A Full Accounting of Livestock Costs–Response to Bay Nature Article

Both the article Range of Possibilities by Kelly Cash, followed up by the pro-livestock piece Public Lands Need Cattle to Meet Conservation Goals by Sheila Barry which appeared in Bay Nature Magazine  imply that livestock production is an overall positive activity for California public lands and wildlife.

The pro livestock articles can be found here: https://baynature.org/articles/pro-public-lands-need-cattle-to-meet-conservation-goals/ and https://baynature.org/articles/range-of-possibilities/

An excellent response by Karen Klitz and Jeff Miller is here. http://baynature.org/articles/con-cattle-grazing-is-incompatible-with-conservation/

I have been following livestock issues for decades and heard many times all the assertions and arguments for why livestock production is a “benefit. Usually the benefits can only be realized in small areas or with widespread collateral damage to soils, wildlife, water, and vegetation.

For instance the idea that grazing can reduce wildfires only works if you so completely denude a landscape—so that grass is so short it looks like a putting green. However at that point there is nothing for other wildlife to eat, and no hiding cover for small mammals or birds to avoid predators, not to mention the high density of livestock needed to accomplish this feat compacts soils reducing water infiltration. Not to mention that it’s impossible to predict where a fire will occur, so we would guarantee these impacts across the land while the probability a fire will encounter the fuel reduction is small.

Cattle are an exotic alien species (just like cheat grass) that are consuming the vast majority of forage on our public lands, and this can’t help but reduce the carrying capacity for native herbivores from grasshoppers to elk. However, livestock’s negative impacts go well beyond excessive removal of plants. Livestock production involves more than merely the cropping of grasses.

Livestock trampling and cropping of vegetation is the primary cause of decline of the lush riparian corridors along rivers and stream that are critical habitat to some 70-80 percent of the state’s wildlife.

The diversion of water from rivers to grow irrigated hay, alfalfa and other forage crops, as well as the dams that block rivers to create irrigation water storage, are both detrimental to aquatic ecosystems and many fishes such as salmon and trout. And despite swimming pools, golf courses, and large urban centers, the largest consu

The killing of predators like coyotes and the now extirpated wolf is yet another well-documented impact of livestock production.

The transmission of disease such as pneumonia from domestic sheep to wild bighorn sheep is another deadly consequence of livestock production.

The spread of exotic plants like cheatgrass or yellow star thistle is yet another negative influence. Livestock are also one of the major sources of water pollution on many public as well as private rangelands.

Livestock are among the main sources of methane, a major greenhouse gas contributing to global climate change.

This is only the beginning of a litany of negative effects of livestock production.

I have read dozens of articles and news items about how ranching can benefit the environment. Altering the timing, stocking density, movement of livestock, and other management changes can often improve things for wildlife and the land. However, this doesn’t mean livestock production is a net positive influence on the land. Nearly all of these articles, including the Bay Nature piece, focus on a handful of particularly motivated ranchers who often have outside financial resources that permit them to REDUCE livestock impacts. A reduction in impacts is not the same as no impact.

For example in the “Range of Possibilities” article, the author noted that “Point Blue documented a 72 percent increase in where native perennial grasses were found on Tom Kat Ranch after the landowners changed their cattle grazing to give the land more rest.” The article then notes this resulted in a benefit for wildlife and plants, as well as greater water infiltration.

However, what they documented was a reduction (i.e. more rest from livestockin livestock grazing impacts.

This raises the natural question, how much greater improvement might we see if there were no livestock grazing?  In the example mentioned above, the proponents of ranching provide no comparison with a non-grazed pasture where you might find even greater habitat recovery for birds and wildlife, and more water infiltration. This is a very common ploy by livestock advocates–to reduce livestock impacts in some way, then proclaim that such and such “improves” with livestock grazing.

It’s like saying that someone who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and shifted to one pack a day saw an “improvement” in their health. While the finding that smoking less cigarettes does improve one’s health, it is disingenuous to leave a person with the impression that cigarettes are the reason for improvement in health or to neglect to raise the notion that no cigarettes might lead to even greater health benefits.

It is this kind of information that obfuscates the issue of livestock production benefits and costs. You can always find “benefits” for almost every negative activity. To go back to my tobacco example, I’ve heard the cigarette industry spokespersons saying one benefit of smoking is that it depresses appetite, thus can reduce obesity in smokers. This may be true, but taken as a whole, most medical people would suggest that there are other ways to reduce obesity that have fewer

collateral injuries than smoking cigarettes.

There is no doubt that one can manage livestock to reduce livestock impacts, but proclaiming such reductions as a benefit is hardly an honest appraisal. In far too many instances, there is no attempt to determine whether a complete elimination of livestock might be far better for the land and wildlife, particularly as it applies to public lands. It is somewhat like heralding how dams on rivers can be “improved” for wildlife by changing the timing and amount of flows of water releases or putting a fish ladder on the barrier. No doubt one can improve things for fisheries by such alterations in dam operations, but most hydrologist, fish biologists, and others would argue that the river would be better off without a dam in the first place.

If a full accounting is taken, the cost of livestock production vastly outweighs any imagined or real benefits. To respond to many of these assertions is often difficult because there may be a grain of truth under very narrowly defined circumstances, but exceptions do not invalidate the generalization that livestock production has done tremendous damage to native ecosystems and wildlife.

Finding a few species or circumstances where livestock benefits the environment is somewhat analogous to suggesting that radiation benefits human health because it can be used to kill cancer cells, and then implying radiation is a good thing for people by ignoring the collateral damage to the body.

The pro-livestock advocates featured in these articles used similar selective information to create the illusion that livestock production is a positive influence upon California’s landscape.

