In this episode, we discuss:
- The environmental effects of regenerative grazing
- Why we should consider cattle a “keystone species”
- How regenerative grazing could increase farmable land and eliminate food insecurity
- The truth about how much water is necessary to raise cattle
- Why monocropping corn and soy is bad for the environment
- Ways cattle grazing restores native wildlife and vegetation
- Where carbon dioxide and methane emissions from cattle end up
- The ethical cost of consuming beef
- How to make regenerative grazing possible all year
- The real cost of healthy, nutrient-dense foods
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. There are a lot of misconceptions about the environmental impact of meat. Certainly, meat that’s raised in a conventional agricultural factory environment can be extremely harmful for the environment, for local communities, etc. But meat that is raised in a more regenerative way can actually be a benefit for the environment. And I’ve talked about this on my [Joe] Rogan [Experience podcast] appearances, I’ve written several articles about it, my friend and colleague Robb Wolf and Diana Rogers have written a book about it, and I’ve had several guests on the podcast to discuss this.
So I’m excited to welcome Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger as my guests for this episode. Ridge is the CEO of Grazer LLC or Big Picture Beef, [a] 100 percent grass-fed beef company partnering with farmers throughout the northeastern United States. He is very well-known in this community because he’s been interested in heritage breeds of livestock. For many, many years, he was the founding director of New England Livestock Alliance, and he has written extensively and spoken all around the world about regenerative farming and agriculture. Lynne Pledger is a writer and environmental advocate who’s worked with Ridge since the 1980s to preserve heritage livestock breeds and increase regenerative grazing in the northeastern United States. She’s also worked in affiliation with several [nonprofit organizations] like Clean Water Action, Upstream, [and] Sierra Club on public policy issues, and has been a guest lecturer on sustainability at UMass Amherst, Smith College, and Harvard School of Public Health.
So Lynne and Ridge are incredible people to talk about regenerative agriculture with. They have decades of experience, and they really understand the landscape, no pun intended, very well. So I enjoyed this conversation a lot. And if you’re interested in regenerative agriculture, I think you will, too. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Ridge and Lynne, welcome to the show. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
Lynne Pledger: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Chris Kresser: So I’d love to learn a little bit more about the background of my guests. What got you to this point in time? And we’ll start with you, Ridge. I know you’ve been raising animals for meat for decades and speaking and writing about regenerative agriculture before it was a buzzword and the cool thing to do.
Ridge Shinn: Yeah, right.
Chris Kresser: Tell us about your background and how you got interested in this.
Ridge Shinn: Okay, well, it’s hard to be quick. Lynne is the writer of the book, but we were formerly married, so we have a long history. We started out with living history. I tell people I was learning to farm in the 1800s. So, mow hay with the scythe, work oxen, build a haystack, all that kind of thing. And then a little bit further down the road, I helped found the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which is still an entity. And again, Lynne was critical to getting that thing going. And then about 21 years ago, I had wanted to farm in the worst way. And my career was building timber frame houses. So when I turned 50, I was like, I’m going to do this. And I started with pigs, and then I was like, that inevitable marketing question, how do I get rid of them? So I started a not-for-profit in 2001 to try and organize farmers. And almost immediately, I stumbled on grass-fed beef and all the research was there. Jo Robinson had [it] in spades back then. I’m like, why isn’t anybody doing this? So we decided to jump in and try it. And the rest of the story is kind of like our odyssey in learning.
So we had to learn all kinds of things. We had to learn about genetics, we had to learn about grass, [and] we had to learn about processing. All those things we had to learn about. So the book is really kind of a culmination of all those stories. Lynne’s the storyteller and the writer. So that’s kind of how we came to it. Actually, I was giving a talk [in] Norfolk, Massachusetts, and somebody came up to me at the end of the talk, [and] he said, “You need to write a book.” I said, “I know. How am I going to do that?” He goes, “Well, I’m a senior editor at Chelsea Green.” And he said, “Let’s do it.” And it took Lynne two years to get a contract to write the book. But that was the genesis of the book.
Chris Kresser: Nice. And Lynne, how did you come [to] this? It sounds like being married to Ridge was part of it. But you have a background as a writer and an environmentalist, as well.
Lynne Pledger: Exactly. So this really fit right into my various environmental projects, particularly climate change. That’s what we’re all probably most concerned about. So it just was a natural thing for me. I had been working on climate issues from other aspects, and then it turned out that as we uncovered more and more research about this, that regenerative grazing is just the win/win/win in terms of the climate and a number of other environmental issues. So it was just natural to jump into this. And one story along those lines is [that] Ridge was contacted by Time magazine. They wanted to do a story about this, about regenerative grazing. They weren’t calling it that, I guess, at the time. So we ended up being in Time magazine, a picture of Ridge labeled “carbon cowboy.”
