Have you heard cow farts are killing the planet? Unfortunately, I have too, along with several more arguments about how farmers are doing things wrong and harming the planet. The reality is cows killing the planet is a myth just like cow tipping (sorry to burst your bubble if you were hoping to cow tip someday).
Cattle are not the problem, in fact with proper cattle management on pasture, I believe they can be the solution to many of the threats to our natural resources. You may be wondering how I can make such a bold statement. Please join me in a series of blogs and let me explain how grass fed beef can reduce carbon emissions, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and improve our soils ability to hold water! Today we will focus on how cows can reduce carbon emissions!
Let's get started! While it is true that cows produce methane through the digestion process, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is a significant contributor to the problem, the reality is that cows produce no more methane today than they did 200 years ago before we got here. It's estimated that in the pre-settlement era of the United States there were between 35 and 75 million head of bison with an additional 10 million elk roaming the plains. Today there are an estimated 43 million cows and heifers that had calves in 2019. There are no more animals producing methane today than there were before we settled. Yet today, we are seeing and becoming aware of global warming.
Where does global warming come from? The two other primary greenhouse gases are CO2 and water vapor. CO2 comes through the burning of fossil fuels to power vehicles or generate electricity and water vapor comes from the evaporation of water from the earth's surface. So where do cows tie into all of this? Today I'll focus on how a grazing centered cattle operation minimizes carbon emissions by significantly reducing the machinery required to feed our cattle.
On our pasture based operation, shown below, we minimize the use of fossil fuel by grazing the cattle for as many months as possible. Since the majority of our pasture is perennial pasture, meaning it grows back every year, we do not need to till, or plant those fields on a regular basis. Our cattle act as harvesters, manure spreaders, and weed controllers. This pasture consists of a perennial plant species which means it grows back every year, meaning there is no need for planting every spring either!
The second photo is a haying system where fuel must be burned to cut, rake, bale, haul, wrap, and feed the cows, followed by hauling the manure back to pasture or fields.
The third photo is a corn silage system where a similar amount of machinery must be run to produce the feed. This system also requires extra fuel to be burned in order to spread fertilizer, plant the crops, and get all the inputs to the farm in the first place.
To be clear, with our nasty winters here in Minnesota (sorry to bring snow up, I don't want to think about it either), we have not yet been able to graze all year long, although that is our goal in the next few years! Because we don't graze year round, we do feed some hay late in winter. However, through intensive management of our pastures and stockpiling forage we have been able to extend the grazing season into mid January, which is 2-3 months longer than the average producer in the midwest. This significantly reduces the amount of CO2 we burn through the use of fuel.
Join us in further blogs to hear how we not only minimize CO2 consumption, but with pasture we can actually sequester CO2 from the air and lock it in our soils and become a carbon sink, rather than a carbon producer. Further, read about how proper pasture management improves our soils ability to hold and clean water!