What Are Properly Managed Livestock?

We all know that livestock degrade ecosystems, cause desertification, pollute waterways, cause global warming, live in terrible conditions and are unhealthy to eat, right?

All of those things are true; livestock are generally a force of ecological destruction.

But I am not going to talk about livestock in this article, enough has already been written about them elsewhere. Instead I am going to talk about something entirely different:

“Properly Managed Livestock”

This may sound like a joke, but its not. “Properly Managed Livestock” are entirely different in the way that they effect the climate, the environment, our health, and the conditions the live in. We should not even consider them in the same category as other livestock.

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Here are some of the differences between “livestock” and “properly managed livestock”. These are generalizations, obviously, but they are true at least 90% of the time.

Livestock” Versus “Properly Managed Livestock”

Issue

Livestock (Factory Farm)

Livestock (Conventional Grazing)

Properly Managed Livestock

Animal wellbeing and living conditions.

They live lives of terrible suffering on a massive scale. They do not get to exhibit their natural behaviors. They are usually confined indoors, unable to exercise, eating unnatural foods, and covered in their own feces.

Are outdoors most of the time, except in winter. Able to excercise, and socialize. Eat natural foods, although not very high quality. Not rotated often so there is always poo around, but it is not a big issue because they are usually given very large spaces to graze in.

All are raised outside for the majority of their lives. They eat natural foods; grass, trees, shrubs, etc. They get to socialize with other animals in a natural way. They are allowed to walk, or run, around as much as they want. They are rotated so that they are always on fresh ground, not on ground covered with feces.

Effects on ecosystems.

The actual factory farm location is devoid of anything resembling a natural ecosystem. The grain farms which feed the livestock are monocrops where insects, animals, and unwanted plants are constantly being killed. These farms cause erosion, pollution, declines in wildlife populations, and reduce natural soil fertility over time.

Most of these animals rely on some grain supplements (see the info to the left). The pastures are always overgrazed. There is bare soil, low biodiversity, little to no wildlife habitat, degrading soil fertility, leaching of manure, etc..

Fastest rate of large-scale soil creation of any known ecosystem. Constantly improving fertility, increasing biodiversity and wildlife habitat, improving water quality, reducing erosion and runnof, no bare soil, no chemicals, etc. Manure becomes beneficial to the plants and soil and is used completely, instead of leaching.

Effects on Brittle Environments

What are Brittle Environments?

Not common in Brittle Environments. Polluting effects of manure would be even worse in Brittle Environments. If feed (grain) is produced in a Brittle Environment it will seriously contribute to unsustainable aquifer use and aquifer pollution, salting of the ground, worse erosion, etc.

Grassland turns to desert under conventional livestock. Bare soil increases, space between plants increases, vegetation shifts to a few woody shrub species. Erosion and flash flooding increases. Biodiversity and total biomass greatly decrease. Silting of waterways. Increased temperature extremes. Etc.

Deserts turn to grasslands under properly managed livestock. Bare soil is covered by plants or by mulch. Vegetation shifts to a greater number of species, dominated by grasses. Erosion and flash flooding reduced or eliminated. Moderation of temperature. Increased moisture in the soil, etc.

Effects on Climate

Proven to be a major emmiter of Greenhouse Gasses.

Damaged grassland soils release carbon dioxide and methane. Plus the methane released by the livestock themselves.

Sequester carbon in the soil in such high quantities that it more than offsets their methane production.

Health

Eating totally unatural diets leading to many health problems in the animal and to unhealthy meat. Often given routine antibiotics and hormones. Unsanitary conditions dramatically increase the cases of bacterial contamination of the meat.

Eating mostly natural foods which contribute to a much healthier animal and therefore much healthier meat. Far less use of antibiotics and no hormones. Sanitary conditions reduce bacterial contamination.

Similar to Conventional Grazing. Often the animals get better nutrition because the soil and vegetation is healthier. This is especially true in Brittle Environments. Even more sanitary conditions since the livestock are regularly moved to fresh ground.

So what is the difference between properly managed and improperly managed livestock? Basically, properly managed livestock are livestock who are controlled so that their behavior mimics natural herd behavior as closely as possible.

What is natural herd behavior?

Large herbivores used to roam every continent on Earth before they were killed off by humans.(reference)  Wherever there were herbivores there were predators which could kill them (reference). The best defense against predators was to bunch up in a tight group with other large herbivore animals (high stock density).

Because these large herbivores were forced to pack tightly together in large herds they would quickly use up all the available vegetation in an area, and defecate or trample the rest. They could not be selective about where they walked, so all vegetation was quickly trampled. They had to constantly move to fresh ground in order to get enough to eat (short grazing period). They could not return to ground they had previously passed over until it had regrown a sufficient amount of vegetation to sustain the herd while it was passing over (long recovery period).

So, the three keys to proper livestock management are: (reference)

  • Bunch the livestock in a tight group (high stock density) instead of allowing them to spread out evenly over a vast area.

  • Keep the grazing period (the time animals spend in one area) as short as possible. A few days or less. Some people keep their grazing period on a given area of land as short as a few hours or a few minutes, although this is impractical for most farmers. If growth is slow you can get away with a grazing period as long as a week. (reference)

  • Allow a full recovery for the grass before it is grazed again. Grass needs time to replenish its resources before being grazed again. When the plant starts putting out seed heads it has fully recovered and can be grazed again. In areas with fast growth the recovery period can be as low as one month. In most areas of the world it is somewhere around three months.

Livestock are “properly managed” when all three of the above criteria are followed.

*Note: Proper grazing management is actually more complex than that, but the additional information would take up too much space for this article. For a complete understanding of proper grazing management read Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making and then read the Holistic Management Handbook

Bunched Bison

Proper Management In Practice

Planned Grazing is the only effective grazing technique for restoring Brittle Environments. No other management technique has been able to cope with the complexity and difficulty of grazing in Brittle Environments.

In Non-Brittle Environments Planned Grazing can also be used to great effect. But other rotational grazing systems (rotational grazing, MIG grazing, mob grazing, cell grazing, etc) will also work as long as they follow the basic principles outlined above: high stock density, short grazing period, full recovery period.

Most managers will need to take things a step farther in order to actually achieve sustainability:

In addition to implementing a good grazing system they also need to adopt Holistic Decision Making to ensure that all aspects of the operation (people, land, and finances) are well managed. Some exceptionally smart people (Joel Salatin, for example) can achieve great results without using the formal Holistic Decision Making Framework. But most people benefit immensely from it.

Here are some links to give you an idea of what properly managed livestock look like in practice:

https://www.facebook.com/sheldon.frith.5/videos/10204855589977164/?l=4599992999843903613

Why Use The Term “Properly Managed Livestock”?

In the excellent video below Tony Lovell says that in order to get people to accept that livestock can be amazing forces for good in the environment we must use a new term, “livestock” won’t work. ( @ 42 minutes in the video). When people hear the word “livestock” they immediately think of all the things they believe about livestock. Most people believe that livestock “destroy the environment”, “pollute”, “smell”, “are unhealthy”, and “endure terrible suffering”. These beliefs will prevent them from being able to understand the new information you are trying to tell them. If you want to tell people about how livestock can actually improve the environment and live happy lives you need to use a new term.

Tony Lovell suggests that we use the term “properly managed livestock”. I like this term because it immediately reveals the most important difference between unhappy-destructive livestock and happy-regenerative livestock: human management.

So, when you want to tell someone about the exiting potential of livestock, be sure to use the word “properly managed livestock” as much as possible, and explain the difference. Otherwise you will probably meet heavy resistance.

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