Concentration of cattle and moving them frequently has been proposed as a means of storing carbon in soils. Like other claims that seem to be too good to be true, such assertions fail to do a full accounting of the carbon cycle. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent New York Times article has latched on to the latest justification for livestock grazing-carbon storage. In the article titled Keeping cattle on the move and carbon in the soil the author celebrates how Montana ranchers by concentrating their cows and moving them frequently across their fields can increase carbon storage in soils. This the ranchers assert, and author repeats,  contributes to an increase in carbon storage and reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Like the Donut Diet (eat donuts and lose weight), and other claims that appear too good to be true, the idea that cattle grazing will reduce GHG emissions fails to do a full accounting of carbon resulting from livestock production.

These ranchers are practicing what is essentially a strategy popularized by Allan Savory, a Rhodesian who rose to prominence in the United States in the 1980s by claiming that the problem with rangelands is not too many cows, but not enough. Apparently, the writer is unaware that the regenerative livestock management program he describes as “new” has been around for decades, and has also been found to be unsuccessful.

Originally Savory claimed what rangelands needed to be healthy was more “hoof action” to pound soil crusts in what he termed were “brittle environment” or what we would call aridlands. Savory asserted these crusts prevented water infiltration, while ungrazed grasses were dying. One tenet of Savory’s methods was to crowd cattle into a limited space, and have them graze plants to the ground, then move them to another small area, while resting the previously grazed site.

On a ranch practicing Savory methods of livestock management, a ranch hand in Arizona points to the ungrazed lands to the left side of the photo suggesting it is unhealthy compared to the heavily grazed pasture on the right. Photo George Wuerthner 

Savory argued his method mimicked the movement of bison herds and if practiced religiously, would result in the economic and ecological restoration of the rancher’s bottom line and the landscape. One of the major problems with his analogy is the “brittle” landscapes he claimed would most benefit from his method such as the Great Basin of the western U.S. never had large herds of grazing animals. Plus cattle do not mimic bison in behavior or habitat use.

Bison behave differently from cattle. For one they can survive winter without any additional feed because they can digest lower quality forage than cattle. Photo George Wuerthner

More recently, latching on to the concern about climate change, Savory argues that regenerative cattle grazing is the way to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Savory’s claims were welcomed by western ranchers and ranch proponents who thought they had a justification for more cows. Savory was the equivalent of the Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka rose to fame in the 1880s. Wovoka advocated that tribes practice the Ghost Dance which he asserted would cause the white man to disappear. Desperate to see the white presence removed, many Indians practiced the dance, but it failed to halt the American expansion and came to a disastrous conclusion with the killing of Sioux warriors at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Ultimately the Ghost Dance was based more on hope than reality. Savory was the rancher’s Wovoka.

One of the problems with intensive regenerative livestock management is that it requires more fencing, more water development and more labor than traditional livestock methods. All of these add to the cost of operations. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most of Savory’s original claims were eventually discounted by researchers who found over and over that cattle hoof compacted soils, decreasing water infiltration and contributing to desertification. Another problem associated with Savory’s claims is that it requires intensive management of livestock. Cows often had to be moved every few days, increasing the labor time and costs for a rancher. Plus, the creation of small paddocks with fencing and water development necessary to concentrate the cattle was an additional cost. [i]

Savory’s latest claims and the assertions of other rancher proponents for “regenerative” ranching, all have many of the same problems as in the past. In particular, his claims that livestock grazing can transfer and store carbon into the soil have come under scrutiny from numerous researchers.

Like a lot of “magic” most of the evidence for the wonders of regenerative ranching is based on testimonials, Youtube videos and the like, but very few peer-reviewed scientific papers.  A good critique of regenerative Ag claims by Washington State Professor Andrew McGuire  can be found here.

