Other Lands

Whether or not to eat meat, and what meat to eat if one chooses to, is a matter of frequent debate these days. As someone intimately involved in the life and death of beef cattle, these discussions often feel disembodied and abstracted. We reduce the question into a static list of stacked pros and cons—a game of rhetoric isolated from many forces that govern the world. But to me, meat eating (or not) can best be understood in relationship—and this implies movement, dynamism, cycles… a series of expanding causes and effects that are complex and unwieldy.

What’s often left out of the discussion is the opportunity cost of abstaining from meat. Unless one is starving themselves of essential nutrients, one who does not obtain their protein and nutrition from the fruits of an individual’s life and death—say, pastured protein or wild game—must be finding it elsewhere: in what the plow furnishes, in what straight lines and long rows have to offer, in the canopy of almond monocultures towering over bare ground. Home gardeners and those who manage to grow or acquire their sustenance from non-animal sources from ways that nurture soil should be commended, but also must recognize that this is not the metabolic reality for the majority.

It’s no big direct death. The blood of field mice, of coyote pup, and gopher snake and grasshopper sparrow are spilled in ounces in these systems that depend on cultivation, and the crop is a canvas for a pointillist picture of a trophic system gone awry because it goes unseen. Only when we zoom out sufficiently and see not just the lives lost, but the lives that are absent, do we begin to get the picture. And only when we sidle up close enough do we feel the loss.

I’m a grassland person. It’s simply my habitat: where I find my sustenance, my vocation and my happiness. The longer I raise cattle in these environs, the more I see the well-managed bovid as being in service to all of the other inhabitants. The other day, languishing in the three o’clock heat while fixing my last stretch of old boundary fence, I flopped onto the grass for a reluctant nap. My dog curled up next to me, having just trotted back from a moment of sensible disobedience, soaked to her shoulders in water from a nearby coulee. I closed my eyes and awoke ten minutes later to the sound of a mouse chittering near my ear, and the chortle of a raven on a nearby fence post, perhaps hoping I was digestibly dead. Bugs pestered my skin, and a band of buck white tail lingered in the distance.

In these moments of sharing space with the my fellow teemers I feel all at once humbled, humanized, and ennobled. It’s not so bad to be brought down to earth, truly leveled, when our fellow inhabitants are so magnificent in their own right. At these times I most feel the pinch of offense at the thought of lands like these being counted in land use statistics and ag census as just “pasture,” and moreso at the possibility of this land being one day plowed and planted.

So I wonder about these other lands—the ones from which people build their bodies of plant-based proteins when they stave off meat. When a land is kept in the simple state of a two or three crop rotation, a lot of animals just give up and move on. The little ones may remain—the ones whose blood we spill ounce by ounce, and who are disked into the soil in shallow graves. The big ones, the ones who bleed in gushing liters, mostly learn to stay away and in time their populations diminish.

It’s this cost that really gets to me the most. Not the deaths, but the lives not lived. Because in a time when we are losing species in large part because they simply lack a place to live, it seems logical to consider habitat lost to agriculture as a direct threat to our shared survival. Maybe it’s time for land kept in a state of arrested development through annual cropping to grow up a little. So how do we eat to make home?  

It’s this apparent comfort with what happens out of sight that I find most contradictory about veganism. We’re assured by evangelizing vegans that there’s plenty of options for us: we can gain our macro- and micronutrients from myriad sources, many of which come from far-off tropical lands and would perhaps be best used to feed the people who grew and picked them, rather than turned into a commodity to be shipped to Westerners. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that in my own industry of raising cattle destined to be eaten as beef, there’s plenty of real and psychic distance that we don’t talk much about. 

This year I’m raising yearling cattle. Between my partner and I, we’re caring for over three thousand head, in four herds on two ranches. We’ve had one full day off since our season started in May. We care for these animals intimately, risking our own safety when we go to treat a sick one. We teach them to gather and drive afoot, horseback, and with dogs; to calmly load, lead, and follow, so that we can move them well now and so they’ll have more peaceful lives once they leave us. And we work with them as a means of caring for the land they graze all season.

With the way the world is currently arranged—property rights and the economy as it is—we couldn’t presently find a better way to tend these grasslands without these cattle. I’ll emphasize “as is,” because everything changes in time but only with vision and effort will it change in a direction we want to see. 

