Editor: Cows are in the bulls-eye of many environmentalists these days, given climate and water quality concerns. Unfairly, says soil expert Phyllis Tichinin, one of the strongest environmental voices BayBuzz knows. Here, she argues that cows are a key part of the solution. And she’ll elaborate further on her case – and respond to any reader comments, so please do comment – in a follow-up article.

Cows are not a major cause of water pollution and global warming from agriculture. Overuse of fertilisers and chemicals and shonky grazing are the cause.

Cows have gotten a bum climate rap, which is not to say industrial dairying or beef feedlots are environmentally sound. They’re not. They are huge energy guzzlers, pollution generators, inhumane and rely on unwise monoculture crops to feed the cows. 

Animals grazing naturally on grass can actually help to create deeper, healthier soils that clean up water.  

Fertilisers and chemicals, not cow manure, are the major causes of NZ water pollution. Urea, antibiotics, prescription drugs, pesticides and manufacturing wastes are the water pollution culprits. Blaming cows pooping in streams for river pollution is sadly simplistic. 

The most potent causes of farm water pollution have been erosion, farm chemicals and water soluble nitrogen and phosphorous fertilisers moving into streams and aquifers. Whereas our mega-tonnes of cow manure are a valuable source of soil fertility when distributed from the rear end of a cow onto diverse grass pastures. 

As for the charge of being climate wreckers, animals grazed naturally are an important part of maintaining  grasslands: those oceans of  vegetation that have always played a role in cooling the earth’s surface. 

What’s more, microbes on the soil and leaves of healthy pastures can eat many time more methane than cows burb. Cows on organic, high brix, diverse foliage burb less methane than cows on urea-fuelled pastures, and much less than cows fed grains in feedlots. This is a case of Nature’s GIGO response – Garbage In, Garbage Out. Cows fed high nitrate pastures from excessive fertiliser use do generate more methane and more nitrate in their urine. The quality of soils and nutrition makes all the difference in health outcomes for the animals, us and the environment. 

Pastures actually help cool the atmosphere by lifting heat from ground level through evapotranspiration from grasses. Plant sweat can cool the Planet! As that cooling water vapour rises it carries bacteria from leaf surfaces into the stratosphere where the heat can dissipate harmlessly into space. The now highflying bacteria become the rain drop nuclei and ice crystals that create the  dense white clouds which reflect the sun’s heat and provide us more consistent rain, along with atmospheric cleansing. 

That’s in a well-functioning natural system. What we have now is many fewer forests and pastures along with a low, brown chemical haze of transport and manufacturing pollution that blocks the plant-warmed air from rising as it should.  

Healthy, diverse taller pastures  grown on microbe-rich soils suck CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it in the soil carbon sponge. This natural enrichment process can store (sequester) tonnes of deep carbon per hectare per year. With continued regenerative fertilising and grazing practices, this rapid  soil carbon storage can be permanent.  

A modest, already demonstrated amount for pastures is 1.5 tonne carbon banked per ha/yr. If all 11 million hectares of NZ’s improved pastures were managed regeneratively, the CO2 stored would be enough to off-set all of NZ greenhouse gas emissions.  Add to that impressive number of off-sets from expanded, permanent native re-afforestation and the country becomes carbon  negative, which means we have an income source from selling carbon credits.

So think twice before knocking cows … they don’t choose to be stuffed with chemicals. With proper management, they play a critical biological, beneficial role in natural farming systems.

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18 Comments

    1. Thanks, Helen. You picked it….this is a manifestation of us being out of step with our environment, of not understanding that we have to cooperate with our ecosystem, not attempt to control it. In the overall scheme of things, ruminants like cows are a key part of a healthy ecosystem. It’s the how, not the cow. Phyllis

  1. Awesome article Phyllis.
    A very Big Thank you for such fine words. Well done. This gives me more courage to have my voice heard about wiser alternatives to the medication of people.

  2. Regenerative farming makes a lot of sense and it is a mistery to me why it is not being widely adopted by farmers. Could it be that intensive dairy farming is incompatible with regenerative farming as it wouldn’t support the same number of cows per hectare?

    1. Hi Pete,
      I’m there with you on the frustration of dairy farmers not adopting regenerative practices to help solve the ‘cow problem’! You raise a crucial point about the intensity of dairy farming and whether regenerative farm can be viable in that system. Short answer is YES, and, it depends on whether you’re aiming to be profitable as a farmer or whether you’re keener on having bragging rights to a large number of cows and a huge mortgage. Dairy farmers have been suckered into intensification to profit Fonterra management and the banks over the last 20+years. As ag economist Barrie Ridler’s farm profit models show, it’s not how much you produce or how much revenue you generate that matters. The important indicator is wheter that last bit of intensification you undertook actually was profitable on the margin. Often it’s not.
      Choisces like putting in a winter grazing crop instead of grazing animals so that pastures last productively for 30 years. Backing off cow numbers can help but experience here and overseas shows that in with a regenerative fertilising and grazing system, cows numbers usually need to rise after a couple of years in order to deal with all the grass being grown.

