Why We Need Cows

Summer 2010
Joann Grohman
Joann Grohman and her Jersey cow, Jasmine.

and Should not Worry about Their Carbon Footprint or Methane Contribution

By Joann Grohman

The cow, that enduring nursery icon, has been losing fans lately due to misinformation being spoken in the highest places. Some of this character damage may be deliberate; much is due to city dwellers having become so distanced from cow reality that absurd statements fly by unchallenged.

Example: It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. I see that in print often. If I said it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of dog, I believe I would be asked for references. Flesh is flesh.

Around 1996, when reporters learned that cows emit methane – no secret to biologists – they presumed this gas left by the rear exit. So entertaining was the concept that efforts to correct the story met with considerable resistance. In fact the humor value of this popular interpretation did not exhaust itself for some five years, when it was grumpily replaced with another untruth: “So all right, cows belch out the front end, but they’re causing global warming.” The earlier myth continues to prosper in vegan discourse.

How Cows Work

Cow digestion is so different from our own that it is easy to understand the widespread misunderstanding of how it works. Cow digestion is all about cellulose. Herbivores, from caterpillars to elephants, all have specialized organs for dealing with cellulose, the basic structural support of plants often referred to as fiber. In cows this organ is the rumen, so cows are “ruminants.”

Cows are designed to process long stringy plant material such as grass. Ruminants do not require grain, so the belief that they compete with humans for grain is groundless and must be relinquished before we can discuss the role of cattle as a food source or a factor in global warming. Feeding grain to cattle is an economic choice. Its profitability depends on continued agricultural subsidies.

Buffalo (American bison) once roamed the United States in numbers exceeding the current U.S. cattle herd population. Buffalos are ruminants. Like everything that breathes, buffalos are part of the short-term carbon cycle (carbon that circulates in living things) and neither add nor subtract from atmospheric balance. But the former herds, by trampling prairie grass into the ground, sequestered carbon, removing it from the short-term carbon cycle. As a result they built what was perhaps the finest topsoil the world has ever known.

Cattle at appropriate stocking rates do the same. Farm activist Joel Salatin says: “America has traded 75 million buffalo, which required no tillage, petroleum or chemicals, for a mere 42 million head of cattle.” (“Taking Down the Corporate Food System Is Simple,” by Joel Salatin, Public Affairs Books, posted June 20, 2009, at www.alternet.org/story/140477/)

Estimates of buffalo numbers vary, but Salatin’s point is valid. Buffalo may be 6 feet high at the hump and bulls reach 2,000 pounds. Their production of greenhouse gases would have been proportionately greater than that from an equal number of cattle on grass. In addition to buffalo, an estimated 100 million deer, antelope and elk and countless small herbivores such as rabbits and prairie dogs all did their part.

Cattle are solar collectors. Rod Heitschmidt, USDA rangeland scientist, states, “Biochemical constraints determine that herbivores function as ‘energy brokers’ between solar energy captured by plants in the photosynthetic process and its subsequent use by humans. The inability of humans to directly derive caloric value from the 19 billion metric tons of vegetation produced annually in tropical and temperate grasslands and savannas provides the ultimate justifications for evaluating grazing as an ecological process.” (Heitschmidt, R.K. and Stuth, J.W. (eds.). Grazing management: an ecological perspective. Timber Press, Corvallis, Oregon, 1991)

By “biochemical constraints,” Heitschmidt means cattle can convert grass and we can’t; so cattle are essential to convert solar derived plant material, the principal component of which is cellulose, into human food. Specialized bacteria in the rumen do this by fermenting cellulose, a function that can be done biologically only by bacteria and not by human digestion. (Industrial methods using acid and heat can also degrade cellulose.)

Using the breakdown products of cellulose, bacteria create and combine essential amino acids into protein, which feeds the cow; she is not a vegetarian. She puts this protein into milk and meat. Within the cow, grass, inedible to humans, is converted into products of the highest biological value: milk and meat. The cow, her rumen and specialized bacteria make an amazing team.

Demonizing Methane

Methanogens, a class of single celled microorganisms known as archaea, are part of the food production team. The breakdown of cellulose by bacteria results in the release of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which if allowed to build up, will slow further fermentation; but methanogens then combine the hydrogen and carbon dioxide to form methane gas, which is eliminated by belching.

