The Underlying Philosophy of No-Till Farming Practices

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages!  Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature, produced by Chelsea Green Publishing, is The Living Soil Handbook, by Jesse Frost. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Let’s consider the impact of tillage on the key factors needed for photosynthesis. A good place to start is to simply define the word tillage.

Many dictionaries describe tillage as “preparing the ground to grow crops.” For centuries, that’s all it was. Dating back to the earliest agrarians, Indigenous farmers prepared small plots of ground by hand or with animals, using implements made of stone, bone, wood, and later, metals. Certainly, many of these traditional practices opened up and exposed the soil temporarily. The scale of farms was generally small. Fields were regularly fallowed — that is, they were encouraged to go back to hosting wild plants — several years at a time, which replenished nutrients and repaired soil structure. These practices served farmers for thousands of years, and many indigenous cultures still practice these small-scale growing methods.

Over time, though, the scale of farming changed, and with it, the definition of tillage shifted. The development of new tools enabled farmers to open up and plant larger and larger plots of land. Cast-iron implements replaced wood implements, and then steel replaced cast iron. Powerful tractors entered the picture, followed closely by chemical fertilizers. Changing practices in farming led to huge swaths of exposed soil, and an increasing potential for soil degradation. Unfortunately, that potential has been realized many times over.

To understand how large-scale mechanical tillage begets soil loss, think of soil as a major underground city. Like all cities, soil requires infrastructure. It needs tunnels for the transport of air and nutrients, and it needs housing for its residents (soil organisms). It needs a stable physical structure that allows water to flow laterally and to drain vertically. In living soil, plant roots and soil aggregates bind the soil together, creating vital stability. Earthworms carve tunnels, making it easier for air to come in, carbon dioxide to leave, and fungal hyphae and plant roots to thread their way through. However, when we crush that infrastructure by tilling and poison that soil life by applying pesticides or chemical fertilizers, we render the soil vulnerable to erosion.

Soil organic matter is plundered in major tillage events. Soil aggregates are broken apart and oxygen is simultaneously whipped into the rhizosphere. Newly enlivened oxygen-loving bacteria begin to feast on soil organic matter and respire it as carbon dioxide. Because there are few or no plants present to capture much of that carbon dioxide gas and return it to the carbon cycle, it flows into the atmosphere unobstructed.

Mechanical tillage is catastrophic to fungal populations. Bacteria are highly adaptable to changing conditions, but many fungi require significant time and energy to build a mycelial network. Mechanically churning the soil rips all of that apart and the fungi must begin again, starting from the level of individual spores. Nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and other predatory organisms likewise get pummeled when organic matter is lost by being tossed onto the soil surface where it burns up in the sun, blows away, or is swept off by heavy rain. The end result is a soil rich with bacteria, low in predators, and with damaged fungal populations. This type of soil primarily favors the growth of plants that a soil ecologist might praise as adaptable, but that farmers would condemn as unwanted weeds.

The ecological risks that accompany regular plowing and mechanical tillage don’t stop at microbial devastation, organic matter loss, and erosion. If the soil is worked when it’s too wet, tillers, plows, and other similar implements can create various types of compaction in the soil. These types of compaction are a significant barrier to creating healthy soil, and they limit crop production and soil health tremendously. Surface compaction occurs when bare soil is exposed to heavy rains or foot traffic. This form of compaction inhibits water penetration and limits respiration. Hardpans are compacted layers that generally form at the greatest depth a farm implement reaches, and these deep hardpans can inhibit root and water penetration. This type of compaction is stubborn and can persist for many years even after a farmer adopts good soil management practices.

Many bacteria and some fungi can survive in compacted soils, but microbial predators such as nematodes often suffer. Without those predators, bacterial populations increase but nutrient availability may not. Moreover, if water cannot properly drain, photosynthesis slows or stops entirely while microbes and plant roots drown. The microbes that survive such saturated environments begin to consume the available nitrogen, leading to nitrogen loss (denitrification). Both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gasses may build up and become toxic to plant roots.

