Can Raising Cattle Be Environmentally Friendly? These Texas Ranchers Say Yes.
Meredith Lawrence, Dallas Observer
September 17, 2019
Thigh-high grasses and plant stalks thwack the sides of the all-terrain buggy as Meredith Ellis maneuvers it down a faint double track through a dense pasture. Grasshoppers launch out of the way, whirring past bright purple, thistle-like Leavenworth's eryngo that poke up alongside creamy milkweed flowers. Yellow and purple wildflowers sprout beneath a thick canopy of grasses: big bluestem, little bluestem, Texas grama, blue grama, bushy bluestem and dozens of others.
“This is like candy bars to cows,” Ellis says, stopping to grab a few fluffy seed heads of native switchgrass.
“This is purple top,” she says, plucking a seed cluster off another stem and crumbling it gently so the dark, oily, burgundy seeds collect in her palm.
To the untrained eye, this pasture might look neglected and out of control, but that's all intentional. This is a rethinking of what a cattle pasture should look like, Ellis says. Ellis and her father own and ranch on nearly 3,000 aces outside Dallas and are part of a cadre of Texas ranchers who operate primarily on restored native grasslands and for whom careful care of the entire ecosystem is an essential part of the business.
“I would say that the only way to make a living at it is to do it in a sustainable way,” Ellis says. “If you’re just grazing on pasture and you’re not giving back to it, you’re just basically mining it. So grass will come back, it will try and try, but eventually there’s not enough there.”
If they are managed appropriately, native grasses help clean and conserve water and also can store large amounts of carbon in the ground, improving soil health and offering a way to offset the planet-warming greenhouse gases humans release into the atmosphere, according to the Noble Research Institute, with whom Ellis and a dozen or so other ranchers partner.
Earlier this year, the United Nations released its most severe report yet on climate change, indicating it is dangerously and irrevocably damaging the planet. The report recommends a drastic rethinking of how food is produced and grown, as well as a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have a global climate problem,” says Benjamin Houlton, director of University of California, Davis' Muir Institute.
To deal with it, we need a multipronged approach that balances cutting carbon emissions and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, he says. Native grasslands are integral to that process and well-suited to carbon sequestration, because they are drought- and fire-resistant.
“I think we have to value these ecosystems, we have to value grasslands that are promoting things that we really want to do now,” Houlton says.
Poorly managed cattle and overgrazing lead to land and ecosystem degradation and species extinction. Construction, land development and tilling also cut down on species biodiversity and disrupt the natural microbes in soil. When prairie grassland is treated well, on the other hand, it is a great water filtration system and highly effective at pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, says K.C. Olson, W.M. & F.A. Lewis Distinguished Professor in Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State University.
Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions have raised questions about the sustainability of our love for steak and burgers. Although ranchers lost sight of good grazing practices for a time, recently there has been a push toward conscientious land stewardship and ecosystem management, Olson says.
In Texas, a few ranchers, supported through research and education programs at the Noble Research Institute, have taken up practices that both make cattle ranching more environmentally friendly and turn their ranches into places that lock away carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
Of Ellis' 3,000 acres, roughly 1,000 are native grasslands, 1,000 are wildlife habitat and the rest are divided between Bermuda grass, which is sturdier than native grasses but does not have the same ecosystem benefits, and winter wheat, which they use as a nutrient-dense supplement for their cows. In addition to the many tree and grass species, Ellis has recorded more than 100 wildflowers, including an endangered orchid. Each spring, a bald eagle pair raises a baby by one of the pastures, and every fall and spring, monarch butterflies stop over on their migration path. Biodiversity is critical to a healthy ecosystem, and managing that means resting the land, grazing carefully and in small bursts, and limiting or eliminating synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.
In the distance, Ellis points out the stark white patch that is a new rock quarry. Nearby are dozens of fracking sites. For Ellis, ranching is not just about making a living, it’s about protecting some of the land from development. But to do that right, ranching has to be renewable, she believes.
“We're fighting for our land,” she says. Her goal is to make sure that her son never sells the land to a developer for the millions of dollars it is worth.
Instead of town houses and strip malls, her land is covered with cattle, grass, trees and flowers. Six years ago, this wild pasture was patchy and overgrazed. Instead of putting cattle on it, Ellis and her father used a combination of selective herbicides, gentle grazing and rest to give the native plants time to come back. Today, close to 30 native grass species grow in the pasture, and it resembles what it looked like hundreds of years ago. Throughout are visible thick, dusty blue stalks of big bluestem grass, which Ellis says is one of the markers of healthy soil.
“And now we’re not doing anything. It’s like back to how it should be. It’s completely native, it’s habitat, it’s a carbon sink. It’s a water filter, and the only thing we have to do now is make sure that we don’t screw it up,” Ellis says.
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