Ridge Shinn: Yeah, that was [in] 2010.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, so that was quite a while ago. But since then, we’ve really been focusing a lot on the climate issue. And it’s really frustrating for us because it’s so hard for people to grasp how raising cattle could possibly be a good thing. They’ve been so steeped in the opposite viewpoint that cattle are just bad. And people tend to think, okay, grass-fed beef is less bad than conventional cattle production. But we say no, it’s not a question of less bad. We’re talking about a net climate benefit to regenerative grazing. So what we’ve tried to do in the book, I don’t know if we’ve talked about the book that’s now out by Chelsea Green, Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World. One of my main missions [for] the book was to make it robust enough in terms of science so that people would know how it benefits the environment, how it combats climate change. I wanted to get into what those mechanisms are. And I mean that’s what was fascinating to me to learn about that, and I think it’s been interesting to other people, too. The role of the soil microbes in restoring the soil and also facilitating this storage of carbon in the soil is just amazing. And particularly, I like to tell people the connection between the grazing and these microbes; it literally starts, jumpstarts, if you will, the grazing jumpstarts this underground work of the microbes when the cow takes a bite of the grass. So you have this pasture plant grass or some other forage plant in the pasture. The cow takes a bite, so that plant is partially defoliated. So the plant sends a chemical signal. This is just one of nature’s wonderful feedback mechanisms. The plant sends a chemical signal down to the roots.
We all know from our education as school children that the plant is storing the carbon that it’s not using in the roots. So that chemical signal is letting the roots know, okay, release some of that carbon. So the roots shoot out some of these sugary bits into the soil, and the microbes are immediately attracted to that. And microbes come, they eat, they reproduce, they die, a continued population of microbes grows, and they set about these activities. The most amazing one, I think, is [that] the fungi that are around the root send out these filaments, these long hyphae, and they become conduits for two-way [of] exchange carbon coming from the roots into the soil, and soil nutrients and water coming to the plant through the roots. So I mean, that’s just the simplistic tale, but I think it’s important to tell that little story to show this direct connection between the cow eating the grass and then the roots. This unleashes this cascade of environmental benefits that are mostly carried out by the microbes. So I’ll pause here. I wanted to start us out with that story.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, there’s a lot. That’s great. There’s a lot to unpack there. And I actually had Anne Biklé and David Montgomery on the podcast recently, and we talked about the importance of microbes and the role that they play, for example, in helping the plants extract nutrients from the soil so that if plants are grown in soil that has a disrupted microbiome, those plants are not going to have the same level of nutrition as they would have if they were grown in healthy soil. And of course, there’s a strong parallel there to our own gut microbiome because the microbes in our gut help us to extract nutrients from foods. So [if] two people ate the same exact meal, one person with a healthy microbiome is going to get a lot more nutrition from that same meal than the person with the disrupted gut microbiome. So it really is all connected. And it strikes me [that] one of the issues is that so few people have a direct experience of being anywhere close to food production. I think for a lot of people who grew up on farms, they understand intuitively that animals are a critical part of our ecosystem, of food production and that you can’t really produce food in a sustainable way with just a bunch of machines and computers nowadays without animals.
Ridge Shinn: Just to build on what Lynne was saying, the thing to keep in mind is that the herbivore, the cattle, in our opinion, is the keystone species. The model is the buffalo. We all know there was this deep, deep prairie soil, tall grass. And how did that happen? It was photosynthesis and the herbivore and the soil that built that deep, deep carbonaceous soil. So, replicating that, I mean, even Gabe Brown, who did all these cover crops and everything, and increased soil microbes, etc., etc., added the cattle, and he has this almost vertical line. So the cattle are like an essential keystone to make this happen quickly.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, I think when Ridge talks about the vertical line, he’s talking about the productivity of the fields once the cattle were introduced. It’s been called a multiplier effect. And I think that’s really key now, too. Because some people say it’s one of the many myths that drives us nuts. Some people say, well, but how are you going to feed the world with that? Cattle take so much land, so much resources. But the fact is, without cutting a single new tree, we could produce just as much meat by regenerative grazing. We could produce just as much grass-fed beef as we now have corn-fed beef. And look at all the benefits we would have in addition. And one of the reasons for that is that all this land that’s used now for corn and soy to grow feed for cattle to be trucked to the feedlots, that could be put into grazing or cropland with grazing integrated. But also, it’s the fact that the land becomes so much more productive and not because, or not just because of the manure and urine, but because of the biology. It’s because of the microbes. They’re actually making nitrogen available. We could stop importing nitrogen fertilizer from Russia. We got such a big kick out of people saying, “Oh, no, now with these sanctions, we can’t get nitrogen fertilizer from Russia.” And we’re saying, “Yes. That’s great news, folks. That’s great news for the environment.” Because as many people are becoming aware, nitrogen pollution from that fertilizer is really an enormous environmental problem, and we don’t need it if we allow our allies underground to do their job.
