Good Grazing? Advocates say Free-Range Cattle can Have Environmental Benefits

In 1995, when Richard Sechrist took over the Texas ranch his family had owned since 1947, it looked like much of the grazed land in the West: barren. Generations of cattle had been allowed to roam freely over the 1,100-acre ranch, trampling pastures rock-hard and munching native plants down to nothing. Weeds and thistles were abundant, while riparian areas were muddy, erosion-prone swamps.

Conventional environmental wisdom would suggest that the only way to heal this land is to get rid of the cattle and let it rest. But the Sechrists did the opposite. By carefully managing the movement of the grass-fed, organic cattle whose meat is sold through Homestead Healthy Foods, they joined the small but growing number of ranchers who make the surprising claim that responsible grazing can be used to heal land that has been degraded by livestock.

Richard and Peggy Sechrist practice environmentally
friendly grazing at their Texas ranch
.
Crazy Horse Photography / Peggy Jones

"There’s no single thing that can be called "livestock grazing,"" says Steve Rich, a consultant with Higher Ground Associates in Salt Lake City, Utah, which works to build bridges between ranchers and environmentalists. "There are many kinds of livestock, many kinds of grazing regimes, and every environment has different needs."

Rich argues that Western grasslands need the presence of large ungulates, like the bison that once roamed the plains. Under conventional grazing, cattle behave nothing like bison: They do not migrate, but congregate in shady areas and streambeds, decimating those areas quickly. But if ranchers keep their cattle in tight herds, move them every few days and give grazed patches time—sometimes as much as a year—to recover, the cattle’s impacts will closely resemble those of bison, and will fill a valuable niche in the ecosystem.

"A hoof print is a hole, and holes are wonderful things in nature," Rich says. "They collect water, seeds and nutrients. They’re shadier and less windy, and a heck of a good place for seedlings to start. I have done thousands and thousands of samples, and hoof prints make up more than 90 percent of seedling germination sites."

These claims are backed up by such evidence as a 1998 Colorado State University study that found biodiversity to be highest in moderately grazed lands and lower under heavy grazing, but lowest of all on ungrazed land. Nevertheless, many environmentalists remain concerned that any talk of restorative grazing is merely an environmental smokescreen that lets ranchers continue to devastate the land.

"I"m skeptical that livestock grazing can benefit biodiversity," says George Wuerthner, a former Bureau of Land Management official who serves on the Sierra Club’s grazing committee. He can cite a slew of scientific studies countering the claims of restorative grazers. "The benefits are real only if you take a limited view of biodiversity that counts the number of species without taking into account whether they’re native," Wuerthner says.

He argues that plant diversity is just one factor of the environmental impacts of grazing, which include cattle’s high water use, both for drinking and for irrigating hayfields, and competition with native grazers and predators. And Wuerthner disputes the claim that cows can be made to play the role of bison, or even that "hoof action" is a necessary part of Western ecosystems.

"Most of the West from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean evolved in the absence of large herbivore ungulates," Wuerthner says. He adds that those areas are often covered by a delicate cryptobiotic crust that protects the desert from erosion, and for which a hole is anything but beneficial. "And while it is true that there were large herds of bison in the Great Plains, there are behavioral, physiological and population differences with cattle."

Despite these concerns, some ranchers like the Sechrists can point to improvements in their land. After eight years of restorative grazing, the streambeds are bursting with emerald tufts of grass, and the water runs clear. The number of grass species on the ranch, most of which are native, has tripled. Sechrist closely monitors his pastures and adjusts his grazing patterns for changing climate conditions.

That kind of monitoring is by no means easy. Central Texas is in the midst of a seven-year drought, and under natural conditions, cattle would leave in search of literally greener pastures. While Sechrist mimicked this pattern during one 18-month rain-free period—he sent the entire herd to graze in another part of Texas—he now deals with the drought by limiting the herd size to 90, down from 200.

"That cuts down on animal impact, so we’re seeing some soil capping," sighs Sechrist, who believes that hoof action has been responsible for the gains he has seen in soil health and biodiversity. "But the land simply can’t support high animal density right now."

Limiting the herd has also limited Homestead’s profits, and this problem keeps many questioning how many ranchers will really put the land before their profits. Indeed, Allan Savory, the creator of Holistic Management, a decision-making framework many ranchers use to develop their restorative grazing programs, admits that only about a quarter of the 10,000 ranchers who have gone through his training courses are actually following his principles, despite the environmental claims of the other three-fourths.

But even if many more ranchers don’t walk the talk, operations like Homestead Healthy Foods are demonstrating that grazing does not have to be an environmental travesty. Acknowledging such efforts, the Sierra Club’s official platform calls for eliminating grazing only on those public lands where there is less than 12 inches of precipitation per year, or where it cannot be proven to benefit the land. This leaves local clubs open to forge alliances with those ranchers who are committed to providing an alternative to destructively grazed and feedlot-finished beef.