Sustainable livestock farmers use a wide variety of practices, not only to raise animals humanely, produce better products and provide a living for themselves and their families, but also to build soil and sequester carbon, mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases. At the heart of sustainable livestock production is well-managed pasture, forest or rangeland, where animals can move and graze freely.
Raising livestock on pasture is labor intensive and expensive, from pasture and farm management to securing reliable processing facilities. The resulting products (including meat, milk and eggs) are more expensive as well. For those able to pay a premium, each purchase represents a worthy long-term investment in a dramatically different food system that is healthier, not only for consumers, but for pasture-based livestock farmers, animals and the environment.
The industrialization of agriculture separates what is otherwise a closed-loop, renewable cycle. In a sustainable farming system, the needs of one element are met by the wastes of another: for example, animal manure builds the soil, replenishing nutrients used by crops that are fed to animals. 1 Industrial agriculture, however, artificially divorces animals from plants, creating problems of depleted soil on the one hand and excessive animal wastes in toxic amounts, on the other.
Pasture-based livestock farming reintegrates the cycle, putting livestock on grass or in another natural environment (hogs are often raised in the woods and beef cattle can graze on marginal rangelands), where they can roam freely, eat the plants or insects they naturally digest and improve the fertility of the soil with their manure. The meat, eggs and dairy products from pasture-raised animals have been shown to be healthier and more nutritious than from those raised in confinement operations.
Producers may use a variety of techniques to raise their animals, and a variety of terminology to describe those practices for marketing and sales. Grassfed, grass finished, pastured and free range are words often used to distinguish sustainably raised livestock from their industrially-raised counterparts. Unfortunately, none of these terms are defined or regulated by the US Department of Agriculture or any other governmental body. (Until January 2016, the USDA maintained a designated grassfed standard, but it was withdrawn due to poor definition and poor enforcement.) Several independent third-party labels such as Animal Welfare Approved and NOFA Certified Grassfed have rigorous standards to certify how animals are raised; these are the best bet to look for at the supermarket. Learn more about labels here.
At the heart of a healthy pastured livestock operation is well-managed land. Many livestock farmers refer to themselves as “grass farmers,” as a nod to the importance of the grass to their animals’ health and well-being. At the very least, farmers match the pasture area they have to the number of animals, so that the animals do not overgraze the land; and generally farmers rotate animals from one parcel of land to another. Farmers who raise multiple species may keep track of complicated rotation systems, beginning with cattle for several days, for example, then goats, then chickens for a week before allowing the field to lie fallow and starting all over again. Different animals prefer different kinds of plants and have different kinds of impact on the land; by grazing them in succession, farmers give pastures the greatest benefit.
Unlike at confinement operations, a closed loop pasture system takes advantage of animal waste as a beneficial fertilizer, because it is at a scale that the land is able to absorb without the runoff common to the spread of large amounts of manure. Industrial farms rely on fossil fuels to transport feed and waste and regulate the indoor environment, as well as pesticides and herbicides on the feed crops, while pastured systems take advantage of the animal’s ability to feed itself, spread its own waste and be comfortable.
Pastured systems are also climate friendly, in addition to being more energy efficient. There is some debate as to whether grassfed cattle produce more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than grainfed cattle, but the carbon sequestration ability of healthy grasslands makes it a net win either way.
Animals raised on pasture are generally healthier and under less stress than those raised in confinement. They have widely varied diets that depend on the grasses and other forage available in the area; they roam freely and express natural behaviors like rooting and scratching. Pasture-based farmers ensure their animals always have access to fresh water, and supplement their diets with vitamins or minerals as appropriate. Farmers also make sure that there is adequate shelter, whether trees or a formal structure, to protect livestock from the elements.
Grazing on pasture is appropriate for cattle and other ruminants, whose multi-stomach digestive systems naturally extract nutrients from grass and plants. Consuming roughage is essential for these animals to produce saliva, which neutralizes their natural stomach acids. When ruminants are fed a grain-based diet, however, much less saliva is produced and has the opposite effect of acidifying the digestive tract: intestinal damage, dehydration, liver abscesses and death can result.
Previous page photo by Sandrafotodesign/Adobe Stock.