(NaturalNews) For many decades, conventional cattle ranchers have pushed a monoculture model of production that has depleted soils, increased reliance on crop chemicals and created a situation where there is now too much life-giving carbon in the air and not enough in the ground. But a new short film produced by researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) in conjunction with the World Bank, entitled Soil Carbon Cowboys, takes a closer look at a more sustainable model that not only reverses all of this damage but also decreases costs and overall workload for farmers.
Back in the old days, roaming cattle would move from one pasture to another, progressively making their way to greener pastures (hence the popular saying). This constant movement allowed diverse pasture lands to regenerate after being consumed by the animals, ensuring that healthy soils were preserved in order to palpably sustain a plethora of nutrient-dense grasses and plants in the future.
All this changed during the Industrial Revolution, however, which pushed a monoculture model that relied on just one plant species instead of many. This transformation led to the widespread destruction of plant diversity, soil health and, ultimately, the long-term viability of our food supply -- because, let's face it, the continued use of destructive crop chemicals on soils that have already been depleted of their carbon structures simply cannot persist forever.
"For several decades, we sort of pushed monocultures in pastures," stated Gabe Brown, a North Dakota rancher. "Why? Because it was easy. You were managing for one species, or you knew how to fertilize a monoculture. But when you manage a polyculture, or a cocktail mix, then that's something that for today's generation is a little foreign."
Brown is one of a growing number of farmers and ranchers who has changed his approach, having learned the benefits of rotational grazing that relies on a multitude of legumes, grasses and other nutritive plants to sustain his animals. Whether it's nitrogen-rich black medic or protein-dense hairy vetch, Brown recognizes that soils need plant diversity, and so do the animals that we all rely upon for food.
Polyculture pasture methods save money, eliminate need for toxic weedkillers
Besides soil destruction, monoculture pasture methods are killing off our crop pollinators, which includes bees. Without them, other food crops simply will not grow. And the costs and time associated with maintaining monoculture pastureland -- single-crop farming operations almost always require synthetic fertilizers and chemicals pesticides -- make it a wholly unsustainable model for other reasons.
On the other hand, breaking up large pasture operations into smaller ones and rotating animals within smaller polyculture sections eliminates the need for artificial inputs and extra work. It also saves farmers time and money.
"The truth is, if I went in here and sprayed a herbicide to take care of these small amount of weeds that we have, I would also be taking care of my red clover, white clover, and all of my other legumes in there and getting rid of those," added Allen Williams, Ph.D., another rancher from Mississippi, in the film.
"We're saving money. We're not having to buy herbicide, we're not having to employ machinery, tractors and equipment, to put it out as well."
Williams also stated, "My philosophy now is this -- if livestock eat it, and it provides nutrition to those livestock, then it's not a weed, it's a forage."
As it turns out, allowing edible weeds to grow among grasses and other plants rather than removing them creates a natural source of fertilizer that reduces inputs, lowers costs and improves soil health. And in the long run, this process ends up capturing carbon from the air and fixing it back into the soil where it belongs.
"These plants are just almost going nuts, so to speak, with photosynthetic activity once we take the cattle off, and that is allowing these plants, since they are rapidly regrowing, to capture carbon out of the air and put it back into the soil," explained Williams.
Healthy soils enriched through polyculture grazing methods also allow more rain and moisture to penetrate the ground, reducing the need for water inputs and helping pastures survive through droughts. According to Brown, polyculture techniques employed on his own farm have tripled the amount of carbon stored in soils and massively increased the amount of water that the soil can hold.
Overgrazing, overuse of chemicals and erosion deplete soils of carbon.
"In 1993, we could only infiltrate one-half inch of rainfall per hour. Now, we can infiltrate over eight inches of rainfall per hour. Think of the ramifications of that. I tell people, 'It's not how much moisture and rainfall you get, it's how much can your soils hold?'" he added.
"I think our whole world revolves around the carbon in the soil, because it's those carbon molecules that feed soil life. And it's those microorganisms that feed all the plants that nourish all the animals that feed civilization."
Animals that graze on polyculture-based pastureland are also healthier, requiring fewer pharmaceutical drugs and other expensive medicines.
"It's extremely low stress, because we're working with nature instead of against her," stated Brown.