Cattle ranching - taking animal welfare and climate change into account

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Lauantai 3.6.2023 klo 15:48 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Industrial cattle rearing got its first dose of negative publicity from the animal welfare people, who pointed out that cows were not able to live a decent life. They were always kept in small unnatural space and could not move freely. Public health experts then warned that since meat production in many countries was maximized by heavy use of antibiotics, steroids and growth hormone the effects could be carried on to human health. For example, the antibiotic resistance of bacteria could increase. Finally, cattle ranching is now considered to worsen climate change, as much of the available agricultural land is going to feeding cattle and because cows produce, in addition to carbon dioxide, methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Consequently, in instructions for people to combat climate change, it is advised that one should avoid eating beef and using dairy products.

All the concerns are valid for the current industrial cattle ranching, which seeks to maximize milk and meat production. It is completely forgotten that cows are more than just production machines and that they interact with their environment. Cows and their calves are separated as soon as possible, cows cannot roam freely in their pastures, and usually fed commercially bought fodder. Much medication is needed…All in all, the negative opinions about cattle ranching all apply to the industrial beef and dairy production. We are far from the times of family farms in 1960’s: my uncles remembered all their cows’ names and the cows could happily roam around in their pasture.

But we could and actually should make a revolution in cattle ranching. The first thing to get rid of would be the separation of mother cows and their calves almost immediately after birth. This is done in order to increase the amount of milk that can be sold, as the calves drink about 40 % of their mothers’ milk production. The decrease is, however, counteracted by the mothers producing 25 % more milk than cows in industrial dairy farm. The cows and calves graze in natural pastures, which hardly need fertilization, as their clover fixes nitrogen from the air and phosphorus is largely recycled in the faeces. Calves eating natural food wean earlier than the ones eating “commercial” fodder, which in the industrial dairy farm needs to be bought. Altogether this results in the fact that the total milk production decreases only slightly, and the total production costs decrease, as fertilizer, fodder and medication costs decrease. And the cows are happy. It can be seen from the observation that their milk production continues several years longer than that of cows in industrial dairy farms. Upon weaning, male calves can be slaughtered and go in meat production.

The natural pastures, utilized by cows, are a carbon sink. They are covered by green plants throughout the year thus photosynthesizing and mopping up carbon dioxide. Recent studies have shown that increasing root mass functions as an effective carbon store, just like trees. The problem with agriculture is that conventional farming ploughs the fields, and the root-stored carbon is released. The carbon-sink property of the pastures is so great that even with the methane produced by cows, the dairy farming can remain a carbon sink. If the ongoing work, which aims at decreasing the methane production by cows, is successful, the carbon sink property of dairy farming will be increased.

It is thus possible to make beef and dairy production sustainable without virtually any decrease in monetary production. For the sake of climate and animal welfare, it should be done immediately.

Avainsanat: climate change, carbon footprint, dairy farming, carbon sink

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