To give one example of how the statements in these articles distort the truth, take Sheila Barry’s comment that “Not a single documented plant or animal in California has gone extinct due to livestock grazing.”

In truth, there have been very few actual species extinctions in the entire West. Only one California vertebrate, the Santa Barbara song sparrow, is completely extinct, (though a number of species like the grizzly bear and wolf have been extirpated from California). So her statement without context is deceptive.

Nevertheless, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of plants and animals that are declining in numbers and in jeopardy due to direct and indirect damage from livestock production across the West, including in California.

To give just one example, let’s review how livestock production has led to the decline of the bi-state sage grouse population found on the Nevada-California border. As with many aspects of livestock production, the impacts to the land and wildlife involve more than simply the excess removal of vegetation or what we term “overgrazing.”

Indeed, you don’t have to overgraze the land to negatively impact sage grouse. Cattle graze away the hiding cover (grass and forbs) that protects nests and adult sage grouse so that they are more vulnerable to predators like ravens and golden eagles. Research has shown that the minimum amount of grass height needed to preclude serious sage grouse losses is at least 7 inches and 10 or more inches is really the optimum. Even moderate stocking levels of livestock often result in grazed grass heights shorter than 7 inches. Yet a pasture with 5-6 inches of residual grass after grazing would hardly be termed “overgrazed” by most range managers, but in terms of effective cover for the grouse, the habitat is already well below minimum standards for grouse survival.

Despite their name, sage grouse chicks rely heavily on insects found in wet meadows and riparian areas during their first few months of life. What has degraded and diminished more wet meadows and riparian areas in the sage grouse’s habitat than any other factor? Livestock grazing and trampling.

Fences are yet another way livestock impact sage grouse. Poor fliers, sage grouse collide with fences with amazing frequency and suffer high mortality as a result. Fences also serve as look out posts for avian predators like eagles. Why are there fences out there in otherwise treeless terrain? For livestock.

Frequent fire in sage brush habitat is another cause for sage grouse decline. Cheatgrass, an exotic alien grass that increases fire frequency in sagebrush habitat, is spread as a direct consequence of livestock production. Cattle hooves trample biocrusts that normally cover the soil. Biocrusts reduce the establishment of cheatgrass.

Often the presumed benefits of livestock for a species is only due to the overall negative losses of suitable habitat resulting from on-going and past livestock production. For instance, Sheila Barry mentions the California red-legged frog as benefiting from livestock. In some instances, the water troughs and stock ponds established for cattle are in fact used by the frog.

However, the reason frogs must resort to these artificial features like stock ponds is because so much of their natural habitat has been degraded, diminished, and destroyed by livestock.

Livestock trampling of riparian areas has degraded much of the native streamside cover used by the frogs to hide from predators, as well as reducing habitat for the insects that are the primary food of frogs. Loss of riparian vegetation and stream-side vegetation also results in higher water temperatures that can benefit non-native bull frogs which compete with and even eat the red-legged frog. The soil erosion resulting from livestock fills streams with sediments, reducing the depth of pool habitat to the detriment of the frog. Bank trampling reduces the undercut channels that frogs use to hide from predators. The deposition of manure and urine by streams can cause nutrition loading which can increase bacteria harmful to frogs. Livestock trampling of egg masses and larvae is also a problem in some instances.

In the absence of livestock-caused habitat degradation, the red-legged frog might not have to resort to human built features like stock ponds for its survival.

One of the “benefits’ currently in vogue is that idea that grass-fed beef can reduce global warming through carbon sequestration. The theory is that grazing grasses causes them to produce more carbon biomass (roots) which is stored in the soil. However, this only occurs if there is significant water for additional growth—a problem in arid western rangelands. Plus the accumulation of carbon in soils—if it even occurs—is slow, taking decades or centuries. And if grazing causes any soil erosion or replacement of native perennial grasses with annual exotics—a common problem in California ranchlands, there is usually a loss of carbon, not a net gain. And there are many studies that demonstrate greater soil carbon accumulation where livestock grazing is excluded.

Furthermore, any slow accumulation of soil carbon—again even it occurs–must be balanced against the current methane emissions resulting from cattle during digestion. Because grass is more difficult to digest and lower in nutrient content than other forage like corn-fed to CAFO-produced livestock, grass-fed animals require many more months before they reach slaughter weights, emitting methane the entire time. Since methane has many times the heat trapping ability compared to carbon dioxide, livestock emissions are one of the biggest contributors to global warming now.

While better livestock management might be a worthwhile goal on private rangelands, it is questionable if any livestock production is worth the costs to public resources on public rangelands. If full cost accounting is done of all the real ecological as well as economic costs of subsidized livestock grazing, it is doubtful if livestock production makes any sense or any contribution to the overall ecological well-being of our public rangelands.



  1. Scott Avatar

    The problem with this essay is that it makes sweeping statements. Whether livestock is a benefit or not is completely dependent on management. So most the things in this essay could be true or not true, depends on the management. However, one particular point is COMPLETELY wrong. I am actually surprised to find this in an educated environmentalist’s essay. It is because the author has a very poor understanding of the grassland grazer symbiosis whether domestic or wild.

    Grasslands sequester carbon at a higher rate than other biomes not because of biomass, but rather because root exudates feed a larger soil food web. Part of that food web includes methanotrophs. That means in no way does grazing livestock increase net methane emissions. In point of fact, by increasing dramatically the methanotroph population in the soil, grasslands grazed by animals actually have a net negative effect on atmospheric methane. In fact that biome is the largest net methane sink per acre on the planet. CAFO’s although producing slightly less gross methane emission, still are a net emissions source.

