Cows: More Than Meat Machines

Pollan M. 2006. The Omnivores Dilemma. The Penguin Press, New York, NY. 111-276 p.

I’m going to level with you. I’ve never gotten my hands dirty working on a farm. I’ve never had to deal with a cow or horse being unruly, I have never had to wrangle chickens into a pen, and I certainly have never had to herd bovines around on a pasture day after day. Sure i’ve helped manage the growth and propagation of my family’s modest garden, but that doesn’t even compare to the labour-intensive activities of larger-scale farming. Thankfully, Pollan’s chapter on the farm life really brought to light the work and ingenuity required to run a farm. But not just any type of farm.

Unlike previous readings, where the author followed the dreary and depauperate life of a feedlot cow, this chapter covers a new trend in agriculture and animal management practices: that of the “grass farmer”. When that phrase was mentioned, my inner botanist smirked; of course farming would eventually have to return to the root of the whole business (both literally and figuratively). Grass farming refers to the perception shift that is occurring in some cattle ranching programs.  Rather than treating the land on which the “free range” cattle graze as an infinitely sustaining commodity, where one can completely disregard the health of the plants and microbes and the soil, this new concept forces farmers to look at the landmass as a more integral component to the whole business. Fields have to be treated with just as much, if not more, care than the cattle which tread on them.

Management intensive grazing was the term used in the paper to describe this “new technology” being used in some pastures. It revolves around preventing the “second bite” in a particular paddock. The second bite is the true culprit in sustainable herding practice. When grasses are cropped by their ungulate adversaries, their biology causes their roots to degrade at an equal amount. The cutting of the plants promotes subsequent boosts of growth, but only if given enough time to recover from being preyed upon the first time. In conventional continuous grazing, cattle are allowed to constantly mow the grass in the area, thereby causing the roots of the forbs and grasses to shrink further to the point that they cannot hold the soil to the ground any more. This improper management strategy causes degradation of complex ecosystems, resulting in the loss of pasture land and the destruction of the environment.

The management intensive farming strategy changes the continuous farming paradigm. By constantly moving the cattle around the pastureland and being aware of the recovery process of grasses, one can massively boost yields from a particular chunk of grass. This improvement is stark: a well managed acre of pastureland can yield up to 400 days of active grazing for cattle. By comparison, continuous grazing strategies only yield an average of 70 days of viable grazing. Not only that, but the newer method of cattle grazing can actually improve the health of the pasture; by moving the cattle around constantly across a rangeland, one aerates the soil and provides more nutrients (by the nature of bovine excretions) to the land in question.

In my non-farmer mind, this method of farming is quite obviously better than the conventional systems (continuous grazing and feedlot cattle). Why couldn’t all farmers switch to this newer method? Although it looks more labour-intensive, it’s environmental impacts are positive rather than negative, and the farms would benefit overall from the endeavour. But as most other progressive ideas, this prospect is blocked by one constant issue:


(thought it was going to be money, didn’t you?)

Corn subsidies thrown by the government drive the promotion of feedlots and unsustainable feeding practices. The issues revolving around feedlots: Antibiotic resistance, environmental damage, animal quality of life, are all mitigated by the fact that the profit margin driven by government subsidies and promotion of corn makes the endeavour worth it.

And that’s just horrible. But I’m not a farmer, so what do I know?







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