Methane (CH4) is also known as swamp gas or natural gas. If you cook or heat with gas, you are using methane. Like CO2 from oil or coal, the methane we cook or heat with lies stored in the earth and remains inert until mined and released. Megatons, trapped after ancient fermentation, are now being released from tundra by melting permafrost. Oceanographers now describe vast belches from the Bering Sea and South China Sea. In some places the sea is foaming like shaken soda, the methane is emerging so fast. Human derived sources of methane are rice paddies and landfills; both emit more methane than does livestock. The rumen, a controlled fermentation vat, produces methane at a modulated rate.

Methane contains energy. The amount a cow’s rumen produces varies according to diet. As mentioned, the rumen is designed to ferment stringy cellulose (grass, hay), not grain, so much of the grain a cow eats passes unaltered to gut digestion similar to our own and misses getting fermented. For this reason a diet high in grain results in proportionately less methane compared with grass or hay, which always must be fermented in the rumen. Forbs (broad leafed plants) found in natural pasture help with fermentation and boost its efficiency so that less of the energy in methane is lost to the cow. Like the buffalo before them and the deer in the woods, grazing cattle will always belch up excess methane. Ruminants produce more methane than other plant eating species because their large rumens are actively breaking down more cellulose, much to our benefit. This does not unbalance the universe and never has. It feeds us.

As noted, beef or dairy cattle eating diets high in grain produce proportionately less methane than do cattle on grass or hay, because much of the grain is not fermented but passes intact to the small intestine for standard carbohydrate digestion. However, collecting manure as slurry in vast lagoons produces methane by the ton. These lagoons are also used to collect manure from swine and poultry CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations); so swine and poultry, although non-ruminants, also become responsible for producing methane. Methane is produced under anaerobic (oxygen free) conditions. Because manure lagoons crust over and the slurry does not circulate, these lagoons become anaerobic and are the chief source of methane now attributed to livestock production.

One might suppose that cows grazing on pasture would contribute as much methane from manure as do confined cows, merely spread out over the countryside. This is not the case. Cow patties dropped in the open air on pasture do not produce methane. They do not support methanogens. These patties are consumed by insects, birds and aerobic soil bacteria.

Beyond its role as a greenhouse gas, methane remains an important energy source, and methanogens have many important roles. Archaea in the seabed play a central role in the planetary nitrogen cycle on which all life depends. (“Planet’s Nitrogen Cycle Overturned By ‘Tiny Ammonia Eater of the Seas,” by Hannah Hickey, Univ. of Washington News, Oct. 1, 2009; https://uwnews.org/article.asp?articleid=52221) Methane risks becoming demonized before it is properly understood.

Move the Cows to Pasture

So why don’t we move cows out of feedlots and dairy barns and onto pasture where they can participate in the short term carbon cycle and belch harmlessly like their ancestors? Aside from resistance from agribusiness, which prefers the status quo, many respected writers and scientists dismiss this as a practical impossibility, usually citing insufficient land and always comparing food calories per acre between animal and vegetable production. Academic studies consistently state that cows cannot be pastured locally on grass in numbers adequate to meet consumer needs.

Until it has been attempted, nobody is qualified to make such a statement. Maine farmer and gardener Eliot Coleman, a national treasure, has repeatedly demonstrated that production from a vegetable garden can be impressively greater than most people realize; the same is true with cows, no “pushing” required.

Estimates of land requirements obtained by dividing the number of people into USDA stats for farmland acreage make it sound hopeless to depend upon local food production of animals or vegetables. These linear production models, seldom challenged, are the basis for assumptions about the potential for meat and milk production by virtually all environmental writers and researchers, few of whom have a cow in the backyard.

But no linear relationship exists here. The upper limit for integrated local food production of plants and animals depends on dedication and imagination and is not known. When free market forces operate, food production soars. We do not currently enjoy free market conditions – yet the fact that so many local growers are flourishing under stifling constraints hints at the possibilities if onerous regulations were eased. (See “The Truth is Out There: Keep it Natural, Smarty,” by Jean English, The MOF&G, March-May 2010, for some impressive examples of integrated farming methods under challenging conditions.)

Coleman questions the assertion that animal agriculture has anything to do with global warming. He suspects that oil interests, corn/soy producers and vegetarian cheerleaders are feeding us disinformation about the role of animal production in climate change. (“Debunking the meat/climate change myth,” by Eliot Coleman, Aug. 7, 2009; www.grist.org)

In fact plant crops are responsible for displacing small U.S. and African farms and for deforesting lands in South and Central America and in South Asia. Cattle are used as a quick cash crop before the land is dragged clear for corn, soybeans or palm oil.

