Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cow Farts, Carbon and 9th Graders

Here follows an email exchange between my cattle specialist friend and a 9th grader.  The two emails below are self-explanatory.  All names changed to protect identities, otherwise reprinted here verbatim (oh, and while my friend thought he was putting his responses in blue type, he didn’t, so I did.  He knows cow vajajays, but not so hot on a computer keyboard.):


My name is Frieda, and I am ninth graders at the Environmental and Adventure School, in Washington state. For our ninth grade project, each student has chosen an environmental issue that they will study in depth for six weeks, and go on to give a thirty minute presentation about the issue. We are in charge of putting out a survey, gathering information on the players involved with the issue, determining past efforts and what else can be done to work on the issue, and collecting an extensive amount of notes to better understand the issue.
The issue that I have chosen is: To what extent should livestock farming be mitigated, due to its' harmful effects on the environment?
I would like to ask you a few questions that will assist me on my research on the topic, and developing an opinion on the issue.

1) What is the side you have taken on the issue, and why have you taken this position? What are your beliefs and values about it? I am on neither side but I would say that livestock production, is an environmentally sustainable process when done properly. Most producers care deeply about their animals and their environment and their families; and are always on the lookout for ways to improve. I say this because I have first hand knowledge and experience in how our food is actually produced. Many people have opinions about food but little knowledge of how it is produced.
2) To what extent do you believe measures should be taken to work with the issue? What do you think should be done, if anything? Again if Carbon is THE ISSUE, then as you can see I think it is entirely unscientific to try and separate wild from domestic animals, and really it makes no difference in the end anyway, because these animals just cycle carbon from vegetation types that are destined to a fairly rapid decay anyway. 
3) Could you suggest any informative websites, or other people I could contact, that either supports the same side as you, or poses a different opinion? If you are interested in learning about what large tracts of ranch land do for wildlife I would suggest contacting Wildlife Biologist Dr. [Wildlife Guy] at Montana State University. He has written and researched extensively on how ranching helps protect habitat from fragmentation by alternative land uses such as development.

I am trying to learn as much as I can about the issue so that I can formulate my own opinion on the issue.
I am looking to get responses back by this Wednesday, if possible. I'm sorry that this is such short notice, but I appreciate your help!
Thank you for your time and assistance!


Hi Frieda. Thank you for your inquiry. Here is a little background on myself before we get started. My job as an Associate Professor and  Extension Livestock Specialist in the [Bigger Cowland State] University System is to help educate people about livestock production and natural resource management. Particular animals I work with are cattle, sheep, goats and horses - these are all "grazing animals". I studied Range Ecology at  [Cow State University] for my B.S. degree and Animal Physiology for my M.S. and PhD degrees from [Bigger Cow State University]. I am located at an Extension and Research Center in Far West [Cowland] in the Western [Cowland] Desert ecosystems.

I might begin by suggesting maybe rephrasing your hypothesis so that it does not seem biased. Maybe something like "Does livestock farming have harmful effects on the environment?" Then, based on what you conclude you might be able to address the regulatory / mitigation side. My answers to your survey questions are at the bottom in blue.

Secondly, I am not sure what environmental effects you are interested in investigating. For example, some think that cattle are responsible for greenhouse gas production. If that is in fact part of your project please see my comments below and maybe you can see how grazing animals work in the environment.

I see you need material by tomorrow so I can't send a lot right now because I have to go now. But if it is not too late I will send you some more resource materials on Friday. Just let me know. Also, it would help me if you could tell me exactly what environmental issues you are interested in knowing more about.

At the bottom, I have attached some agricultural facts put together by a colleague of mine too.

Good luck with your project and I will be in touch.

Cow Masterson, Extension Livestock Specialist

[Information from Cow Masterson’s colleague follows]

           Cattle and other ruminant animals do emit methane -CH4 but they do not create the carbon in that molecule. The carbon they emit is part of the natural carbon cycle where carbon, as carbon dioxide - C02, exists naturally in the atmosphere. As plants "breathe" in C02, some carbon is converted into carbohydrates (plants are a natural carbon "sink"). When a ruminant animal (wild or domestic) digests plant carbohydrates, some carbon is released as CH4 due to anaerobic fermentation. This also happens whenever plants die and decay under anaerobic conditions. Decay under aerobic conditions releases CO2. That, in a nutshell, is the terrestrial carbon cycle; and what it means is that net carbon emissions from agriculture - that is, what is put into the atmosphere vs. what is taken out - comes from carbon released from fossil fuels (and slight amounts from soil disturbance) The point is cows and wild ruminants merely cycle carbon. They don't release carbon that is some how "tied up" as in fossil fuels.

