I have been a vegetarian for 3 years, and am the first one to criticize our industrial meat food system, however a sustainable cattle farm trip I took recently left me questioning whether all cattle farms are problematic.
A three-mile drive west from William & Mary, Joel Salatin manages Polyface farms, a cattle farm in Swoope, Virginia. Some friends and I dodged Hurricane Hermine by roadtriping out to the farm. The day was filled with hay barrel rides under a blue sky, meandering through waste-high prairie grasses, starring contests with cows, and a long interview with self-proclaimed “environmental libertarian lunatic” Joel Salatin.
I left the farm with a new mentality toward sustainably raised meat. Now, I have questions ringing in my ears like ‘is a slice of grass-fed beef worse for the environment then oil-refined plastic packaged granola bars?’
Here are a couple notes I took on some of the kinds of sustainable practices I saw on the farm.
a. Joel had 150 cows grazing in 1.25 acres of prairie grass each day. So every day at 4pm, farmers would move the fence to box in a new acre of tall handsome prairie grass. Similar to crop rotation, this system gives fields time to regenerate and grasses to grow tall again.
2) Reducing negative and increasing positive outputs:
a. Reducing Neg Outputs: There are portable chicken coops that follow the tracks of the cattle. They eat the insects in the cow’s poop and while doing this, they dig the poop into the ground. This reduces nutrient runoff into waterways.
b. Positive Outputs: This farm is economically profitable—more so than most conventional farms. A large reason why is because the farmers do not have to pay for feed for the cattle (see few inputs).
3) Integration of the natural environment:
a. One example of this is when you look at where the pigs live there are patches of small forests with trees and brush. It is not until you see a snout or tail that you realize that this is also where the pigs live.
b. He uses gravity to bring the water down through the three miles of water lines to water crops on his property. He joked with us “once gravity stops working, I quit.”
4) Few Inputs
a. We walked out to the waist-high prairie grasses, and in one spot, Joel picked twenty different grasses. He gave us their names and function for pollinators in the ecosystem. These grasses are also food for all the cattle. That means that Joel doesn’t need to buy highly transported, packaged and water-intensive grains like alfalfa and corn for his cattle. Instead they eat the vitamin and nutrient rich prairie grasses.
5) Health food cycle and reduction of atmospheric carbon.
a. The cows eat the prairie grasses. The grass grows back and takes in atmospheric carbon to convert into food for itself. This cycle is key for combatting climate change.
So, Joel Salatin’s farm is truly a polyface, multi-organismal kind of place. However, his cattle farm is definitely the exception to cattle farms these days. Most large-scale farms raise cattle inside feedlots with little room, fresh air and nutrient content in the feed. The runoff is disastrous to local waterways, the antibiotics are plentiful and the corn/alfalfa-based feed is both water and cost intensive.
My hope is that cattle farmers can learn from innovative farmers like Salatin and consumers choose meat that reflects the way they would like to see the ag industry look.