December 18, 2017

Misinformation and Misunderstanding II: An Activist Cannot Understand the Roots of the Problem... Literally

I had to jump in to give this ARA (animal rights activist) I mentioned from the last blog post Misinformation and Misunderstanding: An Activist Confuses Grass for Grain for Cattle a bit of a lesson on what regenerative grazing meant as far as soil health and the environment is concerned. All in an attempt to help Rich the farmer/producer out.

His response I received definitely left a lot to be desired, but was nothing short of amusing, to say the least!

So here's what my short-version rebuttal was to him (as a kind of summary to what I wrote about last time [see link above]):
"Cows don't need grain to survive let alone thrive. And cattle grazing, when done right (via the human aspect), is not damaging to the landscape. Management-intensive cattle grazing is a way to help heal the land, not hurt it. Converting grassland to crops, though, definitely is [harmful to the landscape]."
Now, brace yourself for the ARA's "rebuttal" because it may make you fall out of your chair:
"Cattle eat over 20 pounds of grass each every day. This tears out the soil roots and causes erosion and runoff. Growing crops, on the other hand actually adds roots and binders to the soil, keeping it in place."
If you're the first thought that flew through your head upon reading that was how in the hell can anyone be that f***ing stupid to think that, you and I would be in the same boat. Needless to say, I had a great laugh at that.

But now, it's time I use the space here to shoot that argument down to the point that only pieces of it are left scattered about.

Again, for those of you who aren't as agriculturally-inclined as I am, never fear, I'll do my best to explain the concepts and context as to why this ARA (or even 99% of all ARAs, for starters) is not one you want to rely on for any agriculture-related piece of information.

Cows Eat Lots of Grass

I can understand that for the average Joe/Jane that 20 pounds of grass seems to be a lot, but I guarantee you that it's actually not, particularly for a cow.

The only animal that comes close to eating that much per day is a sheep. A 160 pound sheep (most likely an ewe, or a female sheep), to be exact, if I do the calculations backward, and assume the moisture content (amount of water) in grass is particularly high...

But for an average-sized cow, which in North America is around 1400 pounds, assuming the moisture content for grass is about 80 percent (or 20 percent dry matter [upon feed analysis, a feed sample is dried until all the moisture is removed, then weighed to determine "dry matter content"]), the amount of grass consumed is a lot closer to 175 lb of grass consumed per day, on an "as-fed" basis.

Hehehe, and the ARA thought he'd try to scare me with the 20 pound-of-grass-consumed tactic! Yeah, again, if you're raising sheep or even goats, buddy!

Thing is, though, don't let those numbers scare you. They're just numbers, and are meaningless when you understand that grass does grow back after being grazed. Unfortunately for this ARA, he's got himself convinced that that isn't the case at all.

Cattle Grazing Rips Up Plants Out of the Ground... Or Does It?

According to our little "knowledgable" ARA on cattle grazing, it "...tears out the soil roots and causes erosion and runoff."

And I say, bullshit.

You see, the only time that cattle may tear plants out of the ground, or as he puts it, "tears out the soil roots," is if cattle are put out to graze a freshly seeded pasture where plants are just a few weeks post-germinating and haven't yet established much of a root system. Their root systems are much like annual weeds, which are fairly easy to pull out of the ground when young.

When a cow grazes, she wraps her tongue around a grass-plant or "sward," if you will, and bites down and pulls at the same time. That pulling action may rip out that newly germinated plant, or annual weed.

But when we're talking about established pastures with tame forages that have had much time to develop an extensively deep root system over just a couple generations, the chance that those plants will be torn out completely by a grazing cow is extremely slim to impossible.

To the ARA that says this, he needs to realize that cows are mowers, not rototillers.

If you want to tear up a pasture, get a few pigs. That'll solve your problem; they'll tear up a pasture in no time.

But cows? Come on, give me a break.

