Don’t Have a Cow
Management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a big deal these days, especially with so called sustainable farmers trying to capture emerging “conscientious carnivore” markets. Those who write about the art of rotating small herds of animals (usually cows) from one pasture to another portray the practice as an ecologically beneficial and more natural alternative to the cold input/output logic of industrial farming. But here’s what I’m learning: those who practice the art of moving small herds of cows from one pasture to another portray it to each other as an endeavor that can be worthwhile economically but, in reality, is beset with problems that the rhetorical champions of rotational grazing always fail to mention. This difference is worth exploring a bit.
Inspired as I so often am by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I’ve been seeking to expose the flaws of my target (in this case MIRGers) with evidence generated by the target itself. Singer perfected this technique when it came to exposing factory farms. I want to do it with small farms. This approach strikes me as much better than relying on, say, research done by HSUS (which, don’t get me wrong, is accurate and often done in tremendous depth), Humane Myth (ditto), or any organization with a clear (and noble) interest in promoting a skeptical view of animal agriculture. It just seems that one’s argument is made more powerful when evidence comes from the targeted party itself. Of course, this cannot be done in all cases, but we should turn the industry’s words back on itself whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It was in this spirit that I began, many months ago, trolling several “homesteader” websites (this research is for my book The Modern Savage). After digesting several hundred entries from rotational grazers themselves, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have to say about MIRG is in fact a carefully sanitized version of a much messier reality.
Perhaps what stands out the most is how small farmers, just like factory farmers, view their operation, and their animals, as existing first and foremost for profit. This point, I realize, may seem obvious. So often, though, MIRG is presented as an altruistic endeavor designed to show love for animals and the environment we share with them. One farmer, for example, explained to another: “I am confident that I can net more profit from the large tract with the large herd than you are now realizing with the 3 herds. We can cull and get the “right size” cows. We can get the pastures in top condition and carry more cows than you are carrying in the largest herd.” (emphasis added) Another agreed, adding, “We’re open to culling out some of our bigger breeds to head in the rotational direction.”
In addition to culling (read:killing) cows when they aren’t the “right” size for achieving maximum stocking density on available pasture, farmers who know that consumers are demanding exclusively grass-fed cows are keeping animals on grass to their detriment. One wrote, “Some of the animals are passing loose manure due to the richness of the forage even this late into the non growing season. Breeding stock of both sexes that are accustomed to grain feed will not hold the bloom exhibited when placed on grass alone nor will heavy milkers.” Moderate milk production is what MIRG people seek in their cattle. One wrote of the ideal cow, ”You do not want her to give a lot of milk. She only needs to give enough milk to provide for the calf adequately until it can start grazing.” And in case you think these farmers are any less vigilant than factory farmers about controlling reproduction, note this: ”The brood cow needs to maintain her condition so that she will breed back within 60 days of giving birth. We want heifers that will heat cycle early and produce a calf on her 2nd birthday.” Is this instrumental take on cows any different that that of a factory farmer?
Finally, and in many ways, most surprising to me, farmers are generally grazing their cattle on grass called fescue. Fescue, it turns out, isn’t so great for cows. But it grows easily and prevalently and it’s good for quick fattening and thus the bottom line. The reason for this is that most fescue is infected with a fungus called endophyte. Endophyte infested fescue is fine for the grass but not for the cow. Here is what one team of agronomists has to say about endophyte infected fescue, the most popular grass that MIRG cows munch:
Studies with animals consuming endophyte-infected fescue have shown the following responses in comparison to animals grazing non-infected fescue: (1) lower feed intake; (2) lower weight gains; (3) lower milk production; (4) higher respiration rates; (5) higher body temperatures; (6) rough hair coats; (7) more time spent in water; (8) more time spent in the shade; (9) less time spent grazing; (10) excessive salvation; (11) reduced blood serum prolactin levels; and (12) reduced reproductive performance. Some or all of these responses have been observed in numerous studies in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and sheep consuming endophyte-infected pasture, green chop, hay and/or seed.
Scientists recommend that MIRGers switch over to fescue free of endophytes. According my farmers, though, this would be a terrible idea. One explained, ”To date, the fescues that I know of that are endophyte free are not hardy.” My sense is that the endophyte infected fescue is like junk food for cows. They eat it eagerly, gobble it up, and then suffer the detrimental consequences listed above. All of which leaves me to wonder: how does any of this reality jibe with all the MIRG rhetoric about cows thriving on grass, reveling in their cowness, and regenerating tired ecosystems? I don’t get it. Why not just not have a cow?