Chris Kresser: Well, I believe that the other thing [is], and correct me if I’m getting the exact proportions wrong, but about 60 percent of agricultural land is too rocky or hilly or dry, or the soil is not suitable for crops. But animals can be raised on that land, and they can help feed people that way.
Ridge Shinn: Right.
Lynne Pledger: Absolutely.
Ridge Shinn: But my old saw is I could stop the flooding in the Mississippi, I could cure the drought in the West, and I [could] cure human obesity. You just have to give me the three states of Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana, and a big herd of cattle. So those states grow 97 to 100 percent corn and soy, and the soil is impermeable. It takes 30 minutes to infiltrate water into corn land. So why did we have floods? So I don’t want to go after the marginal land. I want to go mainline. And what happens when you take that good land, and you put it back into production? I mean, that was prairie originally. All those things were prairie.
Lynne Pledger: It was called the breadbasket of the world, and now it’s a food desert.
Ridge Shinn: And what the peer-reviewed research is showing is that we get a three to six times increase in biomass per acre by grazing correctly. I mean, just think about that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s mind blowing. And then if you do a comparison, which I have done in many articles, and many others have done on the nutritional benefits of meat versus corn and soy, you really wouldn’t even refer to corn and soy as foods in that context. And Ty Beal, who I imagine you’re familiar with, has done some great work on this. He just published a study last March, actually, looking at the nutrition, which foods are most nutrient dense. And it was the first study to actually take bioavailability of the nutrients into account.
Ridge Shinn: Interesting.
Chris Kresser: So, most previous studies would say, “Oh, great. Spinach is a good source of iron.” Well, it is on paper, but as you both know, it’s all bound up with phytic acid, and you’re not going to absorb very much of that iron from that spinach. Whereas red meat, of course, is a great source of heme iron, which is very well absorbed. So that’s really an interesting thought experiment, Ridge. I hadn’t considered that if you replaced all of the corn and soy production with cattle, what would the environmental and nutritional benefits be from that?
Ridge Shinn: It’d be unbelievable. And from my own personal experience grazing cattle, it will change the weather. So where we live in Massachusetts, it’s very temperate. Forty inches of rain. But still, my neighbors who make hay all the time, “Oh, it’s a drought, it’s a drought. We only got 35 inches of rain.” And I walk through my tall grass that’s four feet tall, and I come out wet. So my microclimate is totally different [from] theirs. We have the same rain, the same soil, [and] the same geography; everything’s the same. But the management changes the hydrology dramatically. So at the end of the day, we have to drink water.
Lynne Pledger: Again, I think for people who are unclear about how these mechanisms work, and they wonder how grazing improves, how that helps protect against drought[s] and floods, which are just two sides of the same coin, they’re both a result of the ground not being able to soak in and retain water. So it’s interesting for them to learn that these little critters, the microbes, are building these structures essentially. I mean, they’re aggregating the soil; they’re wrapping up the ingredients in little bundles that are called aggregates. So you’ve got a situation that’s created basically a sponge that’s mostly carbon. And it’s been compared to the texture of chocolate cake because it has all those little holes in it. Sponge-like places where the water can filter in instead of running off. So it’s not just increasing the fertility; it’s increasing the soil structure, as well, which protects against droughts and floods.
So again, with climate change, [it] really is going to be causing a lot of food shortages. So it’s just critically important that we restore our farmlands and make them more fertile again. Make them well aggregated so that they can withstand extreme weather events. And also, as you pointed out, Chris, being able to take advantage of land that’s not as (crosstalk).
Chris Kresser: The marginal, the more marginal land.
Lynne Pledger: Perfect for crops.
Chris Kresser: Let’s talk a little bit about water. So we are talking about water, but in the context of droughts and floods. But as you both know, one of the major protests [against] or critiques of raising beef is it takes too much water. So how would you respond to that claim for regeneratively raised beef?
Lynne Pledger: Well, that’s certainly true if you were a steer out in the heat down in Texas or (crosstalk).
Chris Kresser: Or Fresno, central valley of California.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, where all these feedlots are, tens of thousands of animals standing on dirt and dust, you’d need a lot of water, too. But, the interesting thing is, since we’re talking about dry parts of the country anyway, one of the most exciting pieces of news is that grass-fed beef is flourishing in the Chihuahuan Desert. There’s an area [that’s] becoming kind of a green sward through the desert where more and more ranchers are turning to regenerative agriculture. And the grassland birds have come back. Many species—the biodiversity is visible. It’s not just biodiversity underground; it’s above ground, too, so it can be seen. In fact, this area is now a bird sanctuary. It’s a conservation area for birds. So that’s a good illustration of how this regenerative grazing is adaptable to all regions of the country. The very dry desert-like conditions and very severe climates in northern United States and Canada. So you [just] adapt. And that’s why Richard Teague calls it adaptive multi-paddock grazing, because you’re adapting to the situation.
