Cows sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to climate change for emitting loads of planet-warming methane into the atmosphere, but Karel Starek, an owner of The Golden Hoof farm in Boulder County, contends that is unfair.
There is another side to the equation, he said.
Ruminants like cows, sheep and bison actually help build soil health when they graze and excrete back onto grass fields, and thus give the ground more capacity to harbor carbon to keep it from contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Making their presence an environmentally beneficial process, rather than a harmful one, is just a matter of how the animals are managed, particularly how long they spend eating a particular area, said Starek, who leases about 70 agricultural acres from the Boulder open space program on top of private land the farm also works.
“They’ve been totally scapegoated and there are a whole bunch of narratives like the methane narrative that are partial stories that are not necessarily presenting the whole truth. There are holes in most of these simplistic arguments against cows,” he said. “You can look at one person who could use a hammer to destroy a house, another person could use a hammer to build one. Should you get rid of all hammers because of that person who is destructive? Cows are the same way.”
How his grass-fed animals are managed, with frequent rotations between pastures to ensure plants do not become too mowed, is a potential tool for agriculturalists to employ on wider scales that would help in the fight against climate change, and mitigate the ways livestock has accelerated it.
The Golden Hoof’s ideas, among those of other Boulder County growers and scientists, are featured in a report to Congress released in late June by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, a body on which U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat, serves.
About 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, according to the report, and approximately 40% of all such emissions from the sector come from livestock manure management and the livestock digestive process.
“When livestock manure is treated and stored in typical pits or lagoons, decomposition results in large emissions of methane. In contrast, rotational grazing systems, where animals are raised on pasture, improve soil health and carbon sequestration, reduce runoff and soil erosion, and evenly distribute manure, increasing manure management effectiveness and efficiency,” the report states.
It went on to cite studies in Texas and Michigan showing that management-intensive rotational grazing systems with high-quality forage can reduce methane by 30% per animal compared to continuous grazing plans.
But there are financial barriers to switching to so-called regenerative agricultural practices.
“Most production, they’re trying to minimize all costs and labor,” said Starek, who owns The Golden Hoof with his wife, Alice. “We’re moving cows every day.”
But that can have an impact on the health of the planet, especially when it comes to corn-feeding animals.
“The main con is the net effect of that system is depleting soil rather than enhancing the soil, whether it’s the corn grown in a mono-crop that is requiring chemical inputs, and is fundamentally an extractive process. Or if you’re not moving the animals, you’re harming the grass,” he said. “We’re not focused on the crop, we’re focused on the system that grows a superior crop. You end up building soil the same way that bison built the great topsoil across the great plains.”
Neguse, who represents Colorado’s second Congressional district, has proposed directing the Department of the Interior to conduct a study on the state of soil health on federal lands and produce a report on its findings. It would include an analysis of the impact grazing, wildfire, recreation and invasive species have on the soil and should include recommendations for legislative or regulatory action to improve soil health, increase carbon sequestration and improve community benefits of soil health programs on federal lands, a spokesperson for the congressman said.
Other recommendations coming out of Colorado in the report include ideas to catalyze renewable energy and zero-emission vehicle development and better support federal labs like those run by the U.S. Department of Commerce in Boulder that have been instrument in documenting changes to the global climate and the role humans have played.
“I am incredibly proud of how many Colorado ideas have been incorporated into the committee’s national strategy for climate action, including my proposals to expand zero-emission vehicles and clean energy, revitalize our nation’s conservation corps, invest in regenerative agriculture research, safeguard scientific integrity, modernize our federal labs and protect the beautiful outdoor spaces Coloradans enjoy for generations to come. In Colorado, we feel the impacts of climate change in a visceral way and we have continued to meet this crisis with action, that’s the Colorado climate way,” Neguse stated in a news release.
Boulder last year hosted a climate crisis committee field hearing featuring politicians, including Gov. Jared Polis, calling for action to address the continued use of planet-warming fossil fuels, among other climate-changing human and industrial activities through investment in new research and technology.
“Boulder residents and businesses, as well as communities across the U.S., will benefit from the climate strategies that Congressman Neguse has helped form in these recommendations,” Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver stated in the release. “Boulder has long been a champion of innovative and impactful climate action, and we are proud to see the contributions of our community members, scientists, and open space farmers in the report.”