The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

November 3, 2013

Livestock production has an important part in our ability to use land not suitable for crops

HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP — We know that the livestock industry, mainly dairy farming, is still a primary source of farm income in this area.

So the question is sometimes raised “are those cows eating your dinner”?

This was a central question studied by a group of researchers and reported by the Center for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).

Contrary to this idea, often repeated by some groups, the study found that livestock production has an important part in our ability to use land that is not suitable for crop production. It also uses many waste products and converts them to a quality food.

This study, reported by CAST, used a science-based approach to look at the “food versus fuel” issue. They found that large areas of our planet cannot grow human food crops.

Topography, soil types and climate make most of the land now used for livestock grazing unusable for growing vegetable-based foods. Ruminants, such as dairy cows, can efficiently convert grasses and meadows into milk and meat. Humans cannot.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) estimates that 26 percent of the world’s land area is covered by grassland. They also estimate that 70 percent of the land available for agriculture is in grasses.

Some groups want land now used for livestock grazing to be used for grains and vegetable based crops. According to CAST, there are only two ways this could be done.

First would be to harvest the forages now fed to livestock and we would eat them. Second would be converting the grazing land to edible crops.

Both of these ideas are not practical. Ruminants, dairy and beef and more, can convert the cellulose in grasses into protein products. We as humans generally find that eating grass is not a very good diet.

Most of the world’s grassland is in areas where it is not practical to cultivate the land. They may be too dry, wet, and steep or lack the fertility to grow grains and other crops.

Irrigation, summer fallowing, terracing, drainage and much more fertilizer would be required. Cultivation, the study says, could ruin wildlife habitats, increase the risk of soil erosion and cause more soil run-off.

This says the environmental risks are too great to want to convert a lot of grass land to crops. The USDA, in a 2007 study, said that just nine percent of the pastureland in this country is suitable for crop production.

CAST also pointed out that much of the feed going to livestock comes from waste products. Distillers grains from making ethanol, cottonseed meal, feather meal and other waste products make up a good share of livestock feed.

In the Netherlands, for example, it is estimated that about 70 percent of the feed livestock producers use comes from the food processing industry waste.

“All foods have an environmental cost and that cost is not restricted to foods of animal origin” the CAST report says. And the benefits to us from the livestock industry are substantial, including economic as well as providing high quality proteins and other important nutrients.

So the idea that local dairy cows may be eating your dinner has little basis in fact, according to this recent peer-reviewed study.

Locally over the last several years we have had a lot of land converted from pastures and meadows to crop land. That has had a cost because much of that land had to be tiled for better drainage.

Tiling is an expensive practice. More fertilizer has been needed for more cost. Farmers made the conversion because corn and soybeans were profitable crops.

Parker is retired from The Ohio State University and an independent agricultural writer.

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