By Bo Falk
Bo Falk is an agricultural ecologist who has learned how to live within the limits of the land over several decades. He lives on a heavily forested farm in southern Sweden, with some cattle and a pair of Belgian horses. Bo has developed a thesis on nitrogen fixation and nitrogen transfer of legumes, and he runs a small lab producing commercial rhizobia cultures. He is fond of carpentry, wood handicraft, and folkdance.
“Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land. In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering — some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he was downcast” (The Book of Genesis, Hebrew Bible, via Wiki).
“Howard [T. Odum], through his work in Puerto Rico and with the White House Panel on World Food Supply, had become increasingly convinced that developing nations’ agricultural systems were poorly understood and might contain hidden efficiencies unknown to American experts. In particular, Howard was struck by the stability of millennial old cattle raising practices in Uganda and monsoon agriculture in India. Never one to evade a telling catch phrase, Howard quoted Gandhi’s statement that in India “cows are sacred because they are necessary” to frame his own analysis about the protein and manure returns provided by cattle in India. While experts were just beginning to study the systems of agriculture in the developing world, both Odums felt that the American agricultural system had also been largely unexamined from an energy perspective and had been widely misunderstood as a result” (Madison, Potatoes made of oil; Eugene and Howard Odum and the Origins and Limits of American Agroecology, 1997).
Nothing is as it seems when viewed through an energy lens. Sweden is heavily reliant on nonrenewable resources for economic function and for growing food. This becomes increasingly problematic when fossil fuel production declines past peak. What services do wild and domesticated ruminants give to the land? How can we improve the quality of the land while also returning our relationship with cows from an industrial model to an agroecological one?
The engine of unsustainable farming has been fossil fuels with high net energy. Increasingly difficult extraction is lowering the net of fossil fuels. For example, oil extraction in Norway is in permanent decline. With less profit the oil companies and governments have increased their borrowing, leading to financial bubbles. Companies cut their investments and loans collapse in the economy as a result. We will not be able to maintain industrial agriculture or our society as a whole when the net emergy of fossil fuels gets too low.
Coal cannot rescue us either since less than one-fourth of coal globally is now exported (BP Statistical Review, 2013, via Energy Export Databrowser). As exports wane, countries and oil companies have less leverage and leeway to support global trade. Financial bubbles of epic proportions develop in response to ever-increasing extraction of real resources, propped by fossil fuel subsidies. This situation cannot persist for very long. This means that our society’s global trade engine is slowing and may some day stop working.
Agriculture is also dependent on subsidies of money, which translates into a broad footprint of imported fossil fuels and heavy use of resources, such as fertilizer from natural gas and topsoil from nature. Our global industrial agriculture system applies four times the nitrogen that the earth can withstand (Galloway et al., 2003). Phosphorus application has similar issues of poor availability in soils and nutrient runoff and pollution with industrial scale application to crops. The emergy basis of modern industrial agriculture is unsustainable even now with the current fossil fuel inputs seen below, and becomes rapidly unworkable as fossil fuel production wanes.
Restoring an agroecological approach
Agroecology is the cooperative pairing of nature and agriculture, using a systems ecology approach and less nonrenewable energy, by using the work of nature in promotion of the health of both nature and man.
Without fossil fuels, we would not be able to use tractors or afford to produce fertilizer-nitrogen, which makes the large-scale cultivation of cereals and oilseeds very difficult. Without natural gas to make fertilizers, we will need to switch to the cultivation of grasses and to rely instead on nitrogen-fixing legumes to provide enough nitrogen for crops. At that point we will probably also need to return to relying on draft animals for farm work, and to subsidize nitrogen through manure. We have understood the importance of manures and guanos since the very earliest days of agriculture–Cato the Elder suggested that the Romans should “save carefully goat, sheep, cattle, and all other dung” as fertilizers (Kolbert, 2013). Recycling of manure nutrients is important for a number of reasons, including the recycling of nitrogen and phosphorus.