    Also, since those root exudates eventually get excreted as glomalin and humus, the effect is actually greater in arid and semi arid areas. The reason being that they dramatically improve the water holding characteristics of the soil. Since water is limited in those climatic conditions, the water holding characteristic of the soil are even more important than wetter regions.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I looked briefly at your comment. At a glance I see confusion in that it isn’t clear when you are writing about grassland grazed by animals (that is almost all grassland) and grassland grazed by livestock, which is grassland grazed by a large herbivore that is not a native animal anywhere.

      Grazing animals are far from interchangable.

      Living in the West as I do, I am familiar with grazing on public lands and the phrase “properly managed, cattle can be a benefit.” Without arguing whether cattle can be a benefit, properly managed cattle grazing is not common on our public lands.

    2. Sam Avatar

      Well, yes, belowground carbon storage is greater than aboveground, but how does C get into the soil, by aboveground carbon sequestration and translocation to soil. In the West grazing intolerant species reduces the amount of leaf tissue which then reduce the root biomass leading to less storage by root systems. And transition from bunchgrass with their massive root system which ties up carbon, to annual grasses which have a large aboveground to below ground ratio, reduce carbon sequestration. And loss of biotic crust may also reduce carbon storage.
      Increases in sagebrush due to over grazing also reduce the soil carbon, since sagebrush has a greater aboveground to belowground biomass ratio. Just the opposite of bunchgrasses.

  2. David Avatar

    There are a little more than 5 million head of cattle in California. The beef production is worth about 1.4 billion dollars annually. Dairy is worth about 4.5 billion. About 40% of California’s land is grazed, over half of which is public land.

    There are about 5 thousand Tule Elk in the state. Most of them are hunted. Others are confined to small parkland areas. The population is severely and purposefully limited and, as far as this resident of the state can figure out, the limits are set to keep the elk from contacting cattle (for fear of spread of disease and complaints that the elk will reduce forage for the cows).

    I am very supportive of the efforts a lot of people are putting into sustainable use of range lands. For the approximately 40 million acres of California that are under livestock, these new techniques could improve health of soils, species diversity, etc. And I can see the argument that ungrazed public lands (which are a tiny portion of California’s grasslands)could benefit from well managed grazing practices. But I can not see the argument for putting cows on ungrazed public lands rather than putting back the Tule Elk.

  3. Scott Avatar

    The trick is to understand that domestic species have lost most of their instinctive behavior. Whether beef dairy sheep or goats, their behavior is largely dependant on what we humans force on them.

    A good example being riparian areas. Wild grazers tend to avoid riparian areas as much as possible, only using them to drink and quickly moving away. The reason is that they instinctively know it is a primary predator ambush site. So wild animals seldom overgraze these areas until there is nothing else to graze, as in a drought. Domestic species have lost this instinct, so it is up to the manager of domestic herds to move the herd away, with a shepherd/cowhand or with fencing.

    If public land is negatively impacted by livestock, (I understand it often is) then it is always the fault of the manager, not the livestock. But whether managed perfectly or just average, in no case is grazing more environmentally destructive than a feedlot.

    “The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound.” Allan Savory

    As far as elk and other wildlife go, livestock most certainly can be used to benefit wildlife.(Managed properly) The only limitation to this is the knowledge skill and experience of the manager. Here is just one example of this:

    1. Professor Sweat Avatar
      Professor Sweat

      “The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound.” Allan Savory

      Savory is talking out of his ass. There is no need to consume beef. It is a luxury item we take for granted in America. We don’t need cattle on feedlots and we don’t need them on public land.

      “As far as elk and other wildlife go, livestock most certainly can be used to benefit wildlife.”

      I would seem as if the native Tule elk are confined in many places and not allowed to roam freely and expand in range, for fear of competition with domestic cattle. This is to their detriment. They have a very positive effect on the perennial grasslands and reduce velvet grass.


      1. Ed Loosli Avatar
        Ed Loosli

        Prof. Sweat:
        Thank you for setting Scott straight. +1

      2. Scott Avatar

        Explain to me how mismanagement of an Elk herd somehow repudiates anything Savory claims? Since Savory teaches how to run livestock with wildlife to the benefit of both. You’ll never see Savory advocating fencing in wildlife or fencing out wildlife either one. He runs his herds on the same land at the same time. Same with the reference I used from Dr Dan Undersander. It shows how to manage land to the benefit of both wildlife and livestock.

        Interesting that you do understand that Native Elk can benefit perennial pasture. So at least you do understand that undergrazing is just as big a problem as overgrazing. That’s a start at least.

        To show that this same effect can also be found with properly managed livestock look here:

        and here:

        In both those you will see that properly managed livestock outperform both conventional models and stocking rates as well as fallow. Much like the Elk benefits the perennial pasture and the improved pasture then benefits the Elk, so can livestock tap into this symbiosis. However, it does require proper management. I am not limiting my definition of “proper management” to only livestock. The improper management of wildlife on public land is equally prevalent, as your example proves.

        1. Professor Sweat Avatar
          Professor Sweat

          My example was purely to illustrate the negative effects the ranching industry has had on the native elk in one area (a National Seashore none the less) where an uneasy compromise between the two uses is being attempted.

          “Much like the Elk benefits the perennial pasture and the improved pasture then benefits the Elk, so can livestock tap into this symbiosis.”

          The reality is that with more cattle on the public lands will leave less room for elk herds to expand. Pure and simple, there will be less quality forage to go around. “Elk and Deer Diets in a Coastal Prairie-Scrub Mosaic, California” published by Allen Press and Society for Range Management mentions the combination of drought and cattle grazing at Pt. Reyes being the cause in copper deficiencies in a confined elk herd.

          Savory can practice his trade any way he wants to, but he doesn’t speak for the majority of ranchers and their methods.

          1. Scott Avatar

            Well you are right about that. Savory doesn’t speak for the livestock industry. Rather he is lobbying for change just as you are. The big advantage is that the changes he advocates are both science based and advantageous to both the livestock operator and wildlife.