At the end of this season we’ll load them onto trucks to go places we know a little bit, and some we don’t know much at all. They’ll be handled by people we’ve never met, and they’ll be separated from some of the friends they’ve made in their herd and they’ll scramble to make new ones. And they’ll finish their lives in a feed yard, eating a grain and forage ration that came from other lands, with little lives ended or interrupted with each seasonal pull of the plow, and big lives that have long moved on. After all, it’s not just vegans and vegetarians eating grains and legumes grown in faraway fields.

 I know these fields have their place, for now. For now, feedyards do too. But no change for the better can happen without seeing the world as it is, and also seeing how it could be. And so I’m coming around to the idea that my closest kin in the work to reform how we eat and relate to our environs aren’t those who advocate for a specific diet, but those who work on helping us see the unseen lands that sustain our lives.

Morris Creek on the Lazy E-L Ranch in Montana, grazed one to two times annually with approx 1200 head of yearlings for a few days. Thanks to planned grazing and the engineering of beavers, this wetland serves as a heron rookery each year.

Morris Creek on the Lazy E-L Ranch in Montana, grazed one to two times annually with approx 1200 head of yearlings for a few days. Thanks to planned grazing and the engineering of beavers, this wetland serves as a heron rookery each year.

Tomorrow's Grass, Today: Temporal Discounting on the Landscape

In my grazing practice, I'm a student and observer of Holistic Management, an approach to ranching and land management that helps producers orient their daily decisions to support their long-term social, ecological, and economic aims. 

These aims are referred to as one's "holistic context," and there's a guided discovery process that holistic managers use to identify what kind of business, environment, or lifestyle they want. But regardless of all the subjective variations, at the crux of one's context is the health of the ecosystem, because no human endeavor can be sustained for long if its very environment is compromised.

Ranchers practicing holistic management are as varied as the day is long--they may be traditional pastoral herders in Zambia, conservative Christians in Alberta, California coastal queers, or fifth generation Arizonans, but central to all of their contexts, by design, is to manage for an ecosystem with an increasing plane of balanced productivity and ecological health (as measured in things like soil carbon, species biodiversity, wildlife habitat, etc).

Core to the holistic management of livestock is the grazing planning chart, which was developed by Allan Savory after years spent not only managing large wildlife reserves but also serving in the Rhodesian military. It was the latter experience that helped him see that the complexity of managing land, animals, and people, with the added variables of extreme weather and market volatility, is not unlike a military operation, and no operation would ever be conducted without a detailed plan. I know very little about the military (any military!) but I do know that there's often a days- or weeks-long set of actions that must happen in a particular sequence in order to achieve the desired end result of a specific operation or campaign.

Savory adapted the planning process he successfully employed during his military career to the work of land management when he observed that ranches, game parks, and wildlife reserves may have a specific set of desired outcomes, but without a clear plan that informed their day-to-day, the abstract and distant goals ("more wildlife," or "healthier streams") were almost unnoticeably compromised due to daily decisions that incrementally chipped away at the health of the environments.

Plant recovery periods are not only a great example of how this works, they're also the foundation of an environment on an increasing plane of health. Without an articulated plan to not put livestock back on an area of ground until a certain amount of time has passed (with time correlating with stage of plant development) it's very easy to begin moving livestock willy-nilly, making decisions for the sake of convenience over and above the health of those little grass plants. 

Someone can do this for a few years and barely notice a change unless they are looking closely, but repeat this often enough and soon all of the plants who form the foundation of a healthy grassland are shrinking in size and failing to reproduce. From there, the environment begins to slip at a more noticeable rate. 

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All of this underscores the elegance of holistically planned grazing: it overcomes a really common psychological bias sometimes called "temporal discounting." Temporal discounting is the human tendency to weigh near-term gains well above long-term gains, to the extent that "less, now" is valued more highly than "more, later." That which can be experienced now is more tangible and easily acted-upon than future gains, which seem too abstract to appreciate if not framed concretely.

Temporal discounting has to do with why it's easy to spend one's money fast shortly after pay-day, decreasing steeply as funds run low, or why we may have a stated aim of losing weight but drinking a beer every night persists as a habit.

Here in California, the value of the grazing plan becomes especially clear in about mid-June. That's right on the heels of when the bulk of the vegetative growth for the year (in weight) has just occurred within a 2 month period, and forage begins to shift dramatically from being very high in protein to much higher in carbohydrates - and just taller and denser, period. As a result, cows go from having to eat quite a bit of watery, thin feed to meet their daily nutritional needs to significantly less (by volume). The "burn rate" thru pastures for a given herd size slows up, and all of the ranch's feed is in front of us. 

