Pature raised cows

Pasture-raised livestock naysayers may want to have a look at the findings of a recent USDA study on the effects cows raised in a more natural setting have on the health of the environment.

The peer-reviewed study, led by C. Alan Rotz, PhD, an agricultural engineer for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at University Park, Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Penn State, appears in the May/June edition of the USDA’s Agricultural Research magazine. The study concluded that dairy cows living outdoors in a more natural environment may leave a considerably smaller “hoofprint” on the environment than a similar cow raised in a factory or concentrated animal feed operation (CAFO).

The research team compared the output of dairy cows that were pasture raised with factory raised, which included carbon dioxide emissions, methane and nitrous levels, ammonia from manure, soil denitrification rates, nitrate leaching losses, soil erosion and phosphorous losses from field runoff.  The pasture-raised cows total greenhouse emissions were 8 percent less and ammonia emissions were a startling 30 percent lower than their factory-raised relatives. According to the EPA, roughly 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the U.S. comes from animal waste. Cattle account for nearly 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year, or about 20 percent of total U.S. methane emissions.

Healthier pasture soil also means healthier water quality, and a reduced dependency on fuel and emissions from farm equipment was also considerably of note in the pasture-raised cattle according to Rotz, citing that, “When farmland is transitioned from rotated crops to perennial grassland, you can build up lots of carbon in the soil and substantially reduce your carbon footprint for 20 to 30 years.”

Pasture-raised cows (and other livestock animals) are also considered to be healthier, producing higher quality dairy, eggs and animal flesh products than factory-raised animals, especially if fed a natural grass diet.

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Photo: Jill Ettinger