            Too long the two sides have negotiated from unscientific paradigms of scarcity. The incorrect assumption being that it is a net sum zero equation. If the rancher should benefit, automatically the wildlife should suffer and vice versa. Biomes are not closed systems. It is absolutely not a net sum zero equation. Both wildlife and livestock benefit from improved management simultaneously.

    2. Sam Avatar

      However, the problem still exists that even on flat terrain, cattle still cause detrimental effects to the habitat, spread weeds, shifts in successional stages, etc. The native grasses all are injured by repeated grazing, growing points elevated during the most sustainable to of growth. The West just was not meant to support larger domestic ungulates.

  4. Todd Shuman Avatar
    Todd Shuman

    Scott’s claims concerning methane and methanotrophs are not borne out by science. There are a couple of things that people following this debate should look at:

    First, look at


    An excerpt from the above link is posted below:

    “A paper published last year surveyed areas in temperate, Mediterranean and sub-tropical regions of Australia with sites in both forested and pastured land [and]found a range of absorption [of methane] per hectare of -0.8 to 2.6 kg of methane per annum in pasture and 0.08 to 4.3 kg per annum in forest. That’s right, kilograms in the peer reviewed journal and tonnes in the Australian. I’d been meaning to chase that discrepancy for months and finally did it when I decided to write this piece.”

    Compare this with the 60-71 kg CH4/yr that a steer emits.

    Also check out


    Finally, there’s the Wang et al. (2015) study from China (attached) that found soil methane absorption a little higher under “moderate grazing” than no grazing. But it still offset the methane emitted by the grazing sheep by at most 8%.

    There is no peer-reviewed science that documents methanotrophs absorbing more than a small fraction of the methane that a single steer emits in a year!

    1. Scott Avatar

      None? Think again.


      “Emissions of nitrous oxide and methane reduced by 89 and 55% the atmospheric sink activity of the intensive and extensive treatments, respectively”

      1. Todd Shuman Avatar
        Todd Shuman


        The study you cited uses insanely low, outdated GWP CO2 equivalency coefficients for both Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (NO2), over increasingly irrelevant long-term timelines, without feedback effects incorporated into the coefficients. These numbers grossly underestimate the global warming potential of methane and nitrous oxide released by livestock. You need to do better than cite this obsolete study if you seriously want to defend your argument.

        From P 50 of Allard, Soussana, et al.

        “The total GHG budget was calculated by adding CH4 and N2O emissions to NEE values using the global warming potential (GWP) of each gas at the 100 years time horizon (IPCC, 2001). This budget does not include organic C fluxes (e.g. FLW).

        Thus GHG =NEE + FCH4 X kCH4 þ + FN2O X kN2O where (IPCC, 2001):

        kN2O = 127; since 1 kgN2O-N = 127 kgCO2-C

        kCH4 = 8.36; since 1 kg CH4-C = 8.36 kgCO2-C”

        If one compares with 2013 IPCC numbers for a 100 year interval for methane, Allard et al. underestimate CH4 dramatically. The new CH4 coefficients are 28 or 34, about 4 times larger than what Allard et al. used. If you use the 20 year interval, the CH4 coefficients are 84 or 86, about 10 times larger than what Allard et al. used. New NO2 coefficients are even more extreme compared to what Allard et al. used.

        Todd Shuman

        1. Scott Avatar

          All the better then, because properly managed grazing increases the sink potential of the soil. If those numbers underestimate the warming potential of CH4, then reducing the CH4 has a greater positive impact on AGW too.

          You do understand the mechanism right? That grass will decay one way or another, grazed or not. That decaying grass will produce methane either way, grazed or not. But what properly managed grazing does is improve the soil biology or “soil health”. Part of that is a dramatic increase in soil methanotrophs. They provide two very critical ecosystem services for the grassland biome. They sequester nitrogen, and they oxidize methane as food. So while grazing does increase slightly the methane produced, it also increases the methane oxidized by methanotrophs. The NET effect is negative. Please don’t be confused by obfuscating research put out and sponsored primarily by the industrial meat industry in defense of their CAFO system.

          You can’t just measure cow farts separately, and then measure grasslands separately, and then assume that one is higher than the other so therefore grazing produces more methane. Because when you actually put that cow on the grass and measure the system as a whole, methane decreases (due to skyrocketing methanotroph populations). It is an emergent property of the grazier grassland symbiosis.

          1. Todd Shuman Avatar
            Todd Shuman


            What is your source for your claim that livestock grazing/production generates a “skyrocketing methanotroph population” that will supposedly consume the 120-130 pounds of methane that each steer belches out per year on the range? (Milking dairy cows belch out almost twice as much methane, by the way.) I looked through your previous reference, and there is nothing about methanotrophs, though perhaps it is implied that this result is happening. In any case, the other two studies that I cited and provided links for demonstrate that methanotrophs absorb only a small fraction of the methane emitted by livestock — and the methanotrophic absorbtion was directly studied in those two studies. Am I missing something here. I encourage others to weigh in on this debate. My time is limited on this

            1. Scott Avatar

              My original source for that knowlege comes from the USDA-NRCS soils scientists. I think it may have been Jay Fuher but don’t quote me on that, I can’t remember for sure. Might have been another of their soil scientists. However, I think the information comes from case studies. As far as I know, the case studies have not been published in peer reviewed journals yet.

              On the other hand a quick Google Scholar search does easily back this up. Here is the first one on the list: “Warming and grazing significantly enhanced the potential CH(4) oxidation activity. There were significantly negative correlations between methanotrophic abundance and soil moisture and between methanotrophic abundance and NH(4)-N content.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21847510

              This information is really not all that new to soil scientists, but apparently it is a novel concept to climate scientists and ecologists attempting to blame the cow, instead of how the cow is raised.