I can easily demonstrate this to you; actually, you can do the demonstration yourself, because it's very easy: One of those Do This At Home exercises!

If you ever get a chance in the spring or summer time, if you happen to go walking and see some grass growing nice and tall somewhere on a nature hike or in a ditch or wherever, here's what you do:

Take your dominant hand (if you're a lefty or righty), and grasp a handful of grass lengthwise, just like you'd grasp a handful of spaghetti, but make sure where you're grasping is not at the base, but at the top four to six inches of grass height. Next, with a half-twisting action, tear out the grass.

What you get, obviously, is a handful of grass. But that's not all, and not even the most important part!

Do you know what else you get?

For one, you get the same amount of grass that a cow would grasp and pull into her mouth. Second, the amount of force you exert to pull that handful of grass is the same amount of force that cow uses to get that same mouthful of grass.

Are you with me?

Now look at the base of the very parts of the grass plants that you pulled up. How much root and soil of those grass plants did you happen to pull up?

If your answer was none to only one or two, with barely any root showing, and no soil whatsoever, then you have just proved that the ARA's claim above is dead-wrong.

Pretty amazing, eh?

But now I wonder... I wonder if this young ARA was confusing what happens when horses graze versus how cattle graze?

See, horses graze have top incisors, something which all cattle lack (sheep, bison, deer, goats, elk also lack upper incisors), so they can select with their lips, then bite and pull up grass right at the base--particularly when it's quite short--to the point where grass plants certainly can be pulled out.

And I can't trust an ARA to know the difference between a horse and a cow...

How Cows Graze... MiG Style!

You see, when a cow grazes, she's not interested in pulling up grass plants by the roots--and this is the exact same for all classes of bovines, including bulls, heifers, and steers--she's only interested in the top few inches of the best part of the plant, which is primarily the leaves or the inflorescence (flowering part of a grass plant). A cow will never ever reach down to the very base of a sward of tall grass plants to pull up the entire plant like a human often will do, no matter the height of those plants. A cow only has a vested interest in the most tasty and palatable part of any plant, and stems are not included in this interest whatsoever.

What she and her herd do not graze, they will push down with their bodies and trample the grasses with their hooves, and poop and pee on it as well. A herd of cows will take one bite and move on to the next plant; the only time they take a second bite is if they've taken that one bite out of every plant they could before being forced to go back for more.

The beauty of mob-grazing, or MiG that I mention in the quote above, is that cows get into this awesome competitive, yet surprisingly orderly mentality of eating as much grass--getting that first bite of good, high-quality forage--as each cow can before one of their neighbours steals a bite before they do. Occasionally there may be a little bit of pushing around, mainly by the more dominant cows, but otherwise the grazing that happens when a herd of cows are moved and confined to a small piece of pasture to eat grass every day is such that each animal ensures each plant gets a bite taken from it, gets trampled and pooped on, before being moved to the next fresh patch of ground.

Cows that are mobbed up are not likely to be so picky about what they eat. They get into this mentality of competitiveness such that they will eat just about anything in front of them; what they don't eat will get trampled down and pooped on. Again, I stress the importance of moving those animals soon before they take more forage than they should.

This is biomimicry: Moving cows often in a dense herd on a regular basis mimics the mobbing behaviour of large wild ruminant herds (elk, bison, antelope...) across the grassland landscape in response to the ever threat of predators.

How do Cows Really Turn Grass into Dirt? 

This doesn't indicate that cows will tear up grass plants and turn the pasture into a dirt lot. Not especially when they're moved in time before they get that second bite, or third bite, or move around so much that their hooves tear up the earth.

This is where I can legitimately say that the only time cows will literally tear up a piece of ground is if it's a very high-traffic area where an excessive amount of "hoof traffic" or trampling impacts the plants to the point that it kills them and turns the area into dirt. Do you see that part about hoof traffic? Yes, you read that right, HOOVES. Not mouths, not grazing, no: The Feet of Cows.

