When the Cows Come Home, Part 1: Cowboy Dreams
It’s September 16th and I’m sitting on a bucket beside the water trough in the pasture. Little birds flock and gossip on the breeze. A couple of lazy clouds drift by overhead. The cattle in front of me practice their alchemy in silence.
There are 21 of them in this one-acre paddock. They graze methodically, searching out the good grass with their noses, ripping it with their dextrous tongues, chewing, chewing, chewing. They drift across the field just like the clouds in the sky. Unhurried. Absorbed. Tomorrow they’ll move to a new paddock, green with fresh grass.
A couple of big old mommas wander over my way for a drink. When they get close, I am struck yet again by their enormity. Their thick heads sway slow over the water trough. Their leg muscles ripple. They are powerful beasts. Yet they are calm and slow-moving, except when they flee.
One cow flaps an ear at me, as if to ask: “What are you doing here?” A steer calf moves to the trough and pauses mid-sip to stare at his reflection in the water, mouth dripping. Cute little fella. I watch him and wonder… does he recognize himself?
When I was younger, I was told two stories. One story was that cattle were dumb. Dad compared them unfavorably to horses, with whom humans can form deep relationships. My stepfather echoed Ed Abbey and called them four-hoofed locusts, a plague that destroyed wild habitat where antelope and wolves belonged. In college, I read about the thousands of gallons of water, the acres of rainforest destroyed, and the tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the production of a single porterhouse steak.
There is some truth in those condemnations, but there’s also plenty of bullshit (Oops. I shouldn't use that word. Not because it's a swear word, though. More on 'bullshit' in part two.) We all were taught a lot of bullshit when we were younger. Isn’t part of growing up learning how to sift through to the truth?
Let’s sift through these curses on cattle. Let’s start with all the alleged environmental costs that delicious beef inflicts on our society of sinners. The first things to notice about these accusations are its two main assumptions: that cattle are raised on a concentrated feedlot, and that they’re fed grain that was grown where rainforest used to be. When those assumptions are true, then cattle are indeed catastrophic. Their urine and manure collect in nasty lagoons, and more and more wild forest has to be cut to grow pesticide-coated grain to fatten them up. Cattle grown in that situation aren’t happy or healthy, either.
But now, let’s change the assumptions to reflect our local reality. Let’s say the cattle live on grass pastures for their whole lives, except in winter when weather gets crazy. Let’s say a grazier moves the cattle rapidly across the pastures, timing their grazing to maximize grass growth. Producing beef that way cuts down no rainforest. The water that these happy cows drink is not “wasted,” but rather deposited right onto the pastures, to be drank up by plants or filtered through the earth on its way down to the water table. And over time, these cattle actually store carbon out of the air, down in the soil, by stimulating grass root growth and soil microbe proliferation.
As of September 10th, 2017, these latter assumptions describe how we at Spoon Full Farm are raising cattle.
Yeeeeeehaw! We have cows! To be precise: we have 10 cows, 5 steers, and 6 heifers, who will be momma cows soon enough. Their breed is called “British White Park,” descended from ancient cattle that went feral in Great Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire. They’re beautiful, and their genes are honed for survival by a thousand years of natural selection. We bought them from our next-door neighbors, and brought them all over in one afternoon. For us, for the grass, and for the soil under our feet, these cattle are a dream come true.
This brings me to a second story I was told when I was younger. That’s the myth of the cowboy: Clint Eastwoods and John Waynes, solitary and saddled in the great American West. Git along, little dogies, git along, where the deer and the antelope play.
Willie Nelson sang it, and a million other American kids and I felt it: “I grew up dreaming… of being a cowboy.”
But the days of the wild west are gone, thank goodness. I don’t love guns enough to be nostalgic for that. Instead, we’re part of a new movement that includes the best parts of the cowboy dream: beautiful open spaces, big roaming animals, growing great food, and wearing awesome hats.
This new movement has many names: grass farming, microbe farming, mob grazing, management-intensive grazing, rotational grazing, and salad bar beef. All of these cattle systems mimic natural grassland ecosystems by following two basic principles: keep cows on grass pastures for their entire lives, and move them quickly from one patch of grass to the next. That’s the way that herbivores had to move when predators hounded their herds across the prairies. That predator-prey dynamic, wolves and bison, created the deep, fertile topsoil of the American midwest.
The modern cowboys who raise cattle this way are called graziers. We play the role of predator in our ecosystem simulation, making the cattle move, to graze and rest grass, as is needed. Unlike wolves and cowboys, though, we don’t chase the cattle. All we do is move around electric fences and open up gates, so that the cows can walk over into a new paddock and eat fresh grass. There’s no pain, and the only fear is a little shock of electric fence, which fades right away. The cows remain calm, like they are today, as I sit on the bucket by their water trough. I feel calm, too, and a deep sense of fulfillment. I’m lucky to get to watch these cows perform magic.
Magic? Alchemy? What do those things have to do with cattle? If you’re curious, come back next week to read Part Two: In Praise of Bull Dung.