Eat Beef if You Care About Environmental Conservation

Increasing North American beef consumption supports extensive cattle ranching which, by the way, is a very environmentally sound form of food production.
Published on January 10, 2008

Lloyd Thompson turned to me from the driver’s side of the pickup truck, flashed a genial grin and said, “Well, Bob, how do you like my little ranch?”

Lloyd, his wife, Jean, and three generations of Thompsons ranch near Carnduff, in southeastern Saskatchewan, and epitomize the generosity, kindliness and rugged independence of ranchers everywhere. His “little ranch” description belies the 15,000 acres and 1,000 cows that comprise the Thompsons’ T 4 Ranches Ltd.

A friend and I were hunting the native sharp-tailed grouse on T 4 Ranches, and we were taken on a pickup truck tour of the “little ranch” by Lloyd Thompson prior to the hunt. And it was astonishing. Wave after wave of sharp-tails were flushing from the tall grass fields we were slowly traversing. To many ecologists, the sharp-tailed grouse is an indicator of an ecosystem’s health. You might ask what the connection is between T 4 Ranches and sharp-tailed grouse. The answer to that question, funnily enough, starts on the dinner plates of the nation.

In spite of urbanization, our society is completely dependent on the products of the countryside. Or as one wag put it, “If you eat, you are part of agriculture.” What you eat determines what farmers and ranchers produce. In addition, what they produce has profound implications for landscape conservation since each food production system has differing effects on soil, water and wildlife. Some systems are much better than others in terms of landscape conservation, with beef cattle ranching, T 4 Ranch style, being the very best of all.

Cows efficiently convert grass and hay, non-human food, to people food. Big deal you say. However, grass and hay are perennial plants that cover the land with a permanent layer of vegetation that prevents soil erosion during rains and windstorms, and they provide habitat for wildlife such as nesting ducks, songbirds and my beloved sharp-tailed grouse. Extensive beef production in ranch country is an agricultural system that promotes animal welfare, landscape conservation and wildlife preservation.

Critics of the cattle industry cite the plight of the rainforest, methane production and overgrazing as reasons to shut down the cattle industry, all the while ignoring the landscape conservation benefits of well-managed, extensive cattle ranching. To be blunt, cattle create an economic incentive to conserve, manage and create diverse and productive grasslands. Those great, and seemingly boring, vistas of native prairie in Saskatchewan and Alberta (often contemptuously dismissed as “drive-through country”) represent a treasure trove of wildlife and biodiversity, one of the great natural wonders of North America. And it is still in existence because of ranchers.

Meanwhile, back at T 4 Ranches, this landscape conservation process was magically rolling out before our very eyes. That is because Thompson’s “hobby” is to purchase cultivated grain land and “sow it down” to hay and pasture for cattle feed. All that perennial cover creates lots of room for nesting birds and other wildlife that easily co-exist with the extensive ranching and grazing that predominates on T 4 Ranches.

This leads us to another favourite argument of the cattle critics, namely that humans should bypass meat and consume the plant products of the land, thus ensuring more efficient use of the Earth’s resources. The problem with that argument is that not all hectares are created equal. We have millions of hectares of sandy, sloping and fragile land that will produce grain crops for a few years, but as the soil is played out, higher and higher levels of inputs are required to grow crops during this downward spiral of soil degradation. Much better to have such fragile land covered with a conservation blanket of perennial vegetation that is cropped by a well-managed cattle herd. By the way, for the holier than thou tofu eaters out there, your dietary preference encourages the expansion of row-crop soybean production, often at the expense of native grasslands. No tofu will ever find its way into our home; we care too much about the land.

As for the red meat is bad for you argument, I take the view that if you give up fat (and sugar and alcohol, too, for that matter) you may not live longer; it will just seem that way. Make your own call on that one, but I am here to live a little. As Clifton Fadiman wrote, “I have yet to meet a man who, with a good tournedos Rossini inside him, was not the finer for it, the more open to virtuous influences.”

So, when you are about to tuck into a big juicy steak, ponder what it represents. That meal of Canadian ranched beef has contributed to landscape and wildlife conservation and kept generations of land stewards like the Thompsons in the ranching business for the benefit of all of us.

As for our final tally of sharp-tailed grouse, let us just say beef was on the menu that day.

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