Room for Ruminants in a Sustainable Future? Taking a Step Back to Find More Steps Forward

, senior scientist | March 29, 2018, 4:31 pm EDT
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Ruminants, especially cattle (particularly beef cattle), have gotten a bad rap for their effects on climate, water, land and health. However, research and practice also point to cases in which ruminants can help improve the sustainability of farms, increasing farm resilience to extreme weather and supporting the livelihoods of some of the land’s best stewards.

In this post, I want to explore some ways that agroecology can reduce environmental damage from farms and ranches that support beef cattle production. First, I want to talk about how cattle production in the US involves a substantial amount of both grass and grain, and how we should be thinking about ways to grow both better. Then I’ll discuss how integrating crops and cattle could be one strategy for optimizing potential farm and environmental benefits. Yes, it’s context-dependent, and it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Wait, what’s a ruminant?

Before digging in, a bit of Ruminant 101. Ruminants are mammals defined by their unique digestive process, which is quite slick from a scientific perspective. Ruminants, which include cattle, sheep, goats, elk, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, and camels (but not other common farm animals such as pigs and chickens), can get their nutritional needs from grasses and leaves, which are inedible to most of us mammals. This ability means that they can convert otherwise inedible plants into sellable products, like meat and milk, and help farmers profit from grasslands. Ruminants also can, and do, eat other plant material, like grains. Overall, their digestive flexibility enables them to take advantage of foods that might otherwise go to waste (which in part explains why some producers have used ingredients as unusual as candy, in moderation, as an energy source within a balanced diet).

So, what’s the problem?

In brief, like all forms of animal agriculture, ruminant production requires land and other resources, such as fertilizers and energy, to produce feed. Ruminants also produce manure, which must be carefully managed, and can lead to climate-warming emissions and water pollution. Due to their unique digestive process, these animals also produce large amounts of methane, a potent climate-disrupting gas. Finally, the sheer number of cattle raised, in response to high demand for meat and dairy, ensures that consequences from production add up particularly fast.

Levers for more sustainable beef? On grass, grain, and goldilocks

Beef provides an interesting lens into food system solutions. For one thing, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Furthermore, solving sustainability challenges with beef production means looking not just at the final product, but at management all along the way. In the US, all beef cattle begin their lives grazing on grass, but most are “finished” on grain—largely corn—in industrial feedlots known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Thus, the scope of solutions for beef production can include both grass and grain management. For example:

  • Improving grass: Grasslands and pastures used for beef production could be improved by managing them according to best practices, potentially leading to several benefits. Well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion or even build soil health, improving resilience to droughts and floods, and storing or even sequestering soil carbon. Also, protecting species-rich grasslands or planting diverse pastures can benefit biodiversity and pollinators. In addition, cattle production in well-managed grazing systems tends to improve animal health and reduce reliance on antibiotics that are often used heavily in feedlots.
  • Improving grain: Farms growing feed crops for cattle can also be improved by adopting regenerative practices. For example, rotating corn and soy with other crops can reduce erosion and build soil health and soil carbon, while also interrupting pest cycles and reducing pesticide use. Transitioning some areas of farms to perennial plants (including grasses and trees) and adopting cover crops can help to keep soils protected and healthy year-round, while also improving resilience to droughts and floods. Diverse farms can include “nitrogen-fixing” crops, which take advantage of natural processes that add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • Grass versus grain, or a goldilocks effect? In addition to improving both grass and grain production, it’s worth thinking about the proportion of either that is ultimately used to feed cattle. As I mentioned above, most producers “finish” cattle on grain, but others stick with grass, and whether one is better than the other has been the subject of many inquiries (learn more here and here). On the one hand, finishing more cattle on more grass could help protect grasslands, potentially countering a disturbing trend of grassland loss in the US. On the other hand, finishing cattle with more grain decreases digestive methane emissions each day, and speeds up production, resulting in fewer total emissions. Given the tradeoffs and complexities, a broader context is needed to determine the best steps for more sustainable beef production.

Designing diversified, integrated farms

Among the potential ways to improve beef production, reconfiguring farms to diversify crops and reintegrate cattle stands out as one way to make things work better—for both farmers and the environment (see my post on regenerative farmers for success stories).

Such integrated systems function by mimicking natural ecosystems in which plants are grown together with the animals that they feed and the animal manure can be used to fertilize plants, reducing reliance on (purchased) chemical fertilizers in some instances. As animals can get value out of a variety of crops, farmers managing integrated systems can more readily plant crop rotations and cover crops that are good for soils and farm resilience, even when markets may be unreliable. Another benefit of integrated systems is that they can be strategically designed to provide high-quality, nutritious diets for cattle that improve productivity and health, and reduce methane emissions.

Outcomes from reintegrating land and livestock

Given the advantages of integrated crop-livestock systems, we recently crunched some numbers to gain a better understanding of the impacts of transitioning common monocrop farms to more integrated, regenerative ones. From this exercise, we found that several scenarios of reintegrating cattle into conventional farms could meaningfully improve land, acre by acre, while boosting farmer profits. Benefits were possible even in cases where farmers were assumed to only convert a portion of their land to new practices (for our study, we considered the impacts of making changes to as little one third of a 1000-acre farm).

Of course, it’s complicated, as beef production in any case requires substantial feed, land, and water—on average, much more than other meat and dairy products. Based on current research, scaling up the practices that we explored may support fewer cattle per acre, which would imply that less beef could be produced or that more land would be required. However, future and ongoing research into regenerative practices and soil health could change these outcomes. And we know that many Americans could improve their health by reducing their red meat consumption, a shift that could also reduce demand over time.

In sum, although there’s no simple path forward, solutions that start by working with farmers and eaters alike could be an important part of the portfolio.

P.S. Finding more sustainable beef within the current food system is a challenge, but there is some advice out there if you want to try. While choices are limited these days, demonstrating interest in more sustainable foods is an important way to encourage more options in the future.

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