If you see Butch up on the Tavaputs Plateau, he’ll be wearing Levi’s 501 jeans. This man is a national treasure and one of the most genuine cattlemen I could imagine ever existing, let alone ever having met. A lot of cowboys back in the late 19th century wore Levi Strauss’ new copper riveted, canvas denim jeans just the same. In 1853 they were one of the most revolutionary articles of clothing on the planet. Even I wear Levi’s today. A looser fitting cut, however, due to the frequency with which I consume fried chicken, biscuits, and a certain hops and barley flavored beverage in the evenings.
Most of the men I remember seeing as a child wore Wrangler boot-cut jeans. And Cinch is about the only one of the many new pants brands I can keep up with. There are too many to count anymore. So many different kinds of cowboys. So many different ways to raise cattle. Which is one of the reasons why, when I hear others lament about animal husbandry’s ecological impact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around such an oversimplified monolith.
One of the things that make agricultural greenhouse gas emissions hard to pigeonhole as a climate change culprit is the fact that agriculture reduces its relatively small carbon footprint year after year while increasing yields. Farmers and ranchers do more with less day in and day out. Voluntarily, I might add. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation continue to grow like clockwork. Not only is the outrage over agriculture emissions poorly allocated, but it misses perhaps the most important factor. Agriculture is the only industry that takes carbon back out of the atmosphere, too.
Cattle stomachs, for example, have multiple compartments with special shapes that play host to bacteria helping cattle digest roughage like grass and leaves that grow on rocky hillsides otherwise unsuitable for growing food crops. One of the byproducts of that digestion is a belch. When you see data quantifying cattle’s GHG emissions, you’re looking at the amount of carbon coming from belches during digestion. Rarely if ever does anyone pause to think of where the carbon being belched comes from.
As the grass grows, it uses energy from the sun to extract carbon out of the air, combine the carbon with water, and manufacture sugar to feed itself. When used instrumentally, grazing cattle can increase the rate at which grasses grow. Drawing more carbon out of the air. When the cattle consume the grass, their gut turns some of the grass into usable nutrients to build the animal’s muscles, they turn some of the carbon into manure to be excreted out the animal’s backside, and a smaller portion still is belched back into the atmosphere to again become part of the carbon cycle being absorbed by growing plants stimulated by appropriate grazing.
When compared to transportation, not only are cattle a small fraction of GHG emissions, but cattle carbon is part of a living cycle whereas GHG emission from transportation is produced by burning fossil fuels that had been stored underground for millions of years with no way of going back. They are not the same.
Even the food that cattle eat when not grazing takes carbon out of the air. North America’s corn belt is the most biologically active area on the planet. Its photosynthetic phosphorescence can be seen from space. North America’s corn crop draws out multiple times the amount of carbon than even the Amazon rainforest every year.
Cattle grazing can likewise prevent other types of carbon from being introduced to the atmosphere. I recall a press conference with former Governor Gary Herbert where he indicated that burning a single log produced as much carbon as a car driving from St. George to Salt Lake City. Last year in Utah, wildfires burned nearly 330,000 acres. The amount of carbon being added to the atmosphere from wildfires is staggering. Fire-dependent ecosystems are a big part of living in the Intermountain West. But for nearly the last 200 years, we’ve been intervening with fire ecology to the point where the dry and dead fuel load on our intermountain rangelands magnifies the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Fires that burn too hot and too long to produce a healthy ecosystem. Well-managed grazing reduces surface fuel loads while increasing carbon sequestration in the landscape matrix. Cattle can not only prevent or reduce the introduction of atmospheric carbon from wildfires, but increase the amount of carbon range plants sequester.
In 2017 Professors Mary Beth Hall and Robin White published an article looking at the implication of eliminating animal protein from the American diet. The study showed that if we rededicated all of the arable land used for raising and feeding cattle to vegetable production, we would both increase the amount of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers required and still fall short of our ability to provide essential nutrients to the American population.
Livestock husbandry has been a fundamental part of humanity since the Neolithic Revolution. Our species can feed itself because animals thrive on land that can’t be cultivated. And agriculture can be an instrument in the pursuits of global ecology and conservation.
Kyle L. Wilson is a produce farmer in Southern Utah. He has served in numerous county and state Farm Bureau leadership positions in the Young Farmers & Ranchers program and on Promotion & Education Committees. Wilson is also a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Grassroots Outreach (GO) Team and the organization’s current Partners in Advocacy Leadership class.
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