‘Meatless’ farms not ideal for regenerative system
By Rachel Henderson
With the Amazon burning, the call is out to abandon beef, or meat altogether, as the most effective way to save the rainforest. This is because the fires have been credibly attributed to actions by cattle ranchers and loggers who, backed by multinational corporations, are attempting to claim land for beef production or other forms of industrial-scale agriculture. Some activists have called for boycotts of Brazilian beef, while others suggest that reducing the global demand for beef would make it less profitable to burn down forests. In either case, beef consumption has come under scrutiny. People concerned for the health of our planet and the people who live in rural communities that are impacted by the spread of large livestock farms are examining the role of animal agriculture in deforestation and other types of land degradation.
Meat production has been widely identified as a contributor to climate change. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified the livestock industry as a greater emitter of greenhouse gasses than the transportation sector, making it the largest contributor worldwide. This generated a lot of global and national attention on the heavily meat-based diet common in the United States and increasingly common around the world.
This has fostered a sense of alarm about the implications of such a diet. Many environmental and animal welfare organizations have advocated for “Meatless Mondays” or other ways to cut back the amount of meat we purchase each year, and to encourage people to find vegetarian protein sources (as well as just eat more veggies). Studies suggest that adopting these practices could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if we don’t all switch to a completely vegan diet. The website MeatlessMondays.com says, “Skipping one serving of beef every Monday for a year saves the equivalent emissions to driving 348 miles in a car.”
At the same time, there is another narrative emerging about cows and land. Advocates for grass-based meat and dairy production point to actual ecological benefits of well-managed grazing on soil and water quality. They point to historically successful farming systems that combined animals with crop production that were sustained over centuries before industrial agriculture separated them.
Further, there is evidence that healthy soil in perennial grass cover serves to sequester carbon, though the complete carbon cycle is very complex and difficult to summarize in simple talking points. The FAO has specifically pointed out that the use of carefully managed grazing to improve poor soils is one of the areas for the greatest potential improvement in carbon cycling. Farm fields in perennial cover for grazing also have much higher water-holding capacity and soil organic matter than fields of annual crops.
Many farmers say the jump to condemn animal agriculture misses the point; the question shouldn’t be whether or not we eat meat, but how and where animals are raised. In fact, the FAO report that seems to condemn meat also goes on to cite solutions such as improved animal diet for healthier animal digestion, soil conservation practices through grazing and silvopasture, and reducing large-scale livestock concentration. These sound very similar to the practices proposed by advocates for Regenerative Agriculture.
Regenerative Agriculture has been getting a lot of attention lately. The term is understood as a set of practices that seeks to continuously improve whole ecosystems—including soil and water conservation and increased biodiversity—within the context of a given farm and place. This means that it will look different depending on the needs and resources of a farm, but also that a good regenerative system will be responsive to the needs of farmers, the deficits of the land, and the available resources.
“The most basic principle of regenerative agriculture is that it requires both plants and animals on the land together—as does every ecosystem in nature,” explained Dave Bishop, a farmer who has seen firsthand the benefits of adding livestock back into a diverse crop system. Bishop farms with his family on PrairiErth Farm in Illinois, where, he said, the animals they raise are not just a product they offer, but partners on the farm. Having transitioned to organic from conventional crops, he is clear about the benefits he sees from a more integrated way of farming.
The Bishop family received the 2017 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year award. A profile of the Bishops and their farm in the Organic Broadcaster in March-April 2018 details their farm’s evolution and the role of livestock. In their case, adding grazing cattle into their crop rotation has helped build soil and create a more resilient farm. Bishop identified years of drought in which a crop that would have otherwise been lost served as forage. Besides the fertility benefits, Bishop said, “The cattle give us a way to stabilize our business. They help protect us from the shocks of weather and the markets.”
This approach is different than simply turning animals out on a field and letting them eat. Managed grazing includes planning. To realize the goal of soil regeneration, farmers need to consider the number of animals their land can sustain and be prepared to rotate their livestock through the fields based on what’s happening on—and under—the ground.
At an upcoming field day with The Land Connection, focused on mechanical weed control, Bishop will talk about the role of grazing in a row crop rotation. He wants to kindle conversation about plants and animals working in consort to build a more profitable whole-farm enterprise. The field day, which will include equipment demonstrations, is Sept. 18 at Gwenyn Hill Farm in Waukesha, Wis.
Bishop suggested that farmers who want to take steps toward establishing regenerative practices on their farm ask themselves these questions first:
• What kind of animals are appropriate on your farm?
• Exactly how will you use them?
• What are the biological benefits each species might bring to your operation?
“Poultry, for example, tend to work well in vegetable operations that don’t have the size or infrastructure to handle larger animals like cattle,” he explained. “They can be rotated through the fields—and even inside of hoop houses—to address the build-up of pests and diseases in the soil and enhance farm income. What was once an expense becomes a source of income.”
While plant and animal integration can seem foreign in our modern farm environment, “all of this is hardly a new idea,” Bishop added. “Most all farms in my childhood were like that—small, diverse, mostly organic, and had several kinds of livestock. That was the norm. Massive monocultures of crops and livestock are a recent phenomenon, already under stress from all sides—weed resistance to chemicals, environmental damage, poor profitability, and on and on. Now the time is right for this discussion, no matter how you farm.”
As Bishop has said, there are many different ways of accomplishing the integration of plants and animals. The best approach for a given farm will depend on the land base, the enterprises already in production, and what farmers have the appetite to take on.
In their 2017 Farm Progress Report, Iowa State University details a study into the potential for adding chickens to a vegetable-cover crop rotation. They cite improved soil fertility, leading to better potential vegetable yields, as well as reduced weed pressure.
Another example of an animal partnership is the recent enthusiasm for hogs integrated into orchards and fruit plantings. Historically understood as a good way to clean up fallen apples, now current research is proving that pigs foraging under trees post-harvest is effective at breaking several pest and disease cycles. As a result, organic orchards can reduce the need for inputs, see an improved percentage of high-quality fruit, and have an additional source of income.
Another idea gaining traction is grazing a cover crop. With careful planning, farmers have found they can seed a cover crop following a cash crop. Depending on the crops, timing, and zone, that cover crop can then be grazed in the fall, the following spring, or both times. A 2018 publication from The Pasture Project, part of the Wallace Center, explains the benefits of grazing cover crops, how to select a mix of cover crop species for livestock, and some of the risks involved in the practice, including toxicity concerns and fencing needs.
As farmers, and as people who live and work in rural communities, we know that it is in our interest to be stewards of the resources we have. Our modern agricultural system is far removed from a natural, balanced ecosystem. It is up to us to find ways to produce food for our communities while making choices that sustain our ability to farm.
While animal agriculture has had massive negative impacts on land around the world, we also know that livestock can and will be part of whole-farm conservation and regeneration. Aided by the knowledge and expertise that has come from years of study and trial and error, we are in the exciting position now of being able to shape the future of food production in a way that values life and the planet.
Rachel Henderson is an on-farm organic specialist with MOSES. She and her husband raise pigs and chickens in their orchards at Mary Dirty Face Farm in Menomonie, Wis. Rachel will be on a farmer panel at the Women in Sustainable Ag Conference Oct. 19 to talk about building farm resiliency.
From the September | October 2019 Issue