Why do you think feedlots remain as dirt lots with regular groups of cattle remaining in those lots for weeks at a time, and can never grow a blade of grass? It's not because cows have soft feet of kitty cats; nor is it entirely because grass is dead and gone and will never grow back (yes, it's dead and gone from those lots, but it certainly can come back in if given sufficient time). No, the hooves of a cow, coupled with more of her herd mates, are sharp and hard enough to damage grass plants if continuous, heavy physical stress applied by those hooves are then applied to those plants. Horses, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, bison, elk, deer, any cloven-hoofed animal are just as capable of tearing up a piece of ground in the same manner as one or more bovines can.

Speaking of horses... here's a great way to ruin a good pasture, if you don't have pigs. Put horses on it. Or even sheep.

But wait! Hooves actually aren't all bad. The hooves of grazing animals are actually very beneficial--again, under the right kind of management that utilizes MiG and moving animals often in a dense mob--because they push seeds into the ground, break and crush stems, and opens up the canopy to allow some sunlight to penetrate into the soil surface for more seeds and tillers to germinate and grow.

So, where does the erosion and runoff take into account into all this? I think from this point it's fairly easily to see how, but I like to take the time to explain more.

How Erosion and Runoff Occurs on Pastures

When excessive hoof traffic turns grass into dirt, there's no plant material to stop rain drops from hitting the soil surface. Just like with tilled fields, when that rain drop impacts that soil, it has no place to go other than downhill. Some water soaks in, but not a lot. What doesn't get soaked in rolls off the surface, bringing nutrients with it down into the lowest parts of the land, which continues to flow beyond the corral, beyond the fields, and into water ways and wetlands.

I don't think I've taken much time to explain about erosion on conventional cropping fields as I may have elsewhere, but now's not the time. Basically, bare soil in corrals acts the same way as bare soil on cropland as far as erosion and runoff is concerned.

Erosion and runoff from pasture, though, is another problem. The ARA still doesn't know Jack from Adam when it comes to that and the difference management practices have on how water "behaves" when rain hits a continuously-grazed (CG) pasture versus an adapted multi-paddocked (AMP) pasture, the latter based on holistic management practices that are regenerative in nature.

What I found out is that runoff (moreso than erosion, but I'll get to that soon) definitely occurs on a CG pasture. This photo of a rain simulator test to compare a CG pasture versus two relatively similar AMP pasture pans tells a whole lot:

If you have never seen the rain simulator test, I highly recommend you check it out.

Anyway, each pan of soil + plant matter in the rain simulator test has two jars each for collecting water that has either run off (front row) or infiltrated (back row). Notice how the CG pan has contributed far more runoff than the long-recovery period or rotationally grazed pans, and the reverse is true for infiltration.

Why is this?

There's obviously some erosion that occurred with the amount of water that ran off the CG sample, however the amount of water that has run off from the CG pan above hasn't taken nearly as much soil with it as what would happen if that ground was bare, with no cover, like that from tillage. Like in this photo:

The reason for such a remarkable difference is because of overgrazing.

Now, I already explained in this post that overgrazing is not about too many animals, as most dictionaries and range science has lead far too many to believe, but rather about plants receiving an inadequate (too short) rest period between the first and second bite to be able to re-establish energy reserves, making it a function of TIME, again, not about too many animals.

Overgrazing does a few degradational things to plants and the soil.

For one, the roots are shortened. Remember this phrase: "What is above, so below." In other words, a short grass plant above ground reflects a short root system below ground. Inadequate rest for the grass plant means that roots are going to be bound closer to the surface, and not allowed sufficient time to grow deeper. Smaller, shorter grass plants are going to have less litter covering the surface, and potentially also more soil exposed between plants.