  3. Interested in Phyllis’s views about dairy farming in places like the Canterbury plains etc where porous soils require massive irrigation and the water take has had hugely harmful effects on the rivers and acquifer etc. While the issue may not be the cows per se do we not have too many of them? We have millions more now than 30 years ago and too many of them in the ‘wrong’ places?

    1. Good questions, Marilyn. I agree the Canterbury Plains are a poor choice for urea and chemical fuelled intensive dairy farming. The resulting soil, aquifer and river pollution is tragic. However, there are regenerative dairy farms in the region setting an example of profitability while using a minimal amount of urea, having similar cow numbers and, most importantly, growing their soil carbon sponge. With an expanding soil carbon sponge produced by diverse communities of healthy soil microbes, water need drops, less run-off occurs, grass is better quality, cows produce better quality milk and have better health. All this adds up to a better bottom line for the farmer and the environment. You can start to see where the ‘cow problem’ impact shifts to when regenerative farming is widely adopted…to the pocket books of the ag support industry. Could be why it gets dissed so much in the rural press? I predict when regenerative farming/taller grass grazing is standard practice for NZ farming, that we may actually be short of grazing animals and they’re impact will be positive for restoring and enriching our soils and cleaning up our waters. It’s not the cow, it’s the how. Phyllis

  4. Phyliss, Thanks for this Succinct, well written and accurate description of how beneficial, for the environment, ruminant farming in NZ can be.
    Unfortunately the government continues with rhetoric demonising farmers for GHG emissions to carry favour with the majority.

    1. Thanks for your commendation, John, as especially for the unparalled example of regenerative dairy farming that you and your team are providing. What’s needed, I think, is more farmer to farmer education without the ‘indentured’ universities, research organisations and rural press muddying the waters on whether regenerative can work. Soil is meant to become more fertile and complex. It’s meant to be able to restore carbon function and produce more biomass…those of the rules of the ecological game. Get more diverse and more productive is the environmental imperative. It doesn’t happen because we get in the way with a control/force it approach. We forget that we are organisms in this environment, too. What we do to Nature, ultimately we do to ourselves. Cow numbers and profit are just the tip of the dirty iceberg we’re creating with our farming and health practices. Phyllis

  5. Wise words … guess the questions getting the on ground changes … we have 66 percent of the world being feed indirectly on nitrogen … its a bigger problem than food producers can handle I suspect.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. My question in return is, do we really need to be using that much synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to produce enough food for ourselves, even with a growing population? Retrospective research on the Green Revolution of the 60’s and 70’s indicates that most of the benefit for its hybrid seeds reliant on synthetic inputs went to the multi-national corporations supplying those inputs. Health and security benefits did not flow to the farmers and the populations they support. Production does initially increase with urea fertiliser use, but so do insect issues, pesticide use, water demand and soil collapse. Small scale farmers having moved to hybrid commodity seeds and inputs are left with debts, poisoned soils and no way to feed themselves. So they migrate to cities or indenture themselves to large scale corporate farms leaving them dependent and less healthy. We’ve been encouraged to adopt new technologies that upset natural systems. Ultimately, that doesn’t work out well for anyone. There are small, hopeful indications that farmers in Africa and India are returning to traditional farming practices that can restore their soils, communities and independence. Phyllis

      1. Thanks Phyllis for a great article – totally agree. However would suggest that instead of increasing cow numbers to deal to increased grass growth, we promote a mixed farming model with a number of different income streams. I.e. have some sheep or goats, etc. Also be interested to know if animals grazed on regenerative pastures emit lower volumes of ghg’s? Have any studies been done on that?

        1. Yup, diversity in any landscape is crucial for resilience and, somewhat surprisingly given all the monocultural agriculture around, species diversity trumps all other factors when considering biomass production and long term yield. So yes, a mixture of animal species on farm is good and not just for more diverse poop into the system. It’s sometimes called multi-tiered farming and it’s a good economic strategy as well. When hazelnuts are down, mini lamb cutlets from your understory Baby Doll sheep could save the bacon.
          The most well known version is chickens behind grazing cows. Challenging because it involves separate feeding regimes, housing and predator control but having two income streams makes sense and the taste of grass based eggs is amazing!
          As for your question of whether there are fewer greenhouse gases from animals grazed regeneratively….Yes. My response is going to be simplified but it’s crucial to grasp the ecobiochemical principles of the Nitrogen/Carbon tango. They generally combine in ratios of 1 part N to 10-20 parts C. Important because those ratios govern which microbes thrive and the more complex micro-organisms tend to have more carbon in them. The more N to C you have in grass or feeds, the more methanogens you will have in the rumen and the more methane generated and burped. High N/ low C pastures and produce are also low Brix, low nutrient density.
          We’ve known this since the 1960s. Long story short – urea fuelled grasses and grains have more lose/crude/nitrate nitrogen in them prompting more methane ghg AND more nitrate in pee. Our two most vexing cow issues are both related to how we’re fertilising. Driving plant and animal growth with synthetically derived nitrogen/urea/ammonia ferts causes imbalances throughout the ecosystem – particularly at the microbe level and on the other extreme at the food nutrient density level . The more urea N added to the ag system the more imbalanced, simplified, unproductive and unhealthy the entire ecosystem becomes. Since the introduction in the 1920’s of the Haber Bosch process for taking N out of the air and making it solid, we’ve doubled the amount of Nitrogen circulating in our planet’s land and water systems. That’s huge, folks. Regenerative farms use a fraction of the N fert applied to industrial farms yet grow more, improve soil health and tend to be more profitable. I suggest sourcing your food inputs from farms that aren’t contributing to YOUR nitrogen overload.

