Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bovine Love

YOU LOVE 'EM OR YOU DON'T, I guess, and I love cows and calves and heifers and steers and oxen and sometimes even bulls. Let us count the ways: those big brown eyes; the gigantic tongue; the moo; the placidity/stupidity thing; and, most of all, the enormous, attractive bulk. And they taste good!

But everyone knows that cattle are an ecological bummer. Most of the beef sold at supermarkets comes from giant cow penitentiaries where the animals eat antibioticized grain and relieve themselves into a conveyor system that ends up in a fearsome "waste lagoon." Whatever you calculate – the carbon costs of moving the cattle to and from the facility and growing and fertilizing and transporting the grain they eat; the costs of polluting local water supplies; the costs to the animal's well-being – it's a grim story.

Can you raise and eat beef cattle without degrading the environment or locking up the animal? Yes, pretty much. Cattle and landscapes can actually help each other. After all, they co-evolved. The great grasslands of North America were grazed by scores of millions of hoofed herbivores for thousands of years. Nothing much bad happens when you turn a cow out to pasture so long as the cow-per-acre ratio doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of the pasture.

One problem – a problem that can be ameliorated but not abolished – is that bovines are flatulent, and their winds release significant amounts of methane, and methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Depending on breed and diet, some cattle emit less methane than others, but it's always a factor. Researchers somewhere must be working on the calculations by which a landowner can compare the atmospheric damage occasioned by driving to the mall and buying a chicken bred in a confinement facility in Arkansas and then operating a big Toro mower to keep the grasses down versus the damage occasioned by grazing a cow in that field. Just tell me where to find them.

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