Monday, April 07, 2008

Grass-Fed Cattle :: Chapter 1 Book Report

Finally, in the midst of all the craziness, I was able to pick up Julius Ruechel's book, "Grass-Fed Beef" and make it through chapter one. The first chapter, titled "The Great Herds and Their Grasslands", acts as an introduction to the idea of herd grazing and the impact on the microbes, soil, and grasses (along with the animals itself). Mr. Ruechel opens with an account of the "evolution" of ruminant grazers and their places in the millions and millions of years that the earth has "existed". Personally, I could have done without that section and all the points that were made about the "evolution" of these animals really made me feel even more secure in the truth of creation. But, I also probably would be "Expelled" if I were to state my opinions (check out the link).

What did come out loud and clear as the the great herds did a wonderful job of taking care of the grasslands and themselves and we can learn a lot from that fact. They were able to work in conjunction with the soil microbes to break down grass residue and replenish the organic matter in the soil. That organic matter has many ... MANY benefits and they are all to often overlooked because of new "advancements" in farming.

After the opening sections (which I didn't care for) Mr. Ruechel does go into an interesting discussion of what exactly we can learn from the herds and how we can duplicate the benefits of the herd impact. Basically, we need to recreate the herds on our own farms by using fencing (acting like predators) to keep the animals close together and also to force them to move in a "migratory" pattern just as the wild herds used to be able to do. The thing that really comes out in this idea is the importance of management ... managing the impact that our "herds" have on an area and moving them at the right times.

One last thing that I found interesting (mainly because of some of the Western arid region ranchers that comment from time to time) was the importance of herds and herd impaction for those arid regions of the country. Mr. Ruechel contends that without that those areas will lose the good and sometimes lush pastures they are capable of having. Food for thought anyways.

All in all an interesting chapter, but I expect I will enjoy the following chapters much more.


Yeoman said...

I'd approach any "Great Herds" commentary with a high degree of skeptisim, as (while I haven't read this) the baloney content of such observations tends to be extraordinarly high.

Most such commentary has a warm and fuzzy romatic nature. In reality, buffalo herds could be and were enormously destructive in their own right. Their populations rose and fell, and they wiped out the pasture they used about as efficiently as anything else when there were too many, or there were poor conditions. Additionally, being migratory doesn't equate with using 100% of a range, and they tended ton concentrate in drainages. If a modern eco-scientist were to visit a watershed which had recently been visited by buffalo, in those concentrations, today, the EPA would be regulating the watershed in short order.

I have to confess that I'm probably much more inclined to look back at the past through rose colored lenses than anyone else, and I often look back at the early 19th Century or the late 18th Century and wish I'd lived then, when there were greater ag opportunities, fewer restrictions on what you did, and the land to do it on. But, realistically, in the regions of the West were buffalo roamed, the range is in far better condition today, and supports many, many, more wild animals, than it did in the buffalo days. Indeed, even animals of extraordinarly commonality today were regarded as rare at that time of Lewis & Clark.

Conservation laws, etc. are part of the reason. But range and water management, to include water wells and stock ponds, have a lot to do with that.

That may all sound harsh, but given as the romantic "buffalo commons" examinations tend to be so grossly out of sink with the historical record, I almost regard it as a baloney yardstick, and would tend to discount the opinion of anyone who tried to use it as an argument.

Yeoman said...

Sorry for the many typos. Again, this morning's imported agricultural product, coffee, hasn't kicked in yet.

JRG said...

I readily agree western rangelands are in much better condition today than they were 100 years ago, but I don't believe they're better than they were 200 years ago. Having read Lewis & Clark's journal as well as the journals of other early fur trappers, I think there is a misperception about the relative abundance and location of wildlife then and now.

Remember L&C followed routes heavily used by native Americans where hunting pressure was significant. There are numerous times when L&C state they left the river courses by several miles and were able to find abundant wildlife. It was when they stayed close to the rivers, they had problems finding game.

Also remember esentially 100% of the countryside was available as wildlife habitat when they came through. Contrast that to the situation today when a much larger part of the landscape is occupied by cities, towns, inhospitable farmland, etc. Today we see lots of critters beacsuse they are concentrated in smaller habitat areas.

When the fur trappers first penetrated the Plains and the Rockies in the 1810-1840 time period, their descriptions of the wildlfie populations are markedly different from L&C. Osbourne Russel in 'Journal of a Trapper' gives great descriptions of the range and mountain vegetation conditions and the wildlife distribution.

For most of the West (and many other parts of the country)there were no siginificant wildlife populations 40-50 years ago. Growing up in the 1960's, I can remember when seeing a deer was a big deal. A couple weeks ago on a short hike, we counted 186 muleys in about a 4-square mile area around our place, as well as 38 elk. This is high desert & mountain country, not lush farm land. We have an abundance of elk now. Guys in their 70's who have lived here all their lives, never saw an elk until the 1960's when the real restoration efforts began. Part of it was the elk had been hunted to near extinction, but the bigger cause was the huge habitat degradation that occurred from the late 1800's through the Dust Bowl era. Serious land restoration did not begin until post WWII.

