The Impossible Cows

Had to go across the county this morning, but it was through rural countryside on a nice spring day, which made for pleasant driving. As is common in this area, farms are interspersed with woods, with both fields and pasture. Saw several herds of cows grazing, and noticed Black Angus has replaced the Hereford that were locally common in my youth. That had me musing that while we called ourselves farmers, we did as much, if not more, raising livestock as tilling. In my youth it was mostly hogs and cows, though raising hogs has essentially vanished in this area. Farming has changed over the years, but it was still good to see cows grazing on pastures.

Too bad some don’t think they exist.

That’s the pastures, not the cows. To hear some talk, they think cows live their entire lives in pens and are fed corn. Point out that we pen cows only in the final stage before slaughter, and you’re told you’re wrong. Point out that you know because you once raised cows, and it matters not one whit. They’ve been told somewhere down the line that cows are raised in pens and eat only corn, and, not having raised cattle themselves, don’t know any different. That in itself is understandable. What I find surprising is not bothering to check if it’s so. That’s easily done by looking for the land use statistics for a state. It took just a few minutes to find this at :

Range and pasture lands are located in all 50 states of the US. Privately owned range and pasture lands makes up over 27% (528 million acres) of the total acreage of the contiguous 48 states, and these lands constitute the largest private lands use category, exceeding both forest land (21%) and crop land (18%).

That there is more private pasture and range land in the US tells us a good bit. So does this, found here:

The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) manages livestock grazing on 155 million acres of those (public) lands.

This means that in addition to 528 million acres of private range and pasture, there’s an additional 155 million acres. That’s a total of 683 million acres of range and pasture available for grazing in the US. Compare this to about 352 million acres devoted to crops. Almost twice the acres are devoted to grazing and hay production in the US than for crops. That alone tells us that we’re feeding cattle more than corn.

That 683 million acres compared to 352 million acres is important. When I was growing up, if you had marginal cropland, it was more cost-effective to convert it to pasture or timber. It takes water, fertilizer, and fuel to grow crops. You harrow under the residue of the preceding crop; turn the soil over with a bottom plow (called breaking the field); harrow it again to smooth the soil and/or turn under weeds; plant the field; cultivate the field, including applying additional fertilizer; harvest, then repeat. Depending on the crop, you may have to cultivate the field several times prior to harvest. If your field become infested in insects, you may have to spray it. If you no-till farm, you likely have to spray to prevent weeds and “volunteer” plants from the last crop’s seed. At some point you may need to subsoil the field to break up soil compaction due to running wheeled equipment over it. All of that takes fuel. Even irrigation (more common now than sixty years ago) requires fuel, whether it’s diesel or electric. In comparison, a pasture had less outlay. We broadcast fertilizer in the spring, and sprayed it if there were army worms, and that was it. Planting timber has even less maintenance costs, though the harvests are about three or four decades apart.

This was in an area where there was sufficient rain to practice dust mulching. In dust mulching, the idea is to break up several inches of the top layer of soil so that moisture doesn’t wick into the air. Basically, it’s mulching with dust instead of organic material. It seems to work, and is what we did before irrigation, though it requires frequent cultivation and more fuel use. But that’s here. Further west, where there was less rainfall, the use of dust mulching proved disastrous. This was worsened by allowing a field to remain fallow without a cover crop, so that it might “recharge” moisture. That was at least partial recognition that farming had to adapt to less rainfall, but the practice of dust mulching was a contributing factor in the Dust Bowl nearly a century ago. Just because you have dirt doesn’t mean you can grow crops on it.

That’s something many who have no experience with crops and livestock miss. Whether it’s better to be vegetarian is one thing; trying to replace meat protein with crops is quite another. There’s a reason that nearly twice as many acres in the US are devoted to range and pasture instead of row crops: Range and pasture is sometimes the best way to utilize land for food production. Where there’s enough enough rain, it’s a matter of yield and economics; where there’s less rain, it can also prevent an ecological disaster.

That, ironically, has been the excuse to push moving from beef to plant protein. Advocates claim it would result in a more efficient use of fuels, thereby reducing anthropomorphic global warming. Unfortunately, I doubt said advocates have grown up farming. If they had, they’d know everything you’ve read here firsthand. They’d know about cattle grazing on land that’s marginal or unsuited for crops and how those destined for meat spend a relatively short time in a fattening pen. They’d also know just how often equipment has to go over crop land because they’d seen it and maybe done it themselves, and have some idea of the fuel involved. They’d certainly would know that eliminating cattle would require more fuel use and more land under cultivation, resulting in more CO2 production. That they don’t speaks volumes, none of it good.

Just as it also speaks volumes that they don’t complain about pork or chicken production, which does require corn from start to finish. For that matter, there’s no mention of ethanol, which basically converts diesel and natural gas to alcohol. Ethanol might be called renewable, but it takes fossil fuels to grow the corn and get it to the distillery. While we can spin all sorts of conspiracy theories of why beef gets singled out, the simplest explanation is that they simply know so little about farming and ranching that they don’t know what they don’t know.

Of course, they could level the same claim against me. Still, I pass by pastures most days of the week, and often see cattle grazing, and grew up farming and raising livestock.

Somehow, I don’t think they did.