Meet Your Environmentally Beneficial Meat, Part 2: Grasses

A part of the Lamar Valley Herd in Yellowstone National Park

If you grew up as a kid in the United States you probably learned something about the buffalo (rather, American Bison) that populated the Great Plains long ago.

You’ve probably seen images of the massive herds, heard tales of how they would thunder in front of wagon trains for hours. They were the keystone species not only for the ecosystem, but for the indigenous people living in the plains as well. As an American school child you might have even learned of tall-grass prairies. Settlers moved through the plains brushing against grass as tall as their hats.

There are many types of grasslands. Located just east of the Great Plains is the tallgrass prairie, which, as its name suggests, is home to an ecosystem of tall grasses. Some species routinely reached six-feet in height, sometimes upwards of eight and nine feet! More common are the mixed-grass prairies and they cover most of the Midwest. Short-grass prairie is mainly located in the arid western regions of the Great Plains, in the eastern regions of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

The roaming animals of the Plains (bison, pronghorns), the grasses and forbs evolved together, as all ecosystems do.  They co-evolve and form relationships of symbiosis and mutualism.

The relationship between grazing animals and the native grasses goes like this:

As bison munched the tops off of the grass, the grass sloughs off the bottom portion of their roots because there isn’t enough energy (from the grass blades capturing sunlight–see photosynthesis) to sustain the root system. The root mass stays in the soil, developing a large carbon sink that holds water and adds nutrients to the soil. However, as the grass grows back the root system grows even deeper. {1} Thus, you have the complex root systems of the Great Plains. It is estimated that 75-80% of the biomass of tallgrass prairies, for example, lays below the surface. {2}

Why does this matter? Because this complex root system also held together some of the deepest and most fertile topsoil in the world. During floods the roots would absorb the water and store it, making floods less devastating. During droughts the deep roots were able to reach water that had been absorbed by the carbon (leftover roots) in the soil. Because of the root systems the rich topsoil wasn’t exposed to soil erosion.

Until settlers arrived in the 19th century.

Wheat Roots and Perennial Grass Roots

The 19th century brought devastation to the prairies in the way of settlers. With pioneers came their own livestock that carried diseases that killed some bison, but their guns finished off most of the rest. Settlers used plows to till into the fertile soil, and never seeing soil so deep just kept going and going. In less than a century of intensive farming without crop rotations, cover crops,  fallow fields or other practices to ensure soil health the farmers managed to destroy an entire ecosystem. The farmers plowed up the native grasses and planted in their wake shallow-rooted wheat and corn, grasses whose thirst for nutrients left the soil barren. Wheat and corn were also unable to withstand the semi-arid conditions of the Plains without intense irrigation.  A drought hit in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and with the combination of poor agricultural practices turned into one of the worst environmental disasters of the twentieth-century: the Dust Bowl.

Dust Cloud, Texas

The Dust Bowl began because of a convergence of factors: poor agricultural practices, drought and the annihilation of the native ecosystem. Two hundred thousand migrants headed Westward, unable to make a living off of their degraded land (hello, The Grapes of Wrath.) {3}

Now, ninety-nine percent of the tallgrass prairie biome is under cultivation or development. Because of the loss of topsoil the farmlands are much less absorbent, making floods potential disasters. The intense farming has also brought about a loss of soil fertility, making it necessary for farmers to use more and more fertilizers. Because of the loss of absorbency, when it rains those fertilizers wash into the rivers, seep into the groundwater and generally make their way out to sea. After the Dust Bowl the U.S. government enacted several topsoil conservation programs, but now they are being pushed to the wayside for ethanol production {4, pg. 301}.

So we circle back to the question: What does this have to do with meat?

Grasslands, especially grasslands that evolved with grazers (bison, deer, pronghorns, horses, sheep, goats, etc.) need those animals to keep their ecosystems healthy, vibrant and diverse. Don’t misinterpret: not all applications of livestock are healthy. But it is folly to think that we can somehow restore ecosystems to health without the use of grazing animals. That’s what these ecosystems are designed for.

One could argue, I suppose, that we could use the herds but not eat the meat. But logic fails there: soon, there would be too many animals, especially since most predators farmers and ranchers now consider to be nuisances (like wolves and bobcats). Humans are predators, too (is that hard for us to think about?). Ranchers and cowboys herd cattle like big predators (pack-hunters) do, and ranchers cull the herd like pack-hunters do as well. Then, we, the ranchers, farmers and other consumers eat the meat. It all goes back to acknowledging that we, as humans, are a part of the cycle and not outside of it.

Online Resources:

Mother Earth News: The Amazing Benefits of Grass Fed Meat

Conservation Magazine: Greener Pastures

National Biological Information Infrastructure: Prairie Habitat

Landscope: Tallgrass Prairie | Prognosis for the Future

Wikipedia: Great Plains

Wikipedia: Buffalo Commons


The Gardeners of Eden by Dan Dagget

One comment on “Meet Your Environmentally Beneficial Meat, Part 2: Grasses

  1. Jax says:

    Cool! I’ve been looking forward to these. You bring up a lot of points I’ve never even thought of before. I forwarded them on to my husband; he’ll enjoy reading them, too!

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