During those times, it's really tempting to look at the oceans of grass and think one will never get through it all. One feels the urge to add units and stock up. And indeed, too much growth can be a double-edged sword, if the vegetation is so thick that cows walk on far more than they eat, both wasting its feed potential and laying it down as thick thatch rather than smaller bits of litter. 

But spend a little time on the grazing plan, and one quickly begins to realize that they might need every bit of that feed in the months to come--that in fact, only very deliberate grazing every day will result in there being enough feed many months down the line when one needs it. Careless grazing of that feed too soon in the season will result in greater difficulty in utilizing that feed in the months to come. And a pasture that is grazed sloppily may see all of its perennials eaten up, with plenty of standing annual grass that's nonetheless off-limits to cows because grazing them on it might mean they are over-grazing the perennials that are just starting to recover. 

All of this is to say, the holistic grazing plan helps us budget. It makes the needs of the distant future (recovery days needed for plants, metabolic needs for lactating cows, etc.) inform the actions of today. 

Ranches that don't practice this can luck out or hobble along for a while, but eventually the lack of comprehensive planning will come home to roost. The good grass gets eaten up too soon and cows need expensive supplements. Water isn't in place when it's needed, and a hastily put together plumbing work-around breaks and drains the tanks. Owners begin to feel financial strains, and employees feel overworked and under-appreciated.

This kind of contraction puts so much psychic pressure on decision-makers that the moments when they most need clear-headed reasoning (to bail out the sinking ship) coincide with the times when their cortisol levels handicap sound thinking.

Hence, good grazing planning is not just about improving on ecosystem health and a ranch's productivity, but also aids in maintaining intact psyches amidst an agricultural economy that is historically extractive by design. 

Addition by Subtraction

I migrated from farming into livestock grazing in large part because of my deep love for land and wildlife, and my desire to address global issues on a practicable scale. Yet a common misconception I often face in my work is the idea that the cows are in the way of wildlife, both directly and by taking their food. If this were true, my work would be highly contradictory and misguided. Note that I work primarily with cattle but much of this applies to other ruminants... and wild species as well. 

Livestock eat grass, but you can bet that because we're talking about relationships within a complex trophic web, this is not a zero-sum activity. Most grasses exhibit a response to grazing and animal disturbance that is often overlooked by those who aren't. We talk a bit about how grass benefits from having old, dead material cleared off to allow light to reach new growth points. And we talk about the nutrient-cycling benefits of grazing animals (wild and domestic): animals yield that dead material to the soil, where it can break down biologically in the soil instead of oxidize chemically into the air, and grazing animal disperse fertility across fields and add their own fertilizing urine and biologically active manure to the mix. 

But it's critical to also acknowledge that when plants are grazed appropriately during the active growing season (which in coast range California is approximately mid-March thru May, depending on seasonal variation in precipitation and temperature), the plants will not only recover quickly but will actually be stimulated to put on more growth than they otherwise would. Provided they aren't grazed too soon in their development, or grazed down to a nub, even with a significant removal of vegetation the plants will regrow bigger and better than they would with no grazing at all. 

What's more, the plants continue photosynthesizing longer than they otherwise would. Below is a photo where I installed a temporary fence in the same place twice this year - in late January and again in late March (a 60 day recovery). The green side was grazed twice during the growing season, and the brown side not at all because there were certain species we wanted to express without animal impact this year. On the left, the grasses have already senesced (set seed and died), whereas the grasses on the right are just beginning to flower. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

The difference is pretty stark. I should note that the fenceline also approximates a slow change in soil depth, because the flowers we were protecting grow in thinner, rockier soils. But the abrupt change has at least as much to with grazing, and the sharp line in the grass is exactly where I built my fence.

When viewed from above, the grasses grew back denser and more lush on the right side than on the left. And most importantly, they continued to grow for at least a week longer than the ungrazed grasses. This means more energy was created through photosynthesis, and more calories made available to surrounding biota. That green grass is edible sunlight.

The longer a pasture can photosynthesize, the more it's yielding to its environment. With the help of big animals, we can keep grass plants photosynthesizing for longer, literally making more life for all entities above and below ground.