If you’re in a dry area, a desert area or even parts of California, for example, you’re probably going to only graze a paddock once a year, once a season. But if you’re in New England, you can come back to that same paddock two or three times because you’ve got more rainfall. So you’re adapting to different areas, but you can be successful.
I know there are skeptics. I’ve heard people and read where people are saying, “Oh, that’s baloney that you could reverse desertification,” but it has been done and it’s documented now. And the way it’s done is you don’t start at the very driest part of the acreage; you start at the edges where you’ve got something to work with, and you begin getting animals on and increasing the food web, the microbes beneath the soil. And then you can begin to work into the driest parts. So eventually, there’s no desert anymore. You’ve got a savanna. You’ve got a grassland where you previously had none.
Regenerative grazing offers an alternative to monocropping and feed lots that restores farmland, promotes native plant growth, and has the potential to end food scarcity. How? By leveraging the symbiotic relationship between cattle, a keystone species, and microbes in the soil. #chriskresser #regenerativegrazing
Ridge Shinn: Yeah, but to speak specifically to the hydrology, there’s a guy out in North Dakota [who] did infiltration tests on three adjacent parcels. So, one parcel was corn land that had been planted in the modern method, no till, seeded in and all that, then extensively grazed, how most of the ground is grazed in the West. You get a [Bureau of Land Management] contract, you put the cattle out, you come back and get them at the end of the season, and then adaptive multi-paddock grazing the way we do it.
Lynne Pledger: You’re talking about three different parcels, not the same parcel.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, three different parcels compared.
Ridge Shinn: Right, adjacent parcels, but close. So on the corn land, it’s not peer reviewed or anything. He just takes a little pipe and he pours a quart of water in it. Thirty minutes to percolate. So you wonder why the Mississippi floods. The corn land is like (inaudible 27:29). So then he moves over to the extensively grazed land. Dramatically better. Seven minutes to percolate. Then he moves over to the adaptive multi-paddock grazing area, 10 seconds to infiltrate. It’s like, oh, my God, look at this. And the reason it infiltrates is because the ground is porous and it’s got carbon. And of course, carbon captures like seven to nine times its weight. So the water goes in, it’s captured, and that old hydrology idea that we all got in high school biology begins to happen. Water transpires and makes clouds and comes down as rain. But we have broken that system in whole watersheds. I mean, that’s my point. The whole Mississippi watershed, that hydrology has been broken, because it can’t—30 minutes to infiltrate?
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s just going to keep going.
Ridge Shinn: It’s going to go downhill.
Lynne Pledger: That story Ridge told about the experiment, I think it’s good to mention that that was a Natural Resources Conservation Service production. They made a video out of it. And I’m mentioning them because they’re out there really working with farmers, and they’ve done a lot to, I don’t know if they call it regenerative grazing, but they’re helping people do the right thing, and they’re doing a lot to promote and to show farmers what can be accomplished by changing their management of grazing in the pasture.
Chris Kresser: So, I want to go back to something you said, Lynne, about the Chihuahuan Desert, because this actually gets at another myth. I’m just kind of going through various myths and claims that are made by vegans and myth busting and the vegan plant-based diet communities about the environmental impacts of meat. And one of them is that livestock displaces wildlife and natural vegetation. Whereas on the contrary, as you pointed out with the Chihuahuan Desert, they actually stimulate vegetation regrowth and create habitat[s] for animals and species that really won’t thrive unless there are herbivores on the land.
Ridge Shinn: Oh, absolutely. We started a not-for-profit about a year ago, and we’re teaming up with [the] National Audubon [Society, which] has a conservation ranching program in the Midwest. They’re starting to move to the Northeast, so they’ve engaged us to help them. I mean, the best management practices are different, depending on how much water you get. But their metric for measuring success is the number of bird species and all that kind of thing that’s happening. And this has been our experience just here with local ranchers. When I started grazing cattle, letting the grass grow four feet tall, all of a sudden, birds appeared, like whole flocks of birds and Bobolinks and Meadowlarks and all those grassland birds up here, when you create the environment. And what’s interesting is so many of the efforts like the Sage Grouse out west, and all that kind of thing, they want to preserve the idea of the grasslands. But they’re not talking about getting that keystone species in there, which is what will make it happen. I mean, the reality is how they did that in the Chihuahuan Desert is they brought cattle in and they concentrated them.