Statistics regarding the contribution of animal agriculture to greenhouse gas production are clearly being manipulated for somebody’s benefit. Here are U.S. EPA figures from the most recent year for which information is available: In 2007 U.S. agriculture accounted for 6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Of this 6 percent, 24 percent was from enteric (rumen) fermentation by cattle (excluding manure management).

So 6 percent x 0.24 = 1.44 percent. If all cattle were killed, then 100 – 1.44 = 98.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would still be with us. Absent methane from manure lagoons, the methane contribution of cattle is negligible.

The real sources of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are manure lagoons and the petrochemical inputs to grow crops. All declarations about environmental damage by cattle are based on our current unsustainable animal husbandry practices involving CAFOs.

Look Who’s Afraid

Sustainable, local, grass-fed beef and dairy cattle, source of life-giving food, are a big threat to somebody but not to us folks. Corn and soy are where the real money lies. These commodities can be stored and traded. They don’t have to be fed or refrigerated. They can have value added right down to the last molecule before being labeled “All natural” and sold in a package with a picture of a farm on it.

Where did we get the idea that without agribusiness and CAFOs we can’t feed everybody? That a dispersed method of food production will make food too expensive? Not from local farmers. These ideas have been pounded into us by agribusiness.

Let’s look first at production. A Cornell study recently showed that to feed the people of New York state, it might prove efficient to dedicate some marginal land to cattle grazing, making a couple of ounces of meat a week available to New Yorkers. (“New Study Reopens Debate: Are Omnivores Better for the Environment Than Vegetarians?” by Susan Lang, Cornell Chronicle, Oct. 4, 2007; www.news.cornell.edu/stories/oct07/diets.ag.footprint.sl.html)

Prompted by this study, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA, www.organicconsumers.org) invited readers to vote on the following propositions.

Humans were meant to be vegans.
Humans were meant to be vegetarians.
It’s OK to eat a little humanely raised meat.
Eat all you want of lean meat.

No option was offered for meat with a natural amount of fat, the choice of all our ancestors and my choice as well.

Our views in support of our votes were invited.

I live a sheltered life and wasn’t prepared for the incivility of the vegan responses. Reinforced by this study, they shifted ground. “Maybe now they’ll get it,” cried vegans and vegetarians as they rejoiced in a condemnation of meat supported by a WHO paper declaring that livestock contribute more than the transportation sector to global warming. They did not hesitate to describe themselves as more highly evolved and ethical than meat eaters and took the occasion to instruct meat eaters that their diet was identical to maggoty road kill. They did not make me feel as bad as they may have hoped because I know they are weak on facts. When the cow is better understood, her honor will be restored.

A more polite but no better informed position on meat and its role in global warming has been enunciated by Rahendra Patchouri, our U.S. appointee to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He states publicly his belief that if everybody ate less meat, that would go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gases and, as a bonus, would improve our health.

As Patchouri must know, wherever and whenever people get the means to do so, they eat more meat. I refer to the default vegans and vegetarians of the world, whose diet is restricted by poverty, not choice. The demand for meat is growing in emerging economies at a rate far outpacing what top-down idealism is likely to achieve among U.S. and European meat eaters. The meat industry itself predicts an increase of 21.3 percent by 2015. (All About Feed, Dec. 4, 2009; www.allaboutfeed.net/news/world-meat-consumption-up-with-21.3%25-id3881.html)

Patchouri’s suggestion to cut back on meat for global and personal health, made during a talk in London, prompted the Lord Mayor to declare his intention to go out for a steak. Patchouri will also be aware that it is meat produced by intensive methods (pork, beef, poultry and fish) that has the big carbon footprint. This meat is the product of a few powerful international corporations that have not shown themselves to be any more sensitive to global concerns than your average Wall Street bank. They are probably scary even to Patchouri. He may prefer not to prod this hornet’s nest. Urging well meaning, well heeled westerners to eat a little less meat strikes me as a tepid action – reminiscent of a local preacher who made it his business to stop in and tell me and other ladies that we were endangering our immortal souls by our choice of friends. He did not knock on the doors of big hairy wife beaters.

