The Once and Future Cow

Spring 2016

Toki Oshima drawing

By Joann S. Grohman

Maine has the highest rate of new farmers in the 48 states; we’ve gained 1,000 just in the past 10 years. Many of these new farmers will, I hope, consider keeping one or several cows, as nearly everyone did until less than 100 years ago. Even in towns, the household cow was the basis of the family food supply.

On small farms such as mine, cows provide a microcosm of the natural cycle of fertility. They provide milk, meat and fertilizer, which support not only the people but also all the other animals, and their manure supports the fruits and vegetables as well. This web of fertility has been obvious to the human race for many thousands of years. That it should now require explanation or defense is possible only because so few people are now involved in agriculture.

I’m especially pleased about the growing recognition of the role of grasslands in reversing the carbon load in the atmosphere. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, grasslands and rangelands cover at least half the ice-free land area of the earth, and by some estimates more. Fueled by sunshine, grass spends its life pulling carbon out of the air and stores the excess in the ground. If it is eaten by a grazing herd, the grass and manure are trampled. This process is maximally efficient for creating fertility, as is testified by the depth of topsoil on the Great Plains in the days of the buffalo herds.

Pasture, even poorly managed pasture, sequesters carbon; properly managed and fertilized pasture sequesters an enormous amount, according to Daniel Kane. Conversely, when land is plowed to grow crops, it loses its carbon constantly to the atmosphere, as is well understood. Recently, Machmuller et al. found that converting land in the southeast United States from row crops to management-intensive grazing rapidly increased soil carbon. These researchers also estimated that the rapid carbon accumulation in the early stage of this study offset the methane emissions of cattle. Cows kept on pasture under systems of regenerative agriculture help reduce the CO2 burden and they produce meat and milk. If this double benefit seems too good to be true, consider that it has been the successful model for millions of years, building the world’s original topsoil while supporting vast herds with numbers far exceeding those of today.

Cows and other plant eaters are the basic converters of grass and other plants into human food. Their guts house a population of bacteria capable of fermenting and breaking down cellulose from the vegetation. Many living creatures are equipped to benefit directly from cellulose in ways that humans are not. Such animals include a great many insects, animals ranging in size up to elephants, and of course cattle. The fermentation is anaerobic, and like all anaerobic fermentation, it produces methane. Historically this has never destabilized the earth’s atmosphere.
The most important job of the fermentation bacteria is the construction of amino acids, the building blocks of complete animal protein, without which reproduction fails and growth is retarded. This protein is then absorbed from the gut and used to build the body of the animal. Captive bacteria are the primary source of protein. The human digestive system cannot accomplish this miracle. To get the full benefit of nutrients from cellulose – from the plants that cover so much of the planet – we have to eat other animals, or eat eggs or drink milk.

This is a basic organizational principle of life: The plant eaters’ bacteria ferment cellulose into digestion products, which contribute to building proteins; other animals eat the plant eaters. Sustainable farming requires that we work with nature. Those who say we should go directly to the source and eat only plant foods are pushing nature uphill.

It is possible to have a long-term future of ovo-lacto vegetarianism if that is important to you. You can keep a cow for her milk and feed her until she dies of old age. She will also provide you with manure, key to fertility, but you will have to figure out what to do with her male offspring. Some could be used for traction. For eggs you can have chickens, but you will have similar problems with surplus roosters. When you try to push nature uphill, you quickly find yourself facing some difficult questions.

Vegan farming involves, of course, having no animals at all to do the work of interfacing between sunshine and human food. Not only can vegans not utilize the natural grass and brush, turning it into meat, milk and eggs; they must also do the work of clearing land and raising crops using only their own human energy or that of fossil fuel, a dwindling resource. Most will find themselves dependent on foods grown far from their local foodshed.
After the cow has done the work for you, you can depend on daily access to quality food containing all the nutrients that others import from far away. Among the dietary factors being expensively imported are marine-based omega-3 fatty acids. One need not question the value of these marine-based sources, but omega-3s are also present in significant amounts in the milk from grass-fed cows. Concentrations are lower than the 500 to 1,000 mg found in 3 ounces of salmon (grass-fed beef has perhaps 150 mg/100 g or 3.5 ounces), but  milk, meat and eggs are typically eaten every day, so the difference is rapidly overcome. Also available from milk from grass-fed cows is CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), the existence and importance of which was discovered fairly recently. This product of ruminant digestion is a powerful anti-cancer factor, say Pariza et al. Milk provides a great many other important nutrients. Not to be omitted from the list of advantages of home-raised milk is its flavor. Milk from your own cow is a constant daily delight I have come to take for granted, but visitors and their children love it so much that I have heard them reminisce about it years later.