I had the experience on the Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. I was hired to go out there and talk with Dugan Bad Warrior, and he was a little resistant. His wife was very embracing of the concepts, and I spent the evening talking to him. I said, “It’s about concentrating the cattle and then moving them.” And [he was] like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” His arms [were] crossed. But in the morning, he said, “I had a little place.” He’s got like a 6,000-acre range unit, a prairie that’s never been plowed. And he said, “I was getting a little deserved vacation up on the hill there. And I brought my lick tubs,” his mineral lick tubs in there to draw the cattle in. And I said, “Dugan, go there directly.” So that’s the first place we went on the 6,000 acres because he hadn’t been back to see what happened. Well, he had like 16 inches of buffalo grass simply by concentrating the cattle. And it was like, oh, my God, look how this works. I mean, it’s remarkable how it works.
Chris Kresser: Right, and then the flip side of that argument is the destruction that monocropping soy and corn does to the species and natural habitats.
Lynne Pledger: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, yeah. I have some figures on that right here, and this would be a good time to share it. Because a lot of people don’t realize how deadly industrial food cropping is. And this would be vegetables and grains. There’s a lot of unintentional deaths caused by agriculture, and that’s in part, deaths from the machinery, of course, and also deaths from loss of habitat. So an estimate of the unintentional deaths caused by agriculture that includes only mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibious creatures ranges from 63 million to 127 million. That’s per year. For comparison, 33 million cattle were slaughtered in the United States. So if you’re concerned about animal deaths, some people argue that the most ethical way to eat is eating cattle that are [raised on] perennial pasture. Because with the perennial pasture, you’ve got this year-round ground cover, and you’ll have [a] habitat for all kinds of animals as well as what, I think your point that you were making as you’ve got a large animal. So one cow’s death could feed a couple of families for a year. Whereas think how many chickens it would take to feed, how many chicken deaths it would take, and never mind getting into the energy use of raising chickens.
Chris Kresser: This is a common thing, right, where people say, “I don’t eat meat, but I eat chicken.” And I’m like, “Why?” That’s the last meat you should eat.
Ridge Shinn: That’s the worst. Don’t get me started.
Chris Kresser: If you care about the environment and the ethical impact, it’s the absolute worst meat to eat. But it’s the first one that everybody who is concerned about these things, eats.
Lynne Pledger: You know why?
Ridge Shinn: Thanks to Jo, I have to tell you that I started with pigs, just because they were easy. And we were organic certified and the organic food co-op, I mean grain co-op unloaded in my shop because we had forklifts to unload the trucks, and I absolutely loved the pigs. We raised them outside. We’re organic certified. But it finally dawned on me that it’s the material handling business. We’re buying this grain that’s grown in the Midwest, it’s trucked in, even though it’s all organic, and we’re putting it through this monogastric. And that’s when I kind of stumbled upon grass-fed. I’m saying, oh, my God, here’s something with this rumen, this incredible rumen, that can take this biomass that exists here and make a living. And I don’t have to bring it anything. I mean, chickens are easy because they’re cheap, and the pigs, as well. But all those pastured pigs, [the] movies on YouTube [where] they’re rollicking in their pasture, right outside the picture frame is the three-ton feeder. It never makes it into the frame of the photograph. It’s there. The same with the chickens.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, Ridge is always upset when people talk about pastured pigs and pastured chickens because he thinks people equate that with (crosstalk).
Chris Kresser: Just on the grass outside.
Lynne Pledger: And 100 percent grass-fed beef. They don’t understand that those animals have to be fed grain, which is not true of sheep and cattle.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I tell people with the chicken, it’s like free-range chicken means they have a little balcony on the barn that they can step outside on. That’s really what qualifies for free-range at this point. And if you ever have really eaten a truly free-range chicken, it might feed a family of three, maybe, probably not. It’ll probably feed two people, which is why chicken used to be the occasional Sunday dinner for something different. Whereas beef was always the staple in the American diet because it just made so much more sense economically and nutritionally, etc.
So, let’s go on to another myth, because this is fun. And in all seriousness, these are things that are still widely parroted in the mainstream media. I see them in articles as statements of fact. As if we’re all supposed to expect as readers that just accept that as a statement. Everybody knows it’s true. And there’s never even any proof or justification offered for those claims that are made.
Lynne Pledger: I have a myth, unless you want to start with yours.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, go ahead. We’ve got plenty.
Lynne Pledger: Well, I was just going to say methane, that’s another crazy (crosstalk).
Ridge Shinn: Oh, yeah, that’s a big one.
Chris Kresser: Yep, that’s on my list. So go ahead.
