Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cows and the environment

This is for Kate-the manic gardener, from the big sky state. I love Montana and the whole Intermountain West and High Plains area. Grew up there, worked there, dream of going back some day. But, I find that there are a lot of people out west, in cattle country, who either love cows (its a business) or hate them (its environmental). Cows, and the over grazing they cause, have been blamed for much of the environmental destruction in the west. They have destroyed streams, caused erosion, and generally wreaked havoc on the very brittle western environment. (The same can be said where they are plentiful in the Midwest too.) So, when I write about using my livestock to improve my pasture, it does seem a bit "counter intuitive."

Here is the truth (or at least a truth, since everything is open to interpretation and spin.) A few years ago I worked as a manager on a large ranch in Wyoming, a couple hours south of Billings MT. We ran cattle on mountain range in the summer and on sagebrush flats in the winter. Vast acreage to manage, and a difficult place to make a living. The owners of the ranch had acquired all the ranch records when the purchased the place, including journals from the mid 1880s when the ranch was started. In the journals there were descriptions of the Big Horn Basin. They spoke of riding through miles of grass that was belly high on their horses. If you drove through the area now you would be lucky to see grass. What changed in the last 100 plus years? Not the environment. The area is a 15 inch precipitation zone, and that's during the good years. Tough to grow much. The easy answer to the change question is COWS. When the ranchers came in they brought cows, and the cows destroyed everything. But, what created this lush grassland that first attracted the ranchers and their cows? Bison. Not much difference between bison and cows. There is a farm down the road from us that has a herd of about 25 bison. The bison are destroying the pastures. In a few more years he will have to plow up all his pasture and replant. This is happening in Ohio where we get lots more rain so the plants recover quicker. So it wasn't just the bison that created the grass lands. The bison were being managed, not by people, by wolves. The wolf packs kept the bison bunched in tight herds and moved them often. This crushed the grass and brush into the ground, manured it, and then let it rest for a long period of time. In the very dry climate of the west this crushing action allowed the plant material to decompose and be incorporated into the soil. It also cleared all the old plant mater from the crowns of the grass, allowing the new growth points to quickly reach the sun. (If you go hiking out west now you will see clumps of grass that are gray and weathered. They are almost all dead in the center because the growth points get smothered by old vegetation that never rots.) So, the bison and the wolves together created and maintained the grassland. When the ranchers brought in cattle to replace the bison, they killed off the wolves, fenced the grasslands, and let the cows wonder. This kind of management didn't produce the tight herds, and quick short grazing periods that the grass needed to survive. It soon died out and was replaced by sagebrush. In less than 100 years our mismanagement destroyed the grasslands of the west.

Cows as land restorers. There is an interesting article in the Fall 2008 issue of Farming Magazine called "Stomp" Restoration, by Cortney White. Its about using the kind of grazing management I talked about to restore mine tailing piles left from copper mines in Arizona. For a more detailed description of how this kind of grazing management can restore land you should read Alan Savory's book Holistic Resource Management. He spearheaded this kind of grazing years ago in Africa and later in the US.

So, all you tree hugging, wolf loving, environmentalists out there, don't hate cows, hate bad management.


nancybond said...

Who could hate a cow? ;) Very interesting post and most informative. Your explanation makes perfect sense.

Barbee' said...

It's great that someone had the insight to figure out the problem. Good post, Alan.

inadvertentfarmer said...

Very well said...I certainly don't hate cows, I don't even eat them! I do hate what they can do to the enviroment though and you didn't even touch global warming. It has been and never will be the cows fault but our own. We as humans always feel the need to control and improve upon natures ways. Too bad we rarely do either very well. Great post, love the insight!

themanicgardener said...

This is fascinating. I've never heard of "stomp" management; most of what I read out here talks about how cows "trample" grasses, and how bad that is. What you describe--the "damage" and then the long period to recover--sounds similar to the rejuvenating effect fire has on prairie.

As for the difference between bison and cattle, I think I've even read something about a difference between their hooves, but that did sound like a stretch. I've also read, both in Charles Mann's 1491 (an incredible book, by the way) and in Andrew C. Isenberg's The Destruction of the Bison, that the huge bison herds found by early pioneers may have been a fairly recent phenomenon, created largely through the sudden deaths of the Native Americans who had hunted them. Up to ninety percent of some tribes were wiped out by European diseases, which started their death-march west a couple of centuries before the pioneer days.

I'm going to have to look at the books you mention, Alan. Did you already know about this stuff when you were in Wyoming?

And hey--thanks for the explanation, and the dedication!

Alan said...

Don't get me started on global warming and cows. I find it about as credible as planting trees as a way to of set carbon emissions. Neither cows nor tree planting change the net amount if carbon in the system. We are the ones digging the stuff up that has been sequestered for millions of years and reintroducing it into the atmosphere. Don't blame the cows and don't think the trees will save you. All they do is temporarily change its form.

Sheria said...

Very informative post,I confess that I know nothing about livestock of any sort. My paternal gradnparents owned a farm and had the usual cows and pigs, but they sold the farm when I was a teenager. Thanks for providing insight on a topic that I know little about in such a clear and interesting way.

Thanks also for stopping by my blog and leaving words of comfort.

inadvertentfarmer said...

You mean I can't plant enough trees to offset my minivan? Guess I'm gonna need more than 10 acres, lol!

What pleases me about this kind of conversation is it shows that we are least passionate about thesubject of taking care of the earth. Now if we could just find a way to do something about it that would be good for the enviroment, the economy, and future generations that will be inheriting our mess. Kim

Alan said...

Sheria, Welcome back! We will all breath with you.

Kim, We are doing something!

inadvertentfarmer said...

True we are...we're lettin our kids see where their food comes from and how we must feed the earth so it can feed us. My kids also know what a rain barrel is for, what mulch is, why I won't run into town on a whim, and how to sort the recycling. Yes you are right we are doing something! Kim

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Great post, we have a hard time convincing people here in wet Western Oregon, that cattle are great carbon cyclers. Even cattle farmers won't believe you can raise more grass and have a higher stocking rate with these methods.

They think I'm doing something strange to my pasture, besides just managing the cattle.

Greg Judy has written a great book called COMEBACK FARMS, available from THE STOCKMAN GRASSFARMER, while this book deals with the profit end of High Density Grazing it has great information about the methodolgy of grazing.


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