This NYT article is another “happy talk” article where continued exploitation of the land just happens to fit the dominant economic interests. The writer failed to note the following:

 

  1. That in most cases the cows emit more methane than carbon that is stored in the soil. All these regenerative supporters fail to do a full accounting for the carbon cycle which includes the methane emitted by livestock digression. Across the globe, methane from livestock (blue color in the chart below) is a major component of GHG emissions.
  2. The amount of carbon that can be stored is not constant. You can store more carbon in degraded soils and rangelands. But after a while, you “fill up” the soil carbon and can’t add additional carbon. It’s like having a glass with water. It does not endlessly accept carbon.
  3. Under cattle grazing, especially on the plains, grasses with shallow roots are favored by heavy grazing as advocated in the article. Since much of the carbon in grassland soils is stored in the roots, the carbon that is stored is shallow. Studies have shown that carbon in the top layers of the soil is often eliminated in drought years.
  4. The idea that ranchers are emulating bison is misleading. For one thing, bison numbers fluctuated dramatically depending on climate conditions. During drought years or harsh winters, their numbers could drop dramatically, or they might migrate hundreds or thousands of miles to other areas with better conditions. Ranchers can’t afford to modify their herds so significantly.
  5. Concentrating cattle compacts soils which inhibit carbon storage.
  6. Moving cattle daily as described in the article is not something that most ranchers can afford to do since it is labor-intensive. It is never going to be widely adopted, just as Allan Savory’s methods were found to be uneconomical for most ranchers due to the costs of labor and infrastructure. (Note the author mentions that the government and/or conservation groups supplied the money for the additional fencing, water developments, etc. to facilitate the movement of cattle from paddock to paddock).
  7. The impacts on wildlife are never mentioned. Are riparian areas being trashed? Are springs being “developed” to provide water to cattle? What about hiding cover for grouse and other wildlife–when grazed to the ground there is little cover left for wildlife. Are prairie dogs and coyotes being killed? Do all the fences built to facilitate cattle use inhibit wildlife migration or become “perches” used by avian predators to locate endangered wildlife like sage grouse? These are only a few of the collateral damage from livestock. Most western ranch operations rely on irrigated hay pastures to produce winter forage, which drains rivers, degrading aquatic ecosystems.
  8. Nowhere in the article does he validate the claims that carbon is actually being sequestered in the soil. Without actual measurements over time, no one can assert that livestock grazing is actually promoting carbon storage.
  9. Like the Condos vs Cows debate this is framed as ranching is better than plowing up the prairie for a wheat field. It is better but that doesn’t mean it’s the best or only alternative to plowing. Plowing is increased in part due to Ag policies that provide subsidies for the production of certain products like wheat. Ending those subsidies would reduce the incentive to plow up prairies.

Plus even the ranchers are getting a lot of subsidies to be “regenerative” ranchers whether it is emergency livestock feed and other government programs. In many cases, all these subsidies cost more than simply buying the land and taking it out of production forever. If you want to talk about solutions, you have to put all the solutions on the table. This is almost never done.

Studies have demonstrated that no grazing also results in carbon storage, and often at greater soil depth, and thus has more permanence, not to mention, no grazing avoided many of the other negatives on wildlife, plants, and soils mentioned above.

[i] Savory’s unsubstantiated claims should not be confused with multi paddock grazing

DD Briske, BT Bestelmeyer, JR Brown – Rangelands, 2014 –

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

14 Responses to A Response to NYT Keeping Cattle On The Move and Carbon In The Soil

  1. avatar Martha S Bibb says:

    As always a large industrial ag complex is controlling the narrative here. The devastation to our country by livestock is so huge that it’s difficult to pull all the threads together. One thing I see here in cowtown is the subsidies for cattle ranchers to buy plastic covers for their alfalfa for their cattle. The story is that the elk are devouring the stacked alfalfa. However the alfalfa is grown, watered and harvested on the wintering grounds of elk, deer and pronghorns. And the cattle devour all the forage in the higher elevations that the wildlife depends on as it migrated down to the valleys.
    Hohum…
    Also I love Josh Johnson’s math equation for manure…120lbs of manure per day per cow=total pounds per day of manure. It’s a lot of BS
    Best, Martha

  2. avatar Lyn McCormick says:

    Years ago, while having a conversation with former WWP director Jon Marvel about wild horses, he brought to my attention that cow pies smother to death anything trying to grow underneath them. And, I might add they dont degrade in the desert either, like horse manure “apples” which dry up, turn to dust and blow away. The birds also pick through horse manure for whole seeds which helps disburse the mass AND seeds. Just don’t use it to fertilize your garden 😊

  3. avatar David Neils says:

    Thanks for this detailed article, exposing a fake narrative. I’d like to see concrete steps that the reader can take locally to ensure wise management of public lands where cattle graze. In my time on the planet I’ve yet to see a rancher deal with the damage to riparian areas on public land. What can we do to address this?