Lynne Pledger: Well, people often say to us when we talk about the grass-fed beef, and we’re talking about the carbon, we’re talking about, for example, all the carbon that’s oxidized and goes up to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when fields are plowed for vegetables. And they say, “Well, okay. That’s very well. I understand your point about carbon, but what about methane?” And they don’t understand that with methane, with grass-fed beef raised regeneratively, you’re talking about much better nutrition, higher-quality forages, which reduce the methane burps and, therefore, lower the amount of methane that the animal generates. But then after that, there is some methane generated when cattle belch. But when they’re belching, they’re belching out in the pasture, and you’ve got these methanotrophic bacteria happily living in the pasture right at the soil line, and they oxidize the methane, just meaning they take electrons from the methane. That’s their sole energy source for these bacteria. So that methane is neutralized. It’s not going up into the atmosphere. And of course, that beneficial service that the bacteria provide is not provided in the little steel rooms where the methane is measured. And I’ve seen just recently, more and more universities are buying these steel closets to put the cows in to study how much methane they’re producing.
Ridge Shinn: It’s insanity.
Lynne Pledger: But you’re taking it out of context. So that one place is another oxidation zone that you’re probably aware of, Chris, but most people would not be. And that is right where the water vapor is transpired from the pasture plants. And there you have hydroxyl radicals doing the same thing that the bacteria that we just described does. They oxidize that methane and they break it down. And it’s really a significant amount. I mean, I wouldn’t claim that the methanotrophic bacteria are zapping all the methane at the soil line. But it’s a little higher, [and there] is much more significant neutralization by these hydroxyls. So that’s two things, very significant factors that wouldn’t even be taken into account when you’ve got the cattle in this little stainless steel box (crosstalk).
Chris Kresser: In their natural, right.
Ridge Shinn: Well, and at the end of the day, you have to go back to the life cycle analysis. So, so much of the conventional press is, “Oh, the cattle are on a feedlot for a shorter period of time, less days, less water, less carbon, and methane.” And that’s like, it’s so bogus, because they have not gone back and done the life cycle analysis of the corn being raised and trucked to the feedlot, and all the nutrients going into the lagoon. And then the lagoon breaking and all the nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Nobody’s done that life cycle analysis. They’re just saying, “Oh, they’re on the feedlot less time. Oh, much better.” It’s so infuriating.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, well it goes back to that ridiculous FAO analysis that said, greenhouse gas emissions from cattle are 14 and a half percent compared to 14 percent for the entire transportation sector.
Ridge Shinn: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: For cattle, they were including the full life cycle of everything. And then for transportation, they were only doing emissions. They weren’t looking at the manufacturing, the production, the distribution, what happens to cars after they break, like the disposal. They weren’t talking about any of that. And then when that comparison was made, I think there was a paper published critiquing that FAO analysis, they found that globally, cattle, and this is conventionally mostly conventionally raised cattle, accounts for 5 percent and transportation for 14 percent. In the [United States], I think cattle was 3.9 percent, which already is way lower, even for conventionally raised cattle. And then there was the Richard Teague paper in 2018, [which] looked at various carbon sequestration rates from multiple sites. And he said, most sequester around three to four tonnes of carbon per hectare per year and some up to seven tonnes per year.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, I was just going to point out with Ridge, when Ridge, when you were saying nobody has done the life cycle analysis, you mean, that information isn’t in the press. But Richard Teague and there are (crosstalk).
Ridge Shinn: Absolutely, absolutely.
Lynne Pledger: A cohort of scientists who have done that work. And what they’re not accounting for when they talk about the cattle needing to fatten longer on grass, they’re not talking about the fact that all the while that they are fattening longer, they’re also causing this carbon to be stored in the soil. And when you factor that in, it’s been proven by the life cycle analysis that in fact, they are sequestering more than they’re producing.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Ridge Shinn: Yeah, this is a good segue to our concept of raising cattle, at least in the Northeast, but it applies around the country, is that there [are] all these cow calf farms. And the average cow calf farm in the [United States] is 30 to 40 head. So in the Northeast, New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, has over 500,000 calves, beef calves born, not dairy. And according to Mike Baker at Cornell, almost all of them go to the feedlot. So that’s a long way away.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Ridge Shinn: And then they come back. But what’s gone with those cattle is jobs, nutrients, manure, urine. So the concept is you take those cattle from the cow calf farms, which is the way, that’s the bifurcation of the industry the way it is now. You have cow calf and you have feedlots. Well, our concept is you have a grass finishing feedlot. So for instance, we have one farmer (crosstalk).
Lynne Pledger: Ridge, you meant to say grass finishing farm, not feedlot. You just misspoke.
Ridge Shinn: Oh, okay, yeah, I meant finishing.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, grass finishing farm.
Ridge Shinn: Yeah, not a feedlot.
Chris Kresser: The whole thing.
