Mimicking Nature: The Importance of Sustainable Cattle Farming

Cattle have been a part of agriculture since the very beginning. Humans have been relying on them to meet their needs for everything ranging from meat, dairy and agriculture to sometimes even companionship. Cows have done a lot to support mankind. It’s past time to give back to these (mostly) friendly and peaceful animals. Why not benefit the environment at the same time? Sustainable cattle production practices, like rotational grazing and pasture use, help cattle stay healthy and maintain the environment.

It all starts with the land. Pasture-based feeding has proven to benefit cattle and the land as opposed to grains and confined areas. The grains provided to cattle as feed often come from unnatural mass productions in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In these operations, the cattle are kept in very tight stalls and given very little space to move. There is nothing natural about CAFOs. Grasses in pastures, on the other hand, build healthy soil matter by adding organic matter, disrupting the lifestyle of weeds, reducing the use of chemicals and allowing the cattle more freedom to roam. Instead of being cooped up in a small space and being fed grains that only slightly satisfy their five stomachs, cattle are able to socialize and naturally express their behaviors in a pasture that nourishes them while in turn, giving back to the land through the use of sustainable practices. . Not to mention that pasture-raised meat is better for consumers, as it is lower in calories and total fat and has higher levels of vitamins. 

As Myriah Johnson, senior director of beef sustainability research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said for Drovers: “The fundamental value proposition of beef to the food system is the transformation of lower value resources, such as grasses and plant byproducts, to higher value protein full of micronutrients, which nourishes people.”

Going hand in hand with land management is rotational, or controlled, grazing. This practice focuses on not allowing the cattle to completely take over and eat all the grass down to the very base on the entire field, but instead use paddocks. A paddock encloses an area of land, cutting the cattle off from the rest of the pasture. This allows the cattle to graze one area of the land at a time, which means the paddocks not being grazed on can grow. When the good part of the grasses have been grazed, the cattle are then moved to the next paddock to start the process again. Noah Earle, who raises grass-fed cattle, moves his cattle from paddock to paddock every one to two days. Meanwhile, Jeff Jones, a fourth-generation cattle farmer, moves his cattle once a week. 

The lack of chemicals, which encourages  crops to regrow, using natural resources like manure and the carbon intake of healthy grasslands all contribute to the health of the environment. Room to move, constant access to the good parts of grasses by paddock use and proper socialization helps  cattle to be healthier. 

The whole idea of these sustainable practices is to create an ecosystem that utilizes everything the land provides and can be found on the farm. The needs of one element are met by another. “It’s all about mimicking nature,” Earle said.

Noah Earle keeps his cattle in paddocks, moving them from one to another nearly every day. “I have to allow the vegetation to grow,” Earle said. The cattle graze the top of the grasses, which is where all the good nutrients, like fiber, are. Without paddocks, cattle would graze the grasses of the entire pasture, eating down to the less nutritious roots of plants when there’s nothing left. Paddocks allow for the forage to regrow while the cattle are off in another one, allowing them to return to the paddock once it has regrown sufficiently.  Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
In sustainable agriculture, forage (what the cattle graze) consists of grasses like alfalfa. These grasses sequester carbon dioxide from the air and use it to grow and photosynthesize, which helps protect and conserve  the environment. Industrial farms typically rely on fossil fuels to transport food and waste and to regulate the indoor environment of the cattle. Pesticides and herbicides feed the crops. This is not the case with pastures, as everything is natural and uses natural resources. Earle and Jones do not use chemicals on their farms. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
A paddock is useless if it does not keep the cattle in the space. One way of securing an enclosure is to use hotwire. Hotwire is a thin wire that uses electricity to shock anything that touches it. Earle trains his cattle and hogs to the hotwire by making it very hot to begin with, so that when they touch it, the shock is enough to scare them away from it. After they learn to avoid making contact with it, he turns down the shock. “It is really just a psychological threat,” Earle said. “Once they experience the zap, they typically avoid it. They can go under or over it anytime. They will only try to escape if they are hungry enough, but the constant moving usually prevents that.” Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Hogs can also play a role in sustainable cattle production. Before setting the cattle free in a  new paddock, Earle sets up one for his hogs. The pigs make the land more open by consuming most of the forage and then fertilizing the area for the cattle. They are also hot-wired in and have a constant supply of food and water. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Jeff Jones moves his cattle around bigger paddocks about once a week. On his farm, Jones also uses hotwire and fences to keep the animals in their respective paddocks. One of the reasons Jones prefers to use paddocks is that the cattle fertilize the land themselves. As they walk and graze, they move their own manure around, successfully feeding and fertilizing the land. This makes the use of hormones and other harmful chemicals unnecessary for the land. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Using manure as fertilizer is much more effective and environmentally friendly than a chemical based fertilizer like phosphorus because the land is able to absorb it much more effectively. There is less runoff that contains chemicals that then ends up in nearby water sources. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “pasture management can improve soil and water resources by preventing erosion, increasing infiltration, facilitating soil building grasses in rotation systems and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.” Kit Wiberg
In addition to the grasses present in the paddocks, Jones also feeds his cattle a mix of barley and alfalfa. While he rarely feeds his cattle grains, this mixture helps the cattle form a bond with Jones and associate him with positive things, such as getting a yummy snack. Jones only feeds his cattle forage and other plants that his farm grows. “It’s a cycle,” Jones said. “What they get from the land, they put back. And the process just repeats itself.” Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Jones uses alfalfa, a legume hay, and grasses in his paddocks. The two work together to  help the other grow. The result is green, nutritious grazing pastures for the cattle. Additionally, alfalfa is notorious for sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon is what is driving climate change and the last time the atmosphere held this much carbon was 4.5 million years ago. Rebecca Phillips, a plant physiologist at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, said in an article for the USDA that alfalfa is a “carbon dioxide uptake powerhouse. Alfalfa is doing a fabulous job of removing carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere).” Having more crops like alfalfa is a major way to attempt to mitigate climate change and even start to reverse its effects.  Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
One of the biggest concerns about cattle in relation to the environment is the large quantities of methane they produce.  Methane is a natural result of digestion from the cattle so it can not be eliminated completely. According to Drovers, there is 600 times more carbon dioxide than methane in the air. And while methane breaks down in 8-12 years, carbon accumulates and stays present for centuries. Sustainable agriculture practices help mitigate the production of methane. The carbon uptake through grazing does help diminish other non-methane emissions connected to beef production. As Foodprint stated, “the carbon sequestration ability of healthy grasslands makes it a net win either way.” Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Cattle are integral to most people’s everyday lives, whether they realize it or not. It makes sense that cattle be treated respectfully and in a way that benefits not just humans, but also the environment that we all depend on to survive. As Myriah Johnson said in Drovers: “Cattle don’t just use the land, they help protect ecosystems, soil health and wildlife in addition to protecting public safety by reducing fire risk.”  Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps

Kit Wiberg graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism – photojournalism.

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