• Culls, Cows and Carbon

    It could never be anything other than emotive. The culls that have resumed this autumn are expected to wipe out between 930 and 1800 badgers, though last year’s culls fell far short of their target, which only undermined their already highly dubious prospects of effectiveness. It’s pitted farmers against pro-badger campaigners and there’s no getting round the fact that TB is huge problem for dairy producers with some 26,000 cattle affected in 2013 alone. However you look at it, it’s an appalling situation and one which is only exacerbated by the very real emotional distress from both sides concerned with animal welfare.

    It has been said that culling badgers will have no meaningful effect on TB in cattle, where new badgers will move into culled territory thereby only spreading the disease. But even if every badger in the country was killed, it’s been estimated that this would reduce bovine TB by only 16%. An independent panel appointed by DEFRA last year concluded the culls were neither effective or humane. But perhaps the most telling remark came from Natural England’s Chief Scientific advisor when he said that they have been “an epic failure”.

    Prospective vaccines for TB in cattle are complicated by the inability to differentiate between infected and immunised cattle and the implications of this on exports. There are echoes here of the foot and mouth epidemic where mass culling took place as the viable vaccine would have affected overseas trade. The subsequent mass movement of cows in restocking was a major factor in the spread of bovine TB. But vaccines alone aren’t the answer; there are very real structural problems within the dairy industry that have huge ramifactions for the ability of cows to withstand infection. It has implications not just for TB but the emphasis of our general farming itself and even for our potential to lock huge amounts of Co2 back in the soil.

    One problem is the lack of genetic diversity in dairy herds, a factor which severely limits their ability to fight off infection in general and TB in particular. The use of artificial insemination to help boost milk production is key in reducing genetic variation and production of antibodies and may have been instrumental in the rise of BSE itself. And TB in humans is notorious as having thrived in communities marked with the stress of poverty – this is mirrored in modern dairy cows where milk production from the average cow has doubled in the last forty years, from 4,000 litres in 1970 to 8,000 in 2010. Modern herds are under a huge metabolic strain that can only add to their susceptibility to disease.

    Another problem is that so many herds are raised on grains - a development that took root when the production of cereals soared due to the hugely increased productivity of crops in the so-called ‘green revolution’ of the ‘60’s and 70’s. Short-stemmed new varieties of high-yield wheat and rice made food scarcity of the 50’s a thing of the past. This made grain so abundant and cheap that the practice emerged of feeding half of it to livestock.

    Cue cows in sheds and a huge rise in the use of energy-intensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides while more and more land is put under the plough to farm rice, wheat and maize. While few cattle are kept indoors to the extent seen in the 60’s and 70’s, it’s much healthier for both cattle and those consuming their milk or meat when cows are reared exclusively on pasture. For one thing they are free to move around, growing healthier and stronger than cows spending more time under a roof. And grain-raised beef contains more saturated fats and less of the beneficial omega-3 fats. Herb-rich pasture also contains the cancer-fighting compound CLA which is totally absent in beef fed from cereals. There is also no need for nitrate fertilizers in clover-rich pastures and no need for the tractors and harvesters and all their oil endemic in conventional crop rearing.

    Far from a pie-in-the-sky picture, advocates of pasture (including Graham Harvey, author of ‘The Carbon Fields’) seek a return to mixed farming where grain production took its place alongside the use of our grassland. This after all is how it’s been done, in some shape or form, since the rise of farming itself. It carries the huge benefit that, when pasture is ploughed up, it’s full of the natural fertilizer the animals provide and can later be re-sown with grass in a timeless, self-sustaining cycle.

    And there’s another very big factor in favour of pasture. All soils contain carbon as organic matter. A healthy soil can contain 10 per cent of its mass as organic matter in roughly the top thirty centimetres – about four hundred tonnes of organic matter every hectare. Continuously cultivated soils contain less than forty tonnes per hectare. A thirty-year study showed that soil under pasture was not only in a generally better state than the cultivated tests but that it increased its store of carbon by a tonne every year per hectare. In other words, soil under pasture doesn’t just lock in carbon – it can help take it out of the air.

    There is the factor of methane produced by ruminant animals to be accounted for, but this is more than compensated for by the lessened emmissions of pasture fed animals, together with the gains of the carbon locked in the soil. And cows fed on grains produce methane anyway, with all the extra emissions mechanised agriculture entails. Grass is apparently susceptible to drought, but a pasture with deep-rooting herbs is far more resilient in this respect than cereal crops.

    If pasture is such an obvious boon, why was it ever abandoned to the extent that it was? The economy of cheap grains is one obvious answer, though with the rising cost of their production that could all change. Maintaining good pasture is also more of an art than the relatively simple mechanics involved with cereal production. But the massive industries involved with the production of grains, fertilizers and pesticides, without even getting onto modified crops, appear to still hold a huge sway.

    It’s clear that the very basis of our agricultural economy has been way off kilter for quite a long time. The TB crisis and the appalling culls it has engendered are the presenting symptoms of this general malaise. Only a humane approach to cattle rearing and a return to the husbandry of mixed farming can bring any kind of lasting solution. Though the promise of pasture for the atmosphere itself ought to focus attention.

    Until then the words of Richard Manning in his book on the American prairies – that most productive of pastures – are more timely than ever: “A centuries worth of work, warfare and technology replaced fifty million bison with forty-five million cattle whose meat is fattier and higher in cholesterol. One wonders what progress is for.” And when our government ignores expert advice to inflict such suffering on a protected species for no tangible gain, it’s a lot more than progress we all have to question.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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