Cows aren’t the problem, agriculture is!

4 August 2016

I was spurred into a debate on the Quickcrop Facebook page when they posted a graphic illustrating that an acre can feed twenty average families but only one cow. I argued the case for the cow, and I’m pretty sure I won hands down! After challenging me to a fistfight, Andrew came to his senses and asked me to write an article for their blog, so here goes…

I am not going to hide the fact that I am a farmer and a beef farmer at that, but in my defence, I am wholly against many modern agricultural practices and the extensive damage it is doing to our health and the health of the planet. I also grow about a third of an acre of organic vegetables, and I would estimate about 30% of my meals are vegetarian.

Cows are getting a lot of flack, about methane emissions and various other arguments but, my point is that cows are not to blame, we are!

Cows are supposed to eat grasses and weeds and forage for leaves on trees. With this diet, their intake of natural oils and fibre balances out the proteins they consume and produces an acceptable amount of gas. Over the last hundred years, agriculture has driven us to breed cattle that are heavier, leaner and require grain to fatten them.

This progress has many damaging consequences. Firstly grain requires vast amounts of fossil fuels to produce. All modern grain crops are annuals, so the fields are ploughed and tilled, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, causes the leaching of minerals out of the soil in wet weather and soil erosion in dry weather. The crop is then sown and fertilised using more fossil fuels and then sprayed with herbicides and pesticides while growing. After all this the big guns come in and harvest, it’s then brought away and heavily processed and shipped all over the world. Much of the grain, especially the high protein soya, used in animal feed in Ireland comes from the US. All this happens because we are told we want a heavier leaner animal!

No wonder cows get such bad press, look at all the hassle they cause, what is the answer? Ban cows use every acre to grow food for human consumption?

Let us briefly follow this idea to its sudden dead end! So we plough the ground sow our crops, fertilise, spray - does this sound familiar? Well, of course, we would do this all organically. Ok, but how do we maintain fertility in the ground?

Take the average veggie patch, tended carefully and organically. Every year there is a big compost heap made. It is turned and broken down and spread back on the veggie beds, but there is never enough, so we grow some green manure and rotate the beds but even with all the careful efforts of a well-tended patch over several years fertility will drop. Import compost or a load of farmyard manure from a friendly local farmer and the ground is healthy and bountiful again. My point is that even on a small scale with lots of attention, it is close to impossible to grow organically over a long period on the same patch of ground without external inputs. So imagine for a minute trying to do it on a global scale, without the keen attention of a gardener.

This is where the humble cow and fellow ruminants come into play and why they are vital to our future survival on this planet. It may sound farfetched at first, but let me explain.

In nature, healthy ecosystems are self-sustaining. Observe a natural woodland; it is a true polyculture with many layers of growth. There is an overstory of canopy trees, the understory, creepers, bush, herbs and grasses, mosses, lichens, fungi, etc. All these layers have a symbiotic relationship; they all occupy a different space above and below ground with roots of different depths seeking out water and nutritional requirements. They are continually dying, rotting and re-growing building soil and fertility as they go.

We can grow food to mimic this by planting a forest garden, using fruit and nut trees in the canopy, soft fruits in the understory and perennial vegetables as the herb layer. We can even grow edible fungi. This is an excellent way to garden, but it would be challenging to feed the world without a global cultural shift toward becoming a society of hunter-gathers.

Another ecosystem that is self-sustaining in nature is a wild grassland plain. Apart from the odd nature reserve, there are few of these left in the world. This is because they were the most fertile soils in the world and easily converted into vast monoculture fields of grain!

Natural grasslands build fertility through another symbiosis between ruminant animals and pasture plants adapted to grazing. Vast herds of grazing animals would pack tightly together to protect themselves against predators. They graze, digest, trample and dung on the grass and move on in a tight herd to the next patch. The herd would migrate over a vast area and only return to a patch when the grasses have fully recovered.

Following a grazing event, the roots die back in proportion with the top growth adding organic matter to the soil. The trampled stalky grass that is not eaten is high in carbon and is mixed with the dung which is high in nitrogen; this is then digested by the microbes in the soil which adds more organic matter and fertility. Every time this happens, the soil gets deeper, richer and more fertile.

This system can be mimicked with a herd of domestic grazing cattle if kept tightly packed in small paddocks and moved regularly in a holistically managed rotation. Suddenly have a very sustainable self-improving farming system.

This sounds too good to be true; how can we make fertility for nothing? One other element in this process that makes all the magic happen is the system’s primary energy source. The great thing about it is that it’s FREE. The sunlight, as in nature is the energy and the fuel of the whole process.

So what has this got to do with growing vegetables and grain for humans? Using grazing animals to build topsoil and fertility while producing milk and meat we can manage land by rotating the fertile grasslands with croplands and getting back to a mixed farming system that worked for thousands of years before chemical fertilisers perverted it.

This is why cattle and other livestock are so crucial to the world and to farming. They are the key to harvesting sunlight and turning it into fertility for growing on a large scale.

This knowledge has been clouded and almost lost in the mist of chemical fertilisers and corporate agriculture. Because of chemical agriculture, the humble and magnificent cow is often misunderstood. Well-meaning bite-sized illustrations can be misleading about the amount of land needed to feed a cow than twenty families on vegetables! It doesn’t tell nearly the full story!