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Can Cattle Ranching Contribute to Ecosystem Conservation?

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Laura Elizondo Global Commons Jun 23rd 20237 mins
Can Cattle Ranching Contribute to Ecosystem Conservation?

Cattle ranching is often associated with deforestation, soil degradation and biodiversity loss, as extensive livestock production is responsible for the destruction of countless forests to make room for rangeland. However, in recent years more information about the ecosystem services provided by livestock has emerged, and better practices in farming have been put into place, shedding a new light on the synergies that exist between nature and these animals.

Raising and maintaining livestock for meat production has been a fundamental element in human nutrition throughout history, becoming more and more relevant as the human population grew and the need for animal protein increased along with it. However, as demand for more meat rose, so did concerns regarding the industry’s environmental impacts and animal welfare. 

Livestock emissions account for roughly 32% of human-caused methane emissions, making it an unpleasant protagonist in the production of greenhouse gases but also an obstacle for their mitigation, as cattle farming is directly linked to deforestation. It is enough to look at the Brazilian Amazon, where cattle ranching is one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the region today, and was for decades in other parts of the world too, such as Costa Rica, where forest cover was reduced to 40.8% between 1960-1986 due to tree felling for more grazing space and agricultural production. 

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Therefore, in the context of climate change, it could be said that livestock farming is an activity with a double impact, because it produces greenhouse gases and at the same time destroys important means of mitigation such as forests. Fortunately, this is not always the case. Agriculture and livestock production do not have to be in opposition with nature, they can coexist and thrive mutually, producing ecosystem services and agricultural biodiversity as a part of natural biodiversity as we know it. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out that there is a difficulty in recognising that ecosystems today are the result of the coevolution of natural environments with agricultural practices; and as such, the link between them can be difficult to distinguish and often both concepts are more likely to be antagonised.

Grazing Ecology

Under this construction, the notion of grazing ecology has become relevant in recent years, analysing the role of large herbivores and the impact these can have on soil and forest regulation and regeneration, hence reconsidering the possible influence of livestock on these natural elements. 

In his book Grazing Ecology and Forest History, Dr. Frans Vera explains the history and the dynamics between large herbivores and ecosystems, describing the latter as abundant in megafauna, rich in animals such as bison, deer, wild horses and boars, and aurochs; the ancestors of today’s cattle. He emphasises the essential role of these animals in shaping the environment in which they live, considering that grazing animals are a fundamental natural force of alteration and physical transformation of the soil through the different forms of grazing they perform. This includes pulling branches (browsing), removing bark, uprooting grass and flowers, tearing plants, trampling the soil, rubbing against trees, spreading seeds and transferring nutrients, etc. All of this contributes to the formation and stimulation of complex and biodiverse habitats, with trees, grasslands and different kinds of vegetation coexisting in various ecosystems. 

The use of grazing animals to regenerate degraded lands has already been implemented with interesting results. A great example of this is the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, England. Here, a traditional British farm was transformed by its owners Sir Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree into a rewilding project following Dr. Vera’s teachings. They introduced British cattle, deer, pigs and horses to graze freely, allowing the regeneration of trees, shrubbery and plant life to emulate the conditions that once characterised that ecosystem originally. Knepp Estate has seen the return of species that were once thought to be gone, it has put into place an ecotourism project (visitation and learning) and has started producing wild range meat obtained as a result of controlling the population of herbivores, since there are no predators within the project.  

The Costa Rican Way

Another interesting example involving forest regeneration and livestock farming is Costa Rica, which – as mentioned before – has lost significant amounts of forest cover due to cattle farming for meat production. 

Nevertheless, as a result of economic factors such as international meat price that deterred farmers from staying in the livestock production business, national programmes such as Payment for Environmental Services and robust environmental legislation that prohibits land-use change, Costa Rica managed to reverse deforestation, returning its forest cover to a 60%. Most of those farmers who kept on raising cattle changed their mentality to embrace the trees in their lands, as high public awareness of environmental matters became a constant in the country and the Costa Rican pro-environmental idiosyncrasy flourished. Aided by the development of modern and improved forages, which grow well under the shade of forest canopy, and thanks to educational programmes promoted by the government such as ‘NAMA Ganadería’ (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions for Livestock), the farmers started learning more about the advantages of preserving the forest.