If Patchouri had done his homework on the relationship between meat eating and health, he could not have made such an unqualified statement. I would guess that he was taking the opportunity to give a free ride to his cultural anti-meat convictions. The subject is large and important and can’t be treated with justice in one essay. At present, anti-meat rhetoric meets the definition of propaganda: a simplistic statement with no basis in fact which if repeated often enough comes to be believed.

Reading the actual research on meat shows, as one example, that cancer appears to follow meat consumption, but the study fails to distinguish fresh meat from nitrate laden processed meats. Piling up hundreds of similarly skewed results does not constitute proof. I’m with the Lord Mayor on this: Patchouri’s views on meat eating do not belong in public policy. Whether Patchouri’s stance against meat is due to ignorance or ideology, one hopes the rest of his advice on climate has a more defensible basis.

The Energy Myth

The assumption that more people can be fed on a unit of land by growing plant products has been around for a long time and does not take into account the work involved in production. The issue is between agricultural productivity and agricultural efficiency. They are not the same thing.

American farmland can be enormously productive if you have no need to count the cost of inputs (fuel, chemicals, irrigation, etc.). The efficiency of a system is simply the ratio between the work or energy put into the system and the work or energy gotten out of it.

To hint at the disconnect between productivity and efficiency (what you can get out of, say, an acre of vegetables with no help from fossil fuel or the machines that run on it), imagine preparing the ground by hand and carrying animal manure, planting seeds, watering, weeding and harvesting with only your own physical labor. I can’t predict your productivity, but you will not find this an efficient way to produce food. You will almost certainly put as much or more energy (your own) into it as you get out.

Food distribution theories based on calories per person ignore the fact that plant-derived calories require huge inputs of fossil fuel or human labor; right back to Egyptian times, this has primarily been slave labor. No matter how productive your efforts prove to be, you will end up with carbohydrate calories but no life supporting animal protein and fats. To date, no research has shown that combining plant foods will provide the same amino acid balance as is found in meat, or that combining plant foods will produce the same levels of immunity and growth in the human body as do animal products.

So the more energy we get from a unit of land compared with the work or energy we put into it, the greater is the efficiency. Commercial agriculture as now constituted is productive but not efficient; for many crops, 10 calories of energy must be invested for each (1) calorie of food obtained. You may choose whether to expend these calories using fossil fuel or your own muscle. In the latter case, count on losing weight.

Suppose that instead of an acre of vegetables, I have an acre of pasture. An acre of land in good grass will enable my 700-pound mini Jersey cow to produce 4 gallons of superb creamy milk daily while she cheerfully does all of the work by grazing, which she enjoys, and I do no work except milking her for 20 minutes twice a day. This is about the most efficient system you will ever find. This was so completely obvious to our ancestors that they would not have known whether to laugh or cry at claims that the cow is a waste of resources. The productivity of any cow depends on such factors as climate, grass quality and breed. Her efficiency will remain quite constant.

An Integrated Small Farm

An old-fashioned integrated food production model is best. We call it a farm.

Using some of the time liberated by my hardworking cow plus some of her valuable manure, on an additional 1/8 acre, I am able to grow all the vegetables for a large family. Besides her dairy products, my cow raises a calf every year and produces enough skim milk and whey to raise a pig and chickens.

With cheerful help from my family, I can readily produce more than enough vegetables for 15 people – on space that many people now devote to lawn. At present, U.S. lawns comprise our country’s largest irrigated crop. My land gets better every year. All the people and animals that are fed by it are notably healthy. This is in cold and rocky Maine and I am over 80. Commercial agriculture cannot begin to match either this productivity or efficiency.

It is gratifying that the Cornell study takes at least a fairy step toward recognizing that meat might deserve a niche in the human diet. It was especially rewarding to see a few responders to the OCA forum speaking up for meat and animal fat. People feel better immediately on any diet that cuts out processed food, but for sustained physical work either in the vegetable patch, in sports and (very importantly) to produce full term normal birth weight babies, there is simply no substitute for animal products.

Not Just for the Elite

While a medical student, my son Mark attended a seminar during which the discussion turned to meat quality and food production. A number of students were seriously interested in local, quality food, yet many believed this to be an elitist choice. They assume that only agribusiness can produce food on a scale and at a price capable of feeding everybody, a belief much fostered by agribusiness itself.

