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Don't all cows eat grass? Part 1: Celebrating our soils

News Icon 25/04/2017

The Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA) is doing great work returning animals to the land, and Compassion in World Farming is proud to support their work. The PFLA has achieved some brilliant exposure this week, being featured on Countryfile on Sunday.

In the first of this two-part guest blog series, Dr John Meadley, Chairman of the PFLA, explains how our soils are the basis of all human life, but are being destroyed by intensive farming, and asks: isn’t there a better way?


On my last Speech Day at school, in 1959, I played Mozart’s clarinet concerto with the school orchestra, conducted by a good friend.  After leaving school our ways parted, he going into music (as composer, conductor and teacher) and me into agriculture in the developing world. Meeting recently for the first time since then, we regaled each other over lunch about the intervening years. When I told him that I was chair of an organisation called the Pasture-fed Livestock Association he said: “Do you know how we encourage pupils to remember that the notes between the lines in the bass clef (the left hand on the piano) are A, C, E, G? We use the phrase ALL COWS EAT GRASS.”

Stretching for a serviette I drew the lines of the bass clef and added the notes A, C, E, G. It looked just like a five-barred gate that you could find on any farm. “Do all cows eat grass?” he asked – a question to which we will return.

“Over the gate” was a phrase used by entertainer Bernard Miles in the years after the war, when there was not much to eat nor to smile about. He portrayed a bucolic, straw-chewing West Country farmer whose response to every question, in his strong Devon accent, was: “the answer lies in the soil”. His audience roared with laughter at this simple man who could not see that the future lay in technology and consumption and that soil was for bumpkins.  70 years later, it seems that he was right.

The vital role of soil

The soil is the skin of the earth. It produces virtually all our food and drink and much of our clothing and minerals. As the phrase from an unknown source reminds us: “Despite all our technological advances, mankind depends upon a few inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains”. 

This precious medium is a mixture of hardware (sand and clay) and software (roots, earthworms and billions of tiny beneficial bugs) that work together. Plants absorb the sun’s energy, much of which goes down to the roots and out into the soil to feed the fungi and bacteria that in turn produce what plants need in a digestible form. When a plant is harvested (whether grazed or cut), its roots provide the energy for regrowth before decomposing to produce the organic matter that feeds the surrounding, beneficial fungi and bacteria that build the structure of the soil and which in turn hold the moisture and oxygen that the roots need.

The first antibiotic, Streptomycin, was discovered in the soil. Soil is a community that is best left undisturbed - and what better way to leave it undisturbed than under pasture.

Soil not only feeds us, but plays a vital role in preventing climate change. There is three times as much carbon in the world’s soil than in the world’s atmosphere. Every time it is cultivated to produce soya, cereals or vegetables, carbon is released into the atmosphere.  In contrast, pasture absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and adds it to the soil as organic matter. 

Pasture is everywhere. Two thirds of farmland, both globally and in the UK, is pasture – not surprising if you look out of a train window and see green stretching to the horizon. How it is managed plays a vital role in the health of the soil and determines whether carbon is released into the atmosphere or absorbed from it. Ruminants (mainly cows and sheep but also goats and buffaloes) are the only animals that can convert this efficiently into something of value to humans (meat and dairy) – whilst their grazing stimulates regrowth and builds up the organic matter in the soil. Grazing animals have always been a key player in a fully functioning ecosystem and at least a billion people are still wholly dependent upon them for their livelihood. 


The rise in industrial farming

Over the past 40 years, farming has become more intensive and shifted away from raising ruminants outside on pasture to confining them indoors where they are fed grain. Large areas of biodiverse pasture have been ploughed up to produce grain to feed these animals.  The devastating effects of industrial farming on animals, people and the planet is described in detail in Philip’s books.

Does it matter? There are many reasons why feeding grain to ruminants doesn’t add up:

  • It’s an inefficient process. Beef cattle need to eat 7-8 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of weight – and grain is energy/carbon intensive to produce.
  • The production of nitrogen fertiliser consumes nearly 2% of the world’s energy use whilst much of it leaches through the soil into our waterways.
  • Farms that purchase large amounts of feed grain can produce more manure than it can safely apply on the farm and a desirable, fertility-building product (manure) becomes a problem (now called excrement) that must be stored and disposed of.
  • This grain could feed people. Feeding grain to livestock is not only an inefficient use of land but also of questionable ethics when hunger is still widespread.
  • It’s not their natural diet. Not being a ruminant’s natural diet, continued feeding of grain can result in the animal getting sick.
  • It contributes to climate change. There is an irony in using carbon-releasing cereals to feed animals that could be raised on carbon-absorbing pasture.

Surely, there is a better way?

To be continued... stay tuned for part 2 of the series, to find out why pasture is the future of farming.


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