Ridge Shinn: Right, right. So we have one in Vermont that’s 1,800 acres of contiguous grass. They can raise about 850 head of cattle on that farm. Because in the Northeast, we have this incredible advantage of rain. I mean, at one point, Bill Lyman and I met in New York City, and we spent about four hours and we talked about cattle, and he said, “Ridge, for a Yankee, you know an awful lot about cattle.” I said, “Well, I’ll take that as a compliment.” He said, “But you can’t raise cattle out here with these trees and these stone walls.” I said, “Wait, wait, wait, Bill. How many acres does it take you to support a bovine in your environment, California?” He goes, “Oh, 15 or 20 acres.” I said, “Bill, it takes me one or two acres because I have this thing called rain. Four inches on average.” But it is, the idea of aggregation, of taking all these cows and calves from these small farms and taking them to a bigger farm to finish them, because this is the key that a lot of people do not understand. You just can’t put a cow out there and have them eat grass. They have to get enough energy from the grass, which requires that they actually have to be moved kind of like the buffalo. They have to be moved through the grass and eat the tops of the plants, which is where the energy is, and continue to move in order to get enough energy to get fat.
Which is again, the whole concept of grass-fed beef is lean, again, a bogus concept. I mean, you see it all the time at grass-fed beef websites, “Oh, our grass-fed beef is lean.” And it’s just bogus because all the research shows that grass-fed beef is lean. But how they do the research, they take 100 head, they put 50 on grain [and] leave 50 on grass. When the ones on grain get fat, they kill them all. Guess what? The ones on grass are not as fat or lean. So why did you do the study? It takes longer to get grass-fed cattle fat. But the goal is to get them fat because the fat is where the real (crosstalk).
Chris Kresser: It’s where a lot of the nutrients are, [conjugated linoleic acid] and (crosstalk).
Lynne Pledger: But I think to follow through on what you’re saying, Ridge, with this system where you’re taking the different small herds from the neighborhood and aggregating them on a larger farm in the same region and moving them multiple times a day with a skilled grazier doing the moving, so you can fatten them quite efficiently that way. And in fact, Ridge had fattened cattle at the same rate of gain as the feedlot by doing it right (crosstalk).
Ridge Shinn: On a cover crop, right.
Lynne Pledger: Yeah, cover crops. Using cover crops to extend the grazing season. That’s another, people say, “Oh, how could you do this in the winter?” and that kind of thing. There [are] all kinds of tricks of the trade that grass farmers have learned all over the country. And there’s quite a bit to it, but it’s quite doable. It’s quite low-tech. And people have learned how to do this well. So you’re not talking about a terrifically long period of time. And the cattle, it’s an environmental win in terms of the greenhouse gases. And that’s been established; we have [those] data now.
Chris Kresser: Let’s talk about a couple, I’m going to combine two myths into one, which is a claim that livestock consume food that could be better used to feed humans. And then a similar claim that, and this is from the movie [The] Game Changers, which was just a travesty of scientific (crosstalk).
Ridge Shinn: I haven’t seen it, and I don’t want to see it.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I know. It’s not worth your time. But one of the claims that’s made throughout the film is that cattle are just the middlemen, and we’d be better off just eating the nutrients that cattle eat rather than trying to get them from meat. Which is just the most flipped, 100 percent, 180 degree understanding of it. Try eating grass and see how well you digest it.
Ridge Shinn: Right, right. So here’s the story. So Diet for [a] Small Planet. Many of us that are in my generation embrace that completely. It’s a great idea. Don’t feed the grain to cattle; eat it ourselves. But if we take the grain out of the equation completely and the cattle eating grass, which we cannot eat … I’ve tried to have that discussion with Francis Moore [Lappé] because I embrace the Diet for a Small Planet. We have the cookbook downstairs. But it again, it’s like, yes, she’s right. But if we take cattle and feed it grass, which we cannot eat—and now the research is coming in, as you said, with Stephan and all the phytonutrients. We can’t get them any other way than grass-fed beef or milk.
Chris Kresser: I think I read that 86 percent, 85, 86 percent of what cattle eat is inedible by humans.
Ridge Shinn: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: We just cannot eat it at all.
Lynne Pledger: Well, yeah. I think that when people begin to understand this, it will be very compelling to them. I think the part about cattle not eating grain, of course, is right on. And particularly, again, with climate change, with hunger rising, it’s a crime to be feeding grain to cattle. But the flip side of that is, which you’re bringing us into, Chris, is that there [are] all these plants that people can’t eat, and these plants have nutrients that would be important for our health. Nutrients that are bound into inedible fibers that we cannot break down. So it’s very exciting the fact that you take a pasture with a diversity of plants, [and] you have far more vegetables there than any of us have ever seen in a supermarket. And those vegetables have nutrients.