Severely overgrazed pasture - springtime.
These calves should not be on at this time of year.
With overgrazing comes excessive trampling, as mentioned above, which also invites compaction. Cows are heavy animals, and with a large number of them on a piece of ground for a long period of time (such as all grazing season), coming back again and again to their favourite grass patches, the ground can get packed down enough to impact the plants growing there, even if that piece of ground hasn't turned into dirt--yet. Cows aren't the only animals that can cause a pasture to become hard-packed if mismanaged: Horses are just as bad.

A nice rule of thumb to remember is this: If you can see their hooves and their poop piles, your pastures are overgrazed.

Compaction is especially a problem in pastures that have been "renovated," or cultivated to break up and old pasture then reseeded again. Tillage is often a disastrous method pasture rejuvenation because it breaks up existing soil structure, and breaks soil aggregates into finer particles that makes it more difficult for water to permeate through. Instead, water runs off more than it will soak in. I will talk a little more on this later on about crops.

The other problem associated with overgrazing is the significant lack of "residue" or "litter" cover protecting the soil surface. The above photo is a great example. Rain drops are not slowed down when it impacts the surface with very little litter and green material cover. Plants should act as a kind of multi-canopied "umbrella" for the soil in capturing and slowing down rain drops so that they gently trickle onto the soil enough for the water to quickly soak, not strike with such an impact that they bounce off and begin rolling on downhill, taking soil particles and other nutrients with it.

If you wonder why creeks and rivers get so full and become sediment-heavy after a rainstorm on surrounding pastures (and cropland), it's actually not because the ground has become saturated, but because of a serious water infiltration problem that is a result of poor management practices.

With regards to more arid regions of the world that used to be largely grassland, but have now turned into a lot of shrub brush, bare ground, and patches of heavy-graze-tolerant grasses and forbs, erosion and runoff is a significant problem for the reasons that overgrazing has been misinterpreted as "too many animals" for so long. These arid regions are suffering from overgrazing in such a way that there are just too few animals on the landscape that are too spread out, and are allowed to come back to their favourite grazing patches too often and too soon.

Those plants that have gotten too far ahead of the animals have produced dead plant material which is unpalatable to the individual animal. In arid regions, conditions are just too dry and hot for many soil microbes that normally can survive in more moist and cooler conditions, so that dead plant material simply cannot break down on its own. Instead, it oxidizes, and remains on the parent plant, impacting tiller growth of subsequent daughter plants coming from that same bunch. Eventually the bunch of multi-generational grass plants just dies, suffocated by it's own death of ancestors that couldn't otherwise be removed by grazing animals.

Allan Savory of the Savory Institute and Holistic Management calls such environments "brittle," because not of lack of moisture (even though these arid environments do receive less than 10 inches of precipitation per year), but because of how unpredictable and irregular moisture events are, compared to non-brittle environments, such as the tropical rainforest.

Nothing takes the place of those grasses that die out. More bare soil comes up, to be eroded away by wind and rain. More heat is generated from these areas because of the incredible solar radiation capacity of bare soil; surface soil temperatures can get very hot, upwards of 110 to 140ºF or more (43 to 60ºC). That alone impacts weather and climate events to degrees that I don't think many of us have figured out quite yet. And folks wonder why our climate is changing--at least for those who don't have the wool still pulled over their eyes?

As in the case of our ARA friend who made the blanket-statement, tool-blaming move of claiming cows are the problem, he's only partly right, but he completely misses the boat when the reality is that, as Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef put it, "It's the HOW, not the COW."

I laugh at those who like to blame cows for things like climate change and desertification. I like to tell them they're like the self-proclaimed "handyman" that tends to blame his tools for doing such a shit job with his building projects rather than the man (or person, sorry ladies) who's wielding them!!

Reminds me of Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertan's song, "Hard on Equipment."

Anyway, I'm getting off course here. And I believe I've made myself crystal clear that it's the management (i.e., the human brains) behind the cows that is the problem, not the cattle themselves.

Just like the human brains that can make up some pretty stupid bullshit, like crops being better for the soil than well-managed cattle grazing.

