February 1, 2019
Allen Williams, Ph.D. is a sixth-generation family farmer and founding partner of Grass Fed Insights, LLC, Soil Health Consultants, LLC, and Soil Health Academy. He holds a B.S. and M.S. in Animal Science from Clemson University and a Ph.D. in Livestock Genetics from Louisiana State University and served on the faculty at Louisiana Tech University and Mississippi State University for fifteen years. He pioneered many of the early regenerative grazing protocols and forage finishing techniques and has taught those practices and principles to more than 4000 farmers and ranchers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and other countries around the world.
Allen has also authored more than 400 articles on soil health, cover crop and livestock integration, adaptive forage and grazing management, high attribute pasture-based meat production, and alternative marketing systems. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Grassfed Exchange and the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, is a Core Team Member of the Pasture Project, and Co-Investigator for Team SoilCarbon. In this interview, we discuss the detriments of monoculture (single-crop) farms and the sustainability benefits of properly managed ranching.
Greg: Aside from providing meat, what purpose do livestock serve on a farm?
Allen: Livestock serve a number of very crucial functions on a farm and historically have always been a vital part of the vast majority of farms. It is a fairly recent development that farms completely exclude livestock, just as it is a recent development that the majority of farms are focused on monoculture production of either crops or livestock. Most farms today grow JUST cattle, just dairy, just pigs, just corn and beans, just wheat, etc. Or two or three major crops of some kind. Most farms today (aside from produce farms) produce only one revenue stream per acre annually.
From an ecological perspective, grazing and browsing ruminants have been an incredibly important part of every grassland, prairie, savanna, and woodland ecosystem. Those ecosystems evolved under the influence of these grazing and browsing ruminants. If they had not been present, the world’s landscape and flora and fauna species would be been very different and much more limited. Grazing ruminants, whether wild or domestic, provide fertility to the soil on a routine basis through their manure and urine. Their hoof impact, under proper grazing, helps to keep the soil highly aggregated and able to infiltrate huge quantities of water. This, in turn, breaks up compaction layers in the soil. Proper grazing (we call it Adaptive Stewardship Grazing) also encourages, fosters, and maintains a rich plant species diversity. It is only through poor grazing and man’s intentional ill-advised intervention that we have monoculture and near-monoculture pastures.
Livestock contribute significantly to the building of the soil microbial and macro-organism populations. Without good grazing impact, these will be limited. Livestock also significantly increase opportunities for farmers to create additional revenue streams from each acre instead of one revenue stream per acre. The compounded impact of crop production, complex cover crops, and livestock grazing produces a profound positive effect on the soil and soil life. It increases soil organic matter, increases water infiltration rates, decreases harmful runoff and erosion, increases net profit per acre, fertilizes the next crop, reduces input costs, aggregates the soil, and I can go on and on…
Greg: What are the consequences of monoculture farming?
Allen: Monoculture farming accounts for 95%+ of all agriculture in the U.S. today and is a model that evolved since World War II. The consequences of ONLY monoculture crops are far more serious than ONLY livestock. With only crops there tends to be steady loss of soil organic matter, harmful runoff issues, erosion issues, carbon loss from excess and frequent tillage, poor soil microbial populations, poor water infiltration, etc. Monoculture farming tends to be highly input-driven with a dependence on chemicals, synthetics and GMO seed.
With livestock, the consequences depend on HOW they graze. If livestock are grazed conventionally, then you have many of the same issues as with the row crops. However, if livestock are grazed adaptively then you have very positive, soil-building response and ecosystem-building response.
In the past, farmers did not have synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to use. They had to rely on livestock to provide fertility, help maintain soil organic matter, build microbial populations, and provide additional sources of revenue. Without livestock, their soil fertility steadily diminished. They believed in diversity for numerous reasons, but one very important one was that they knew that any given crop could fail in a particular year. There were no federal farm subsidy and crop insurance programs, so a crop failure meant loss of their farm if they did not have other revenue streams to rely upon. Today, farmers can withstand a periodic crop failure because of crop insurance and disaster payment programs. That has fostered a heightened monoculture system.
Without livestock, soil fertility steadily diminishes.
Greg: Do different animals play different roles in regenerative grazing? That is, do cows, pigs, chickens, etc. all make different contributions to restoring soil?
Allen: Yes. On our farm and with many other regenerative farms, running multiple species of livestock through each pasture or field on a routine basis produces very positive results that all contribute to enhanced productivity on a farm and heavily impact soil health parameters. For instance, cattle followed by small ruminants (sheep and/or goats), followed by chickens, followed by pigs, produces incredible amounts of natural fertility, stimulates the soil microbial populations and array, reduces all input costs, and increases soil organic matter. For every 1% increase in soil organic matter, the soil can hold an additional 25,000 gallons of water per acre. Think of how that can impact either flood or drought events for the better. Multiply that across hundreds of millions of acres within the U.S. and see what impact that has.
The fact is, when we take animals out of the equation, everything suffers in the ecosystem. When we add multiple species of livestock, we always see a significant increase in plant species, beneficial insects, pollinators, birds, and many other species of wildlife. It creates a thriving environment for many other species of life. Monoculture agriculture does just the opposite.