              1. Todd Shuman Avatar
                Todd Shuman


                I downloaded and read the Chinese study to which your link led me. Thanks for the source. (And I state this sincerely. I perceive great value in working through these issues with you.) Relatively warmer soil and lower moisture seem to be the primary factors that enhanced methanotroph populations in this study. While there was a statistically-significant difference in the warm areas between grazing and no grazing, the absolute differences in methanotroph numbers were not that great: 3.4 X 10[8] versus 3.1 X 10[8. In the non-warmed plots, the methanotroph population was actually higher in the non-grazed area than in the grazed area. And the study did not even look at how much methane would actually be consumed by those methanotrophs in relation to how much methane would be emitted by livestock. Given the results of the other more recent Chinese study documenting that methanotrophs consumed only a small fraction of methane emitted by livestock in the study
                (“Methane uptake and emissions in a typical steppe grazing system during the grazing season”
                Xiaoya Wang, Yingjun Zhang, Ding Huang, Zhiqiang Li, Xiaoqing Zhang, Atmospheric Environment 105 (2015) 14-21), I still assert that you have not met the burden of proof that you need to meet in order to successfully defend your major claims.

                1. Scott Avatar

                  True, but you seem to be missing the whole emergent properties of a complex system thing again. If you look at the Texas study I gave you earlier it shows the improvement in Carbon. Carbon acts like a sponge improving the water holding capacity. That was shown by the Idaho study I cited earlier. Carbon also adsorbs nutrients and makes them available throughout the growing season with the mycorrhizal fungi symbiosis in the rhizosphere. This improves plant growth due to both increases in water and available nutrients. It also creates habitat by improving pore space with Glomalin. This improved habitat combined with predigested biomass from herbivores triggers a whole host of microbiology, including methanotrophs. Methanotrophs not only oxidize methane, they also fix nitrogen. Other predatory microbiology in the soil food web release that nitrogen when feeding on the methanotrophs, releasing it and other nutrients in a process called mineralization. That combined with the water benefits increases plant growth. That means more biomass for grazing! It is not a net sum zero equation, it is an increasing regenerative living biological system. All this complexity is just skimming the surface! So it is impossible to make statements comparing the methane produced by a herbivore separate from the system taken as a whole. Adding the herbivore changes the system! The title of this thread contains the words “full accounting” and I believe that really is key. You must look at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.

                  Maybe this study will explain it better for you. It show clearly the differences in methanotroph activity in a cropping system, a savanna, and a forest. Notice that the grazed savanna oxidizes methane many times greater. The NET effect of the system taken as a whole is the critical point here. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0038071794903131

                  “Soil from a calcareous site (pH 7.4) under deciduous woodland (Broadbalk Wilderness wooded section) oxidized CH4 6 times faster than the arable plot (pH 7.8) with the highest activity in the adjacent Broadbalk Wheat Experiment (with uptake rates of −80 and −13 nl CH4 1−1 h−1, respectively). The CH4 uptake rate was only 20% of that in the woodland in an adjacent area that had been uncultivated for the same period but kept as rough grassland by the annual removal of trees and shrubs and, since 1960, grazed during the summer by sheep.”

                  You’ll notice that the grazed savanna biome was the most capable of oxidizing methane and a NET carbon sink.

                2. Jay Avatar

                  “You’ll notice that the grazed savanna biome was the most capable of oxidizing methane and a NET carbon sink.”

                  So are you suggesting the arid west is a “savanna”? You ever been to Idaho in summer?

                  Maybe cows are the solution to global warming–keep clearcutting the Amazon for more cows!

                3. Scott Avatar

                  The top successional biome in the clear cut Amazon area is a tropical rain forest, therefore the best agricultural systems to use there would be a permaculture food forest, or to replant and let it go back to jungle. (which will eventually mature into forest)

                  In Idaho though, certainly livestock can be used as a tool to restore soil health. That’s an entirely different biome. Depending on what part of Idaho we are talking about, probably pasture cropping would be the best agricultural system in the areas that the top successional biome is either grassland or savanna. Or alternately maybe something like this:

                4. Jay Avatar

                  Scott, the soil health is not the issue. Precipication is–a large portion of publically grazed public lands in Idaho falls in the southern half of the state, which probably averages(taking an educated guess) 10 to 13 or 14 inches of precipitation. We basically get a spring flush of green (eaten in large part by cows) and then everything cures until fall when we get another brief green-up if the precipitation comes; if you were to take a drive through the state, you’d see the lovely red hue of mature cheatgrass brought on by intensive grazing of livestock. Sounds like you’re in Oklahoma–yes, that’s good grassland which is adapted to grazing (i.e., historical bison range). This is borderline desert that isn’t cut out for widespread domestic livestock.

                  I don’t really care what the methane balance is–it’s really irrelevant in much of the arid west.

                5. Scott Avatar

                  Invasive cheatgrass is a symptom of improper management. It was a symptom of mismanagement where it came from in southern Asia, Europe and northern Africa, and it is a symptom of mismanagement in our West.

                  Perennial grasses and forbs can out compete the annual cheatgrass, but only if the management is done correctly.

                  It is VERY important that the grassland be managed so as to prevent both overgrazing and undergrazing. Then native perennials will stage a comeback. But you absolutely must manage with the defined goal to reduce cheatgrass and increase natives.

