Award winning environmental author, Richard Manning says we can reduce water pollution, increase soil-water percolation, decrease flooding, decrease soil erosion and sequester millions of tons of carbon each year by switching from a corn-based animal protein finishing system to one that lets animals harvest their own food from a perennial pasture. And to top it off, we can do all of that and make more money to boot.
In a recent article published in Mother Earth News magazine, Manning makes the claim that farmers and ranchers can produce the same amounts of animal protein using perennial pasture as they currently do using the industrialized feedlot finishing model, if a proportion of corn acres are restored to some semblance of native grassland. We can save the environment and produce much healthier meat at the same time.
I have been a proponent of meat production models that take advantage of the animals’ natural abilities for decades, so grass finished meat is a no-brainer to me. Animals raised and finished on pasture live a much better and healthier life, aren’t prone to becoming obese, and are more able to fulfill their genetic destiny. Healthy and happy animals produce healthy meat. I don’t care what any industry pundit says … fresh grass-finished beef is better for you than box-store meat that’s been injected with “flavor enhancers.”
As a child and student of the prairie, I am also thrilled that Manning makes the point that perennial grasslands, in conjunction with large herds of grazing animals, are precisely what built the fertile, farmable soils that we grow most of our corn and soybeans on in the first place. Plowing a prairie or pasture releases incomprehensible amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere … and over time, the once fertile soil is depleted to the extent that it is little more than a medium for planting seed that will be nurtured with artificial fertilizers. It’s time to pay attention to how prairie soils were made and to use that knowledge to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere.
It’s not only about carbon and the air, however. It’s also about clean water and flooding Many folks don’t realize that water runoff percentages from tilled fields are surprisingly close to those from paved parking lots. If water was air, then perennial grasslands would be the lungs that pull that air back into the earth. Soils high in organic matter (exactly the kinds of soils that develop beneath perennial pastureland and prairie) have excellent water filtering abilities and sponge-like water storage capacities. You only have to look at a lush green stand of Kansas Big Bluestem in August to know that there is plenty of water down there … even though it hasn’t rained for a month.
I don’t suggest that all farmland should be converted back to perennial grasslands, but I am pleased that Manning challenges conventional agriculture and conventional environmentalism to rethink the role that animals might play in creating a healthier and safer food supply and a healthier and more sustainable environment. There is no magic bullet for these global problems. No single lifestyle change, no single food production model, no amount of legislation will fix the messes we have made. I believe that integrated solutions achieved with balanced thought will keep us keeping on ... not anti-intellectual zealotism, no matter how empassioned.
Manning’s analysis points to the importance of open-mindedness to the process. So let’s remove the single-issue blinders and face the true complexity of our environmental and food issues. I know we can do it.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.