If you have cattle only, then the benefits can be significant IF they are grazed using adaptive grazing principles and practices. However, if grazed poorly, then poor results are expected. The same can be said for multiple species of livestock. If grazed and managed poorly, the results are poor. If managed adaptively, then the results with the incorporation of multiple species of livestock magnify the results in soil health parameters and ecosystem health and diversity. Remember that nature NEVER created a monoculture of anything. In nature, there is always significant diversity, whether with flora or fauna.
When the bison existed in North America in huge numbers (coast to coast, by the way), they were never alone. They were in the company of multitudes of deer, antelope, elk, small mammals, predators, a multitude of bird species, etc. North America once would have resembled the Serengeti in Africa. Layers of life. All intertwined. That is what created the enormous fertility that Europeans encountered when they first moved across this continent. That fertility has been steadily diminishing ever since. That is why our ancestors marched across the continent to begin with. Fertile land and gold. Fertile land far more than gold. There were many more fortunes made from fertile land than from discovering gold.
American bison hunt circa 1872 by George Catlin (commons.wikimedia.org)
Greg: Pasture-raised livestock practices seem to be better for the environment, consumer health and animal welfare. But these farming practices require more land than conventional ranching. Is it possible to feed a growing global population with pasture-raised livestock?
Allen: First, all beef cattle are raised until about a year of age on pasture or rangeland, and their mothers are always on pasture or rangeland. It is only in the last 150 days of a beef steer’s life that they are typically confined to a feed yard for finishing. If we started incorporating livestock again on our row cropping operations that graze cover crops in between cash crops, then we suddenly have hundreds of millions of acres available for livestock again.
In addition, the vast majority of corn and soybeans grown are NOT used directly for human food and NEVER will be. When was the last time you sat down to a bowl or plate of field corn or field soybeans? The majority are grown for fuel (ethanol, etc.) and animal feeds (feedlot cattle, conventional dairies, vertically integrated pork and poultry production, farmed fish, etc.). Many consumers have the very false perception that all the corn and soybeans being grown in the US are for direct human food. The farmers who grow these crops DO NOT eat them themselves. If we converted just a percentage of the acres used to grow those crops back into livestock production, then we immediately have far more grazing than we would ever need to feed a growing population.
Besides, we are in no way short on food production right now. The U.S. alone wastes 40% of the food we produce each year. Globally, we waste several trillion pounds of food annually. We currently OVERPRODUCE food as it is. Look at the hundreds of millions of gallons of milk we pour out each year at the dairy farms, at the enormous stockpiles of cheese and other food items, etc.
We can easily produce all the food the growing population needs and then some through pasture-based protein production. I can supply data from numerous multi-species farms in the U.S. and abroad that shows what they can produce annually from each acre. The issue is many articles are written from the standpoint of monoculture production per acre annually. The automatically assume that each acre can only produce one food item per year, which is grossly incorrect.
Greg: You mentioned cash crops and cover crops—what’s the difference?
Allen: Cash crops are the crops grown and harvested for commodity purposes, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, vegetables, etc. So items grown specifically for food, fuel, or animal feeds. Cover crops are plants planted and grown, not for harvesting for human consumption, but to “cover” the soil and protect the soil in between the cash crops. The majority of farmers in the U.S. do not plant cover crops in between their cash crops and instead let the ground stand bare between the cash crops. Most cash crops that are grown only have living roots in the ground for 90 to 130 days. That leaves almost two-thirds of the year with bare ground, which is not good.
Start with local, then pasture-raised, preferably grass-fed.
Greg: What should I look for when shopping in order to get the best meat for me and the environment? If I have to choose between grass-fed, pasture-raised, local, organic, etc., what should be my priority?
Allen: First and foremost, get to know your farmers in your locale. Visit their farms, ask the hard questions, see for yourself how they produce the food items you want to buy. When you buy a car, you check it out thoroughly. Food is far more important to our health and well-being than a car. We are extremely careless when making our food purchase choices, and yet that is what determines the quality and longevity of our life. I prefer to start with local and then I want it pasture-raised, preferably grass-fed. Most that go to that length will be using little to no chemicals on their farms, so “certified” organic is not necessary.
Second, I might mention that more than 80% of the grass-fed beef currently being sold to consumers in the U.S. is NOT produced by American farmers. It is imported from Australia and South America. Many consumers may not care but their food dollars are not supporting U.S. farmers or helping to rebuild our rural economies. The sure way to know it is imported grass-fed beef is if the label says “Product of USA”. It is perfectly legal for all imported beef to have that statement on the label. No U.S. producer of grass-fed beef uses that statement on their labels. So if you want to support U.S. farmers, buy only beef that you know was produced here.
“Allen is a founding partner of Understanding Ag, LLC and the Soil Health Academy, as well as being a regenerative farmer and rancher. Allen and his partners work with farmers and ranchers in North America across more than 22 million acres.”
For more on Allen Williams’s adaptive grazing strategies, visit soilhealthacademy.org