What’s Right with Sustainable Ranching

By ignoring grass-fed beef and pastured poultry producers — or, worse, by lumping them in with factory farms — anti-meat activists overlook the positive benefits sustainable ranching brings to our bodies, farms, and land.

  • Sustainable ranching practices can be used to preserve heritage livestock, such as these Belted Galloways, a hardy, light-grazing Scottish breed.
    Photo by Molly Peterson
  • Ranchers can shorten their hay season by incorporating stands of grazing corn into intensive-management pastures.
    Photo by Terry Wild
  • Well-designed multiple-animal systems can maximize a farm's agricultural productivity while raising soil carbon. Plus, combined feed stations always add a little excitement to the farm.
    Photo by Terry Wild
  • Joel Salatin's family has been farming in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley since 1961, when his parents purchased a much-abused farm there and began working the land with regenerative techniques pulled from their Biblical understanding of Earth stewardship and the work of J. I. Rodale, who believed agriculture and health are inseparable.
    Photo by Rachel Salatin

It’s sure hard to measure what isn’t there, folks. Silly as it sounds, this logic underpins many assessments of livestock consumption and production. Instead of studying sustainable agriculture operations, such as Polyface or others like us, academic research studies measure the worst of the worst, factory farms — the most dysfunctional, anti-ecological, abusive, nutrient-devitalizing system conceivable. No wonder they conclude that animal production is bad! Too many people eat up all that junk data whole-hog without recognizing the enormous differences between sustainable ranching and industrial livestock production. It’s enough to make my head explode.

Even when studies account for a few grass-fed livestock producers, they often only include continually grazed livestock on unmanaged pasture. With this sort of education, it’s hard to blame consumers and media for the accelerating and antagonistic anti-meat vibe, which demonizes livestock producers in the United States today.

This simplistic narrative lumps together big and small, organic and pesticide-laden, grass-fed and feedlot. Of course, many animal welfarists condemn us for enslaving creatures and then violently killing them — without first reading Temple Grandin and theories on humane slaughter. A certain strain of environmentalism pins climate change and the depletion of water, soil, and oxygen on — you guessed it — domestic livestock, without first understanding carbon ranching and the benefits of grazing varied ecosystems.

The accusations grow more strident by the day. Frankly, I find myself feeling like a punching bag. I won’t engage these criticisms point by point because plenty of more-credentialed experts have done it better than I ever could. But I will address the initial mistake of ignoring all the folks in sustainable agriculture who are getting it right.

Sustainable Ranches, Not Factory Farms

Anti-meat crusaders are absolutely correct that much livestock production in this country is cruel to animals, horrible for the environment, and unhealthy for the hardworking folks in that industry. The problem is that these crusaders ignore the growing number of producers in this country who hold radically different values.

I recently watched the film Cowspiracy, hollering at the TV, “Amen! Preach it, brother!” But, while this documentary disparages the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) system—a a system I fervently disagree with—Cowspiracy also committed the all-too-common transgression of lumping us all together!

3/20/2019 10:31:26 AM

To turn the corner on this issue it will take sustainable living as well as sustainable farming. In other words everyone needs to own their part in this endeavor. If the consumer would insist on only purchasing sustainably raised/grown, nutrient rich food this would begin a movement among commercial farmers to alter their production methods. This will take a lot of consumer education and voting habits at the ballet box. If one really wants to reduce pollutants in the air they need to begin with fossil fuel powered vehicles and not cows. Enhancing the quality of the available food by making it nutrient rich and sustainably grown would result in healthier consumers and reduced healthcare costs that is taking more of our GDP and taxes every year. The reason the commercial and other conventional farmers are using the ever increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals is they have so depleted their soil that is the only way to produce marketable crops. They seek solutions without remedying the cause. It is similar to a physician treating your symptoms but not the cause of the disease.

2/6/2019 1:54:30 PM

Those same academics that he maligns have determined that grass-fed ruminants actually produce more methane than the carbon they sequester.

6/1/2016 12:52:01 PM

Great work Joel! Thanks for taking the time to put out the good word that all farming is NOT the same and that sustainable and scientific grazing is likely one of the best ways to sequester carbon efficiently and on a large scale. Claude Lord, Foxfire Ranch Quibell, Ontario



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