Some people claim grazing is destroying the landscape. Others maintain grazing is not only a powerful tool for environmental enhancement, but a necessary component of ecological health.
Whereas grazing was something only farmers and ranchers were concerned with in the past, it's now a national public issue. Public land use, the environmental impact of grazing, and the health aspects of meat produced on pasture vs. in the feedlot are all issues of public concern in the 21st century.
Grazing always has a role
Grazing has always been a key ingredient in beef production. Prior to World War II, almost all consumer beef was produced from grazed pasture or range.
That's still the case in some countries. Beef cattle, like other ruminant animals, can derive 100% of their nutrient needs from grazed forage.
There's no physiological need for supplemental feed for cattle to perform and mature. Over the past 50 years, humans have created a cultural need for feed other than forage in the beef animal's diet.
The vast majority of beef cows still derive most of their diet from grazed pastures and range. In most cases, pasture provides the lowest cost energy and protein for beef animals. Numerous economic studies show the most profitable beef operations minimize feeding harvested forages and crops, and maximize grazing.
The need for grazing makes beef production a land-demanding business. It's because grazing occurs on so many acres across this country that it has become a major economic and environmental issue.
Public lands grazing is an enormous issue in the West. Foes of grazing raise issues of land degradation, reduced water quality, impacts on endangered species and “welfare ranching” as reasons to end grazing of domestic livestock on public lands.
In certain situations, they have valid points, and our industry needs to be proactive in correcting any problems. The flip side, however, is that managed grazing has improved land quality on millions of public acres, enhanced water quality by protecting the soil, provided appropriate habitat for threatened species and comes at a fair price to ranchers. The key difference is the emphasis on “managed” grazing.
Virtually all problems associated with grazing are due to the continuous presence of cattle on the same land for an extended period of time. This is true whether the land is public or private. As soon as time control becomes a factor in management, grazing becomes a positive factor in the environment, as long as stocking rate is appropriate for the available resources.
In the earliest days of human history, grazing was managed on a time-control basis as nomadic herders moved their flocks and herds across a landscape utilizing forage resources. With the establishment of villages, towns and cities, and the development of fencing, time control began to lose its critical role in management.
Grazing in the American West was a nomadic system when the first cattle herds were brought into the region. Cowboys and drovers moved the herds as pasture and range conditions required.
It was the invention of barbed wire, not the presence of cattle, that changed the face of rangeland. The luxury of having a fence surround your property and knowing that your cattle would not stray was the beginning of the end of grazing management in the U.S.
Without fencing, cattle will leave overgrazed range and find better grazing. Fencing held them in place; the result was land degradation. It's ironic then that the invention of electric fencing was one of the factors that brought about a renaissance in U.S. grazing management in the U.S.
With proper use of herding or subdivision fencing, grazing is a positive tool for land management. Once livestock grazing is brought under control and managed, soil quality and health can be improved, vegetation management can be achieved and resources can be more efficiently used.
Surveys indicate the vast majority of Americans don't adhere to the radical views of animal rights extremists, but they do want livestock to be treated in a humane manner. Cattle grazed on pasture are generally viewed more favorably than cattle raised in feedlots when it comes to humane care and well-being.
There's increasing scientific evidence showing that meat and milk produced from grazed livestock are healthier for human consumption than meat and milk from grain-fed animals. That's not because of antibiotics, growth stimulants or other feed additives, but because animals' natural fat profiles reflect their diet. Feeding grain to ruminants is a relatively recent practice and our bodies are not adapted to the types of fat occurring in grain-fed animals.
For hundreds of generations, we have consumed meat from forage-raised animals. Whether those animals are domestic or wild, pasture-derived fats are actually very healthy for our diet.
Today, all aspects of agriculture are coming under increasing public scrutiny, and the farmer/rancher's image as an untouchable American icon is showing some tarnish. With grazing, we have potentially the most environmentally and socially acceptable form of agricultural production as the cornerstone of the beef business.
It's in our best interest, and that of the American public, to capitalize on this asset and manage it to the best of our ability. The result will be an overall positive impact on our economic survival and environmental quality.
Jim Gerrish, formerly the superintendent of the University of Missouri's Forage Research Systems Center in Linneus, is a consultant, writer and lecturer based in May, ID. Contact him at 208/876-4067 or [email protected]