With this information widely spread amongst the Costa Rican cattle farmers and the efforts made by government authorities in promoting better practices, most people working in the sector are aware of the benefits and ecosystem services generated by forests and biodiversity for livestock production. Indeed, the abundance of vegetation and trees is positive for the cattle, as it generates windbreak and shade from the sun, and more food from leaves, shrubs and fruits; favouring greater productivity and welfare, especially in times of drought, when pastures dry out and lose nutrients. Another benefit for livestock is the regulating effect over temperature provided by forests, which, according to farmers, contributes to improving the cattle’s ability to cope with heat stress

cattle ranching by Laura Elizondo

Photo: Laura Elizondo.

What’s more, cattle grazing within woodlands can prevent fires from happening or spreading. When animals feed on the forest floor’s vegetation, they remove potential fuel sources, minimising the risk of wildfires in the dry season; a fairly usual occurrence in the most arid parts of the country. In addition, the use of living fences is also common and, along with forest protection and the stimuli caused by cattle on the ground, it contributes to changes in the soil, which in turn attracts biodiversity and generates habitats in what were once deforested areas. The existence of several species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, has been studied extensively, with consideration also given to anecdotical reports from the farmers themselves.

Protecting the forest in farms also helps shelter underwater aquifers and water sources for human and animal consumption, with governmental data suggesting that the main hydric charge zones in Costa Rica are within cattle farmland. Another noteworthy fact is that, while the national herd has grown, the rangeland area has not. This means that cattle farmers are producing more meat with less space, as the land is occupied by forest or other agricultural activities.

Today 93.8% of farms dedicated to meat production in Costa Rica use extensive grazing as their primary system for raising cattle, with natural and improved forages as the bovines’ main food source. Prioritising grass-fed cattle aids in the preservation of forests within rangelands, as it requires cattle ranchers to maintain an accurate management of paddocks by rotating pastures and avoiding excessive grazing. This control over the farmland facilitates giving a breathing space to sprouts to grow and the soil to recover. 

The national Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock estimates that Costa Rican cattle farms manage to preserve 18% of the country’s forests and protect at least 23 million trees scattered across pastures. Moreover, the sector is carbon-positive thanks to the implementation of the Strategy for Low Carbon Livestock 2015-2034

Moving Towards A More Sustainable Production

This data is extremely positive and presents a high potential to enhance the activity in regards with environmental impacts and animal welfare, contributing to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions with forest preservation and the expansion of trees on farmlands. All this while promoting animal wellbeing by having free-range cattle with access to woodlands. These changes can also improve socioeconomic conditions by increasing yield for the producer and improving the quality of meat for the consumer. 

Establishing the synergies between cattle, forests and biodiversity as well as procuring the ecosystem services resulting from these interactions should be a priority when developing public policies to regulate cattle farming. This is key towards moving to a more humane and sustainable production. 

Nonetheless, this must be done along with more research and more respect towards the limits of nature, as it is still not clear how forests can be impacted by excessive cattle grazing. This means that it is essential to ascertain the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and take into consideration the number of specimens grazing in the forest to allow its regeneration and ensure enough feed for every animal. 

Lastly, it is also of utmost importance to advocate for the eradication of factory farming and its subsidizing, as well as reducing meat consumption and finding alternative protein sources, if sustainability is the aim, especially considering that it might not be possible to meet the global demand for meat by relying solely on grass-fed, free-range cattle. The target should be to produce as much as possible using this kind of livestock management, which has proven benefits for biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as trying to find other ways to reduce emissions in the sector and diversifying our nutritional sources for a better balance between production and nature.   

Featured image: Laura Elizondo.

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity


About the Author

Laura Elizondo

Laura is a professor of environmental law at the University of Costa Rica. She has a master’s degree in environmental law from said university and an LLM in energy and natural resources law from Queen Mary University of London. A firm believer in the democratisation of knowledge, she writes to convey information about environmental matters in the best way possible for everyone. Some of Laura’s topics of interest are public participation, access to information, the climate crisis, energy justice, nature-based solutions, soils’ carbon-capture potential, rewilding and regenerative farming.

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