How Grass Finishing Maintains Ecosystem Integrity
Standing in a diverse pasture should sound like a symphony of nature. Crickets, bees, birds, leaves, and the wind all work together to create something irreplaceable. You sense first-hand the life you are sustaining around you.
Greetings to everyone all over the world. Several years ago, I chose to stop eating meat, because science had determined one of the worst detriments to our environment was the ag industry, particularly meat production.
The reality is that factory farms and feedlots have horrific effects, damaging our ecosystem in multiple ways. It’s easy to find glaring stats quoted everywhere: from the water pollution because of waste generation where animals are confined, and erosion and fertilizer leaching from where their feed crops are grown, to exterminating our biodiversity and forests to make room for monoculture feed crops, to fossil fuel emission from agriculture’s being on the scale of (some stats say worse than) that of our transportation system. (So, helping to cause climate change on more than one front.)
Conventional Cattle Feedlot
As something of a tree-hugger, I started wondering about the ethics involved, and looking further into the numbers. I read somewhere that it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. But my family raises cattle, and has been doing so for 100 years. I looked out into our pastures. That’s kind of hard to believe!? And the soil degradation and loss of biodiversity – that’s not what’s going on!? We are actually building soil health in our pastures, and increasing biodiversity as well.
Eventually, after studying the studies, I discovered most only considered grain-fed meat. Hmmm. I eventually recognized my place in this ecosystem as a human being at the top of the food chain, and I see now that it’s my job to eat meat, whether I like it or not.
So I’m going to share with you all just a few notes comparing the two methods of protein production so you can better understand why one method may be sustainable and the other method is clearly not.
Out west you can find mountains of corn like this, destined for a feedlot
Conventionally produced meat requires exorbitant amounts of grain. To grow such requires acres and acres of land (that might otherwise have supported biodiversity and forests) converted into monocultures of feed crops such as corn and soy. I read that as much as 33 percent of land worldwide is used solely for livestock feed production. This requires heavy use of fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuel. Folks, none of this, I repeat, NONE, is necessary for producing meat finished on pasture. Lick Skillet cattle eat the forage growing in the fields where they live. That’s it.
A CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) must not only supply water to all its animals daily; it must manage all the tons of waste they generate. Extreme water use is the only way to do that. This often means sending out this nasty stuff into our waterways. Lick Skillet cattle drink well water from under the ground where they live, and then pee it back out where they stand. When they poop, it’s not considered “waste” – it’s considered precious recycled nutrients returned to the soil to grow their food again, and support biodiversity and general ecosystem health.
Stop and think of the equipment necessary to produce the feed for a CAFO. Diesel-fueled tractors routinely traverse fields to fertilize, plow, plant, spray, and harvest, before the grain is shipped, sometimes great distances. At Lick Skillet Farm, we ride an ATV out to carry minerals as a diet supplement, and we walk to carry polywire fencing out when moving animals to a new section of pasture. We occasionally use a tractor to bush hog when our overly healthy pastures get too excited and start to make jungles . . . . .
Cattle at a feedtrough
Yes, methane emissions are one of the more deadly greenhouse gases, and yes, our animals do burp. But very little research has been done comparing grass-finished animals’ methane emissions to those in a feedlot, and frankly, it makes sense to me that one might burp more when eating something his body was never designed to eat. . . . . just sayin.’
A Cornell study found that globally, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, that one rainstorm can wash away what would take 20 years for the ecosystem to replace, and that the economic impact of soil erosion costs the United States about $37.6 billion each year in productivity losses. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that erosion occurs when we use a plow to grow monocultures of feed crops. Here at Lick Skillet, some of the land on which our cattle graze was thoroughly mechanically and chemically row-cropped by the previous owners for decades, leaving some disastrously dead soils. Deep gullies on the hillsides flooded so much that huge tiles were needed to carry the water away. Today, our regenerative practices have transformed those gullies and increased the water infiltration so much that now, in a rainstorm, no water runs through those tiles.
Plowing open soil releases carbon. No matter what crop you’re growing, whether eggplant or feed corn – if you plow, you are ripping apart soil structure, killing the life it was protecting, and sending pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. No plowing is going on here! Lick Skillet regenerative grazing practices are sequestering more and more carbon under the ground every year.
Cornfields take up a lot of space, and arguably have a negative net impact on ecosystem services
Finally, the biodiversity angle: as I said before, monocultures of feed crops completely erase both the food and habitat for our pollinators and small wildlife, BESIDES the pesticides that kill or weaken all of them. Our myriad forages provide both habitat and food for so much wildlife that we’ve now seen quail and even ruffed grouse where they haven’t been sighted for many years.
In our opinion, healthy, diverse pasture is one of the most beautiful sights on Earth.
Of course, such is possible only when animals are living out their lives, eating in healthy diverse pastures, recycling those nutrients for us, and harvesting sunshine: turning the sun’s energy into protein to grow your heart, lungs, and brain, so that you can make your own choices to eat a diet that sustains your local ecosystem, and the planet as a whole!
To delve further into the meat/environment research, please consider Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, and Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, By Judith D. Schwartz.
If you're wondering how the animals feel about all this, please check out our article on animal welfare at Lick Skillet Farm.
We've also just written a broad, comprehensive page that details the question of grain fed vs grass fed beef with details on taste and human health.