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Farmer John: Benefits of managing livestock in a regional food system

J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson

BY J.D. WILSON

VIRGINIA BEACH — There are a couple of lines of thought about livestock practices that are at odds. I understand central points of each. Some people with plant-based diets suggest eliminating meat altogether will help save the planet. Some people who practice holistic management practices suggest ruminants, especially beef cattle that are raised responsibly, are good for the environment. 

Some are right when they say that strictly corn-fed cattle, especially when they spend time in a confined animal feeding operation, are bad for all concerned — the cows, people who eat them and the environment. 

The confined feeding system is designed to benefit the large corporations who control it. Its goal is the efficient production and distribution of meat. That system is partially responsible for 14.5 percent of the greenhouse gases being released due to livestock worldwide, according to the United Nations. The percentage is lower in the U.S., according to reporting by The New York Times, but that’s largely because we are a major producer of emissions of such gases through our transportation and energy systems.

When this approach to mass farming is all you know, it could be hard to justify eating meat at all in light of the current environmental crises we are in. There is a trade off there, too. When you get efficiency of harvest and shipping for large-scale beef operations, you also lose health benefits for the animal, the consumer and the environment.

A cow is simply not designed to digest corn, especially large amounts of it. They can get sick immediately and often are fed antibiotics in the feedlot. There is a chain reaction of negative effects. We are eating low-quality, sick beef along with the chemicals and antibiotics they eat. There is a growing concern about antibiotic resistance in our health care system. This is a reason McDonalds, a major user of beef, currently is working to reduce the use of antibiotics in its supply chain, as reported by The Salt.

It is hard to imagine a farm without animals. When I used to do tours at my farm, the kids could care less about soil microbes, crop rotations or biology. They were happy when they saw the sheep and chickens.

The good news for the carnivores is that when you remove the cows from the industrial feedlot and get them to the true pasture-raised and finished system, the benefits begin to accrue. All of the really great farm stories I know about have also gotten away from the industrial agriculture corporations. They sell and have relationships in a local or regional food system, as we are seeing with some local beef and pork operations.

Granted, these systems require a new way of thinking, a commitment to the holistic thinking and some new fencing. Since I haven’t raised cattle myself, I must rely on the stories from those who have. They say it gets easier each year until it becomes natural.

Because of the number of people preaching “no meat,” I decided to research for myself. One stellar example popped up. In May, Georgia’s White Oak Pastures, announced that it was the subject of third-party environmental research by an organization called Quantis with funding from General Mills.

They conducted a life cycle assessment looking at all aspects of the farm top to bottom. And noteworthy for me was the part about soil organic matter or carbon in the soil. It included soil health, animal health, nutrient density and carbon sequestration.

Their soil organic matter went from 1 percent to 5 percent, a target many people hope to achieve. “Our farm is creating more in terms of organic matter in the soil and microbial bio diversity than it is depleting,” farmer Will Harris said in a statement. 

Data indicates that White Oak is offsetting at least 100 percent of the of the farm’s beef carbon emissions. This is a big deal. White Oaks was studied because its production included years of holistically managed grazing practices.

Since healthy natural ecosystems have animals in them in a symbiotic relationship with the whole of nature it is then our job to do the same. That means the right number of animals on a piece of land being rotationally grazed alongside of other farm activities.

We can mimic what nature has created. And if we make it a little smaller and create a healthy local food system with more biodiversity – and support farmers using such practices – then animals are big net positive.


Reach Wilson, a farmer and consultant, via farmerjohnnewearth@yahoo.com. He writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News.


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