The role of ruminants in a balanced ecosystem

Large Ruminants (Cattle and Sheep)

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There are many reasons to choose a meat free diet, but if you are motivated by the health of our planet, then think carefully about the wisdom of a completely meat free strategy.   Choosing a balanced diet of carefully sourced food will have a much more positive effect on the global ecosystem than the discrete removal of a particular part of the system.  Carefully balanced and well managed meat productions systems are as important a part of the solution to climate challenges as imbalanced systems are part of  the problem.   Herein lies our opportunity:

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms  who exist in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment.  These components interact as a dynamic system which involves many complex points of balance.  This system has evolved over millennia, and whilst it is arguable that the impact of industrialized humanity has upset the balance in some areas, the global ecosystem still exists and represents a stunningly powerful tool that will enable us to re-establish the balance.

Cattle and Sheep are currently subject to much pressure as producers of Greenhouse Gasses (especially methane) but the fashionable messaging ignores a critical fact; large ruminants evolved to fill a vital role in the ecosystem and play a critical part in maintaining the health of the global environment.   Their net impact on the environment is very dependent on the management system deployed.  Where some management systems can be argued to have a negative impact on some parts of the cycle, others can be shown to have a positive and regenerative effect.

Superficially, anyone wanting a graphic demonstration of the role of ruminants in the ecosystem should try to survive by eating grass (not advised) for a few weeks.

mindrum cows
Large Ruminants evolved to eat grass

Ruminants (including sheep and cattle) have evolved a digestive system that enables them to process grass, and are as important a part of balanced global, regional and local ecosystems as grass.  Well managed grassland supports biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil health and, critically, survives on many areas unsuitable for other land uses.  Critically, it is one of the most powerful tools the planet possesses for re-establishing balance in the ecosystem.

There are a range of agricultural models, suiting different types of environment.  At a practical level, balanced models need to evolve continually as improvements in science and the demands of society change the environment in which farmers operate.

The problems come with imbalance. Rather than trying to remove a critical part of the chain, we must seek to deploy it effectively in context, and improve our practices to make them more effective components in the overall cycle of sustainability.

The importance of a balanced ecosystem

Large ruminants play a vital part in the maintenance of a balanced ecosystem, enabling the management of soil and carbon sequestration in well managed grassland.  If we remove these (by seeking to remove beef and lamb from the food chain) then we are effectively removing one of our most powerful climate management solutions from our global toolkit.  The key thing to understand is that this incredibly valuable tool must be deployed effectively – which means it must be deployed differently in different contexts.

The role of ruminants is subtly different depending on the environment in which they exist. There is much research showing that the removal of ruminants from the more brittle ecosystems results in rapid degradation of the ecosystem.  Even in less brittle environments, the balanced application of ruminants is a critical factor in the maintenance of soil health and sustainable ecosystems.

In summary, there are a number of reasons why people may choose not to eat red meat, but saving the planet or reducing global warming is not one of them.  Ruminants are a critical part of the solution.  For much of the planet, grassland is the basis of a the balanced ecology, and ruminants play a fundamental part in maintaining the balance that sustains this ecosystem.

What are we doing about it?

At Mindrum there are many things we can and must do better.  Though our pasture based sheep and cattle operations are already significantly more benign than some of the intensive systems that have provided so much fuel for the negative debate, we are introducing and trialing a number of initiatives to further our knowledge and to enable us to do things better.

These include:

  • Farm woodland scale biochar production
  • Agroforestry and Silvopasture
  • Rotational Grazing and grassland management

Some of these projects are well established, some still in the early stages.  We are also seeking to involve some independent  validation of our work through the involvement of a range of educational institutions and visits.

We are doing this

There’s a long way to go, but every day we move a bit further.

In Summary

We are privileged to have inherited a stunning ecosystem, crafted by evolution over millennia.  Whilst humanity has affected that balance in positive as well as negative ways, it is clear that the system is currently out of balance.  Our strategy must be to re-establish this balanced equilibrium and to enable this incredible system to heal.  We all have a part to play, but we must be mindful of the system.  We remove critical components from the system at our peril.

 

References:

The following references may be useful for those wishing to explore this area further.

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