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How farming can save our lakes and rivers

Regenerative agriculture will be key to meeting Minnesota’s water quality goals.

Cows grazing on Jerry Ford’s farm.
Cows grazing on Jerry Ford’s farm.
Photo by Jerry Ford

Veganism, which is a completely plant-based diet, is on the rise, by some studies as much as 600% since 2014. Six-percent of Americans now identify as vegan. Some vegans even extend the practice to their clothing, eschewing not only leather and fur, but also cosmetics and accessories that do not meet “cruelty-free” standards.

One of the top reasons people give for going completely animal-free in their diet is the environment. Vegan activists point to the fact that one pound of hamburger requires 1,799 gallons of water not only for the cow itself, but for the grain and corn it eats. Added to that is the pollution created not only from animal waste (this can be extremely significant in large feedlot operations for poultry, hogs and beef) but the pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used to grow the food the animal eats.

Increasingly vegans point out that meat production “contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef bleaching and deforestation. Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change – livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”

The role of grazing animals in regenerative farming

But here’s the thing, when farmers farm with an eye toward soil health, they sequester carbon. And soil health means that grazing animals are included in the farm rotation. And this makes sense. In Minnesota, the bountiful soil early settlers found was the result of thousands of years of grazers like buffalo, elk, caribou and antelope that dominated the prairies. Unlike cows, which will graze plants down to the soil, these animals moved, cropping the sweet new leads of the prairie plants, and then moving on. Their hooves aerated the soil and their waste fertilized it and served as habitat for dozens of dung beetles, birds and soil organisms. In regenerative agriculture (focusing on soil health) farmers move livestock to replicate the grazing patterns of native ungulates and achieve all three benefits.

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For a farmer, the real resource is the soil, not the crops. Healthy soil means fewer inputs like fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide and fungicide are necessary to keep yields high. Healthy soil is more permeable, and allows rainwater to infiltrate. Healthy soil stores more water that is available for plants in times of drought. It infiltrates more water during wet times, meaning less runoff or standing water in fields.

Jeff Forester
Jeff Forester
It is easy to see the implications of this in water quality. A simple  slake test, shown here on this short YouTube video reveals how modern farming practices lead to runoff and ultimately pollution of our lakes and rivers as heavy rains carry unhealthy soils from the farmer’s field and into our streams, rivers and lakes. In “conventional” farming systems, the loss of topsoil is offset with increases in fertilizer and other chemical applications.

But there is a revival of more traditional farming practices, one that improves soil health, builds topsoil, reduces runoff, provides a more stable income for small farmers, draws carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil, and treats animals humanely. It is broadly known as regenerative agriculture, and will be key to meeting Minnesota’s water quality goals.

Five principles for soil health

The five Soil Health Principles are laid out by the Sustainable Farming Association, SFA; 1) Keep the soil covered, meaning do not till or turn the soil over, but leave plants in the ground, 2) Minimize soil disturbance, 3) Increase crop diversity, 4) Keep living roots in the soil, 5) Integrate livestock.

It is important to note here that it is possible for a farm to be Certified Organic but still negatively impact both soil health and water quality.

Grazing cows, rotated between pastures, to replicate native ungulate grazing patterns.
Photo by Jerry Ford
Grazing cows, rotated between pastures, to replicate native ungulate grazing patterns.
Farmer Jerry Ford, the Network Coordinator for the SFA, said, “I married into the farm. My wife is fourth generation and my father-in-law was one of the forerunners of soil conservation. Even though our farm is highly erodible, we have been building topsoil since he started in the 1940s.”

Some farmers offer consumers a “share” of a cow. The customer buys into a cow early in its life. After slaughter the carcass is sent to a USDA approved butcher who processes the meat according to the customer’s direction. Said Ford, “This is just like a deer. The hunter brings in a carcass for processing — it is their deer.”

An old model

Again, this is an old model. Many of us remember the days when our families had a freezer in the garage or basement, and our parents bought beef directly from the farmer, storing either a half a cow, a quarter or even an eighth. This keeps the price competitive with the commercially raised meat in the local supermarket.

For those concerned about animal cruelty, soil health farmers do not use what is known as a Conentrated Animal Feedlot Operation, CAFO. They do not confine their animals.

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Said Ford, “The animal has one bad day in its life, and it doesn’t know it is coming.” His cows are not loaded onto trailers, hauled in cramped trucks to feed lots or beef processing plants. They are not stressed or frightened at the end of their lives. And unlike most meat processing plants which forbid cameras or even visitors, some farmers welcome people to come out on slaughtering day.

Regenerative agriculture, including raising livestock, will be a key component of not only protecting water resources in Minnesota, but improving farm productivity and the overall sustainability of farming communities across the state. And for regenerative agriculture to thrive, consumers will need to keep meat as a part of their diet — just the right kind of meat that is raised on a farm that has committed to the five soil health principles.

Go ahead, save a lake. Eat a hamburger.

​Jeff Forester is the executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates.


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