What’s Right with Sustainable Ranching

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Sustainable ranching practices can be used to preserve heritage livestock, such as these Belted Galloways, a hardy, light-grazing Scottish breed.
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Ranchers can shorten their hay season by incorporating stands of grazing corn into intensive-management pastures.
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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.
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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.

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!

Anyone with a chicken is not automatically a Tyson monster; a pastured pig is not a Smithfield hog; and a grass-finished cow is not a feedlot bovine. Amazingly, some environmentalists say pastured animals are worse for the land than CAFO animals. Those of us who actually pasture livestock, or who have a direct connection with ranchers who do, know that CAFO industrial fare is never better for the planet than meat from animals that gamboled on pasture.

Once again, you can’t study what isn’t included. None of the authors of The China Study, nor the experts who prepared the United Nations’ “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, came to our farm or any farm like ours. They ignored sustainable ranching systems. Indeed, when Allan Savory, originator and guru of holistic management, finally received an audience with the producers of Cowspiracy, they couldn’t have been more unresponsive.

I’ve been harping on what isn’t; well, let’s talk about what is. Allan Savory is a soil builder, a reviver of long-defunct springs in arid regions, a carbon-sequestering grazier, and a biomass-production booster. And let me be clear: Many, many livestock producers around the world have had the same success and seen the same benefits as Allan Savory.

Sustainable Ranchers Look to Historic Herds

To understand my brand of ranching, you’ve got to remember the massive number of animals living in North America 500 years ago. They constituted an exceptional, soil-building, biomass-producing, hydrating ecosystem that occurred without hybrids, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or tractors.

Early accounts from the North American Plains describe bison herds 50 miles long and 20 miles wide — droves so dense the observers couldn’t see prairie between the bison. John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and ornithologist, witnessed a flock of birds, presumably passenger pigeons, block the sun for three days!

Before European colonization, millions of beavers created up to 300,000 square miles of North American wetlands. Even in the arid Southwest, the number of beaver ponds was astronomical. Imagine all that water and erosion protection!

Rapid soil depletion, desertification, and climate change don’t have to be the new normal — we can duplicate the kind of principles exhibited by these early animals and the Native Americans whose existence depended on them. We’ve got to remember that migratory herds and flocks naturally exhibit clear patterns of moving, mobbing, and mowing in response to predators, hunting, weather, and fire.

Do the scientists condemning livestock-rearing farmers and meat-eating consumers bother to study our highly functional permaculture livestock farms? No. The ugly truth is that regenerative, nature-duplicating farms simply don’t exist in the world of many credentialed scientists. We’re statistically insignificant.

The Momentum Shifts Toward Sustainable Agriculture

This past summer, some Smithsonian scientists visited Polyface Farms to study soil, bees, birds, and plant diversity to quantify how our livestock production systems affect pasture. We’re off the charts! Every bumblebee known to exist in Virginia is thriving right here on our farm — right alongside cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, ducks, and some fairly rambunctious people.

Guess what they found in our soil? Carbon. On average we’ve got eight times the carbon levels of most of the soil in the United States. What’s the reason for our incredible numbers? On our farm, we intensively manage grazing livestock using electric fencing. And, just like nature intended, a whole flock of scratching, pecking, and egg-laying portable poultry shelters follow. We’ve even dug a dozen ponds at Polyface and installed 6 miles of water lines — beavers, eat your hearts out!

You see, dear folks, in the world of prestigious agriculture colleges and industrial food and farm fraternities, our farm and the few others like it sadly aren’t recognized. We don’t get invited to their dinners. We write in rabble-rousing rags, such as MOTHER EARTH NEWS, instead of publishing in the magazines adorning the shelves of any self-respecting university’s agricultural library. We’re proud outliers, completely outside the purview, awareness, and even interest of the big-school orthodoxy. That’s where the research money is, and where the power, prestige, and profits can be found.

Many of you reading this magazine can remember a conversion day. A day when the lights went on. Maybe it was a personal illness or the illness of a friend. Perhaps you started researching those unpronounceable label names. Maybe you just took a good, hard look at the state of this planet. Whatever your reason, you decided to do something about it!

Imagine the disturbance if more farms and regular folks became actors in this fight. Goodness, the perennially upset, anti-meat business would be begging for work. Doctors would be twiddling their thumbs. The petroleum that goes into chemical fertilizers could stay in the ground. Maybe we wouldn’t have to fight a war over it.

With the help of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and other positive-themed media, we’re moving from a society focused on the negative to one that focuses on what’s right. All around me, I notice new options gaining ground. It’s harder for the mainstream to ignore us as research continues to show the nutritional superiority of pastured livestock and compost-fertilized vegetables. And the personal wellness movement? That’s just going to keep accelerating.

Each of us adds weight and credibility to this momentum. Folks are working on soil health, water health, air purity, nutritional density, personal healing, and many more campaigns. We’re changing the conversation and the awareness. Let’s keep on, so that our children and their children can be steeped in hope. That’s a goal worth fighting for.

Joel Salatin and his family manage pigs, poultry, grass, and soil at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. Salatin is the author of Folks, This Ain’t normal, as well as numerous other titles related to local food and sustainable farming.