Could you really be able to graze livestock, and not eat them? Or rather, could livestock be used to graze pastures and rangeland, and never be sent to slaughter? If so, how would that work?
Could you really be able to graze livestock, and not eat them? Or rather, could livestock be used to graze pastures and rangeland, and never be sent to slaughter? If so, how would that work?
This is a question that has been plaguing me for a little while. It's not because I'm trying to find reasons to justify the practice of slaughter, but rather just to theorize and hypothesize as to how one would be able to be successful with grazing livestock without involving the slaughter process somewhere down the line.
See, I strongly believe that if you support grazing, you also support eating meat, even if you aren't one who eats meat yourself.
I have heard of people trying to endorse the simplistic reasoning that you can graze livestock properly and still not eat them. While I agree it is certainly possible, there are some fundamental flaws that are often ignored with this particular theory. I'll expand more on that later.
How Can You "Successfully" Graze Livestock Without Slaughtering Them?
The most important factor to a successful grazing plan is knowing how much forage is available in a pasture. You use that to determine how many animals you can graze in said pasture. No matter what your plans are for the animals, knowing stocking rates and carrying capacities of the land is super important.
The number of animals a piece of land can hold without causing environmental damage stays relatively the same year after year when it comes to carrying capacity. Stocking rates vary more readily with the season. The number of animals to have on that land should not exceed carrying capacity. While carrying capacity itself can increase under good stewardship and management practices, the animal numbers still have stay within those parameters.
If you are grazing animals and have no interest in sending any of them to slaughter--selling them to other no-kill "farms" or farm animal rescues or even petting zoos--it's important to consider the breeding part of this complex equation. In short, don't let those animals produce offspring. Castrate all the male animals, and if you can't do that, you have the option of either selling them, or confining them to another location where you are grazing a bachelor herd with no access to any females.
Also, do not accept any new animals onto the land if it means exceeding the stocking rate and carrying capacity for the land.
The grazing management principles themselves should not stray far from what is recommended: Create paddocks in a key-line layout, where they are encouraged to eat more evenly on hill tops as well as valley bottoms, and not be allowed to prefer one over the other. Keep animals together in a relatively tight group in mimicking the movements of wild grazing herds. Move them when they've grazed most of the tops of the plants, or "taken half" of what forage is there. Do not allow them to return to previously-grazed paddocks until those plants have fully recovered. Daily paddock moves are recommended. Rest periods may be as short as 20 days, or as long as 450 days or more. Each paddock should never be grazed at the same time as the previous year.
That all sounds easy to do, doesn't it? It does, yes, but all in the short term. Try getting beyond that 5 to 10 year time frame and things start looking a little less promising. Some issues may start raising their ugly heads during this short-term period.
How Unsuccessful Grazing Management Actually Is When Not Including Slaughter (or Sale) of Livestock
Some issues I have come to mind:
Extra Feed Costs & Unadapted Animals
It makes life less simple and complicated when you have animals that are not adapted to being on a forage-only or forage-exclusive diet. This is particularly true if the farm in question is one which houses "rescued" farm animals, or the animals purchased may not have the kind of genetics needed to be good, "grassy" stock. If you plan on getting forage-raised and bred stock, but not ever slaughter them for meat, the more power to you. I just hope you don't run into one or more caveats and difficulties I'll talk about soon which you may discover with this choice in your management scheme.
If you are really trying hard to manage your forage resource as well as you can, but you are finding your animals are going downhill, no matter how hard to try to work with your forage resource so that your animals get the best quality fodder possible, chances are your animals are just not that adapted to such a diet.
What else can you do but start supplementing those high-maintenance critters with grain, grain by-products, anything you can get your hands on. Eventually you may find you have to continually supplement them throughout the entire year, not just in particular years. No, I'm not talking about just feeding pastured pigs and poultry here, I'm actually aiming right at the ruminant animals that are *supposed* to be best only on forage, and shouldn't be needing grain.
