animals are grazing a small area for much shorter time than it gets rested. The temporary electric fence and you are their "predator." 

Grazing them this way ensures that they get what they need but don't overgraze the area--as determined by the manager of course. Grazing this way also incorporates the control of where they get their water from, and more and more producers are realizing the benefits of providing a water source that brings water from undisturbed dugouts, creeks or springs, or from the well, rather than just having the animals drink from the dugouts or creeks themselves. 

Incorporating livestock into the cropping as a crop rotation, gives the land a rest from being used for growing crops, and has an annual cover crop mix or pasture mix used for various livestock species to consume. It also takes them off the pasture if an area of the pasture is being preserved for grazing in the fall, or if pasture resources are running low. (Annual pasture mixes are also great for grazing animals in the winter.) Doing this allows more nutrients to return to the land in the form of dung and urine, the kind of nutrients that diverse crop mixes alone couldn't generate in the amount of time that it takes to mob graze livestock over that parcel of land. 

All of this diversity and incorporation will, without a doubt, help heal the soil and build organic matter and top soil much faster than once thought. More and more farmers are practicing these regenerative agricultural practices and finding these out; these aren't just theoretical practices thought up by some wacko scientist. That's what makes this regenerative agricultural movement so great. 

And regardless, animals do have their benefits above cropping practices. They can be grazed in areas unsuitable for crop production, and consume by-products and wasted food not consumed by humans. Actually, pigs and poultry are much more efficient and better animals for this than even cattle or sheep. Cattle and sheep are great for utilizing crop residues and pastured areas filled with good grass to graze. 

So you see how this land-use argument is a non-issue, and how the FAO stats are nothing to be alarmed about? 

Really, we need more livestock animals on the land, not less. And I would love to see 100% of agricultural land used for raising livestock as well as food for people. Not either or. 

I leave you with this ~52 minute video of one farmer who practices what he preaches about grazing and cover crops. 

Post a Comment