Crops Degrade the Soil Too

"Growing crops, on the other hand actually adds roots and binders to the soil, keeping it in place."

Just so you know, there's no such thing as "binders" in regards to what crops supposedly are adding to the soil, according to this "knowledgeable" ARA.

This blanket statement holds a very dangerous assumption which blatantly ignores several important details: Use of tillage, and use of biocides and fertilizers. Also, growing crops does not occur during all 12 months of the year for most locations with arable land, particularly North America.

Crop plants actually only add roots and bind the soil for 3 to 4 months out of the year.

And heck, there's still a lot of farmers that will fallow fields; by "fallow" I mean grow nothing on them, and keep them all bare via what I call "recreational tillage" or spraying herbicides, or both.

Ain't gonna be no crop on those fields to bind the soil and keep it in place!

Really, the only time that crops are going to help the soil is when no tillage, and very little to no biocides and petroleum-based fertilizers are used. Crop rotations use more than just one or two species, and also incorporate cover-cropping practices that keep the soil covered and a living root in the ground at all times.

But hey, all-knowing ARA, 98% of all cropland in North America doesn't even use these practices!

Why? Because of something I keep hitting on something called MANAGEMENT; i.e., "The HOW."

Most farmers only manage the land according to what the agro-chemical companies "recommend" they do, what the agronomist who has no concept of soil health and soil biology is going to tell them to do and grow, and what their neighbours are also doing. That's their management. But is it any good to the soil, better than managed grazing? I answer that further.

Sure, the growing of crops (i.e., the event that once the seed is planted, the plants begin to sprout and grow up right to maturity) are going to add some roots. But not much. Most roots that do grow are often short, sparse, and staying close to the surface where most of the nutrients are within easy reach. I'll talk a little more later on why that is. Keep in mind, though, that industrial agriculture is of the mind to treat soil like it's nothing more than just a growing medium for plants.

What's more, compared with any kind of natural system that has plants covering the soil, the square footage between each plant in a crop field is so much larger than what you'd find in most forests, all grasslands, and pretty well any pasture there is. In such ecosystems, there is literally little to no space in between plants; and if there is some space in between, it's covered by a layer of plant residue.

But not with crops, and that's no matter if we're talking corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, peas… There always has to be a bit of space between each cropped plant within rows and between rows. The soil beneath will get some coverage by the leaves of the crop, but not enough to completely cover the soil. Enough sunlight gets through to the soil below for the other "undesirable" plants which are called "weeds" to germinate and grow up to try to cover that bare soil left alone.

You know what, though? Weeds are considered bad, and competitive with the crop for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients--which is truth, by the way--so what does a farmer do to keep his crop clean? Use chemicals to kill them all except the crop itself. Gardeners and those with lawns who've also been taught to rely on chemicals and man-made fertilizers for their plants see no different.

Yet that bare soil left in between each wheat or corn plant is bare and naked. And Nature abhors bare soil, no matter where it is, be it under a corn plant or a tree.

So those weeds will just keep coming back, no matter what is done repeatedly year after year.

Another important caveat completely ignored by our ARA pal is that crops aren't like your front lawn that stays as-is for as long as the house is standing. Cropped plants die and don't grow back, and their deaths are actually what bring the harvest--the grains, oilseeds, pulses, etc. They ain't gonna grow back after harvest. And when the above-ground part of the plant dies, so does the roots.

What's left is called "stubble." Now that stubble may remain as-is over winter, or it may get cultivated after harvest. It depends on the farmer. Some farmers have no-till drills that can drill seed right into the stubble without having to cultivate, but some crops make it extremely challenging to do even that without causing problems. If a farmer grew corn or canola the previous year, chances are he's going to be needing some kind of tillage--unless he purposely sows in between the rows of last year's canola--to break up those tough, thick stems to be able to sow in an even crop of wheat, as an example.

