Lynne Pledger is a writer and environmental advocate. She and co-author Ridge Shinn have worked since the 1980s on sustainable livestock production, and for the last twenty years on promoting regenerative grazing. Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World is a timely book not just for beef producers, but for anyone wondering about how farmers and ranchers can raise healthy beef cattle while also contributing to an environmentally sound local and regional food system.
You can learn more about Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World and pre-order a copy here.
What motivated you to write Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World?
LP: It’s important for farmers, consumers, and policy makers to know the differences between 100% grass-fed beef and feedlot beef. Unlike corn-feeding, regenerative grazing restores depleted soil and combats climate change by reducing emissions and sequestering carbon. And the resulting grass-fed beef is a health food.
With the daily news full of confounding problems—climate change, droughts and floods, food shortages, farmers going out of business, obesity and diet-related diseases—people need to understand how grazing can foster soil systems that offer surprising benefits for health, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line. While no single agricultural practice can solve everything, studies indicate that widespread regenerative grazing can address all the problems that I’ve just listed. In our book, we explain how these results come about and cite the science that backs up our claims.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, Big Picture Beef, and provide an anecdote from your experiences that highlights a key lesson or theme of the book?
LP: In the book’s preface, Ridge describes how we met at a living history museum focusing on early American farm life in New England. In 1973, we married and moved to Hardwick, Massachusetts. At that time the village had thirteen operating dairy farms—a vibrant agricultural community. Each one of those family farms has since gone out of business. We saw this happen, farm by farm. And around the country, other rural communities have a similar story.
Ridge has had extensive experience with cattle. As a young man he was herdsman on a dairy farm. Later he co-founded a national organization to preserve heritage breeds, now called The Livestock Conservancy. He was also vice-president of a New England slaughterhouse. Since then, in addition to managing a herd of a hundred head at home, he has traveled all over the country and overseas, consulting with farmers and ranchers operating in a variety of climates and conditions.
All this experience came together in a plan to revive family farming in the Northeast with regional grass-fed beef production that would be ecologically sustainable and economically viable. In 2017 we went into the marketplace doing business as Big Picture Beef, a 100% grass-fed beef business, producing Northeast beef for Northeast beef customers.
Our production and distribution model was based on the idea that producing grass-fed beef is actually two processes that should be addressed separately: (1) raising young stock and (2) finishing (fattening) the cattle for slaughter. In our region, farms are small, and towns may be only ten miles apart. We work with numerous grass-fed, cow-calf farms that raise the young stock to supply a fewer number of large finishing farms in the same region. On the finishing farms, skilled graziers fatten the aggregated cattle for market on grass and forage instead of corn. Knowing when to move the cattle and when a paddock is ready to be grazed again, takes skill and experience. Done correctly, this practice builds fertile topsoil. Our system of aggregating the yearlings for skilled finishing provides both the volume and the consistent high quality that restaurants, stores, and institutions require. Big Picture Beef has worked with over a hundred farmers and has opened accounts with restaurants, grocery chains, colleges and health care facilities. We have proved that our production and distribution model is viable—even in a region that has never been regarded as “beef country.”
What did the global pandemic reveal about the food system and how does regeneratively produced beef fit into the path forward?
LP: Because assembly line workers in meat-packing plants work in close proximity, Covid-19 spread through these facilities; thousands of workers became ill and hundreds died. As a result of the health crisis, a number of the packing plants around the country closed, some for days, some for weeks. The temporary plant closures caused meat shortages, bringing attention to the fact that that nation’s meat supply is in the hands of four giant, multinational companies.
But the larger implication of the meat shortages is even more sobering: A centralized food system will always be vulnerable in times of crises such as pandemics, ransomware attacks, extreme weather events, terrorism, or wars. These threats are no longer hypothetical. While some people don’t eat meat, everyone needs protein in their diet and most people in the US depend on animal products to fulfill this need. Because meat is perishable, developing reliable sources of beef in each region of the country would be a key step in building food security and resilience.
Cattle are designed for life in a pasture, eating only grass and forage. By making full use of this approach to producing beef, our country could do away with the inhumane feedlot system and the environmentally harmful practices of industrial corn production, characteristic of beef production practices commonly used today.
What is the linkage between regenerative livestock production and a climate resilient and healthy food system? What can farmers do on their farms to adapt and stabilize in the face of climate change?