Well, for example, they studied, in meat and milk, they found that the nutrients are concentrated; the phytonutrients from the plants are concentrated in the meat and milk of the grass-fed cattle. The protein component is the same as the food. But it’s the trace minerals and the vitamins, the micronutrients that are there. For example, riboflavin. Grass-fed beef [has] twice as much [riboflavin] as grain-fed [beef]. And there’s a whole list of them. But the point is, you have hundreds of thousands of edible plants in the world, and of those, it’s a very small percentage, a tiny fraction, that are actually marketed as food. So we’re trying to get everything we need for our health from what’s marketed, [like] vegetables that are available in the supermarket, but that’s not the half of it at all. Because you have all these nutrients that we can get really only through eating the meat or milk of ruminant animals that get it for us and digest it with their ruminant digestive system, and then pass those nutrients on to people.
Chris Kresser: Right, yeah. Conjugated linoleic acid is a good example of that. And then we have [eicosapentaenoic acid] (EPA) and [docosahexaenoic acid] (DHA), where the studies have shown that pasture-raised meat can actually be a substantial source of those long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that most people don’t get enough of. And then, like we’ve discussed, Stephan van Vliet’s work and out of his lab showing phytonutrients that historically people associated with eating plants, but as you pointed out, Lynne, a lot of those nutrients are bound up in cells and fibers that we can’t easily digest. And I think we’re just scratching the surface.
Ridge Shinn: Oh, absolutely.
Chris Kresser: As Stephan would say, this new research on the phytonutrient content of beef is like a year old. We’re still learning about and with these new metabolomics and all of the omics and our ability to understand the composition of foods and nutrients better than we ever have. I think we’re going to be learning even more in the next few years about the health benefits of animals that are raised on pasture.
Ridge Shinn: Even if you go back to the old omega-6/omega-3 ratio for human health, we need two to one, 1.2 to one. And when you feed grain, you get like 10 to 15 to one.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Ridge Shinn: A lot of people say, “Well, omega-6 is bad, [and] omega-3[s] are good.” But they’re both essential fatty acids. We need them for brains and nerves, but they’ve got to be in the right balance for human health. So when you look at the fact that 97 percent of the beef is fed grain and is switched up [in] that omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid ratio. I mean, it’s really a crime to our health.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, especially, in the background, [the] American diet is as high as 30 to one now, because of all the fried and processed foods that are high in omega-6. It makes it even more important that people aren’t getting additional omega-6 from the animal products that they’re consuming.
Ridge Shinn: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: Which, going back to chicken, is even higher in omega-6 because they’re eating primarily grains.
Ridge Shinn: It’s the grain. What people don’t get is it’s the grain. It’s the grain that makes that switch.
Lynne Pledger: Another thing that I think [is] really important for us to cover, because I know we’ve been talking for a long time, but we haven’t mentioned the fact that food is now nutrient deficient. Food is not as nutritious as it used to be. And I think that people are getting aware of that, but it’s important for them to realize how [this happened.] It happened because marketing has been favoring quantity over quality. But to get the quality, to get the nutrient density, you just have to go back to the soil. It all comes from healthy soil. And as our soils have been degraded, our food has been degraded. So I always say that regenerative agriculture and regenerative grazing is building on other soil-focused movements like the organic movement [and] permaculture. Because that’s what we all depend on is the soil. So that’s what regenerative grazing and grass-fed beef is all about: the soil.
Chris Kresser: And I would even just say, just because you started with this, we cannot have healthy soil without animals, without herbivores. Full stop. Full stop, 100 percent, period.
Ridge Shinn: Absolutely. One other thing I want to throw in because [you’ve] got a lot of people watching this, I think who are consumers, and it always comes up to price. And one of my favorite little dual slides is comparing a Snicker[s] bar to a pound of grass-fed beef. Not saying that a Snicker[s] bar is good for you. For the Snicker[s] bar, it costs about $1.23 per ounce. And grass-fed beef at $8 a pound is still only 50 cents an ounce. Before we even discuss what’s good for you. But so much of our food has been just kind of destroyed nutritionally, and then sold to us in a way that we’re like, “Oh, okay, we’ll throw that box of cereal in the basket. Oh, that’s inexpensive.”
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Ridge Shinn: But the real, healthy food is actually very cheap.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, definitely. We’ve discussed (crosstalk).
Ridge Shinn: What it can do for you.
Chris Kresser: Well, Lynne and Ridge, this has been an amazing interview. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you both. I love your book, Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World: How Regenerative Grazing Can Restore Soils and Stabilize the Climate. For the listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, I think you’ll love the book, as well. It’s on Amazon. Get it elsewhere. I highly recommend reading it because as we started with, there are so many myths and misconceptions. And I think even for those of us who are aware of this, they can still sort of infiltrate our minds, or it’s just getting educated about this stuff so we can talk to others about it and so we can make informed choices is really important. So Ridge and Lynne, thanks so much for joining me.
Ridge Shinn: Thank you for having us. [I] appreciate it.
Chris Kresser: Thank you for the book. And everybody listening, keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/PodcastQuestion. We’ll see you next time.
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