Dairy cows that have been selectively bred to be able to be raised in confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not your "grassy" type animal like Greg Judy's South Devons are, for example. I have personally seen what happens to dairy cows when they're put out on pasture and not supplemented with any grain, and it's not pretty. A farm sanctuary with old dairy cows, or rescued dairy calves that have grown up well enough that start grazing them in the manner described above, and fail to supplement with grain, will end up with animals that are malnourished, emaciated, and eventually deadstock. Those extra feed costs for those unadapted animals are going to be needed.
If breeding is out of the question--because we all know that allowing breeding to occur must mean that the excess stock will need to be sold off, or eventually slaughtered for meat--the ability for the herd to become more adapted to your management scheme, your forage and land base is non-existent. It takes up to two or more generations for a herd of livestock--be they cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, or poultry--to become adapted to the kind of forage base that they're being grazed on, no matter if it's a particular tame pasture mix, or native rangeland. When you do not strive to achieve better genetics for your own operation, land, climate, and forage base, you are shooting yourself in the foot by having to continuously shell out money for extra feed costs so that you can continue to keep poorly adapted animals that you are too scared to get rid of or send to slaughter.
Training of Animals is Required
New animals that come to your place that have been "rescued" or purchased because some old animals "died of natural causes"--or died of illness, predation, or injury--MUST be trained to your management techniques. You cannot expect them to suddenly know what it means when you come out to lift up the polywire with a 8-foot pole, or even that a single strand of electric isn't to be messed with. Sure your existing animals can teach them about your habits of going out to move them, but there are other things that these animals need to learn quickly themselves, otherwise they end up in trouble, causing you extra money to spend at the veterinary clinic, or extra money to get a back-hoe to bury yet another "died of natural causes" animal.
It takes time to train those animals. I understand some animals are pretty smart and get it within a day or two, but others can be so remarkably dim-witted you can see why the past owner was so happy for you to take it in. Not only that, but it also takes the human behind the managing everything to make sure the new animals are being trained properly, and learning what they need to know.
Animals have a way of revealing our own mistakes that we would otherwise ignore if they weren't even there.
That also includes the adjustment period needed for new stock to move onto a different feed source. If you're grazing your animals on a pasture with a lot of legume, and a large component of that legume is bloat-causing, I sure hope you took the time to make sure those new animals got adjusted to that forage properly so you don't end up with a dead bloated sheep or cow!
No Animal Lives Forever--Nor Ever Stays Young
How do you manage around old stock that have worn-down teeth, not the same microbiota in their rumens to keep fat and healthy on forage alone, or seem to have some chronic ailment that requires regular veterinary check ups? These old senior animals may often need special care that younger stock don't, until the day they die.
It goes right back to having to pay for extra feed and dealing with poorly adapted animals in your grazing management. These old animals more than likely won't be able to keep up with the younger animals in the herd, and are less likely going to be as competitive as those who actively go in and graze as much as they can before their neighbouring herd mate gets a mouthful. Soon they start losing condition, and start looking unthrifty, if you don't change or adopt something in your ever-complicating management scheme to account for them.
Especially if you're adamant about never taking an animal to slaughter.
And what happens when an animal up and dies on you? You have to replace it somehow, from somewhere...
Source of New Animals to Bring In?
Does such a source exist? Are you of the mind to keep this in mind, or are you of the thought that, by prohibiting breeding, so you contribute to the eventual extinction of livestock as mandated by those who follow plant-based religious belief systems?
While I don't want to bring in arguments around plant-based/vegan fundamentalist ideologies here, it's a little something worth bringing up. The belief is that it's somehow "better" for animals to have never been born at all, than to live a life of uncertainty and eventually die to become someone's dinner. Of course I disagree on several accounts, but the thing is, when it comes to grazing management, and the fact that rangelands and pastures do need livestock to be able to continue to thrive and remain healthy, the anti-slaughter argument when attempted to be coupled with grazing management--where, once again, proponents claim that it can be done--falls flat on its face when there is no attempt to bring in new stock to keep up with the grass.