LP: There are several links between regenerative livestock production and climate resilience. First and foremost is that regenerative practices increase the populations of microorganisms in the soil, and it is these tiny climate activists that store the carbon that the plants have pulled out of the air. Second, is that because of global grain shortages, it is important to stop feeding grain to cattle. But other connections to climate change are also important to understand.
Shorter supply chains
Instead of maintaining our corn-based feedlot system, we can establish much shorter supply chains for beef. Regenerative grazing can be adapted to a wide variety of conditions, enabling many regions of the country to produce grass-fed beef and be more resilient in times of crisis. Agriculturalists have determined that on a pound-for-pound basis we have more than enough land to replace the corn-fed beef we’re producing now with 100% grass-fed beef.
Increased productivity from farm fields
Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil describes how bringing livestock onto his farm fields, and eliminating fertilizers and biocides, dramatically increased his soil’s productivity. (Gabe wrote the Foreword to our book.)
The increased productivity of regenerated soil has been documented. For example, in a recent comparison of five regenerative livestock farms to neighboring conventional farms (all in the Southeast United States), regeneratively grazed land demonstrated greater productivity over conventionally grazed land: 300% more biomass (vegetation) was produced on the farms managed regeneratively, even though those pastures were carrying more animals. This increase in productivity is partly due to the cattle’s manure and urine, but much more important is that regenerative grazing fosters an increase in soil microbes—notably fungi and bacteria—that provide plant roots with soil nutrients and water that would not be available to them without the microbial activity. The increased productivity from regenerative management is going to be critical to the world as food shortages become more severe due to climate change.
Increased protection from both flooding and drought
When farmers adopt practices that protect and foster populations of microbes in their pastures, soil fungi produce a carbon-based material called glomalin. Glomalin creates soil tilth by binding soil minerals—silt, sand, or clay—and organic matter together to form soil aggregates, which range from granules to pea-sized lumps. Well-aggregated soil is better able to withstand erosion because the particles can’t be torn apart by wind and rain.
But the most important thing about the aggregates is the spaces between them, which leave room for water to collect. This is why well-structured soil is said to be a carbon sponge. During heavy rains, water is able to infiltrate the soil instead of running off and carrying soil into waterways. Conversely, in dry periods, plants can utilize the water that has been retained by this sponge. Climate change is characterized by extreme weather events; farmland with abundant microbial activity will have well-aggregated soil and therefore will be more resilient in the face of either flooding or drought.
Regenerative farm practices for climate resilience
Fostering soil life should be a cattle producer’s number one goal. Once you have robust populations of soil microbes, their activities start a cascade of benefits for the farm, including healthy soil, healthy pasture plants, and healthy cattle.
The following are key practices for grass-fed beef operators:
- Upgrade your herd with rugged cattle that are built to flourish on pasture; British breeds are usually best for this. (See details on bovine genetics in our book.)
- Use adaptive multi-paddock grazing, with short grazing periods and long recovery periods for each paddock, so that microbes can carry out their ecoservices; grass will grow tall and roots will grow long.
- Keep the soil covered with diverse growing plants; avoid bare soil, which allows carbon to oxidize and be released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
- Avoid disturbing the soil by plowing; use no-till seeding to protect soil structure and microbial networks.
- Transition away from chemical fertilizers and biocides, which compromise the natural soil systems we’ve discussed.
- Use cover crops to extend the grazing season and increase plant diversity.
I want to stress that the practices I’ve listed not only protect the soil where they are implemented but also contribute to the global effort to combat climate change. In addition to sequestering carbon, grass-fed beef production eliminates emissions from diesel vehicles used in corn production and the oxidation of carbon from plowed land. Also, grass-fed cattle produce less methane than feedlot cattle (see details and documentation in our book). But looking at the numbers, it is the carbon sequestration that makes production of grass-fed beef a net climate benefit for the planet.
In Grass-fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World, we also discuss health benefits of grass-fed beef, which follow naturally from the management practices we’ve described here. Our book also addresses public policy changes needed for regenerative production to become mainstream.
Grass-fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World: How: How Regenerative Grazing Can Restore Soils and Stabilize the Climate is by Lynne Pledger and Ridge Shinn with foreword by Gabe Brown (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022)