  4. avatar Linda Peet Dugan says:

    This is so informative. Shame on the NYTs for promoting a bunch of pro-ranching propaganda. I hope that you or someone else with all this info will be writing a letter to the editor of the NYTs to give them and their readers the proper stance on the real environmental effects of ranching.

  5. avatar Pamela Williams says:

    Another thoughtful,educational,and provocative article. Thank you, George Weurthner.

  6. avatar Jane Marsh says:

    I checked the Bureau of Land Management’s Rangeland Administration System. Surprise (not really), the Obrechts are public lands ranchers. According to the Allotment Master Report, they have an allotment that encompasses 9,925 acres of federal public land; another 1,025 acres is state land; and 295 acres is private land, for a total of 11,245 acres and 2,336 AUMs. The article states that their ranch is 16,000 acres. Who knows if it’s an additional 16,000 acres to the public land.

    Whatever the case, it is disingenuous of the author of the NYT article to not mention the issue of public lands ranching in the article. Is it possible that he is unaware of the grazing program? The issue? Or unaware that the Obrechts are public lands ranchers?

    I am going to submit a Letter to the Editor to the NYT about this article. My batting average is .000 on LTE submissions getting published by the NYT, but hope springs eternal!

  7. avatar Mary Cooke says:

    I have lived in Eastern Oregon for 43 years and observed that all of George Wuerthner’s points are true. Also that heavy grazing promotes invasive weeds.

  8. avatar Rondi Lightmark says:

    Clearly this author is way behind the times on the issue of regenerative agriculture, but nevertheless having a run on Allan Savory, the naysayers favorite target. Savory’s famous TED talk, with more than 5 million views to date, helped launch the regenerative agriculture movement, which is growing by leaps and bounds worldwide. Why? Because it’s about so much more than carbon emissions. Because it is a proven practice for restoring soils, ecosystems and water tables. It is so successful, that Audubon is putting its stamp of approval on Grassfed beef in supermarkets in 5 states, with a goal of certifying 2 million acres by 2030. https://www.audubon.org/news/national-audubon-society-announces-largest-market-based-regenerative-grasslands. Their motto: NO COWS, NO GRASS, NO BIRDS.
    It is so successful that JBS beef, the world’s second largest beef exporter, is committing 100 million to R & D to support and develop regenerative grazing operations by 2030. General Mills, even MacDonald’s, are funding studies and working towards providing regenerative farming for their products.
    The author does not “get” that the issue is soil. Industrial agriculture and bad grazing practices have destroyed so much soil that 70% of the grasslands on the planet are turning to desert. Desert = drought= equals starvation = wars. We don’t have time for this type of silly argument. There’s tons of proof about the efficacy of Savory’s method if you’re willing to watch documentaries like “Kiss the Ground,” narrated by Woody Harrelson, or to type that phrase regenerative agriculture into YouTube. Ranchers are jumping on the bandwagon because their cattle are healthier, their lands are healing–and by the way, ruminants evolved with grasslands 55 million years ago, so it’s not as though they don’t know what to do when you put them on pasture. You do, however, need to manage them in such a way that they graze efficiently and do not overgraze.
    Ranchers are too lazy to do this, you say? They make money with regenerative agriculture. Way more than with the industrial status quo. Check out Gabe Brown to hear from the master rancher who has transformed his South Dakota lands using Savory’s method.
    350 million acres of grasslands in the US are privately owned and some of them are public lands. So what? They are turning to desert too.
    https://soilhealthacademy.org/blog/time-for-change-the-compelling-case-for-regenerative-agriculture/

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      I will never eat grass fed beef. Well, I don’t any kind of beef.

