In today’s world, we’re inundated with messages about the negative environmental consequences of our diets. ‘Eat less meat’ is a common refrain, and it’s a step many are taking to lessen their impact.
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However, not all animal products are produced the same way. The way your beef lived before it became a burger makes a significant difference in its total carbon footprint. This reality is recognized by Senators Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren who have sponsored legislation which would phase out large “mega-farms” by 2040. This proposed legislation would also stop permitting for concentrated animal feeding operations or “CAFOs.” CAFO farming, where pigs and cows are crammed into small pens for their entire lives, is the opposite of the grazing model we will discuss today.
One strategy that makes raising livestock more environmentally sustainable is rotational grazing. It’s a technique I practice with pigs on a small scale on my hobby farm, and I believe it has the potential to transform our food system for the better.
Why CAFO’s are bad for the environment
Consider the consequences of conventional grazing. There’s no question that giving livestock free reign over the landscape can cause serious environmental problems.
When cows and horses begin to graze a fresh pasture space, they will naturally gravitate towards their favorite plant species and leave the less palatable varieties alone. After a few passes, they will have clipped their favorites right to the soil level, which reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and often causes it to die off completely.
Over time, this eliminates the competition for the less desirable grasses so that they start to take over. The end result? A degraded pasture space that offers less nutritional value to the animals on it.
That’s bad enough, but the problems go deeper. Intensive grazing has serious implications for the environment.
Keeping large herbivores like cattle on the same piece of land long-term can cause irreparable damage to it. They can destroy native vegetation, cause soil erosion—especially near streambeds—and contaminate waterways with their fecal material. It’s not uncommon for overgrazed land to turn into a fine dust as the plant roots that held down the topsoil start to disappear.
Overgrazing destroys our rivers
This has far-reaching consequences for other species and puts entire ecosystems at risk. For example, excess sediment in rivers can suffocate fish eggs, make streams too shallow, and cause the water to become too hot, which is decimating salmon populations in many places.
Continuously grazed pasture spaces are also less adaptable to weather changes and will take longer to recover after droughts or floods. The plants aren’t encouraged to grow deep roots, making them more reliant on outside irrigation, often from unsustainable water supplies. Take a look at the crisis facing the Colorado River, and you’ll see how this is playing out in the western half of the country today.
Overgrazing and forest fires
Overgrazing is even considered a contributing factor to the extreme forest fires out west, as livestock often take out native grasses that are susceptible to burning. This reduces the frequency of small-scale fires in the region and means the ones that do occur are more likely to be catastrophic.
Rotational grazing: a sustainable livestock alternative
Here’s where things get better. Rotational grazing reduces many of the environmental challenges associated with raising livestock today.
Put in simple terms, rotational grazing is a strategy of intentionally moving livestock to different sections of pasture every few days. In most cases, a large field is sectioned off into small parcels with portable fencing, usually electric, making it possible to keep animals in a concentrated space.
The idea is that forcing the livestock to feed within a small area makes them browse the grass hard, rather than merely snacking on their favorite species. Most farmers move their animals to a new pasture space once the grass is grazed down to about three inches (any shorter, and it won’t recover quickly).
Once the animals are moved off a parcel, it’s allowed to recover until the grass is at least six to eight inches tall again. Depending on your region, this takes anywhere from two weeks to two months.
Short, intensive grazing sessions like this cause trauma for the grasses without actually killing them. In fact, most species co-evolved to survive with animal grazers and can handle losing 50% of their above-ground plant material without it having any effect on their viability below the soil. It also prevents the grazers from selecting only their favorites, so that the pasture stays both biologically and nutritionally diverse in the long run.
This level of grazing will cause them to put energy into deepening their root systems for a more vigorous plant. Over time, these roots decompose deep in the soil, consequently boosting its fertility, water retention rates, and ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
The heavy dose of manure deposited by the grazers also adds natural fertility to the soil. The animals don’t stay in one place long enough for it to build up to damaging levels or to be at risk of washing into the water system. By the time the livestock is brought back to the same piece of land, the chances are that it will be lusher than before.
The specifics for rotational grazing depends on many factors, such as your available pasture space, number of animals you plan to graze, and overall land fertility. For many, it’s a trial and error process of careful monitoring to see what grazing schedule the land best supports. While it might take several seasons to master, this strategy can be practiced long-term to continually improve the pasture space while ensuring the livestock enjoys a healthy, varied diet.
Rotational grazing on the small scale
As I mentioned previously, we practice a modified rotational grazing strategy on our property with our American Guinea Hogs. This is a heritage breed of pig renowned for their love of grass.
We keep our pigs in pastures that were previously home to horses, and the degraded, weedy space is a testament to their unsustainable grazing habits. For the past year, we’ve been moving our small herd into different corners of the pasture and letting them eat the grass down to mowing level.
Our chickens have free reign through the pastures as well, and they typically follow the pigs around, pecking through their poop for juicy maggots. This has the dual benefit of providing the chickens with a protein-rich food source and ensuring that the pig manure breaks down quickly into a natural pasture fertilizer.
It’s only been a year, but we are starting to see the benefits of this rotational grazing system. Our pasture space looks healthier compared to when we started, and the Guinea Hogs are reasonably self-sufficient about foraging for their food. Beyond the garden produce and table scraps they also enjoy, we only need to supplement their diets with a few bags of feed a year.
This keeps our costs down, provides us with a sustainable source of meat, and restores our tired pastures at the same time.
How to advocate for rotational grazing with your food dollars
Not everyone has the capacity to start raising grass-fed pork, and that’s okay. What you can do is work to become more aware of the origins of your food and to support farmers that are producing it in ways that benefit the planet.
Committing to purchasing certified grass-fed meat is a great start, but you can go a step further by purchasing it from local suppliers that practice sustainable pasture strategies. As there’s no certification (yet) for rotational grazing, you’ll have to rely on your own research to find providers near you.
I suggest seeking out livestock farmers in your region and asking them directly about their land management strategies. Those that practice rotational grazing will be proud to tell you about it. And for those who aren’t, by expressing your interest, you are communicating that there could be a new market for them if they started raising their meat more sustainably.
Every food purchase presents the opportunity to advocate for a better food system. By seeking out meat raised on a rotational pasture system, you promote a farming philosophy that works to leave the planet in better shape after every growing season.