There’s no denying it, cows emit methane as they go about the business of living — it’s a by-product of their digestion. Methane, whether from cows, buffalo, dear, sheep or goats, contribute to greenhouse gases. But are cows to blame for the strange weather shifts we’ve all seen? The truth is cattle can be a real solution. Let’s look at the science.

Myth #1: Cattle create more greenhouse gases than any other source.

The science: Not so. Cows and other grazing animals account for about 4% of all greenhouse gases produced in the U.S. And beef cattle contribute just 2% of direct emissions.

Myth #2: When cattle graze, they turn the landscape into a barren desert.

The science: Just the opposite is true. In fact, it was the roaming herds of buffalo that created the deep, rich topsoil of the American prairie. Millions of buffalo munched their way across the great plains, depositing fertilizer as they moved. 

Their migrations stomped down grasses and stems, thereby keeping carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere — carbon sequestration at its finest. Today, cattled raised using rotational and managed grazing methods provide this same benefit. Rotational grazing is the practice of moving the herd from pasture to pasture so that they always have fresh grass. It requires that the farmer manage this process so that cattle stomaches are filled, and enough grass is left standing to promote healthy regrowth.  

By using improved grazing methods, a herd of cattle can sequester from 0.5 to 3 metric tons of carbon per acre. Rotational grazing also improves soil fertility and texture, and can boost plant diversity. These factors help the land and plants deal with the extreme heat and cold, flooding and droughts we’re seeing today all across the country and around the world.

Farm Table purchases its beef, pork, lamb, poultry and goat from farms using managed rotational grazing over hundreds of acres.

Myth #3: Feeding cows grain, including GMO corn and soy, is the only way to raise enough beef to meet consumer demand.

The science: You can — and we used to — meet consumer demand with 100% grass-fed livestock. But there’s no denying it, the appetite for meats has grown tremendouslty in the last two generations. Some of this increased hunger can be attributed to the low cost of meats, especially those raised in confinement operations.

Most cattle start their lives on mother’s milk and grass. The calves on my beef farm, Bull Brook Keep, begin nibbling blades at two and three days of age. As on similar farms, they nurse for several months, and then enjoy a grass-only diet.

In the industrial system, cattle often spend the last several months in feedlots eating grain mixtures that’ll fatten them quickly. They may also get antibiotics and/or hormones to speed the process.

In contrast, grass-fed-grass-finished cattle take months longer to reach market weight and condition. This takes more direct management, and up to 10 months more time.

A move to 100% grass-fed beef production would require significant reassessment of land use across our country.

Thank you for joining in this effort to encourage farming that promotes environmental health while producing delicious and highly nutritious foods. 

I look forward to seeing you at Farm Table soon.

Sylvia Burgos Toftness, Interim Executive Director, farmer, and food lover