In agroecology, everything needs to fit together, and everything needs to be recycled. Cultivation can provide hay and pasture for cows. With more grasslands, we can extend grazing periods and save hay. Fertility can be restored through manure. Cultivation is easier when lands are allowed to be fallow periodically. Draft animals can be used for ley cropping, which means, alternating growing grain or hay with legumes for winter fodder which does not need that much tilling, or being allowed to lay fallow. For example, Timothy and Alsike clovers only need plowing and tillage when renewing the crop every third year or so, which also creates less mineralization of the humus. Reserve areas for grazing are also available in forests, meadows and mountains. These processes would improve fertility in soils. Appropriate limits to the size of herds could be based on local production of winter fodder and available mobile grazing space need to be calculated and applied.
Horses would also work as draft animals, but they need more inputs and we have very few draft horses in the world. We have cows and oxen, but breeds have become much larger over time, too large, perhaps, to be sustainable. Sustainable breeds will need to become smaller. Wild herds of ruminants also need to be protected and fostered to recover grasslands.
Cows as the villains—destroyers of worlds
Industrial animal farming using concentrated animal feed lots (CAFOs) have been villainized as destroyers of worlds in terms of carbon release through methane, and damage to the environment through various forms of serious land and water pollution. Yet traditional peoples relied on grazing animals in all cultures for food and other resources for daily life. Every continent except Antarctica featured prominent, large, migratory herds of ruminants grazing and controlling the grasslands. South America had llamas, North America had buffalo, deer, elk, moose, caribou, and musk ox while Asia had camels, yaks and others, and Europe had various types of deer, elk, reindeer, bison, and aurochs. Africa had giraffes, buffalo, eland, oryx, and others, while Australia had kangaroo. Historically large herds of these ruminants migrated across the grasslands, tilling the soil with their hooves and digesting grass and depositing manure and urine that improved the soil, and provided early high quality food for humans. Migrations of these herds created optimal pulsing conditions for maintaining the grasslands. Eventually domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle replaced some of these herds, with less and less mobility.
Two thirds of the land surface of the earth is arid, with sporadic rainfall. Desertification can result in these areas from overgrazing and exposure of the topsoil. Allan Savory has shown that desert formation can be effectively and quickly reversed by grazing livestock in a holistic way, by moving enough big grazing herds quickly, thus increasing active root systems for grasslands and improving the carbon sequestration in the soil, via grazed, actively growing vegetation. Savory states, “But when you range animals correctly, the land starts returning. The only thing that can do it is a heavy herbivore with a wet gut.” It is the industrial, non-migratory version of ranching that is the villain. Modern ranching maintains large herds in one place without any rest for the land.
When we grow cereals and oil crops, soil carbon is released by tilling and nitrogen fertilization. Soil erosion with cereal crop production can be at the level of 10 tons per ton of cereal produced (Savory, 2013, Sharda et al., 2010). More grazing animals can improve the carbon sequestration in the soil of those areas that we are currently farming in a far from renewable way. Grazing livestock could aid in sequestering carbon in soil by restoring grasslands, while also providing food for society.
We now have about 1.5 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep on earth. Converting conventional agriculture to more grazing and ley cropping while reducing industrial feed lots of cows, pigs, and poultry could expand the reasonable number of grazing animals while reestablishing grasslands on desertified areas. Ideally, expanding traditional wild ruminants or historically adapted cattle would help in
restoring traditional ecosystems. As one example of adaptation, the Ankole-Watusi and Texas Longhorns tolerate hot climates by way of a cooling system of blood vessels in their horns. Each biome has ruminants with specific adaptations to their ecosystems. With more grazing ruminants we would also be able to feed many people although we would need to create completely different societies, with different inputs at different concentrations over different time scales. Using the self-organizing potential of grazing livestock could make a real difference in restoration of grasslands.
