Beyond Grass-Fed

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Guest post written by: Conor O’Higgins

I have some breaking news from the organic food revolution: we’ve discovered the solution to global warming and water scarcity. Is it a new kind of solar panel? Is it reforestation? Is it a new subsidy plan? Nope. It’s wolves. That’s right – wolves.

wolf, wolved, elk

Doug Smith – NPS

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Since then the rivers have filled back up, erosion has decreased and biodiversity has increased. And in 2011, a paper was published in Science claiming that by eliminating top predators, we’ve released more carbon into the atmosphere than we have by burning fossil fuels.

What’s going on here and what does it have to do with paleo diets? The answer is simple enough: in paleolithic ecosystems, grazing animals didn’t live on farms in isolation. They lived in the wild, and wild herbivores have something in common. Picture zebra in the Serengeti. Picture caribou up north. Picture the wild horses in a Budweiser commercial. These three pictures have one thing in common: the herbivores bunch together very tightly. Why? Because it’s harder for a predator to attack a herd than a loner. When those wolves were put into Yellowstone, the elk started to bunch up like this for protection, and the ecology of the park changed. Ripple and Bestcha coined the vivid phrase ‘the ecology of fear’ to describe this effect predators have on herbivores.

AfricanSavanna-EmmenZoo

Wikimedia

When herbivores bunch together and graze intensively, rather than extensively, four things happen:

Each patch of grass only gets grazed a few days a year. The other 360+ days, it rests and grows.

On those days when the mob is on the grass, it gets a shit-ton of fertilizer.

The mob of animals mow the herbage down to a fine stubble. Plants like to keep their roots in proportion to the bit above ground, so when the animals mow the grass, the roots drop off. They then decompose and this enriches the soil.

The animals stomp on the ground and break it up, allowing rain to seep in better (775% better according to one study).

I’ve yet to meet the rancher who loves nature so much that he lets wolves or lions roam among his cattle, but there are farmers who corral livestock into a small ‘cell’ of grass at very high densities with electric fences. After 1-3 days grazing, the herd is moved to the next cell, mimicking the grazing pattern of animals threatened by predators. This farming technique goes by more names than Prince: mob-grazing, cell-grazing, managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), or animal tractors (because the animals mow and condition the ground like a tractor).

When mob-grazing has been put to the test, like in this experiment, the grass grows thicker, the ecosystem is tougher and more resistant to drought, and the soil grows instead of being eroded.

Any grass-fed system is much better than a grain-fed one. I was pretty amazed when to read in this study that when scientists switched cows from grain to grass diets, the levels of E. coli in their guts fell 1000-fold in just five days! As for the effect on human health, this study writes: “Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef”.

Mob-grazing takes things a step further. It gives all of the benefits of extensive grazing, and more. It is closer to the paleo-ecosystems our ancestors evolved in, and more productive.

 

 

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Conor’s mission is to feed the crew of Spaceship Earth. He has designed a permaculture farm in Guatemala, started an urban garden in Dublin, set up a gourmet mushroom cultivation project, and managed an aquaponics system in Haiti.

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  1. Mike
    April 24, 2014 at 7:09 am

    This is what Joel Salatin / Polyface Farms has been saying and doing for many, many years.

  2. Mark
    April 24, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Great article. The links to the pdf’s are broken, though.

  3. Jens Butch @ellipticalguy
    April 24, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Hi Connor,
    this is just amazing. We need more studies who search in directions where nobody would look. I wasn’t able to find the original study can you please send me the link?

  4. Lynn
    April 25, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Joel Salatin is the champion of mimicking herbivores in the wild on Polyface Farm. He likes to say, “Mob, mow and move”. Remember the 3 M’s and you understand how the rich soils were built in the prairie states by the buffalo.

  5. marie
    April 25, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Great post. Here’s Alan Savory, showing the results of using this method of livestock grazing to reverse desertification: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI

  6. paul
    April 28, 2014 at 4:31 am

    further confirmation that nature is really good at being antifragile

  7. Amy@tenthacrefarm
    April 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Well said! We need more articles like this one that support the viewpoint that mob grazing is environmentally superior to miles and miles of corn and soy (like how can any thinking person believe that that is better)?

    And fast!
    I was inevitably answering questions about my diet at the family Easter dinner, and they’re like “but you don’t eat TOO much meat or TOO much fat, do you?

    *eye roll*

  8. Wesley
    April 30, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Great points – Yellowstone is much improved since the renewal of the wolves. Like many others have mentioned, polyface farms does this as well.

  9. Kim
    April 30, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    That is a very interesting piece. As a rancher in northeast New Mexico, in our arid, sandy, and currently drougthy climate, mob grazing is still too harsh for our delicate land. I have much respect Savory’s teachings, and understand that he himself would agree that intensive grazing can’t be applied systematically to all grazing situations. Sounds like Polyface is doing a wonderful, intuitive job of managing resources. I am concerned that some of you think grass management can be done by formula. Not so…as ranchers in varying environments, we must and do, take a larger holistic view, depending on our situation. I’m concerned that some in the paleo world can be mislead that ranchers who do mob graze are “good” and those who don’t are “bad”. As with most things, it’s more complex than that!
    Sincerely,
    Kim Miller
    Grenville, New Mexico

  10. Tom
    May 2, 2014 at 6:49 am

    It’s also healthier for the animals. Research from Australia shows that racehorses fed grasses tend to be healthier than those fed grain or pellet food i.e. they suffer less from colic and allergies.

  11. Russ C
    May 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Kim – I’ve been spending quite a bit of time working on this subject myself for the last year, including visiting with many ranchers and talking with many scientists. My sense indeed that many ranchers begin with Savory’s inspiring message, and then go on to innovate with what works best locally in a way that end’s up melding other dimensions.

    My new good friend, Peter Byck, producer of a movie called Carbon Nation has made a new short film on the subject which you can watch for free here…

    http://vimeo.com/80518559

    I continue to believe this has huge potential as a gamechanger for the health of people, land and even rural economies, and am really glad to see your article, Conor.

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