Some cattle producers are focusing on adapting grazing practices to produce beef in a way they frame as environmentally friendly.
Certainly factory farms and feedlot models, where the vast majority of cows are confined for beef production, are horrific for animals, workers and the planet. But ultimately no form of beef production is sustainable at current rates. So while reduction is key, it’s crucial to shed truth on claims made by grazing proponents.
Grass-fed beef is often touted as the “eco-friendly option,” making subtle waves in restaurants, grocery stores, and the food world. Grass-fed beef, as opposed to “feedlot beef,” is from cows who are only fed forage (which may be supplemental).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service program plans to spray insecticides on 30,000 acres of public lands in Oregon under its killing program targeting grasshoppers and Mormon crickets. But this insecticide, diflubenzuron, will kill everything else too — including pollinators like butterflies and 700-800 species of bees.
Western monarch butterflies are already experiencing a 99.99% decline, and many of these pollinators are needed to pollinate U.S. crops. The insecticide will also poison the natural food of imperiled grassland birds like sage grouse on public, taxpayer lands. The USDA has approved this killing program because native wildlife like grasshoppers and crickets compete with private cattle operations for forage.
Limitations of Grass-Fed
Unlike grass-fed beef producers, regenerative cattle grazing producers and claim to be striving for more specific environmental improvements. However, they do not go far enough. To add to the confusion, because of a lack of definitions, systems of grazing are blended together and many use terms like “regenerative grazing,” “holistic grazing,” and even “adaptive multi-paddock grazing” and “multi-paddock rotational grazing” interchangeably.
In adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP), cattle are stocked at relatively high densities but graze on a plot of land for a shorter period. This practice claims to allow grasses to recover, put down stronger root systems and store more carbon in soils. But it’s unclear whether adaptive multi-paddock grazing is better than continuous grazing, whether rotational grazing can be scaled or match lofty claims and whether holistic managed grazing even works.
Limitations of Regenerative, Holistic and AMP Grazing
Another method of cattle grazing is known as “silvopasture.” These practices are often lumped under the umbrella of “agroforestry” in climate agreements. Silvopasture means to integrate forests and forestry practices into cattle grazing — adding trees to pastures and farmed animals into forests.
The USDA defines silvopasture as “intensive management” of forests and grazing operations to produce revenue from the products derived from trees and cows (although it could also include sheep, goats, horses, chickens, bison, deer or elk). This involves using nitrogen-fixing legumes, fertilization and rotational grazing.
The idea behind “silvopasture” grazing is that grazing cattle help build the soil health of the forest to produce economically beneficial “saw logs” and reduce unwanted forest “fuel.” Meanwhile, the forest can help build the cattle operation, providing forage, shade and shelter. Both forest and cattle are valued in this model primarily as economically driven outputs.
Adding trees to pastures can offer some benefits to grazed animals, such as providing shade and shelter. Wildlife may also benefit from healthy native vegetation, while waterways benefit from increased protection from erosion with more forage. And in the best silvopasture systems, carbon storage or sequestration in soil and trees may compensate for some increased methane and nitrous oxide produced by cows emitting more greenhouse gases.
Limitations of Silvopasture
Even in the best-case scenarios, these enhanced grazing practices have steep environmental costs. While ecologically driven improvements to grazing practices are welcomed, they require clearly defined standards and work best with drastically reduced herds and an overall wide scale reduction in consumption and production. Improved practices cannot deflect from that point, and they cannot reduce the negative impacts of grazing on biodiversity and the climate crisis at a meaningful level without a dramatic reduction in beef consumption. (Read more about alternative agricultural solutions.)
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