          2. Todd Shuman Avatar
            Todd Shuman


            I also question your claim that most grass decomposition results in methane. That mainly occurs only in anaerobic environments. Most grass on the plains dries out in aerobic environments, and most likely produces CO2 , not CH4. A decent discussion of this matter can be found at


  5. Rich Avatar


    As a farmer I have seen my share of worn out dirt after it has been trampled by cattle and sheep. However I can’t recall seeing worn out dirt in areas that are grazed solely by native wildlife with a predator base that has not been annihilated to protect the trampling domestic herds. With all due respect I do not believe that the cattle trampled areas in Point Reyes NS are actually benefiting any other animal, much less the Tule Elk or the cattle themselves. You can drag out all the smoke and mirrors you want and Kabuki dance to your heart’s delight, but if you believe the cattle grazed areas in the PRNS are better quality grasslands and are of greater benefit to other native wildlife, clearly you are smoking too many funny cigarettes. Perhaps you should write a paper documenting the scarcity of native wildlife before, and the robust abundance and variety of wildlife now, because of the positive impact domestic cattle and sheep have had on the PRNS and other public lands.

    1. Scott Avatar

      Just because a thing wasn’t done, doesn’t mean a thing can’t be done. I also am a small farmer, and the methods I use are quite different from my neighbors. One might ask my neighbors if what I am doing is possible, and most likely unless they have seen my crops or talked to me they would claim that it is impossible.

      In fact I have had neighbors drive right up to me and yell at me claiming what I am doing is impossible. Maybe they believe I use smoke and mirrors too? But I have tree frogs living in my tomatoes! Salamanders and lizards between the rows. I didn’t put them there. They were not there before I started cropping. But they somehow got here as the ecosystem recovered. Even the land that was fallow for years has not even close to the biodiversity of my crop fields. When was the last time you picked Morel mushrooms from your fields?

      So you just keep on believing that anything you haven’t seen personally is impossible, and I’ll keep on advocating people do the impossible anyway.

      1. Ed Loosli Avatar
        Ed Loosli

        So, since you claim adding exotic domestic cattle to land improves it as wildlife habitat – tell me; How many head of livestock do you have grazing in your tomato fields so the land will be improved for wildlife?
        The cattle lands of Pt. Reyes Nat. Seashore are basically grazed down to dirt by mid-Summer, so there is not much left for wildlife like native tule elk.

        1. Scott Avatar

          Right now? None. But my system is designed to add livestock at a future date. Also in the past when I farmed in another state, I had animals incorporated into the rotation, beef goats and chickens.

          Currently I have leased some land, an old abandoned farm that was “farmed out” and am slowly expanding year by year and using the profits from the previous year to expand. Once I get to the right scale I will be able to incorporate animal husbandry and accelerate the regeneration of soil health dramatically.

          A similar system, but with commodity crops instead of vegetables can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yPjoh9YJMk

          Me and Gabe have been trading ideas by phone a few years now. He has the scale already. I don’t yet. But the principles of soil health are the same at any scale.

          Right now I use mowers and brush hog, to simulate the grazing impact and compost piles to simulate an ungulate rumen. Not as beneficial as actual animals but best I can do until I get this operation up to scale.

          1. Ed Loosli Avatar
            Ed Loosli

            And you plan on having lots of deer, elk, pronghorn and/or bison happily sharing your land with your cows and tomatoes?? It seems to me you are doing an outstanding job of creating as ecological friendly a farm as you can and I congratulate you for that. However, as far as native wildlife goes, especially ungulates, I think they would be happier with native plants without the exotics.

          2. Nancy Avatar

            Scott, I applaud your attempts to care and be in tune with the land while at the same producing crops but sadly too many areas out here in this part of the west, are abused by a few who raise cattle.

            I’ve got two ranches just down the road from me and the area right around both ranches, looks like a feed lot, but hey its their property, right?

            What concerns me is the creek that runs thru the valley and thru those “feed lots” Willows rounded, the banks of the creek broken down by cattle in and out of it, for miles.

            But, I digress.

            I could take you to dozens of areas on forest land here (public land) and its the same kind of situation after a couple of months. The grass is lush and plentiful in the spring when cattle are dumped on public lands but they don’t stray far from water sources so the creeks and springs, forage, take a real beating right off the bat.
            Most big wildlife (elk, deer, antelope) migrates out of this area come winter, so when they do come back, after crossing hundreds of fence lines and they have to compete (with cattle) for grasses in the summer months. Course many of them will be shot come hunting season because they have no choice but to come back, year after year.

            I live in what is considered prime sage grouse habitat but I can count on one hand, the amount of times I’ve actually seen sage grouse.

            I’m wondering if it has a lot to do with the programs in place to compensate ranchers if they leave parts of their land under sage brush (land to hilly or rocky to hay) but doesn’t prevent them from running their cattle or lease cattle, etc. on that land, which pretty much in my mind, defeats the purpose.

            Got some of that land behind me and the cattle round the sage brush, looking for grasses, which leaves little cover for any grouse hoping to nest and raise young.

            It’s such a delicate balance – what we humans perceive as our right to farm & ranch, make a living, etc. verses wildlife on wild lands that got along quite well before we got “Almighty” with our notions on how things ought to be and the hell with other species 🙂

            I do hope you take the time Scott, to look thru the archives here on the Wildlife News. Some good articles (and good comments addressing the articles)

            Got to weigh everything out here when it comes to destroying wildlife/wild habitat, so a cow, that could be grown better elsewhere, less impact on the landscape, in another part of the country, makes it to a table/supermarket, near you 🙂

            1. Elk375 Avatar


              “I live in what is considered prime sage grouse habitat but I can count on one hand, the amount of times I’ve actually seen sage grouse.”


              Last time I was down your way I saw 4 bunches of sage grouse in one day elk hunting. Two bunches in the Rattlesnake Hills and two bunches off of the Bloody Dick Road. There all grouse on both sides of the Bannock Road.

              Several years ago I was antelope hunting and hunted from Dell to the Rudy Centennial divide and saw sage grouse 8 to 10 different times in two days.