  6. Simple exercise, compare the largest apple growers chemical/fert inputs, to the largest dairy guys in HB. Simple question, has been asked before Tom huh?
    Triangulate with cancer rates spiking in our province? Just saying (again)

    1. You raise a integral and important ag issue, Christopher… for me it comes down to ‘How can we expect our farming to be environentally healthy and profitable if we continue to use biocides that destroy our production base – the soil microbiome?’ All pesticides and most synthetic fertilisers kill soil and plant microbes making normal soil processes, such as growth of the soil carbon sponge and nutrient transfer, impossible. Organic systems don’t use biocidial inputs. They focus on nurturing and working with, instead of against, natural ecosystem functions. And as for the lurking question of whether organics is profitable, I know various organic NZ dairy farms that have substantial greater marginal profit than conventional dairies. You need go no further than the Bostocks’ successes to observe that orchard and poultry organics is profitable.

  7. Interesting debate. When I hear of the dire impact of farm animals in general on CO2 emissions, I wonder if the calculations are based on research from overseas on grain fed animals rather than on NZ practises. For hill country beef or sheep, and with minimal fertiliser (which obviously creates emissions in production), wouldn’t this kind of farming be fairly carbon neutral? Even including methane, which is deemed worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, since it breaks down quickly into CO2, which has been absorbed in the first place in the growth of grass which the animal ate. Considering hill country is not suitable for cropping, grain production etc, isn’t hill country farming quite environmentally sustainable? Excuse me for widening the discussion from dairying.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Your comments aren’t wide of the mark at all. The same considerations about soil function and questions about CO2 apply to sheep and beef grazing, cropping, etc. With any form of agriculture we walk a tightrope between producing this crop and depleting our soil capital needed for future crops. The good news is that there’s a simple principle of all ecosystems that helps us to make farming decisions that are good for our pocket books, the environment and the plants and animals we cultivate. It’s called Biomimicry… doing things in Nature’s image: imitating natural ecosystem functions and transactions as much as we can in all our ‘dealings’ with our environment, which in the end is our support system as well. The Regenerative Agriculture principles are all based on biomimicry and boil down to ‘Disrupt as little as possible and with all else imitate Nature’. How we fertilise and graze are the big ones for pastoral farms. Moving away from Superphospate and Urea, along with raising grass residuals across the farm, are the main ways to kickstart soil carbon sponge formation. With a growing soil carbon sponge/ humus level, less methane is likely to be escaping into the atmosphere from animals. How that happens needs to be a whole separate article, but you came real close mentioning with the methane differences between dairying and S&B production in NZ.
      Yes, most of the numbers cited on cattle methane emissions come from overseas grain-based feedlots AND the NZ methane emission figures from Ag Research and the Greenhouse Gas Consortium, which our emission rates are based on are, I assert, artificially high. This is because they were feeding those animals on the standard NZ monoculture rye grass/clover, synthetic fertiliser pastures which are comparatively microbe ‘dead’ and tend to create a rumen microbiome heavy on methanogen bacteria. At the same time the undiverse soil and plant microbiology means that the natural methanTROPH bacteria aren’t in attendance, waiting there to eat the methane that is exhaled by ruminants. It doesn’t have to be that way. With the commonly recommended fertiliser and grazing practices we’re farming for a double whammy on methane emissions and nitrate leachate. Because of our traditional practices we’re generating more of both those ‘pollutants’ than would naturally be generated from animals on a highly diverse pasture ecosystem. Concurrently there are fewer methane consuming microbes down there in the grass and soil to eat the methane or convert the nitrate as the cow is burping, grazing and peeing.
      Added up, it’s likely that S&B grazing units are responsible for fewer emissions per animal than dairy units. Both are higher than natural since functioning natural systems tend to automatically use all ‘waste’ as some other organism’s ‘food’. All pastoralists could be improving their practices to both produce more grass of higher quality and grow their soil carbon sponge and bottom line with modest, low cost changes to their fertiliser and grazing management, while also sequestering CO2 deep in their soils. It’s a multi-win approach. That’s what Regenerative grass farming is about. The really rewarding part is that both the animals and the farmers are happier…ask any diligent Regen farmer and they say the same thing. “Farming is fun again.”

  8. I recall years ago, the then CEO of Ravensdown responding to questions about nitrogen pollution. His reply was “it is not the nitrogen, it is the urine —.” Once again, misinformation is the tool of the guilty. Blaming symptoms rather than causes to divert attention from the truth. In simple terms, the more urea that is applied to pastures, the more the cow will urinate in an attempt to detox itself of the unhealthy substance.

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