When you examine the wastefulness inherent in the agribusiness production model, you end up with something reminiscent of those $260 each carpenter’s hammers the Pentagon buys.

No new studies are needed to demonstrate the efficiency and productivity of small, local farms and gardens. My own example is far from unique. Currently in the news is the model provided by Joel Salatin in Virginia. His Polyface Farm is a stunning example of what one man with a few helpers and minimal inputs can produce in both crops (his main crop being grass) and meat while simultaneously improving the land. And as Eliot Coleman has demonstrated, even in Maine excellent vegetables can be produced all year in a small space. Coleman also raises a steer for many of the same reasons that I do.

Food safety, food sustainability, reduction of greenhouse gases, reduction of food miles, freedom from the tyranny of imported oil, a lot more health and happiness, and above all food security – all are supported by a milk cow in your yard.

Good Fat

Here is another significant point: We can’t get along without animal fat. That anti-fat propaganda is not going to persist for another generation. Even now it is not a stretch to accept that a diet devoid of fat is dull and barren.

There is no need to distill rapeseed from Canada or ship coconut oil from Malaysia to supply your fat. Your cow will generate it at home from your lawn clippings. It’s called butter.

If you would also like some lard, your pig will oblige. How about some schmaltz? You want chickens too, don’t you? Well, there you go. Eggs! Chickens are champions at making do on very little. But I must point out, pigs and chickens can’t make protein out of vegetation any better than you and I can. They must be fed animal protein. Skim milk will do. It is ruminants that drive the cycle of life.

True Costs of Food

And yes, I didn’t promise food savings. So is local food and even home produced food going to cost more?

Local and home food production may appear to cost more, especially at first, because your tax dollars have subsidized commercial food production. These are not just direct farm subsidies that make corn so cheap that people fuel stoves with dried kernels. Highway maintenance costs fall disproportionately on passenger vehicles, not long haul trucking. Property taxes of local farmers and homeowners are typically based on “Highest and best use,” which means house lots; but commercial farms in big farm states get breaks. University research supported by your tax dollars develops the seed varieties used by Monsanto as feedstock for genetically engineered foods. The list of helpful things your taxes have done to make food profitable yet cheap at the checkout is long. Not least is the ease of low interest borrowing enjoyed by farmers growing USDA approved crops.

For nearly a century our government has maintained a cheap food policy. The true cost of food is concealed. You and your local farmer can’t get out of paying these hidden costs of food production. So you may not save a bundle by buying locally or growing your own, but you will have food and it will be food worth having.

To call local food “elitist” recognizes that it is inherently superior even though often more expensive. To assume that this means that most people must make do with cheap commercial food is to cede the field to agribusiness and processed food, accepting their claim that only they can possibly provide enough for all. For this claim we have only their word.

Many analysts consider current mega-farming methods to be unsustainable and declining in productivity. Its cheapness is a fraud. We don’t know how many people can be fed by local food, but we do know that it is sustainable. Importantly, local production is empowering. Commercial food makes us into a client population dependent upon the whims and fortunes of governments and corporations.

Our Best Allies

By omitting to include methane generated in manure lagoons, meat producers operating cattle CAFOs can accurately state that this method produces less methane. The unnatural grain diet does not ferment to produce a normal amount of methane. The CO2 footprint and CH4 emissions of cattle living naturally on pasture belong in discussions on global warming only as an example of how to make better use of renewable resources by use of pasture. It is the inputs necessary to commodifying livestock that must be addressed.

A man I once knew married a Japanese national who remembered World War II. Together they flew across the United States, west to east. As she viewed the vastness of our country, she shook her head and said, “Whatever were we thinking?” Declarations that we don’t have enough land for livestock are disingenuous.

Livestock has been set up for us as an adversary in our quest for survival on our shrinking planet. In fact animals are our best allies. Our adversaries are found elsewhere.

About the author: Joann S. Grohman was born in a farmhouse in Dixfield, Maine, in 1928; traveled far and wide; and settled back in Maine in 1975. She published Keeping a Family Cow in 1979, and Keeping a Family Cow.com’s discussion groups are now active all over the world. Joann still milks her mini Jersey, Jasmine, every day, and tends sheep, ducks, geese and a large garden. “I started organic gardening in about 1958 or whenever it was that J. I. Rodale invented the term,” she says. “So far I have not run out of things to do wrong.)

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