Not only does the cow support the people and the fertility of the fields, but she supports the other animals on the farm as well.  Unlike the cow, non-ruminants such as chickens and pigs cannot live on forage alone. To grow and reproduce they must eat quality protein. The cow can provide this with her excess milk. She is the kingpin of the domestic economy.

Without the cow, for successful production of pork, chicken and eggs, you will have to find another source of complete protein to augment their plant-based diet. You can buy this at the feed store for about $20 for a 50-pound bag. The calories in this feed derive largely from corn; the protein will be mostly from soy. The lysine and methionine (essential amino acids), which are inadequate in cheap plant protein foods, are supplied by international agrochemical industries. They are similar to artificial fertilizers in that they are made from highly questionable materials (including, in some cases, genetically engineered feedstocks and bacteria, according to GMO Compass, and/or such chemicals as sulfuric acid, methanol, ammonia and propylene, and with significant energy expenditures, according to Marinussen and Kool). They have become an essential part of conventional agriculture, allowing the production of such things as “vegetarian eggs” and cheap chicken and pork. In the era of Peak Oil, such reliance is dangerous on multiple levels. Meanwhile, your cow goes on producing complete protein the same way she always has. She doesn’t need Archer Daniels Midland and neither do those of us who value her.

Corn and soy are produced in the United States, Brazil and many other places on millions of acres of agribusiness farmland, often where rainforests used to grow. This gives rise to those endless statistics informing us that most grain in the world is used to feed livestock. That’s true, it is, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the small farm model, pigs and chickens will thrive on pasture supplemented by anything that provides a calorie, provided you give them skim milk to support their protein requirement. Cows will live on grass alone, possibly supplemented with home-grown pumpkins, apples or whatever you have.

We should discuss some accusations against the cow that continually crop up and keep her from achieving the status she deserves. These charges also make it difficult to make progress on sustainable food, since you can’t solve a problem with false information.

A particularly silly myth is that cattle drink some 10,000 gallons of water per pound of beef produced. Actually, if you keep a steer as I have, you will find that he requires perhaps 5 or 10 gallons of water a day, much of which he will return to the soil. Over his two-year lifetime, he will fertilize a lot of grass, helping sequester a lot of carbon, and will provide a lot of human food at the end of his life. If he weighs 1,000 pounds after two years, he will have consumed 7,300 gallons of water at most (365 days/year x 2 years x 10 gallons/day) to achieve that 1,000 pounds. If 60 percent of those 1,000 pounds is meat, that’s 600 pounds of meat per 7,300 gallons of water, or 12 gallons of water per pound of meat – far less than 10,000 gallons of water per pound of meat! His only other water source is juicy grass, which is watered by rain.

Cows are frequently accused of competing with humans for food.  However, the natural food of cows is grass. They do not require grain. The charges against cattle for excessive water use are almost comical, once pointed out, but the now entrenched belief that cattle are responsible for planetary damage as a result of their grain-eating habit calls for more discussion. The facts themselves are pretty simple. Insofar as this environmental challenge stems from the belief that they are eating grain that should be fed to people, the answer is simple: Stop feeding them grain. It’s an economic choice, not a cow’s dietary requirement. It profits agribusiness and no one else. Let them eat grass, the food to which they were born.

Yet this opens a whole new discussion, as cattle in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) are never going to be able to graze again as they did when they were young, since the logistics of that are insurmountable. Feed must be carried to cattle housed in a CAFO. They have to be fed something that can be spread out in their trough by an augur, minimizing human labor. To cut and carry grass or hay is labor intensive, and avoiding human labor is what CAFOs are all about. They are not about feeding the hungry masses; they are about extracting maximum corporate profits.