Now, tillage breaks up both above- and below-ground biomass; stalks and roots. That physical stress that a farmer is putting on the soil no longer enables those roots from that previous crop to bind that soil and keep it in place. That soil is now loose as fine sand, and much more liable to blow away in the wind, or be washed away with any kind of moisture event.

Does that sound good to you? I didn't think so.

Just like what happens when you allow a bunch of cattle beat a pasture all to hell and turn it into dirt, tillage invites the same problems: Soil erosion, runoff, extreme heating of the soil which kills microbes, dries it out, and is possibly what's causing a lot of climate issues; water infiltration issues; and most of all, a significant decrease in organic matter. That's right: Those roots and stalks that get incorporated into the soil don't amount to jack as far as organic matter is concerned.

This young ARA would be surprised to know that most cropland under industrial plant agriculture has very little organic matter; most range from 0.2% to barely 1% organic matter. That's piss poor compared with well-managed pastures that can have at least 4 to 7% organic matter. Why is that? Well…

Copiotrophic or R-strategist bacteria, found in all soils, quickly consume that organic matter and stimulate a primary-succession event by dying and releasing plant-available nitrogen into the soil. That nitrogen is for the weed seeds that have been sitting dormant for decades to use upon germination to quickly grow up and cover the soil, and protect it.

Weeds are actually Nature's first-line of defense in protecting bared soil. And you thought they were bad!

And what about chemical fertilizers and biocides? Well, fertilizers make plants lazy, as well as the microbes in the soil. The plants find they don't need those microbes to do all the work for them when they have enough NPKS from the pellets the seed was sown with to grow and use all season long. The microbes die out because they have no food source; the plants won't give them food when the plant doesn't need them to get the food for the plant. Make sense?

And as for the roots, as I already mentioned, the roots don't amount to anything because they're so short and stubby that the only purpose they serve, really, is to keep the plant upright and rooted in its place during a wind storm. They don't add much to the soil when there's not much root growing there in the first place, and when plants aren't made to utilize their natural mutual partnerships with microbes. In a natural ecosystem, plants have microbes working for them in a bartering system so that they can find and export nutrients and moisture from soil particles and soil aggregates, and transport them back to the plant in exchange for "liquid carbon," their energy food source.

With biocides, they kill everything. Every single living thing in and on the soil, be it a plant that came up between the wheat stems, or insects or a species of fungus rotting away the root system. Everything dies, except the crop itself, and except for the occasional passers-through bug or deer that may (or may not) get enough biocide to cause much damage.

All in all, growing crops the conventional, petrochemical, agrochemically-reliant industrial way is not better than grazing cattle and sure as hell is not anything close to being better for the soil. I've yet to be proven that deep-rooted perennials are better than shallow-rooted annuals. The only time shallow-rooted annuals work is if they are replaced by deep-rooted perennials for the long-term. That or, if the current methods of producing crops are replaced by a much more regenerative system that promotes more life and building of good things, such as a diverse crop rotation, use of cover crops, incorporating animals, and following basic biomimicry principles such as keeping the soil covered at all times, keeping a living root in the soil at all times, and reducing or eliminating unnecessary physical, chemical, and biological stresses (tillage, biocides, and overgrazing), respectively.

Otherwise I've just proven that this ARA is, yet again, full of crap and doesn't know what the hell he's even talking about.

I know the ARA is desperately trying to find a way to justify the means of being vegan and creating a sound cause for more people to become vegan, but God damn it, the kind of asinine drivel that folks like him keep pushing are only making them look stupid and all other vegans horribly ignorant and selfish.

This whole post was about the stuff beneath our feet, the kind of stuff that most of us find disgusting, not worth thinking about, and totally not sexy. It matters to ALL of us, regardless of diet, belief, ethnic, or nationality. And if we can't get our act together and our heads out of our sandy asses and understand what's going wrong with the soil and why, there's no hope of stopping this runaway train headed for a 10-foot thick fortified wall.
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