Large grazing herds did have a huge impact on shaping the plant community and productivity of natural grasslands. Yes, when a herd of bison came into a riparian area, they trashed it just as badly as cattle would today (we run several hundred head of beef cows and are well aware of USFS & BLM (and Western Watersheds) concerns about cattle in riparian areas). But then the bison left and the places recovered. Sometimes they were not revisited for a couple years. They had no reason to stay in those areas and plenty of other places to go. That is the pattern of events we try to recreate with fencing in MiG systems.

Mellifera said...

I second jrg... the impression I got about wild herds and MiG (and the source I'd gotten it from was Allan Savory, who did all his thinkin' down in Zimbabwe with antelope and zebras rather than the US Plains and buffalo- I highly recommend his work) was that wild herds definitely do tear the land up... but then they leave and things have a chance to grow back.

I love fences! Fences are great! We couldn't do MiG without fences... I almost want to say, yea, without modern portable electric fences.

Rich said...

"...there were no significant wildlife populations 40-50 years ago...the elk had been hunted to near extinction..."

Unregulated market hunting did play a role in the lowering of wildlife populations, but it wasn't the main cause of the decline.

I think you will find that diseases were a major factor behind the decline in wildlife populations in the late 19th through the mid-20th century. Long periods of drought exposed both livestock and wildlife to long-dormant diseases like hoof and mouth. Blue tongue ravaged both domestic sheep and wildlife like deer and elk. New livestock introduced from abroad brought new diseases to North America. Even the explosion in wildlife populations (due to less hunting pressure) after the decline of the Plains Indian horse culture played a role in spreading disease among wildlife.

After "normal" weather patterns returned, wide spread devastating droughts like the Dust Bowl and the droughts of the '50's were over, and disease control measures were enacted, the wildlife came back.

I do agree with yeoman's assessment of the "Great Herds" observations and his opinion of the "Buffalo Commons".

It seems to me that the "herd effect" is more complicated than it is depicted in many books. If it was simply a matter of high stock density creating the Great Plains, then anyone should be able to easily recreate a natural prairie by simply increasing the density of the animals grazing it. But it is much more complicated than that, resting periods must be variable, fire must be introduced (also at varied intervals), the herd must be varied in size (daily, seasonally, and yearly).

There are things to be learned about the "Great Herds" and their effect on grasslands, but I believe it is much more involved than stocking density.

Yeoman said...

"There are things to be learned about the "Great Herds" and their effect on grasslands, but I believe it is much more involved than stocking density."

I agree with that.

One thing that can and should be learned is that large ungulates are not an unnatural presence on North America's pastureland, anywhere.

Oddly, you will hear from the very same people that: 1) Buffalo were great; and 2) Cows are an abomination.

Both cows and buffalo are large ungulates. They're closely enough related, as we know, to actually be capable of producing a crossbred offspring.

I will not claim that ranching practices are always benign. Certainly not. But I think some radical enviros (and I think all real farmers and ranchers are some species of rational environmentalist or conservationist) who advocate for removal of cows seem to irrationally think that cows are the only ungulates that were ever there. In fact, ungulates of one kind or another were always there.

Probably the big difference, in terms of their presence, between cattle and buffalo is that buffalo were migratory herds, that were enormously destructive for a period of time to a swatch of territory they passed through. The irony there is that if you did that with cattle, particularly to the watersheds, you'd be regarded as a destructive force.

On the material by Savory, I'm aware of his views (if not entirely familiar with them). I think there's something to them, but I am also leery of views that are argued to have global application, when learned in such narrow confines. That is, we should listen, but always be aware that all agriculture is local.

Rich said...

If my memory is correct, I seem to remember that when the "Buffalo Commons" idea was first proposed (in the 1990's), Ted Turner(or someone similar) bought a ranch in Montana (or the Dakotas?), removed all cattle, tore out all the interior fences, and stocked it with buffalo.

Buffalo were supposed to be more "responsible" grazing animals, and their presence would "heal" the damage that cattle had caused. Within a few years, they were replacing the interior fences and fencing off the riparian areas of the ranch because the buffalo had the exact same grazing patterns as the cattle.

Of course, advocates of the Buffalo Commons continued to advocate their plan to depopulate the Great Plains and stock it with herds of buffalo.

Rich said...

"On the material by Savory, I'm aware of his views (if not entirely familiar with them). I think there's something to them..."

I've read a little of Savory and his disciples' writings, and many of their ideas make sense, but it seems to have alot of "New Age" ideas and teachings that they seem to be trying to universally apply to all aspects of agriculture.

I am interested in growing wheat, grass, and cattle, (along with whitetail deer), and can usually do without the New Age preaching when I am simply trying to improve our farming operation.

Yeoman said...

"Of course, advocates of the Buffalo Commons continued to advocate their plan to depopulate the Great Plains and stock it with herds of buffalo."

Indeed, that whole idea came up when we were suffering the combined effects of an oil industry related regional depression, and a farm depression due to grain price collapse. The backers of that idea used to say that the region was depopulating itself anyway, so this was inevitable.

Hah. The real regional problem is the polar opposite. The range isn't opening up, it's being busted up as people move in to the region and bust ranches up in to "ranchettes". I live in one of those towns that was supposed to dry up and blow away. Well, now it's at an all time record high population and busting at the seems. A century old cattle operation on the edge of town is just a toy for a developer until he's ready to develop it. Another developer is wiping out a century old ranch north of town with a development named after the original homesteader.

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