Oct 20, 2017: Cattle… Good or Bad?

Gathering cattle in Big Sky country.

Gathering cattle in Big Sky country.

I’ve spent the last week out at Sam’s grandfather’s ranch in Eastern Montana gathering the cattle in the Custer National Forest and bringing them down to the ranch in time to ship the calves to market tomorrow morning.

In last week’s Newsletter I mentioned that I was heading out here to do some cattle work and I received the following response from a reader named Leon.

‘Thanks for the on-going newsletters. Your mention of cattle got me thinking. Animal agriculture is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, possibly more. Yet most “green” movements and environmental information makes no or very little mention of this. Why is it being ignored?’

This is a very good question and I can’t speak to the issue of why it is being ignored. However I do have some thoughts on the subject which I would like the share this week (interspersed with some photos from the ranch which I promised last week).

The gathering crew heading out in search of critters.

Most of our cattle work is still done on horse back, just like the old days.

I can’t vouch for Leon’s assertion that animal agriculture is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions but it wouldn’t surprise me. What I would like to know (and don’t have time to research right now) is how are those emissions produced? How much is due to burning fossil fuels to produce the food that the animals are fed? How much is due to transportation of either the live animals or the meat, eggs, milk, etc that they produce? And how much is due to emissions from the animals themselves?

Without putting too fine a point on it, cattle produce a lot of methane (through burping and farting) but I recently read an article suggesting that feeding cattle a certain type of seaweed can dramatically reduce the amount of methane created. For those who don’t know, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with something like nine times the potency of carbon dioxide, so reducing methane emissions is very important for reducing greenhouse gases.

A little snow started to fall as we began to gather the cattle.

A little snow started to fall as we began to gather the cattle.

I can’t prove this but my gut feeling is that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions created by animal agriculture comes from intensive, factory style ‘farming’ such as cattle feedlots, pig farms and chicken sheds. Not only do these super-intensive ‘farming’ situations create horrible conditions for the animals to live in, they also require massive inputs of processed food, chemicals, medications and energy.

By contrast, this ranch in Eastern Montana requires very little of those things. In fact, this part of the world has always had ruminant animals grazing and fertilising the grass. Before the invasion of white settlers the West was covered with huge herds of bison (which are closely related to beef cattle) and the environment has adapted to their presence. The photos above were taken on part of the Custer National Forest that the ranch leases for summer pasture. For decades the National Forest Service has conducted field studies on the effect of cattle on the health of the ecosystem and they have found that, when cattle are kept off the land, the ecosystem suffers and biodiversity declines.

Cutting out a pair of the neighbour's cattle.

Cutting out a pair of the neighbour’s cattle.

Unfortunately the bison were wiped out by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody as part of the the government’s efforts to subdue the Native American tribes that used to belong on this land. This is a region of very low rainfall and hilly, rocky terrain. Most of this land cannot be used for growing crops or other forms of irrigated agriculture. It does however produce wonderful grass and beef cattle are a great way to harvest grass and turn it into high-grade food for humans.

So, on balance, I think raising cattle here is a good thing for the economy, the environment and for people.

The cattle safely delivered to the 3X Bar property (which, I just learned this week, was homesteaded by Buffalo Bill Cody)

The cattle safely delivered to the 3X Bar property (which, I just learned this week, was homesteaded by Buffalo Bill Cody)

Here at the ranch we eat local, grass-fed, natural beef that tastes delicious and does minimal harm to the environment. I think the problems associated with animal agriculture happen when beef cattle are taken away from grass land, crammed into feedlots and stuffed full of corn-based food and antibiotics. Unfortunately that is how the majority of beef in the US is raised and I agree with Leon, that this is a serious environmental problem. Not to mention the suffering that it causes to the animals themselves. And I think the situation is probably worse in the huge barns where pigs and chickens are fattened in the most in-humane conditions.

The last time I checked (which was a few years ago) most of Australia’s beef was raised in the country and fattened on grass which is a good thing. But cattle and sheep are not native to Australia and create other environmental concerns because the ecosystem has not evolved to cope with these types of animals. On the other hand there are plagues of every kind of imported animal right across Australia from rabbits to deer, horses, donkeys, camels, goats, pigs, water buffalo, foxes and cats. In fact the last two are probably the most serious problem. I just read an article last week that estimated that cats and foxes kill a million native birds and animals every night in Australia.

Back at the barn at the end of another long day.

Back at the (100 year-old) barn at the end of another long day.

It seems to me that the best thing we could do in Oz would be to start eating deer, horses, donkeys, camels, goats, pigs and water buffalo. All of these are eaten in other parts of the world and some are considered absolute delicacies. There are millions of these feral animals infesting the outback as well as our national parks and forests. Why not eat them and reduce both the pressure they put on our natural ecosystems and our demand for beef, pork, chicken and lamb which all carry varying degrees of carbon footprint and environmental problems?

171018 Shadow

Until those kinds of meat become available I can only suggest that the best thing you can do (if you plan to eat meat like I do) is to know where your meat (or eggs or milk) comes from. If it is locally raised and the animals are treated fairly then it is likely to be much better for you and for the planet.

Bon appetit and here are a few more photos from ranch.

Loading chute at the 3X Bar

Loading chute at the 3X Bar

Log barn at the 3X Bar

Log barn at the 3X Bar

Driving across Montana is always spectacular

Driving across Montana is always spectacular

Corrals at the 3X Bar

Corrals at the 3X Bar

Logs and Grass

Logs and Grass

Sunset at the ranch

Sunset at the ranch

Thanks for reading. By next Newsletter I’ll be back home at the Greeny Flat.

 

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