Git Along Little Microbes

  The following article was recently published in the June issue of The Stockman Grassfarmer.

Grassfed Critics Are Ignoring Methane Eating Soil Microbes

LOVELAND, Colorado: Beef cattle belch out tons of methane. Some studies claim cows account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

  And, it turns out that grassfed cows belch more than their grainfed cousins, a fact that gladdens the hearts of feedlot owners seeking a patch of moral high ground on which to plant a green flag.

  Now along comes Bill McKibben to snatch the flag back for the grass-feeders. (“The Only Way to Have a Cow” by Bill McKibben. Orion Magazine, March/April 20I0).

  How is it, he asks, that vast herds of wild ruminants never burped the skies full of methane in days of old? The answer, he claims, is methane eating soil microbes.

  “Healthy soils sequester more of the gas in a day than cows supported by the same area will emit in a year.”

  The wild herds helped create healthy soils by massing together for protection from wolves. chomping everything in sight, fertilizing the place and being encouraged to quickly move on by biting flies that stayed with the manure.

  Pasture-based cow herds perform the same soil-building trick when they are crowded together and moved quickly, so that the recovering grass can do its carbon sequestering, burst-of-growth thing. Old West trail bosses called it . “Head ‘em up and move ‘em out.”

  New-fangled ranchers call it “mob grazing.”

  Bovines on feedlots may belch less but they also recycle less. Their mountains of manure and lakes of urine emit more methane and nitrogen into the air and waterways. Grass-feeders’ waste is quickly transformed into brunch for bacteria.

  The soil created by this process is rich in microbial life: 4000 pounds of tiny, carbon-building, methane-eating bacteria per acre as opposed to only 400 pounds per acre in poor soils depleted by plowing and cropping and chemical fertilizers. Keeping the bugs well fed is as important as grazing the cows. Those of us who raise grassfed beef, it turns out, are microbe ranchers.

  The problem is that grassfed beef take up more space and, consequently, are more expensive to raise. Here the feedlot folks try to recapture the flag by claiming that they, not the grass-feeders, are the only ones who can efficiently supply a rapidly growing world population hungry for a taste of the meaty good life we enjoy.

  Some environmentalist echo this view.

  “There are just too many people to feed, and, unfortunately, the population is growing exponentially,” says Stewart David in his blog response to McKibben.

  “Where, exactly, is all of this ‘free range’? How much of the planet would need to be deforested to make room for mass grazing? Do the math.”

  The math, it turns out, isn’t so daunting. First it’s important to realize that feedlot beeves already spend most of their lives on grass. It’s only the last three to six months before slaughter that they ‘re crowded together and stuffed full of corn. So the idea of fattening them on grass for 120 more days isn’t as outlandishly demanding of new pasture as it might seem.

  Second, according to USDA, U.S. forest land has actually increased by some 17 million acres from 1987 to 2002 . Twenty percent of forest land is grazed, as is 62 million acres of crop lands during part of the year, Take a drive across Kansas in the fall to see cattle munching on corn stubble.

  When these dual-use acres are added to land devoted solely to livestock, there are currently 703 million grazing acres available in the USA for 97 million cattle. That comes to eight acres per beef animal, not enough in the dry Southwest but much more than needed in the Great Plains and South.

  Third, mob grazing makes the grass grow faster. Some grassfeeders claim that for the price of some electric fencing, you can in effect nearly double the size of your ranch, forage wise. So if a wholesale shift from feedlot to grassfed beef is unlikely, a sizable shift could be easily accomplished without the need for more pasture land.

  Possible, but is it likely? One trend may make it more so.

  There are a growing number of “ecosystem services” markets in the country that channel extra funds to ranchers who protect the water supply and capture greenhouse gases through soil restoration. Happily, such practices also increase grass yields and ranch profits.

  So, It’s a good time for us ranchers to saddle up and ride the range with our squinty-eyed gaze resolutely on the ground.
Git along , little microbes.

David M. Jessup writes from Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, where he introduces cattle and horses to dude guests, and guests to the ways of the West. The ranch also raises grassfed beef for local direct sale. Follow David’s blog here.

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