            I'd ask you to think about this Frieda: Cattle and buffalo (Genus Bos) are but one of 164 other species that zoologists classify in the suborder "ruminantia". Ruminants account for about 75% of all the world's ungulate species. Ungulates are considered to be large hooved herbivores. Other examples of ruminant animals include wildebeest, deer, moose, goats, giraffe, etc. Regardless of specie, they all do the same thing, and that is to digest cellulose, the most abundant organic molecule on earth. Cellulose (a type of plant fiber) makes up about 1/3 of all plant material on earth. It is indigestible by humans and most other monogastric animals. So, what does this have to do with methane? It would be misguided if domestic cattle were potentially singled out as somehow different from wild ruminants in the way they cycle carbon and methane within an ecosystem. Even if the world's population of domesticated ruminants were to decrease, the carbon contained in the world's herbaceous forage would continue to cycle: wild ruminants will continue to eat, and what ever is un-eaten will decay. Decay happens in a relatively short time span for herbaceous plants like grass vs. woody plants like trees.

Manure production from confined livestock operations has also been questioned as a source of methane. Manure accumulates regardless of where it is "dropped". But even so, beef cattle would seem to be on the favorable end of that argument as well because they spend relatively less of their lives in confinement compared to some other types of livestock. Cows and bulls account for about 20% of U.S. beef production, but virtually none will ever see a feedlot. Fed beef, mostly 1- to 2- year-old, steers and heifers, only spend about 4 to 5 months of their lives in a feedlot. That is done in order to enhance the taste and quality of the meat. They live the rest of their lives on a pasture somewhere. The point is, that contrary to some popular beliefs, beef cattle are not "raised" in feedlots. Policy makers should realize this. They should also realize that while animals in feedlots or confined dairies do eat grain, they also eat crop by-products. Many of these are inedible by humans, but can be indirectly converted into human food by cattle. Examples might be corn stalks, wheat bran, cotton seed, etc., and even distillers grain - which is a by-product from the ethanol fuel industry.

Modern agriculture is able to feed the world because it is so productive. It is true that some fossil fuels are used to produce our food, but policy makers should realize that this is true for all food. Crops are planted and harvested, and all food, meat, and vegetables, are moved by freight to cities where consumers live. It is important to know that modern production techniques allow more food to be produced on less land. This means that more unfarmed land can be left for wildlife habitat and other uses.

In summary, ruminant animals are a part of nature. They do a lot to help feed the 6 billion people on earth using plants as part of the natural carbon cycle.

You know, I can’t help but think that somewhere in Washington state a young girl’s whole world view just shattered.  She can no longer avoid the fact that cattle do not add to the planet’s carbon load nor are the people involved in the production of cattle evil people who just want to destroy the environment.  Well done, Cow Masterson and colleague!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rape Trees

This comes from a friend of mine, reporting to me on his conversation with another friend of mine.  The “reporter” lives in Southern NM and is involved in ranching.  Here it is, word for word (names changed):


FYI global warming strikes again. 10 days ago, on the weekend of May 1-2 Ft. Davis, TX received 1-2" of fresh snow.

On a serious and more concerning note, Brad, a good friend called me at 6:05 yesterday to report on a meeting he'd just walked out of. It was at the NM Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum where he works. It was a public forum held to discuss the "bad idea" of creating a 200,000 acre roadless wilderness area in the Portrillo Mts which are South and West of Las Cruces NM on what is public access BLM land, and also ranch land leased from BLM. Wilderness areas are closed to all motorized machinery and travel is only by foot or horseback. A couple of retired Border Patrol agents, from pretty high up, were brought in to tell what is and has been going on and why creating a roadless area where you wouldn't  even be able land a helicopter is a very very bad idea. This area runs exactly from the Mexican border to the south up to I-10 on the north - a perfect North-South "corridor they said. These guys were able to speak freely because they are retired. A lot of what they said evidently is not common knowledge. If you've not been keeping up - the body count in Juarez is up to 8,000 now. But apparently it is worse than even that.  The agents had pictures and a lot of stories. They said they had more pictures but probably shouldn't show them in public.

I knew it happens but I had no idea how badly these drug guys prey on illegal immigrants. The source of much of the heaps and heaps of trash seen is from robbery of illegal immigrant parties. They showed actual pictures of 2 different trees, down in deep arroyos, where womens (and girls) undergarments are displayed. After the women are robbed, the drug guys exact a second "toll" for the right to pass through "their areas". These are called 'rape trees'. The agents warned that if you happened to be out hiking or rabbit hunting or something and stumbled on this going on, you would not leave alive.

Columbus, NM / Purerto Palomas, Chihuahua are south of Deming it is a small border entry point. Polomas on the Mexican side had (until very recently) 4 law enforcement officers. Brad said he'd heard something vaguely in the news last week about some law enforcment guys moving to Columbus. The agents expanded on this for the group: The Mexican officers received an ice chest with 4 heads in it and a note that said to get out or this will be each of your heads.

There was also an incident in Nogales, AZ where body parts were left in the street. This happens all the time in Juarez, but I didn't know it had moved here too.

It has been a very good spring with the promise of a really good quail crop in one of the areas Brad and I grew up hunting together in, about 25 miles west of Columbus   We'd been talking about taking our boys and getting together for a hunt next fall. Brad told me yesterday, there is no way in hell he's setting foot down there now. I think I agree.

If AZ is successful with their new enforcement effort, NM and maybe even West TX have no idea what we are in for.

Anyway, just a little border news most of us never get to hear about.

But, we better not let our cops verify whether or not someone is a US citizen.  Might be a violation of their rights on a scale far worse than the rape trees.