Poultry and hogs (two of the other CAFO-raised species, the fourth being fish) are well adapted to eating grain, which is mostly corn and soy. Production of these grains and the resulting animals is incredibly profitable. Were this not the case, you would not be seeing millions of acres of pastureland being plowed up, and millions of acres of South American forest land being converted to grain.

Environmentalists warned for years that forests were being replaced by cattle production in Brazil and elsewhere. This was never the case except for short-term while the land was being prepared for soy. Nowadays agribusiness ventures are still tearing out forests but are largely skipping the cattle phase. Instead the stumpage is dragged away with giant machines. These millions of acres of corn and soy in every temperate climate are mostly not grown directly for people. They are grown for ethanol, for confined hogs and poultry, for finishing cattle for market, for dairy cows and for farmed fish.

Fish farming is now the fastest-growing segment of confined animal feeding. Farmed fish are fed almost entirely on the same cheap, land-based corn and soy diet as other CAFO species.  Producing this feed has the same environmental costs, and the fish have the same disease and pollution problems as any other confined-fed animals, but fish CAFOs are largely unregulated. At any rate, those who oppose feeding grain to animals must also be opposed to giving the same diet to fish.

Much of the corn and soy has been imported into the United States to feed confined livestock here. Importing actual beef carcasses, fresh or frozen, from countries such as Brazil with endemic foot-and-mouth disease has been controlled in order to protect our animals from this highly contagious disease. However, with recent changes in USDA regulations under free trade rules, it has become possible to raise the beef elsewhere (with the lax environmental standards and low wages of those countries) and ship the finished carcasses here, according to articles in The Milkweed. The risk of importing foot-and-mouth disease is high and is truly alarming, since the only control is mass slaughter of American livestock, including family cows and essentially all other livestock. This would be a crippling blow to American farms, especially small farms, and would profoundly impact our ability to use regenerative agriculture to control CO2.

No ethical or environmentally defensible way exists to feed animals under the CAFO model. For a sustainable future, small farms are not only our best model, they are our only model. And under good management, small farms produce far more food per acre with far less pollution and land degradation than can the corporate industrial farm.

The only way out of this worldwide environmental disaster of industrial food production is to reject all meat and dairy products imported from countries with foot-and-mouth disease, as is done by most other countries. We also need to ban confined feeding entirely and return all cattle to grass, and all hogs and chickens back to eating the grass and leftovers on which they thrived and were happy for thousands of years.

Small farmers can do this sensibly, sustainably, organically, locally and profitably together with their cows – with no increase in the CO2 burden. No one need be part of a system that tears out mangroves to farm shrimp or bulldozes forests to grow corn, soy or palm oil. There are no essential foods that can’t be grown locally on our own small farms. All we need to import for complete food happiness might be coffee and tea.

“There are no grand answers. Although the world’s problems are huge, the solutions are small and humble.” – Patrick Whitefield


Fairlie, Simon, “Meat, the Benign Extravagance,” Chelsea Green, 2010

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Grasslands: Enabling Their Potential to Contribute to Greenhouse Gas Mitigation, April 2009,

GMO Compass, Lysine,

Grohman, Joann S., Time to do a 180 on Cows and Climate, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept.-Nov. 2014

Kane, Daniel, Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Lands: A Review of Current Science and Available Practices, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, LLC, November 2015;

Machmuller, M.B., et al., Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter, Nature Communications, April 2015; (and

Marinussen, Mari, and Anton Kool, Environmental impacts of synthetic amino acid production, Dec. 2010,

The Milkweed, Sept. and Nov. 2015,

Pariza et al., Conjugated Linoleic Acid and the Control of Cancer and Obesity, Toxicological Sciences, 1999,

Schwartz, Judith, “Cows Save the Planet,” Chelsea Green, 2013

USDA, Corn, Nov. 17, 2015,

Whitefield, Patrick, interview with Simon Fairlie, The Land, 2000

Special thanks to Pete Hardin, publisher of The Milkweed, for essential insights into international trade.

About the author: Joann Grohman has farmed in California; Washington; Sussex, England; and now in Carthage, Maine. She is the author of “Keeping a Family Cow” (Chelsea Green Publishing) and has been a popular speaker at the Common Ground Country Fair.

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