Monday, October 20, 2008

Carbon sequestration and organic farming

A while back, I suggested that one of the big reasons for losing topsoil--and also the key to retaining and increasing it--is to simply allow the land to grow the plants that are suitable for it instead of plowing it every year to grow grain for chickens, turkeys, and pigs. Let animals graze it directly instead of harvesting it with a tractor, and you'll soon find that you get both healthier meat, as well as healthier land.

Well, I may be insane, and this may prove it, but I can at least argue I'm not alone. In this article, Joel Salatin argues about the same thing; that if we abandoned the feedlot, we could re-sequester all of the carbon that has been emitted by human sources in the past century within a matter of years.

For fun, let's check his math. My family probably eats about half a ton of meat and dairy per year, meaning probably about ten tons of feed was used to grow it. Do it with forage, and we would conclude that about twice that amount would be used, and that an equivalent amount of roots (new organic matter) would be put into the soil. So if we changed to pasture fed meats and dairy products, we'd be sequestering something around 20 tons of carbon annually. We also could reduce the farmer's fuel usage by a few tons of diesel fuel.

In contrast, our family burns about 1400 gallons, or ~4 tons, of gasoline per year, and probably an equivalent amount of fuel for heat and electricity. So if indeed pasture based agriculture does put organic matter into the soil, and if indeed plow based agriculture destroys it, one great way of reducing atmospheric carbon would be to let grazing animals, you know, "graze."

It also might do wonders for water quality, seafood availability, and flood dangers. It is as if God wants us to know something about His Creation.


Gino said...

for starters, pigs dont graze. they uproot and damage.

another: the cost of meat would more than triple.
we went to feed lots for economic reasons.

they still farm and raise livestock the old fashioned way... in subsaharan africa.
yeah,you know, that place that always sends us the yearly greeting cards of starving children?

Bike Bubba said...

Gino, not quite true. Consider that the Plains used to support 75 million bison and innumerable Longhorns; given this bounty, would we really starve? Moreover, consider what the price of farmland would do, and what the price of corn would do, if we stopped subsidizing it.

Land prices down. Feed prices up. Far less difference between the price of pasture fed and corn fed beef.

Also, if you want an example of pasture fed beef raised for profit, don't look to Africa. Those Zebus are more or less the trophy wives and Mercedes sedans of that culture. Look instead to the Pampas of Argentina and the Outback of Australia.

Gino said...

75 million bison fed how many injuns of the plains?

certainly not the 350 million folks we have now.

and how many live in australia, per acre, to the USA?

Bike Bubba said...

Missing the point; if the Plains could support 75 million bison, but now support only 50 million cattle, I dare suggest that if we went back to pasture, we could actually raise MORE beef.

For reference, a fair amount of the beef you'll get in fast food joints is the fat from American cattle mixed with the meat of cattle from Argentina and Brazil.

Yes, USDA types don't want to hear it, but you can raise cattle pretty well on just grass, and nobody needs to starve as a result.

Gino said...

actually, i was off in my logic, come to think.

but arent feed lots mainly used to fatten up prior to slaughter, not necessarily to raise the cattle themselves?
that, and to adjust the diet to improve the flavor of the meat?

Bike Bubba said...

Most cattle are on grass until they reach 500-800 lbs, and put on the final few hundred pounds on feed, yes. And yes, corn fed beef does have a different taste from pasture fed--which you prefer depends of course on who you are.

Even so, it was said until a few years back that about 70% of grain grown goes into the mouth of a cow, pig, turkey, or chicken. Fuel ethanol has probably changed that somewhat, but that's still an awful lot of land being plowed that might not need to be plowed.

pentamom said...

But what about all the plant materials WE eat? Assuming you're not advocating going to an all meat diet, you're going to have to factor out a lot of land used for growing people-food, out of that amount that fed 75 billion bison. So, okay, if you're figuring on 70%, then you have to discount that 75 million by 30% -- and you're running awfully close to that 50 million margin (assuming bison and cattle eat equivalent amounts, which might not be true, but that doesn't count the pigs, turkeys, and chickens.) And then there's the amount of land lost since the days of the roaming buffalo, since people want to live there, and produce things other than agricultural output there, and so forth, not to mention growing things other than the kinds of grains that dinner table animals eat.

pentamom said...

BTW, I'm not arguing with your premise, I just wonder about the numbers.

Bike Bubba said...

Good questions--that I'd simply trust markets to answer, really. Will people with access to prime land for growing grain and meat let themselves starve? Simply end the subsidies, and you'll get something in between what Bill Cody saw and what we see today.

pentamom said...

Well, mostly I'm just questioning the static model of land availability that your figures rest on -- that we can calculate on the same amount of land available for grazing that we had in 1830, as though there hadn't been cities and factories and human food crops and all kinds of other stuff taking up lots of that land -- things that aren't ALL going away regardless of market conditions I.e., people have to live somewhere, cabbages have to be grown somewhere, you have to manufacture goods somewhere, etc. Even if it's really profitable to turn over those subdivisions and auto parts factories and cabbage fields to grazing, it might not be worthwhile to someone to sell out and move somewhere more expensive to live, or what have you, even if the profitability makes the land prices high. IOW, you'd actually have to get rid of large numbers of people entirely in order to count on the available grazing land being what it was for the bison.

Bike Bubba said...

You're missing the point; I'm not arguing for bison, but using the example to demonstrate that whatever the virtues of modern agriculture might be, they don't seem to include "getting more food off the land." The total mass of meat fed there seems to be less than it was a century ago.

If you wanted to devote over 95% of the plains to bison, though, it would not require moving anyone's home or business. It's that empty. Lots of fences, yes. Plowing up subdivisions? Nope.