Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Searching for alternatives 2: Grasslands

Grasslands cover almost one fourth of the terrestrial area, but most of it produces rather little food. Statistics are very weak, but one assessment is that agropastoral landscape and system based on extensive grazing produce 24% of the beef, 46% of the lamb and 20% of the milk in the world[i]. Considering that the area is more than double the area of arable land, it is very little food per area unit. Clearly, most of them can’t in any way produce as much as arable lands because of climatic, geological or topographic reasons. Also, we should not forget that while they don’t produce much food, many of these areas are very important for biodiversity and other ecosystem services and if we expand food production on them over a certain level, we risk to harm those very important functions. Nevertheless there are some very promising developments in relation to grazing, both for drylands with extensive ranching and intensively managed grasslands. There are pioneers like Allan Savory from Zimbabwe and Joel Salatin on Polyface farm in Virginia promoting various grazing strategies claiming to radically increase grassland productivity and food production. As a huge bonus the grasslands could bind big quantities of carbon in organic matter, which could make a big difference for our climate.

”I don’t believe in arable farming, it takes out the fertility of the soil. We only have fifty years supply of phosphorus left from Morocco”, says Ado Bloemendal, who has worked ten years as an advisor for intensive grassland management in the Netherlands. The cycles of nutrients are disrupted by plowing and tilling the land but in permanent grasslands the cycles be closed, and very little nutrients will be lost. 

Under the brand of Pure Graze, 50 farmers are now working with the intensive production of grass-fed chicken, pork and cattle as well as dairy cows. Fifteen of the farmers are also marketing under the common brand. Some of the farms are organically managed and no farmer use pesticides or chemical fertilizer. There is very little use of antibiotics and if they after all other options are exhausted have to treat an animal, the meat will not be sold under the brand. 

For cows, the grazing is very intensive, they just stay a few hours in the same place, this is mirroring the movement of herds in the wild. Through intensive grazing the quality of the grass and the productivity are very high. In addition, it regenerates the grassland. “Grassland” is perhaps not the right term. ”The invention of chemical fertilizers and the dominance of English ryegrass are linked”, says Ado. This is because English ryegrass and the other grasses are favoured by nitrogen fertilizers and therefore outcompetes other plants; the perfect lawns are terrible mono-cultures. But it is better for both the cows and nature to have a much bigger variation of plants. Pure Graze supplies a few different seed mixes, for cows they have a mix with eight clover varieties, six grasses and eight herbs including caraway, parsley, chicory, pimpernel, dandelion, yarrow. Ado calls it his salad buffet, perhaps borrowing from Joel Salatin on the other side of the Atlantic. 

The productivity of the system is very high. Dairy cows in this system produce up to 20,000 kg of milk per hectare of land. Almost all the food comes from the grasslands, mostly as direct grazing, but some of the grass is cut for silage for winter feed. Diary cows normally get 2 kg of beet fiber is added to the diet for energy and fiber. As cows get almost no supplemental feeding and they are moved around in the pasture, there is very little risk of the pasture being overmanured.  To get the right perspective of this amazing productivity: 20,000 kg of milk has 700 kg protein, 800 kg fat and 12 million calories. This equals the energy (calories) for some 14-15 people, protein for some 40 people and fat for 30 people in one year. You could still feed more people with a bumper crop of ten or eleven tons of wheat from the same area but only with massive investments in fertilizers and pesticides.  

[i] Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, Meat Atlas.

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