Cows Save The Planet – Book Review

The full title of Judith D. Schwartz’s book is “Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth” … and of course a sub-sub-title: “Unmaking the deserts, rethinking climate change, bringing back biodiversity, and restoring nutrients to our food.”

Well, it’s a complicated topic.

The majority of her book deals with soil because it’s the centerpiece of this whole story. Not that it’s misleading in any way, just don’t expect a lot about cows up front.

Schwartz is a journalist on a mission to unveil what appears at first glance to be an impossible hypothesis: taking cows out of the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and putting them onto healthy grassland which can actually reverse climate change (That’s right, I said reverse. Not just stop or slow down).

Here’s the simplified version

  • Problem: cows crammed into CAFOs emit a lot of methane (CH4) into the atmosphere.
    • This is bad because methane is just trapped carbon that floats up into the sky and stays there contributing to the greenhouse effect we’re all familiar with.
  • Solution 1: Stop beef production which will remove cows from these CAFOs, therefore stopping methane production, which would stop carbon from floating up into the sky.
  • Solution 2: Take those cows out of the CAFOs and put them back onto the grasslands where they’re an integral part of soil restoration.
    • (Here comes the soil!) Cows that feed and live on grasslands keep the grasslands healthy. Healthy grasslands = happy soil. Happy soil traps carbon (carbon sequestration) where it belongs (instead of the atmosphere).

That’s all good in theory but does it work?

In steps Judith Schwartz to find out. She sets out to interview farmers, ranchers, and soil scientists on the ground in real-time. What she finds is amazing.

Grasslands that were near deserts can be returned to lush, fertile grassland with proper livestock management, even in arid climates. Or more precisely, “Holistic Management” as coined by famed (and cursed by some) South African ecologist, livestock farmer, environmentalist, and president and co-founder of the Savory Institute, Allan Savory.

Savory observed how herd animals behave in nature, and that wherever they went, the grasslands thrived.

He came to realize that grassland herbivores (cows, antelope, buffalo, etc.) have similar key traits in common.

Here’s how grazing animals do it in the wild:

  • They stay close together for safety from predators.
    • Stray animals on the fringes are easy targets for predators.
  • They don’t pull the grass out from its roots, they trim it… like a lawnmower.
    • This stimulates grass growth and keeps it from growing too long.
      • Grass that grows too long dies, falls over, blocks the sunlight from nurturing younger grass, which eventually kills all the grass leading to desertification of the land.
        • When no new grass grows, the soil dies as well, leaving hard earth that doesn’t retain water or nutrients (desertification).
  • They crush the grass and soil beneath their hooves as they move.
    • This pushes some of the seedlings into the soil for better growth opportunities.
    • This creates divots in the soil that trap rainfall.
      • This keeps the water on the soil long enough for it to absorb instead of running off as it would on hard, desertified land.
  • They pee and poop, which of course is nature’s fertilizer for the grass.

So, what’s happening to the soil during all this?

I’ll be honest, there are a lot of complicated mechanisms at work here which Schwartz goes into detail about, but here are the basics:

  • The grass acts like a two-way pump: pulling carbon and nutrients down into the soil (carbon sequestration), and pushing back up nutrients from the soil that grow the plants (which feed the cows, which maintain the grass, which feed the soil… [There’s also a complicated water cycle involved, but you get the idea])
  • Within the soil is a complex world of fungi and bacteria creating vital pathways for nutrients.

The bottom line is: no healthy grass, no healthy soil. No healthy soil, no carbon sequestration. No carbon sequestration, carbon floats up into the air where it doesn’t belong.

Bring the cows back to pasture, and you just might be able to solve this whole mess in one fell swoop (or at least be a substantial part of it — we still need to stop pumping carbon into the air via fossil fuels and CAFOs). Cows (and all ruminants) are the catalyst for this whole system to work.

Back to Allan Savory for a Moment

After observing herds and grasslands in the wild, Savory figured he could mimic what they were doing on managed land. He developed a system of grazing (Holistic Management) that manages cattle and the land at the same time (with a positive environmental impact as a bonus):

  • Keeping the cattle in smaller areas (with mobile fences, manual herding, etc.) mimics the predator-pressure they would experience in the wild (staying close together).
  • In doing so, cows can’t selectively eat only the grass species they like (yes, there can be a handful of grass species in one paddock alone), which ensures all the grass in that paddock get trimmed (managed) evenly and maintains plant biodiversity (which is a good thing!).
  • This also concentrates the divot-making from their collective hooves and the manure which will trap water/urine to fertilize the grass.
  • The cattle are then moved to a new paddock allowing the grazed paddock to rest and grow back with a vengeance: healthy grass, healthy soil — carbon sequestration.
  • This cycle of managed grazing can be sustained indefinitely.
Cows Save the Planet book
Cows Save the Planet – Buy Now

Why aren’t all farmers and ranchers doing this?

According to Schwartz, it’s still a controversial topic. To farmers, it’s easier to lay down cheap synthetic fertilizer (derived from petroleum products — unsustainable and destructive), spray your crops with Monsanto’s Roundup (which kills or mutates the biodiversity needed for true soil health), and make a meager living off farm subsidies.

For ranchers, it’s easier to haul in truckloads of that subsidized corn and soy, feed it to their CAFO cows (which is terrible for the cows’ health — another discussion), and release tons of methane (trapped carbon) into the atmosphere where it’s doing all the damage.

Easier, but doesn’t make any sense.

In her book, Schwartz finds a handful of mavericks bucking the system and trying out this theory on their own… and succeeding wildly. They’re mimicking nature in smart, ethical, sustainable ways. While there are still many questions to be answered (such as scalability), I for one am extremely excited and hopeful for the ways proper grassland management just might be the key to reversing climate change.


About the Author: Judith D. Schwartz is a longtime freelance writer whose work has appeared in venues from Glamour and Redbook to The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. She is the author of several books, including Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, Tell Me No Lies: How to Face the Truth and Build a Loving Marriage (coauthored) and The Therapist’s New Clothes. She has an MA in counseling psychology and an MS from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She lives with her family in Southern Vermont.

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