Not enough stock mean that more and more pastures or paddocks get a longer period of rest than they should. Too much rest for plants in most areas of the world leads to excessive oxidizing plant residue, which eventually suffocates and kills the new plants trying to come up from underneath from tillers or seeds.
So I say that if you're still adamant about not slaughtering any animals, but end up with having deadstock that die from disease, predators, or old age, you simply MUST find a source to bring in new animals to train and incorporate in your grazing plan to continue to keep the land and other life upon it healthy and thriving.
Pastures and Rangelands Need Long-Term Management
If you do not have such a source, or even if you do not intend to find such a source to ensure the long-term management of the land in your care, then we have a very big problem. We have an even more significant problem if you maintain to be of the fundamentalist belief that all domestic animals, particularly those considered to be farmed animals, should eventually cease to exist.
While I could go off on a big ol' tangent about how bad it is to even believe such a thing--because it really is bad, and in my opinion, rather selfish, among other things--there's something more pressing that I'm concerned about when it comes to pasture or rangeland management. The problems won't be immediate, but they eventually raise their ugly heads when it's too late.
You see, when you are planning on managing a piece of land with its integrity, health, biodiversity, and soil carbon-capturing capacity in mind, among other things, you simply cannot be planning things for short-term; such as, for as long as you can have animals to "rescue" and have live on your farm "sanctuary." It's imperative that you think long-term. Anticipate that the piece of ground that you hold in your care is going to be managed over not just 10 years, but rather 30, 50, or even 100 years from now. The management strategies, principles and practices will need to passed down from one land care-taker to another. However, if any of that is not a long-term goal of yours, then as I said above, we have a big problem.
Having poorly-adapted animals that need the extra TLC may not be a good long-term solution for good pasture or rangeland management. I may be off when I say that, but with these "pampered" animals getting what they need from the extra feed you're giving them regularly, and some from pasture or rangeland, they may inadvertently be selecting for some plants and against others, and you may also inadvertently not create the sufficient grazing pressure on your pastures as you think you are. Quite possibly you may end up with weed issues not seen before, or a need to rejuvenate some pastures due to management flaws you may not be paying attention to.
Let's look at yourself and the animal side of the equation. If you can't juggle caring for unadapted livestock, managing your pastures properly, managing your finances to ensure animals have enough and the right feed to keep them healthy, and managing other things on the farm itself (to continue keep the farm afloat and most importantly, be able to take care of yourself and your own needs), you will fail. Even if you gather enough help to carry the burden. Because in the end, over the long-term, it may very well end up being a lot more work than you had ever anticipated, and a lot more fighting with Nature, in more ways than one, than you ever imagined. It gets tough on both you and the animals in your care, and most likely even your pastures.
If your ultimate goal is really, to be a contributing member to the cease-to-exist "animal rights" club of the world, I wouldn't doubt that your pastures are going to further decline in biodiversity, ecological integrity, among other things. Not all of it may even go into forest, particularly if the land being managed was historically some form of arid, or semi-arid grassland or savannah. Instead, without sufficient grazing pressure applied strategically (coupled with strategic rest periods), that land could very well undergo desertification, degradation, shrub and weed invasion, and a host of other problems. We are seeing it already with land that has been poorly managed, under-utilized, over-grazed, over-rested... It's here, it's visible, and I have no doubt that the same fate will happen on the land held by those who have a vested interest in the constant vilification and the ensuring of the extinction of all livestock.
The people who maintain this fundamentalist mindset concerned with long-term pasture and/or range management is a goal destined to fail, because it isn't a goal at all. They definitely are not good stewards of the land, nor good grazing managers to boot. They certainly also have no interest in maintaining these qualifications nor, therefore, the very integrity of the land base in their care for generations to come.
