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  • Writer's pictureOllie Martin

Climate Change - It's Not the Cows Fault.

Grab Your Pitch Forks

Livestock farming, and in particular cattle farming seem to be in the cross hairs of both the national media and social media at present because, we are told, the bovine beasties are going to cause the end of the world. This coverage has no doubt fuelled the populist rise in veganism over the past few years. Now let me be very clear: Everybody has the right to choose their diet, whether that includes meat and dairy products or not. I don’t expect to be shamed or guilt-tripped for enjoying roast beef on a Sunday, or semi-skimmed with my breakfast and neither should you. After all there is nothing unnatural about consuming animal products is there? Equally, I’m not going to criticise, judge or shame anyone for choosing a vegan diet out of a sense of morality. Your choice. But don’t expect veganism to save the world.

Just as Nature Intended

Cows and calves grazing historic parkland at Weston Park.

You see ruminant animals, including domesticated cattle and their wild ancestors before them, have grazed the vast grasslands of this world for more than 5 million years. In years gone by they would graze in huge mobs numbering many thousand. It is estimated that in the late 18th century there were more than 60 million American Bison roaming the plains and the prairies of North America alone. Similarly, in Europe there was the European Bison and in Africa we still find the Water Buffalo to name but a few. These animals formed an essential part of the ecosystem then, as now. They evolved to form a symbiotic relationship with grass species. The natural tendency of these animals to graze as a mob means that organic matter and manure gets trampled into the soil which in turn stimulates the regrowth of the grass. Similarly, the ruminant’s digestive system is designed quite specifically to digest grass.

Grassland, you may be aware, is an excellent carbon sink. In fact, a biologically active and diverse grassland represents a better carbon sink than arable land or indeed many woodland environments. As grass grows it captures carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and deposits it into the soil through its roots where it feeds soil microbes, which are the foundation of the soil food web. When grass is grazed as nature intended, it triggers a response to rapidly stimulate growth. Rapid growth requires increased energy, or to put it another way, increased carbon intake from the atmosphere. Put simply, ruminant animals form an integral part of the carbon cycle, stimulating grass growth and returning carbon rich organic matter to the soil.

Then there is the methane issue. What few people realise is that a well-managed (i.e. natural) grassland habitat is home to some microbes known as methanotrophic bacteria. Those of you with a knowledge of ancient Greek will have joined the dots to realise that these guys consume methane. Cattle, goats and sheep emit methane as a result of cellulose digestion in the first of their four stomachs – the rumen. This has always been the case, it’s nothing new. The methanotrophic bacteria are natures answer to this emission. They use the methane as an energy source, reacting it with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water – which in turn are consumed by the grass through photosynthesis, of course. Just another natural cycle illustrating how nature already solved the problem way before we realised it existed.

One of our fertility building rotational leys, containing numerous grass, legume and herb species. A tremendous habitat for numerous critters, a natural, nutritious food source for our cattle and an efficacious carbon sink to boot.

A study by the Savory Institute in 2015 found that in a healthy grassland where natural cycles are not interfered with, bacterial consumption of methane can be equal or greater than the volume produce by grazing animals. Its also worth mentioning that some scientists estimate at least 60% of atmospheric methane originated from human activities.

So why after 5 million years of successfully forming an essential component of a natural ecosystem do we suddenly think cows are killing the planet?

Humans Knew Better!

Well at some point in the last century or two, humans decided that they knew better than nature (what a surprise!). As agriculture became more commercialised, farmers found themselves competing in a globalised market. This resulted in the need to find a means to achieve more rapid liveweight gains, to reduce cost per finished animal, since they were now facing increased competition. Feeding cattle cereal grains such as wheat and barley, instead of grass was a way to achieve this. The quicker an animal reaches finishing weight, the lower the cost per animal and the quicker you see a return on your investment. Farming is a business after all.

In many cases cattle were removed from their natural grassland environment to be housed in barns, yards or feedlots. This, of course, meant removing an integral component from the ecosystem, breaking the carbon cycle and the methane cycle. Grasslands no longer required for livestock production could be cultivated (resulting in mass oxidation of all that sequestered soil carbon) to grow cereal grains – which all too often are fed to the animals which should have been grazing that land in the first place! So now the soil carbon is being oxidised instead of sequestered, and the cattle are being kept in an environment where there are no natural means to consume the methane that they are producing. What’s more, an animal with a digestive system specifically tailored to digest grass is being fed cereal grains. Further, the manure these beasties are producing now requires mechanical means to transport it to the field to be spread, burning fossil fuels in the process. We humans really do know how to screw it up don’t we.

Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef

It should be no surprise to learn that beef from a grass-fed animal is much healthier to the human consuming it than beef from a grain fed animal. Compared with grain fed, grass fed beef is lower in calories and monosaturated fats. Grass fed meat also contains up to 5 times more Omega 3 fatty acids which have multiple health benefits to humans including improved mental health and reduced risk of age-related dementia. Then there is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA intake by humans is linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. Meat and dairy products from grass fed animals has between 2 and 5 times higher (depending on which study you read) levels of CLA when compared to grain fed. So, it seems if you feed the animal what it naturally evolved to eat, it’s of great benefit to those who naturally evolved to eat the animal. Nature triumphs once again.

Natures Fertiliser

It would be remiss not to reiterate the importance of the dung produced by grazing animals. Rich in organic matter, soil benefiting microbes and numerous essential elements required by plants to grow – including nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Plants, including crops like wheat and barley require all these things to stay healthy, grow strong and resist disease and pest attack. The alternative to livestock manures is artificial fertilisers which have to be mined from below the Earth’s surface, phosphate (a finite resource) for example, or in the case of nitrogen ‘fixed’ from the atmosphere through something called the Haber-Bosch process.

The trouble with the Haber-Bosch process is that, although it facilitated a vast increase in global food production in the 20th century, it is really very demanding for energy, typically sourced from fossil fuels. It takes about 600kg of natural gas (another finite resource) to produce 1000kg of Ammonia (NH₃). Now consider that around 170 million tonnes of NH₃ are produced annually, more than 85% of which is destined for agricultural fertilisers, and you start to see the problem. What is more, nitrogen contained in artificial fertilisers is almost entirely in either ammonium or nitrate from, meaning that it is easily volatilised to the atmosphere to add to the greenhouse gasses up there, or leached through the soil profile before plants can utilise all of it – ending up in watercourses. Conversely, nitrogen contained in cattle dung is largely in ‘organic’ form, meaning that it is essentially locked up in organic matter and therefore much less susceptible to being lost to the environment. It is gradually released to plants over several years through a naturally occurring process called mineralisation, facilitated by the soil food web.

Realistically if we abandoned the Haber-Bosch process completely global food production would fall flat on its face and there would be an awful lot of very hungry people. The human race has, I fear, come to rely upon it. But it would make sense surely to maximise our use of naturally sourced fertilisers (e.g. livestock manure) to somewhat reduce agriculture's environmental impact.

The Solution

As you have by now hopefully realised, nature has all the answers. A farming system that mimics nature – grazing ruminants on grass, as a mob - facilitates a diverse, healthy, functioning ecosystem with numerous environmental benefits. Furthermore, it produces meat and dairy products that are actually very good for you when consumed as part of a balanced diet.

This is what we aim for here at Weston Park Farms. Cattle raised here have never eaten a grain from the day they are born to the day they leave. They graze permanent pastures and rotational arable herbal leys during the spring, summer and autumn, building fertility as they go. There is usually a short period during winter when grass growth slows and so they are fed silage made from the summers excess grass. They are grazed as a mob, to mimic their natural behaviour and moved onto fresh grass at least once a day. The grass then has a long recovery period before the cattle return, allowing it to make full use of the manure left by the cattle, and capture as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible.

Some of our cattle mob grazing a herbal ley. The mob grazing technique aims to mimic a ruminant herds natural behaviour, intensively grazing a small area for a short period, before moving on to fresh grass, allowing the grazed area a long period to regrow.

I would urge anyone reading this to support grass fed animal farming. Demand to know from the retailer how this meat was raised – the supermarket shelf stacker probably won’t know, but your local butcher will. Don’t be shamed, don’t be guilt tripped, be proud to support a responsible farming system which considers our environmental assets as well as the bottom line.

A Final Thought

Sat here on a damp harvest morning in North Hertfordshire, watching the continuous stream of airliners making their final approach to Luton airport, listening to the distant drone of the congested A1M motorway, I can’t help but feel the cattle are an easy target for those with something of an agenda. There is a lot of misinformation out there and our supposedly neutral national media organisations are culpable in disseminating it. Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Humans might be able to get by without cows, but could our natural ecosystem do likewise?

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