When Lynn Utesch strides out onto his farmland, his cows flock to him.
And then they follow him around, almost like dogs.
For the past 25 years, Kewaunee, Wis. resident Utesch has raised grass-fed beef — “beyond-organic beef” as he puts it. His farm is in the minority in Kewaunee County where concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, reign supreme.
With 15 CAFOs housing 1,000 or more cows each, Kewaunee County has the second highest number in the state and is facing the environmental consequences of agriculture on a grand scale.
That has Utesch concerned.
“From a farming perspective, our current model doesn’t farm for the future generations,” said Utesch. “We’re actually poisoning ourselves with our practices.”
Utesch and his wife Nancy started raising cattle when they lived on Washington
Island, an island at the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula with a population just shy of 700 people.
“When you have limited land, limited resources, you become very aware of your environment,” Utesch said.
Instead of following the conventional model of beef farming which includes feed lots and growth-enhancing technology, the Uteschs allow their cows to move from pasture to pasture in a rotational grazing system.
“Rotational grazing is probably the most environmentally friendly because it replicates buffalo herds,” Utesch said. By keeping his cattle moving, Lynn Utesch allows the grass to rebuild and deepen its roots as well as give the cows the nutrition they need.
“We have the biological life that comes with it,” said Utesch, who is particularly proud of the dung beetles and earth worms that have made a home of his soil and cow pies.
Life on the Utesch’s farm runs on an invisible ecological clock. The chickens, turkeys and ducks that pepper the fields are both protected and kept in check by several cats, two great pyrenees and a border collie. The Utesch’s 25 mother cows and 17 calves are free to use the always-open barn but rarely do. They prefer to stick to the sloping hills. The evidence shows; the fields are littered with cow pies. Instead of the hallmark manure smell, however, the pies decompose quickly, barely giving off a scent and acting as a natural fertilizer.
But the farm lacks the efficiency of conventionally produced beef. Americans need their beef and a lot of it.
Grass-fed cows take longer than conventionally or naturally raised beef to reach the required weight for slaughter. That weight only keeps going up. So conventional beef farmers have worked to streamline the whole process so they can get as much meat out of the cow while using the least amount of resources. They can also manage far greater numbers of cows.
“As the global population increases it’s ever more essential to have more (rather than less) efficient systems,” Montana State University – Bozeman Animal Science Professor Jude Capper said in an email.
Capper’s research has shown that while there is room for improvement in all types of beef farming, conventional beef farming has outstripped others over the last 30 years in reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of beef.
Between the amount of land it takes to raise grass-fed cows as well as the methane the cows produce over their lifetime, Capper said that the model of farming could be a waste of resources in a world strapped for land, fuels and water. She stressed the importance of doing more with less. Grassland pasture accounted for more than 613 million acres across the U.S. in 2007, according to the USDA.
Utesch said that while there may be some added greenhouse gas emissions from his cows, the CAFOs’ practice of storing manure and using liquid manure is the real problem. Gordon Stevenson agrees. A 26-year veteran of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Stevenson used to head up runoff management.
“It’s cheaper to pump liquid than it is to push and lift solids,” said Stevenson. “Fifty years ago, most dairy operations only had solid manure. Right now, they’re using liquid manure. Literally, we have oceans of it.”
Lake Michigan’s Green Bay now has its own dead zone like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. As Stevenson explained, the liquid manure gets into ground water and streams. The manure is full of nitrates and phosphorous which cause excessive plant growth, or eutrophication, and chokes out other life in that underwater area.
“The landscape is starting to bleed from too much excess,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson, who knows the Uteschs, said that grass-fed farming is best because it accounts for the carrying capacity of the land, and that helps minimize nutrient-overloaded runoff.
“Those farmers pay very close attention to what’s going on their land,” said Stevenson. “An operation like that is very ecologically compatible.”
Capper said that runoff can occur from any beef system. “That’s simply a function of size, not an indication that the management system is inherently better or worse,” she said.
When it comes to the impact of beef farming systems on the environment, it’s a bit of a wash. Conventional beef farming has the upper hand on the smooth production model. But the Uteschs’ environmental stewardship has enriched both their land and their lives.
So the choice between beef systems comes down to other factors. Stevenson said that consumers need to ask themselves:
does it matter how the product was produced?
For the Uteschs, though, their cows are their family.
“These cows are not just a commodity,” said Utesch. “They’re not to be mistreated. It’s just not fair to them.”