Cattle have a bad reputation among some in the environmental movement. They’ve been targeted as one of the main contributing factors to global warming, producing methane that has more impact on the greenhouse effect per kilogram than does carbon dioxide.
So, let’s just get rid of all the cows! Problem solved.
Not so fast. As with so many environmental issues, the devil is in the details. Studies have shown that the grass-fed, pasture-finished approach used by Acabonac Farms and other environmentally conscious farmers actually fights global warming.
That’s because practices such as rotational grazing allow cattle to do what nature intended for them to do - fertilize the soil and grow soil organic matter, leading to what is known as soil carbon sequestration.
What Is Soil Carbon Sequestration?
Carbon is the building block of life on the planet. It comes in different forms. When people refer to carbon sequestration, they mean carbon that is stored long term in the soil, plant biomass, oceans and forests.
This is different than gas carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere or dissolved into the planet’s oceans and seas. Carbon dioxide occurs naturally as part of the life cycle of the planet’s foliage and waterways.
However, the burning of fossil fuels releases even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Ecological Society of America reports that over the past 150 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 30%. Most scientists agree that manmade carbon dioxide has contributed greatly to that increase.
How Cattle Promote Soil Sequestration
If cattle are producers of methane gas, then they are contributing to the carbon dioxide problem, right?
It’s easy to think so. Several studies have targeted cattle as the largest contributor to greenhouse emissions among all the different types of livestock. However, as a study published in Science Direct indicates, many of those studies did not take into account the methods practiced by many local farmers, including Acabonac Farms.
The study was conducted by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley, Michigan State University, and a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
They noted previous studies assumed continuous grazing, not the rotational grazing practiced by environmentally conscious farmers. Managing a herd by moving them from one area to another of pasture - sometimes called multi-paddock grazing - allows for “optimal” forage growth and recovery, according to the report.
The researchers found that:
- Multi-paddock grazing can sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil
- Methane emissions from cattle were offset by soil carbon sequestration
- Well-managed grazing practices may actually mitigate climate change
So, again, it’s not the cattle. It’s how the cattle are being raised. Jamming them into feedlots, not practicing rotational grazing, and using chemicals that are not good for the long-term health of the soil is what has led to environmental damage.
A Better Way
As pointed out by retired rancher Burke Teichert, writing for Beef Magazine, it is up to the cattle industry to follow the lead of small-scale farms and “find a better way to ranch.” He notes that smaller ranches have discovered the benefits of well-managed grazing practices that can lead to reductions in erosion, evaporation and an increase in water infiltration - in addition to better soil carbon sequestration.
Shorter gazing periods on one area of a pasture, such as what is practiced at Acabonac Farms, offer a longer recovery time for the foliage. That keeps pasture land from becoming overgrazed.
And overgrazing leads to problems. As pointed out in a white paper by the Massachusetts Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, bare soil oxidizes carbon, while plants protect it. Foliage also protects soil from erosion by water and wind, another factor that causes carbon release.
The white paper also notes that in more natural environments, tiny microbes quickly consume methane from cattle ruminant and metabolize it. It is only when cattle “are away from biologically active soil or water, such as in feedlots or on soil to which synthetic chemicals have been heavily applied, that ruminant methane emissions can be of concern.”
The practices used by Acabonac Farms are designed to not only produce great-tasting beef, but also to protect the local environment on Long Island. That includes the use of grazing practices that can lead to better soil carbon sequestration, which in turns helps in the battle against climate change.