      Grass fed is the worst kind of beef for the environment, especially the climatic part of it. It’s nice if the cattle are healthier; if that is true. It’s better if cattle become extinct instead, except perhaps in certain reserves protected by some ineffective law like the Endangered Species Act.

      Give me Impossible Burger and Beyond Beef . . . and three cheers for all the recombinant DNA needed to recreate other meats.

      • avatar Rondi Lightmark says:

        Ralph, if you’re a vegetarian, then it sounds like you’re trying to make a case for everyone to go vegetarian, which is a common reason why these kinds of articles get written. But you did not make any kind a good case about grassfed beef from an environmental perspective. Especially not from an environmental perspective if you think that fake meat is good for the climate. Or your health. It’s full of additives, it has a very high carbon footprint, but worst of all, it is from industrially grown vegetables that destroy soil,habitat for bugs, birds, And the many other creatures that live in healthy ecosystems, plus everything else I said. There are also an awful lot of writers out there now that are being encouraged by people like Bill Gates, who has invested millions in the creation of fake meat, to say bad things about grassfed beef. Are you one of them? Because he doesn’t care at all about the environment he just cares about his bottom line.

        • avatar Mary Finelli says:

          There’s plenty to eat besides meat or meat analogues – plant-derived foods that can be produced much more humanely and sustainably than animals/animal products can be, and with far less pollution.

          • avatar Rondi Lightmark says:

            I don’t care whether people eat meat or don’t eat meat, what I care about is the relentless drumbeat of propaganda that cattle are destroying the planet. The real issue is industrial agriculture, which includes plant agriculture and animal agriculture, is destroying the planet. We should see overwhelming numbers of articles about this. But people are brainwashed into thinking they can happily eat vegetarian or vegan or less meat, as long as they substitute fake meat and rice and beans–or whatever, without ever dealing with the real issue, which is how their diet is produced. And if it’s through industrial agriculture, they are contributing to the destruction of ecosystems and wildlife and 40% of our insects, bees, etc. Very little of this can be blamed on beef–it is the poisoning of our soils, which is far worse.
            Regenerative agriculture is a fast-growing movement that seeks to turn this around–and it does include using cattle to restore millions of acres around the globe. That is what we need to pay attention to, the absolute necessity of restoring our soils, because that’s what will destroy us if we don’t.

        • avatar Mark L says:

          Even if meat alternatives (or beef alternatives) have drawbacks, what’s wrong with having more alternatives that what we have now (desertification through overgrazing)?. Ironically isn’t a diversity of possibly negative issues better than a singular problem that overwhelmes all others?

          • avatar Rondi Lightmark says:

            To me, it all depends on what the dominant message is out there. There have been meat alternatives for a long time — like the veggie burger. No big deal. It’s not about your preferred diet.

            But what I need to hear is not that cattle are destroying the planet, so eat fake meat, impose a tax on meat eaters, get rid of cattle around the globe, because that is just a very clever and evil way to take over the food industry even more.

            Already, soils are so depleted, they don’t even have 1/2 the nutrition they had 50 years ago. If soils are not healthy, our food won’t be healthy and guess what?

            More than sixty percent of the US population has some sort of chronic disease! And nearly half of our children. We’re talking diabetes, cancer, allergies, autism, asthma, chronic depression, obesity, and so much more. And meanwhile, the US dietary guidelines are created not for our needs, but by a group with special interests who rate Cheerios as more nutritious than a burger! Do you know that the military can’t fulfill its annual quotas because they can’t find recruits who aren’t too obese??????

            One out of three men are sterile. One out of four women can’t get pregnant.

            And we are being told it’s our fault, while everyone in the food business and Big Pharma is getting rich on our misery.

            We have to start seeing through the BS and fear-mongering.

            Cattle, with managed grazing, can restore soils, water tables, ecosystems, and deserve to live good lives as Nature intended.

            Watch the video “Kiss the Ground.” It’s the real story, not the one that Bill Gates is paying for.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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