              Last year a good friend of mind started sage grouse hunting near Grant and he and the party limited out in 20 minutes.

              I have seen sage grouse on the Dillon/Jackson road just before the Grasshopper Divide. That is an excellent place to hunt grouse, sage grouse in the morning and blues in the afternoon.

              There are a lot more critters around than you see.

              1. Nancy Avatar

                Knew I could count on you to weigh in on the “hunting” aspects of grouse, Elk!!

                But, I’ve spent more time listening to the old timers who use to see grouse all over Badger Pass area (and beyond) and see none now, in areas grazed by cattle.

                And yes, more critters around than I can see, but I’m not seeing them even though I should be, if they were so prevalent as you suggest.

              2. Ed Loosli Avatar
                Ed Loosli

                I was surprised, but I know I shouldn’t be, to read your post that pointed out that sage grouse are still allowed to be hunted in the Western USA. With the states twisting themselves into knots to try and keep the sage grouse from being listed as an Endangered Species, I would think that banning hunting of sage grouse would be one of the first steps that states would have taken to show the feds how they are doing their best to protect and recover these dwindling populations. It’s like reading a chapter from the book “1984” where up is down and down is up.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I’m probably all wrong – but the reason I don’t criticize ranching as much as Big Energy and Development is that it seems to me, there’s more hope with fixing ranching – teaching better methods, a better chance at recovery from use when herds are moved to other pastures. With oil, fracking, wind and solar, mining and housing development – the damage is permanent, there forever and water supplies threatened and ruined forever. With the sage steppe, recovery is very very very slow.

    1. Scott Avatar

      Depends on the ranch. For every ranch that uses cattle as a tool to restore ecosystems there are 10 that deteriorate ecosystems. However, if you educate the rancher to show him that modifications to his operation can improve both his ranch and his profitability simultaneously all the while improving habitat for wildlife too, then it is possible to meet most environmental goals while still feeding people as well.

      Most ranchers love the land as much as anyone. So taking this approach is far more likely to obtain results than calling cattle “evil invasives”. When both sides have the same end goal then change happens. When they fight each other, not much good happens.

      1. Nancy Avatar


        Gabe Brown’s video is very impressive, thanks for posting it. I sincerely hope his approach to farming/ranching, gets a foothold but sadly it doesn’t address the destruction of over grazing of cattle on public lands though.

        1. Scott Avatar

          Well Nancy,
          Gabe does graze public land too. But the areas he leases are gradually improving, not deteriorating.

          It’s all in how you manage.

          So in my opinion the key is education. If you know what you are doing, and make the effort, then there is no reason we can’t change our agricultural models from a destructive industrial system to a regenerative biological system. It produces more food for humans and wildlife alike.

          “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labor; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” Bill Mollison

  7. Nancy Avatar

    “Gabe does graze public land too. But the areas he leases are gradually improving, not deteriorating”

    Where is the information on that, Scott?

    Nice pic/example of “mob grazing” on his land:


    But here are some realistic photos of public land grazing:


    Few ranchers want to dedicate or pay help (which is mostly comprised of family members) to moving cattle around daily, on their leases. Its a “dump em on come summer and leave em till fall” mentality around here. Some do pay a cowhand to stay at a cow camp but his responsibility is to check the cows, ride the fence lines and put out minerals.

    1. Scott Avatar

      If you click my name you’ll find my YouTube channel with hundreds of educational videos on soil health, organic, pasture cropping, all sorts of ways agriculture can be done in ways that are environmentally conscious. You don’t need to tell me most agriculture is destructive to the environment. I have dedicated my life to changing this problem. I even have a “Red Baron Project” to develop practical ways to help. I have applied to my state to be a demonstration farm for the Oklahoma carbon project. I have applied for a grant to prove the methods I use are scaleable from backyard garden to full size commercial farm. (voting is still happening on that one)
      Yes things must change, but I still say the path forward is working together in cooperation, not just fighting and confrontation.
      It’s a false dichotomy to claim that either you have livestock and they are destructive, or you remove all livestock. There is a third option of using the livestock for regenerating ecosystems.
      As far as Gabe and his operation, I would feel more comfortable if you just called him on the phone. He’ll talk to you. He talked to me at least. Was quite helpful in my planning stages. I keep in touch at least 2-3 times a year to discuss things.

  8. Nancy Avatar

    “It’s a false dichotomy to claim that either you have livestock and they are destructive, or you remove all livestock. There is a third option of using the livestock for regenerating ecosystems”

    And that might be a fine approach when it comes to private lands, Scott. But as you can see from this link:


    The lands of concern are federal/public lands and from that article, its not hard to see “some” feel they’ve been mismanaged for decades by the federal government, forgetting the fact that there are lands out here in the west, leased by ranchers, timber interests, mining etc. that wildlife also “own” run by federal employees, who have unfortunately learned (while care taking those lands) to:

    synonyms: grovel to, be obsequious to, be servile to, be sycophantic to, fawn over/on, cringe to, bow and scrape to, toady to, truckle to, abase oneself before, humble oneself to.

    When ever possible in order to hang on to their job.

    North Dakota and Oklahoma are way down in the rankings, when it comes to public lands and their abuses or redemptions.

    Another interesting site:


    I know, I’ve wandered off track just trying to convey my thoughts about what I see happening around my neck of the woods after about a century? of livestock grazing and while I can appreciate your thoughts of trying to bring it around (to benefit not only the land but the wildlife) you’re unfortunately forgetting the fact that there are places (and should be places) that livestock just shouldn’t be, regardless of how many human beings, you feel the need to feed 🙂

    1. Scott Avatar

      “you’re unfortunately forgetting the fact that there are places (and should be places) that livestock just shouldn’t be, regardless of how many human beings, you feel the need to feed”

      Well that depends. If there are healthy wild herds of deer, antelope, sheep and/or bison and the predators to modify their behavior so that the ecosystem is thriving. I’ll go with that statement.