Quite frankly, I've a mind to state that those kind of people should stay the hell away from any animal whatsoever, and stick with growing fruits, nuts, and vegetables in their "veganic" permaculture gardens. Leave those animals in the hands of those far better qualified and more mindful in how to raise them, from birth to death, and in how to make the best decisions for them based on various factors and values that rarely often involve frivolous emotional appeals of which may end up doing more harm than good.
Of course there's probably more to the story than I submitted, but those are my reasons as to why grazing management, when done so without including the factor of culling/slaughtering/selling livestock is and will be highly unsuccessful.
Now I will turn to why you really do need to incorporate breeding, slaughtering and selling livestock into the grazing management scheme of things.
What Makes for Good Grazing--and Land--Management?
Let's face it, as a grazier you certainly can graze livestock without having to slaughter them... that is, by your own decision-making and management planning. But, that does NOT mean that you are not part of the whole systemic process outside of your own operation which definitely involves turning a live animal into food.
For instance, if you opt to graze animals for someone (while getting paid to do so), or you buy a herd of livestock that are the same age and gender, and graze them for a certain period of time before they are shipped back to the owner's place (or sold to another farm), at some point in time those animals are going to end up on someones' plates. That is not like, with what I described above, having a farm "sanctuary" where you can incorporate "good" grazing management but choose to never be a part of the birth-and-death system typical of most farms and ranches.
Involving yourself in the raising of livestock for not only the purpose of healing and maintaining the ecology of the landscape but also contributing to providing a nutritious source of food for people, means that you have to involve slaughter at some point. Most certainly it means the end of the line for some or most livestock, but that's a non-issue compared with the reasons for requiring such means to an end.
There were three things that stood out the most for me when looking at how eliminating the slaughter step in the raising livestock process would be infeasible:
These three things are actually very important when you are working to maintain the quality and integrity of the natural resource that you are responsible for managing, and also be able to make a living at it.
Adaptability of the Herd to Landscape, Vegetation and its Climate
Did you know that it takes at least two generations of livestock animals to be able to become adapted to a landscape? In other words, for a breeding herd, the grand-daughters and grandsons of the first cows and herd bulls that were started on a grassland are going to be much more able to thrive off the vegetation of the landscape that their grandmothers--and even grandfathers--could.
That also means that those animals are typically going to be less reliant on extra supplementation--other than mineral--because they've become physiologically and even genetically adapted to the forage base. Selecting for "easy-keeping" cows and bulls and culling those animals that are not doing so well on the land base and with the current management demands, improves the vitality and overall fecundity of the herd. It also saves money because, over more generations, less is spent on extra feed and veterinary bills.
You the producer are responsible for determining which animals go on the cull short-list and which will stay. There needs to be more than one reason why you're deciding on culling cows, and why you're only keeping a certain number of offspring (heifers and bulls). Reasons will often range from teeth to structural conformation to mothering ability, as well as how well they are handling the management strategies and the forage resource.
You are also responsible for selecting the bulls that will ensure better genetics for your herd in the future. Selecting the heifers and cows that will put you one more leg up on an even better herd for tomorrow is just as important.
The cows that are kept to continue to produce and raise a calf will be able to teach their calves all sorts of things that they may need to know later in life. Of course not all calves are going to stay on the ranch, but those that do stay will benefit from these teachings, and are guaranteed, by your selection processes.
Livestock for the rancher are really not mere commodities, they are animals that live and breathe and graze as the living herbivores they're meant to be. But the thing is they need to work for you so you can make a living, put food on the table, pay the bills, that sort of thing. The cows don't need the money to live, but you do!
Maintaining Livestock Numbers on the Landscape Over Long-Term
Stocking rates and carrying capacity, as mentioned previously, are the values that determine the number of animals that a piece of land can support for a set period of time without damaging that forage resource. In order to achieve a good stocking rate for your pastures, you need to ensure that you're not exceeding or even under cutting yourself with animal numbers.
