The Unequal Distribution of Waste
Advocates of sustainable animal agriculture routinely tell us that animals are required for environmentally responsible food production. It’s not uncommon for these advocates to go so far as to argue that animal agriculture will substantially mitigate global warming. Despite the inherent wastefulness of raising animals for food, these supporters argue that eco-correct farming demands animal waste to fertilize fields to grow the grasses that improve soil respiration and sequester carbon. They portray rotational grazing as a self-sustaining system that’s more in tune with the rhythms of nature. The way they spin the narrative, it appears to be an appealing solution to the environmental horror of industrial animal agriculture (speaking of which, check out the video I posted today in “Of Interest.”)
Rotational grazing, however, is anything but self-sustaining. In fact, it requires intense management skills, skills that the vast majority of farmers lack. Even the best rotational grazers, however, face what I see as an insuperable problem. Indeed, As I research this increasingly popular system of raising animals (for The Modern Savage), I’m coming to the new conclusion (new, at least, for me) that organizing cattle on pasture is marked by an inherent contradiction with unsustainable environment consequences. I reach this conclusion after reading scores of rotational grazing manuals published by university extension agencies.
The tension centers on animal waste distribution and grazing capacity. Pastures that are sparsely packed with cattle are pastures that suffer poor waste distribution. Cattle pee and poop around water supplies, under shade trees, and outside the gates of their enclosures. They do not evenly distribute their waste. Not even remotely. The field is thus not properly fertilized. The main way to mitigate this problem is to pack cattle with greater density, thus improving nutrient distribution. This decision, however, quickly leads to what called “pugging”—the transformation of soil around watering spots into muck that can be 18 inches thick—and overgrazing in the center of the pastures. Pugging and overgrazing counteract the benefits of nutrient distribution because the soil is less able to absorb the waste. The rotational grazer is thereby trapped.
I suppose diehard rotational grazers will say it’s all about finding the sweet spot between these two countervailing trends. But from what I’ve read, that’s a very tough sweet spot to find, leaving me to conclude that, pragmatically speaking, the environmental benefits of rotational grazing are more theoretical and rhetorical that real. Just another way the food movement seeks to justify the suffering they cause with the supposed environmental benefits their way of eating claims to bring us. As always, it still seems the best solution is to leave animals out of the equation altogether.