      If not, then removing grazers can actually deteriorate the ecosystem even more. This concept is called a trophic cascade. Any keystone species or series of keystone species removed from an ecosystem will cause wide reaching ecosystem effects. You can artificially substitute domestic species if you know what you are doing, and the ecosystem will recover. Even theoretically enough that the domestic species can later be removed as wild herds recover their niche. But undergrazing can be easily just as big a problem as overgrazing.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        “You can artificially substitute domestic species if you know what you are doing, and the ecosystem will recover”

        So what you’re saying Scott is lets give it another century or so, after an already century of artificially substituting domestic species on the landscape and hope those that have been “artificially substituting” those domestic species get a clue, at some point.

        There are in fact, healthy wild herds of deer, antelope, sheep and/or bison (and the predators to modify their behavior – so that the ecosystem is thriving) that would benefit now, if domestic species were removed, now rather than later but that would require, in your words:

        “working together in cooperation, not just fighting and confrontation”

      2. Nancy Avatar

        Scott – did click on your name and this was an interesting discussion that came up on your website:


        Brought me back to Gabe Brown’s video and his approach to “right off the land” meat, able to finally have “it” processed locally (for those that eat meat) verses grass feed beef raised here in the west, that get shipped off and…. “finished off” in one of the 15 thousand stock(pile)yards around the country.

        AFTER, they’ve “grazed” over wildlife habitat, 4 to 6 months, or more, out of the year, every year, out here in the west.

        1. Scott Avatar

          Exactly Nancy. The industrial model is the problem. Dead set against all stockyards and CAFOs. Here is why. If you are forced to fatten your own stock on the grazing resource, then it is required that you take care of that resource. You couldn’t possibly overgraze it because you would end up with skinny tough livestock that nobody wants to buy. You absolutely must have a thriving high quality forage to finish the stock. That thriving forage is also a benefit to wildlife as well.

          But in the industrial model a rancher can get away with overgrazing because his mismanagement will be corrected by fattening the livestock in a CAFO a few weeks or months. The arable land that produces the grain is deteriorating the environment and the forage resource is deteriorating by overgrazing and the CAFO itself has direct negative effects on the environment. Huge negative environmental impact in all phases of production. This even has negative effects on human health too. The industrial model is a lose lose lose lose all the way around.

          Stark contrast to a holistic managed model which is regenerative, like what Gabe Brown, Dan Undersander, Richard Teague, Joel Salatin, Allan Savory, Colin Seis, Bill Mollison and literally thousands of others advocate.

          Some notable quotes from the leaders advocating the ending of all CAFOs due the extreme harm they cause either directly or indirectly:

          “The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound.” Allan Savory

          “Yes, agriculture done improperly can definitely be a problem, but agriculture done in a proper way is an important solution to environmental issues including climate change, water issues, and biodiversity.”-Rattan Lal

          “As the small trickle of results grows into an avalanche — as is now happening overseas — it will soon be realized that the animal is our farming partner and no practice and no knowledge which ignores this fact will contribute anything to human welfare or indeed will have any chance either of usefulness or of survival.” Sir Albert Howard speaking on removing livestock from farms and locking them up in CAFOs, then using chemical fertilisers and pesticides on farms instead.

          “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labor; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” Bill Mollison

          “We try to grow things that want to die, and kill things that want to live. That is pretty much how (industrial) agriculture functions.” Colin Seis

          “The pigs do that work (by rooting in the forest and that creates the temporary disturbance on the ground that allows germination for higher successional species.) And so it allows for those pigs to be not just pork chops, bacon, and that. But now they then become co-conspirators and fellow laborers in this great land healing ministry … by fully respecting the pigness of the pig.” Joel Salatin

          “In our culture we view the pigs as just so much inanimate protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. And I would suggest that a culture that views its plants and animals in that type of disrespectful, arrogant, manipulative standpoint will view its citizens the same way…and other cultures” Joel Salatin

          I could go on and on but I don’t think there is a need. There is no doubt at all that something needs to change. I am with you there. I simply think it is a false dichotomy to think that must include removing all livestock from public lands. Producing food is a public interest. So I have no problem with public land being used to produce food, but that production model must change.

          1. Yvette Avatar

            “The pigs do that work (by rooting in the forest and that creates the temporary disturbance on the ground that allows germination for higher successional species.) And so it allows for those pigs to be not just pork chops, bacon, and that. But now they then become co-conspirators and fellow laborers in this great land healing ministry … by fully respecting the pigness of the pig.” Joel Salatin

            Interesting bit of history from Oklahoma: I’m Muscogee and my dad told me that my grandad always ‘turned his hogs out’. They ran free in the woods and bottomlands. In the fall, he would round up the hogs for slaughter. Of course, he wasn’t the only one as most other Muscogees that raised hogs did so in the same manner. It was apparently a big deal when everyone was ‘bringing in their hogs’. There would be big hog fries, and of course, preservation of the meat.

            1. Scott Avatar

              Technology has improved a lot since your grandad’s day. But the basic idea they had back then was far closer than any CAFO with animals confined in small areas like cordwood, living in their own filth, and eating unnatural diets. That’s for sure. In truth now, the old fashioned, outmoded, antiquated, inefficient model is the industrial CAFO. The newer high tech modern efficient models do actually resemble your grandad’s model much closer. There is a lot of wisdom in those oldtimers methods. All it takes is a bit of updating to take advantage of modern technology, and the oldtimer’s models of animal husbandry vastly outproduce any industrial model without harming the environment.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner