Farmer Sledge

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  • Are Cow Farts Really the Issue?

    Now and then I run across the question of ruminants contributing to climate change in regards to methane. It’s an odd question at best, and I find it very indicative of our compartmentalizing, reductionist world view. It is ever so common to see people run figures and stats with a very myopic understanding of the issue, connecting dots in only the most simplistic and linear fashion. Enteric fermentation, otherwise known to the normal person as farts from a ruminant, is a classic example of data utterly divorced from the system as a whole. Not surprising in the least, seen as the most guilty ruminant of methane farts, the cow, has itself been completely divorced from her ecosystem, thrown into feedlots or giant milking barns where her essential role in the ecosystem has not only been rendered obsolete, but has been morphed into a detrimental problem with negative consequences. Let me break it down a bit.

    When I go to the EPA website, (http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html) I find these statistics. Methane accounts for 10% of USA greenhouse gas emissions. That 10% is broken down into a pie chart as follows:

    • 29% Natural Gas & Petroleum Systems
    • 26% Enteric Fermentation
    • 18% Landfills
    • 10% Coal Mining
    • 10% Manure Management
    • 8% Other

    Even though gas and petroleum systems is the largest chunk of the pie, the manure management gets paired with enteric fermentation as the agricultural percentage and suddenly domestic animals are causing 36% of our methane emissions. Manure management is the euphemism for excrement lagoons or other large masses of animal feces that are gathered together as “waste” and the anaerobic conditions allow the methane to build up and emit as gas. In classic reductionist form, the answer to this problem is not to question the system, but to build yet another technologically complicated contraption that gathers the methane, pipes it to some engine that has the capacity to convert the gas into usable energy. (Remember Mad Max and the Thunder Dome anyone?) This is in contrast to a well-managed pasture that has not been subjected to chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides which all do heavy damage to the essential ecosystem that goes on below ground in the soil. Healthy soil, among a gazillion other things, has methanatrophic bacteria, which (low and behold) breaks down the methane in the manure.

    But that still leaves you with that quarter of a pie piece made from ruminant farts. And this is where you get suggestions ranging from feeding the cows more grain so they ruminate less to denouncing beef and dairy altogether as a pollution source. At this point, I either laugh or cry at the sheer blindness of our whole agricultural worldview. An analogy that comes to mind is of a serious biker that wants to reduce the weight she has to carry and propel. Caught up in the spirit of reducing weight, she sees the chain is made of fairly heavy metal and decides that this heavy thing has gotta go. The ruminant, when in her proper ecological niche, is as essential as the chain to make grass-based ecosystems work. I have argued in an earlier post that our pasture is an unmatched solar panel. Grassland soil is also a phenomenal carbon sequestering system in the form of humus. And the ruminant can keep this whole system healthy without the input of oil-dependent grain. I can’t think of a more beneficial and sustainable animal for the farm.

    Yet when I look at a random guide to eating meat in an environmentally conscious way, I find that beef and lamb are considered the worst choices. (#@!#$^%&*???!!!) Don’t just throw the chain out, I think those wheels are looking kind of heavy as well!! Our biggest expense by far on our farm is feed costs—even with government subsidies of grain. We’re pretty happy if we can get chickens or hogs to get 25% of their feed intake from the pasture. Like getting their green veggies. The pasture intake is vital for the health benefits and taste in pasture-raised meat. But as omnivores without 4-chambered stomachs, poultry and hogs need grain to sustain their high production. Omnivores do not have near the capacity to convert pasture into meat like ruminants. Our sheep, on the other hand, are 100% grass-fed. Green pasture and supplemental hay in the winter from our own pastures is all they get. (Actually to be completely literally true, we do give them mineral supplements for salt and vital trace minerals. So make that 99.9999% grass-fed.) Daily rotations for the sheep are a lot of work, but we cut out literal tons of input, all while ameliorating our carbon-sequestering solar panel. Nature has used ruminants by the millions to be a driving force in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems. Methane emissions were never a problem until the industrial revolution. My money is on Nature knowing what works best, and I plan on mimicking her as best as I can on our farm.