This is where culling is also advantageous. Note that culling doesn't necessarily equate to slaughter, it just means that extra animals are removed from the farm or ranch based on a wide array of reasons as I briefly mentioned above. Culling critters, particularly if your pastures are getting too mouths to be able to support, relieves the pressure put on your forage base to meet animals' consumption demands. The key is that the more animals you have, the greater the quantity of forage is needed.
Even if you're able to move a large group of animals around in a timely manner, there comes the question of also the timeliness of the forage to get adequate rest to recover from grazing. Will it get sufficient rest with the higher number of animals in your care? If not, time to start looking at which animals to sell or turn into beef.
With cow-calf pairs especially, it's quite important to remember that the calf grows. He doesn't stay a cute 50 or 80 lb calf that only needs its mommas milk forever. He grows, and he grows fast. Within 6 months he'll be weighing 10 times what he did when he was born, and eating 10 times what he did when he was a newborn cute-as-a-button baby calf. That means that there's 10 additional pounds of forage required--if I've got my math right off the top of my head--by the forage resource in 6 months. Let me state that another way: With the cow already eating around 25 pounds of dry-matter (DM) forage per day, her and her suckler calf are going to be eating an additional 10 pounds of forage DM per day. That's a lot more grass needed by that growing pair. And on top of that, the cow will have another calf on the way...
The calf doesn't stop growing when he reaches 6 months old, either! Oh no, he keeps growing until he reaches around 3 years old by which, if he's kept as a bull, he'll be a powerful one-ton (~2000 lb) beast eating 35 lb of DM forage per day.
With not culling, a cow herd can double its population in one year, which means double the requirement of pasture. If your pasture simply cannot handle that extra amount of fodder, even on a really good growing year, then it will suffer terribly, and so will you and your animals.
Over-grazed pastures are an ugly sight to see. It basically looks like a poorly-managed golf course chuck full of weeds. There's not much for the animals to eat, and they suffer too from malnutrition and starvation if they're not supplemented with extra feed. The same thing will happen should you choose to never cull any animals.
Good grazing practices may guarantee almost doubling the conventionally stated carrying capacity of your pastures, meaning you can carry more animals on the land than you thought possible. However, it's wise ensure long-lasting rangelands and pastures, it's always important to remember to never get ahead of yourself and think you can get away with exceeding carrying capacities of the land base, even in good years.
If you look after the land, it will look after you, and do so for a long time.
Assurance of Long-Term Range or Pasture Management
Here's the kicker: When you have a good grazing plan, and your management suits you, your land, your animals, and even your finances, plus you allow for regular monitoring of the animals, your forage base, as well as the wildlife on your land which allows you to make tweaks in your management plans for better success in the future, you are, without a doubt, setting yourself up for success into the future.
Look after the land and it will look after you. Managing holistically or based on a whole-systems approach with the simple criteria of Plan-Monitor-Control-Replan assures your long-term management for the rangelands and/or pastures in your care.
Just how the animals fit into this is an easy explanation: They are your tools for being able to manage those pastures and/or rangelands in the first place. You cannot do that without them. But you need to make sure that those animals continue to fit with the land base and your long-term goals. In order to do that, some sacrifices must be made.
Managing pastures and rangelands means working with Nature and trying your best to have Nature on your side most of the time. And often appealing to Nature means to satisfy some of her darker characters which involves killing animals for food. At least we humans are much more mindful of ensuring that the deaths of the animals in our care are much more painless and swifter than what they would otherwise experience if a non-human predator should "take care of" them.
Overall, it certainly is justifiable to encourage and include slaughtering animals for food in the grazing management scheme. And it certainly is reconcilable that slaughtering animals for food after grazing them is a beneficial practice that should never be shunned. It is a part of healing the land and providing nutritious food for people, for generations to come.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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