When you hear about cows and climate change in the news, you typically hear some version of this stat: producing one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water—a result of the feed, transportation, and processing. It’s an astronomical number, and a rightfully concerning one.
The widespread environmental response is to encourage reduced meat consumption, or even a commitment to a vegetarian or vegan diet. While the motivation behind this response is commendable, the ecological system math doesn’t add up.
Proper Cattle Rotation Builds Soil, Completes Cycle
Cattle production is only destructive to ecological systems when it is forced to occur in an unnatural manner. Over the last fifty years, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have become the new normal for global meat production. In these intensive systems, animals are packed into industrial lots where they spend 45 days or more each year in an area completely devoid of vegetation.
Because the animals are unnaturally separated from the land, feed must be imported—usually commercial grains grown with cheap energy. Of course, cattle digestive systems aren’t designed to process grain in this quantity, so the grain must be supplemented with nutrients and the animals need medications to support their weakened immune systems.
Outputs also become a major problem. Instead of fertilizing pastureland, cattle manure becomes a waste product. Nutrient runoff can occur at dangerous levels that can poison local fish and wildlife. As agroecologist Joel Salatin writes, “[CAFOs] take animals, plants, and manure that are supposed to be in a symbiotic dance and separate the partners into toxic antagonists.”
At Ganaderia Pietrasanta, cattle are allowed to fulfill their natural role as pastureland herbivores, contributing a host of benefits to the land and market. By continuously mowing grassland biomass, cows restart the growing process. From a climate change perspective this is a major service, because plants only sequester carbon while they are actually growing. Once they turn brown and start to die, they actually release CO2 back into the atmosphere. Regular grazing keeps the grass in carbon sequestration mode, allowing GP’s pastures to serve as even bigger carbon reservoirs than woodlands.
Studies have also shown that the tugging of an herbivore’s teeth can actually stimulate root fibers and encourage new growth. Similarly, ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that an enzyme in buffalo saliva has actually been shown to promote rapid grass regrowth. “Grass gives to buffalo and buffalo gives to grass,” she writes. She’s right; with each grazing, herbivores like cattle and buffalo deposit manure rich in nutrients, increasing soil organic matter and providing natural fertilizer. Instead of generating concern over nutrient runoff or erosion, soil depth and fertility actually increase, leading Salatin to describe this grazing system as the most historically normal way to build soil.
At Ganaderia Pietrasanta, grass-fed cattle operations are a key part of a holistic ecological and economic cycle. The herd, roughly 4,500 cattle, grows fat and healthy on rich pastureland, increasing from 220 kilos to 320 kilos a head—a beautifully simple example of adding real market value in a manner that not only conserves resources, but actually increases health and abundance in the long-term.