While perusing our new issue of WorldArk, the magazine of Heifer International, we stumbled upon a new (to us) concept: zero-grazing. Zero-grazing is primarily used in areas where grazing land is scarce, or where predators are a problem, such as in parts of Africa. Fresh food and water are brought to the livestock, who live in a sheltered enclosure. Processes such as milking are easier to perform, as the animals are kept corralled. Manure is collected from the enclosure and used as fertilizer for growing crops.
Zero-grazing can be helpful to rural farmers who lack grazing lands or have depleted the nutrients from their crop-growing soil, but we don’t like the idea of the animals sometimes being kept indoors their entire life; standing in their manure; and being fed corn, which they are not equipped to process properly. How can the animals stay healthy? What is their quality of life? Is this just factory farming on a small scale?
We could stop here, at the level of the poor African farmer. Zero-grazing systems do help pull some farmers out of extreme poverty by allowing them to produce milk on land that cannot otherwise support livestock; and when a farmer owns only a few animals, he will likely tend them carefully, as losing one would be detrimental to his income. Unfortunately, the term zero-grazing is also applied to mega factory farming. Perhaps the programs that train rural Africans how to build small dairy businesses should adopt a new term for the farming system they promote, that doesn’t make one think of an industrial feedlot.
You may have heard of the Salatins and Polyface Farms from the farm’s feature in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Building their family farm from scratch, the Salatins formed strong principles regarding how a farm should treat both its denizens and customers. They believe that the earth and animals should be respected, so they allow the livestock free-range access to foods that they would naturally eat in the wild, and they compost and encourage healthy soil. They also respect customers, and do not ship food in order to give consumers the freshest possible food, and therefore the best possible experience.
All animals, including chickens, cows, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, at Polyface are allowed to eat as much grass as they’d like. Cows are moved to new grazing areas daily, and chickens roll in behind them to enjoy the newly-cropped grass. As the chickens graze and scratch, they break up the manure, cleansing the ground. Pigs root through the fermenting hay and corn bedding in the cows’ shed, aerating it, and turning it into rich compost that is used around the farm. Poultry birds’ diets are supplemented with local grain, and the rabbits are specially bred to thrive on a roughage-only diet.
The Paleo diet and its relatives preach the importance of choosing free range meat and animal products over factory farmed options, for health reasons. Unhealthy, stressed animals have toxins and sickness flowing through their bodies, which are then transferred to humans upon consumption of the meat, eggs, or dairy products the animals produced. The Paleo argument tends to focus primarily on “think about what you’re putting into your body” and less on “think about the treatment of the animals.” However, FitFemaleForty has a reprint of an article written by Jeremy Gordon, a CrossFit instructor, that addresses the humane treatment of livestock to a Paleo audience.
The article presents some horrifying information about the effects of a grain diet on a cow’s digestive system. The grain raises the acidity in the digestive tract of the cows, who were built to eat grass only, which can lead to an abscessed liver and the introduction of E. Coli. From a nutritional standpoint, the fatty acid composition of the meat is negatively affected, and fat soluble vitamin content decreases.
Factory farmed meat eaters who aren’t concerned about the treatment of the animals could be swayed to change their ways based on the descriptions and evidence in this article.