“The fat was considered very valuable in the past; everything was used” (Erik Falk, born in 1920)
Another reason for transition to agroecology is better health through lower intake of carbohydrates, while also lowering intake of pesticides and other toxins. In both ruminants and humans, too many carbohydrates in the diet makes us fat and diminishes the amount of fat in the milk. Eating oils derived from plants may be less healthy than the animal fat that we are genetically adapted to, according to paleo diet theories. When we eat a smaller proportion of grain and oilseeds, we avoid substandard food both directly and indirectly through pork and poultry products. Oilseeds have shortened omega-3 chains, reactive double bonds and metabolically unnecessarily long carbon chains. There is a difference in the omega fatty proportions of grazing animals such as cattle compared to pigs and birds reared on cereals and oilseeds. Chicken eggs and cows milk from free range grazing cows has much higher content of Omega-3 fatty acids and other fat-soluble nutrients, and a better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 for animals raised with a free-range diet. As long as hens eat cereal, the egg nutrients will be imbalanced, and without cereal there will be fewer eggs, even if they are also out free-ranging.
“The cows were not home, they had to walk in the woods” (Gustav Ström born in 1900)
Grazing cows in the woods is a long-standing tradition in northern Europe. With the help of kids, horns and kulning (a loud falsetto voice call), families handled animals at long distances. Forest, pasture, and mountain pasture used to receive more grazing during the summer so that production on farms could go to the harvest of hay to a greater extent. For this reason, the animals were kept away from farms far into the autumn, and in some parts of Sweden winter heather grazing is also significant.
Especially in mountain pastures, cows avoided parasites such as ticks by grazing further and further up the mountain slopes. The cows that grazed on the fresh pasture became well-fed and healthy. These cool, high mountain meadows created good fat which in turn boosted the animal’s own omega fat, which will deteriorate if the animal is fed concentrated cereals and oilseeds.
There is almost ten times more forest land than arable land in Sweden, so using forests sustainably for grazing is a part of an agroecological system. Grasslands also exist on mountains above the tree line. Grazing in forests might improve nutrient circulation in soils, fertility and diversity and it could help to control brushy under-stories. Growing forests without clear-cuts are especially suited to grazing where there is no urgency with plant growth. Cows will do some damage in forests. It also becomes a matter of judgment when grazing is not proper, for example if the forest is becoming excessively damaged or needs to be protected for other uses such as the production of blueberries.
Special consideration is needed for predators. Avoid keeping sheep in the forest and keep the calves at home when the cows are out in the woods and pastures. Some species such as water buffalo and musk oxen that stay in denser, more protective flocks could be useful in situations with predators about.
We need to repair our relationships with bovines and ruminants. Prehistoric aurochs roamed the woodlands and grasslands of Eurasia, India, and North Africa. How can we return culturally to an era when aurochs thrived and was a part of the diversity of our grasslands and forest? A larger respect for the commons and a more cooperative perspective about land ownership in general will have to be part of any large-scale solution, but fences with openings and more cooperative communication between ranchers is a beginning, as described in the video at the end of this post.
I am more optimistic about the future than I used to be. The idea of restoration of desertified areas, along with subsistence agriculture, more ley cropping and the potential use of forests, meadows and mountains makes me hopeful. At the same time there is so much feedback—Gaia, our oasis in space will eventually emerge as something completely different.
To me, it is mind-boggling that we have such an enormous solution to so many problems, where so many things fit together like a hand in glove. Yet this is the same ecological system that has evolved naturally over a long period as humans developed agriculture. We need to return to agriculture that fits into nature, and works by using available, renewable energies appropriately and not overrunning them, to live within the limits of the land. We need more grazing animals in sustainable situations to help solve the problem of agriculture. The cow and other traditional ruminants can be the foundation of a new culture and we can create a new rich cultural heritage as shepherds. Thanks to the cow and other grazing animals, we could still feed many people through agroecological practices. This is a much more holistic way of farming that respects nature by localizing inputs. Through pastoral farming we can understand the metaphor that God had a high regard for Abel, the shepherd. With proper stewardship of the land using cows and other ruminants, we can return to being of better service to our grasslands, forests, and our biosphere.