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It's Not the Cow's Fault

Dr. Ryan Schmid


Recently I read a study that found poor air quality from animal production results in 17,900 deaths annually in the US. A worrisome statistic that deserves our attention, but for this article, I’d like focus on the solution to this problem proposed by the study’s authors. Their solution, everybody on the planet needs to chip-in and eat way less meat.

This is an argument I hear with increasing frequency. On the surface it intuitively sounds like a good solution. If everyone bands together to eat less meat, there will be less demand, which will have ripple effect causing prices to drop, making livestock less profitable to raise, and causing farmers to quit raising so many animals. With less livestock there will be fewer deaths from air pollutants, less green-house gas emissions, and less pollutants running into our water. Problem solved; planet saved. Right?

I’d like to take some time to examine this argument a little closer. In order to do this, it’s important to understand why meat is increasingly being villainized as the destructor of our environment and human health.

The majority of livestock raised for meat in the US will at some point end up in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). This system of animal production boosts efficiency of production. However, concentrating large quantities of animals raises many questions, like what to do with all the manure, how to feed so many animals, how to do this all profitably?

Farmers are innovative, overcoming these hurdles by building things like lagoon pits to contain the manure, erecting bins and elevator systems next to feedlots to handle all the grain, and accessing cheap grain produced in abundance by our nations corn and soybean farmers. But now, after farmers have put all this infrastructure/capital in place, research is finding environmental and human health consequences resulting from this system (like the publication mentioned at the beginning of this article). So I ask, is livestock really the root cause of this problem? ls eating less meat the best solution for our planet?

I have a different perspective. It’s not the cow’s fault. It’s how we raise the cow that’s the problem. If we can understand how to fix livestock production, then we have a solution that works for both farmers and the public. To do this, we need to understand how livestock fits within the environment.

Animals are an integral component of all ecosystems. Without animals, the planet’s ecosystems cease to function properly. A classic example of this is bison roaming the plains. These creatures maintained prairie ecosystems by cycling nutrients and nourishing balance amongst populations, despite being concentrated in large herds. The two key differences between bison herds of the past and CAFOs of today, bison herds moved frequently to fresh grazing areas and grazed areas had extended rest to allow the land to rejuvenate.

Our livestock can act as today’s bison herds from centuries ago, serving as a valuable tool to heal the land. Some of the world’s greatest farmers and ranchers are already showing us how this can be done.

Regenerative ranching is a livestock grazing system that mimics the benefits of large herbivore herds that once roamed the planet’s grasslands. Typical practices of regenerative grazing include, 1) high concentration of livestock into herds, 2) frequent movement of herds, 3) extended rest of the land after grazing, and 4) elimination of pesticides that prevent the land from healing. Regenerative ranching lets livestock be part of the ecosystem again, helping restore nature’s balance.

Studies have shown this form of livestock management benefits everything from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to conserving dung beetles. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that regeneratively raised meat benefits human health, through anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic effects, and modulation of the immune system.

I’m a glass half full kind of guy, so I like to focus on solutions rather than just point out the problems. And it seems to me that regenerative ranching offers a good solution.

Make no mistake, transitioning the world’s meat production to regenerative systems will not be easy. The current lack of regeneratively raised meat is a major bottleneck. So, vote with your fork when you can. Many resources can be found online to link consumers directly with local producers (for example: or for our eastern South Dakota readers Markets will follow the money, and one day we will have more regenerative food options.

As for the here and now, I will settle for better press. Educating folks that it’s not the cow’s fault, it the way she is raised. Acknowledging how livestock can actually improve our environment when managed regeneratively and avoid 17,900 deaths from air pollutants alone is an important first step toward helping both farmers and the public.


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