With these negative impacts of tillage in mind, let’s explore the idea of expanding our concept of tillage. Tillage is not solely the outcome of using a tiller or disc or plow. Many other kinds of tools can cause some or all of the problems we generally attribute to mechanical tillage. It is not the tool but the user who determines whether a particular act of tillage creates minor soil disturbance or major soil disturbance. Put another way, it is not the tool that decides how to till a piece of land, how long and how intensively, and how to follow up after tilling — those are the decisions that farmers make, and that determine long-term soil health and performance.

To underline this point, let’s compare and contrast some tillage tools and how they can be harmful or helpful to the soil depending on how they’re used. First on the list: the rotary tiller. When used as the primary means of soil preparation year after year, this tool can absolutely devastate soil ecology and structure, repeatedly encouraging all the aforementioned issues. That said, in some cases, a tiller may be ideal for starting a garden. When a farmer or gardener uses a tiller appropriately, this tool can break up existing compaction layers and inject composts and amendments into depleted soils, rapidly preparing them for production, and thus improve that soil’s potential to support photosynthesis.

Consider another — sometimes controversial — tool in the no-till world: the broad fork. This large fork has long tines and farmers use it to gently decompact soil. The farmer stands on the crossbar to force the tines into the soil, then steps off and pulls back on the handles, lightly lifting the tines enough to simply crack the soil surface. However, the broad fork can easily be used to heave up large chunks of soil and flip them over, breaking the soil apart and damaging fungal populations, exposing carbon stores, and injecting large amounts of oxygen into the soil thus encouraging an organic matter feast by bacteria.

A less obvious tillage tool is the silage tarp, which is popular for covering an area of prepared soil to cause weed seeds to germinate and then die, or over a crimped cover crop to help terminate the cover crop. But when left in place too long, a silage tarp can also be a form of tillage. Tarps are heavy and can create surface compaction. Exposure to UV radiation causes the tarp fabric to break down and shed microplastic particles, which can be harmful to soil life. Polyethylene tarps do not allow for much gas exchange, potentially creating an anaerobic environment that may encourage pathogenic microbes. This practice may not look like classic tillage—it does not invert or blend soil layers—but it has some of the same negative effects that we associate with tillage systems.

All that to say, when we’re working toward a no-till, living soil system we need a clear definition of what we’re trying to avoid. We also need a more comprehensive representation of what constitutes tillage. In the English language, words can flip meanings from one generation to the next. Awesome used to mean something that evoked terror. Egregious used to mean distinguished. The meaning of tillage has flipped, as well. Tillage no longer simply means preparing ground for growing crops. Increasingly, tillage is a set of practices that make the soil less capable of growing anything at all. I suggest that we call tillage what it is: anything done to the soil that does not ultimately promote soil health.

About the Author:

Jesse Frost, aka Farmer Jesse, is a certified organic market gardener, freelance journalist, and the host of The No-Till Market Garden Podcast. He is also a cofounder of, where he helps collect the best and latest no-till insights from growers in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Europe. He and his wife, Hannah Crabtree, practice no-till farming at Rough Draft Farmstead in central Kentucky.

Learn from Jesse in person this December!

Join Jesse and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Titles of Similar Interest

Add Resilience for When It Rains Too Much, or Too Little

New Tasks for the Two-Wheel Tractor, Whether it’s Wet or Dry

Sponsored by BCS America

Our reality today, much like the generations of farmers before us, is to practice our own unique form of  “resilience,” defined as the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Most organic growers already practice a certain degree of resilience simply by being polyculturalists. Whether that includes an integrated livestock/cropping operation or a healthy diversification of crops, a true organic grower never has all their eggs in one basket.  They are accustomed to the fact that variations in each year’s weather mean that some crops do exceptionally well, others suffer, and most are average. 

But organic growers like us are not accustomed to extreme variations in temperature, wind, and rainfall, new factors that are causing this generation of farmers to search for  tools that add, you guessed it, resilience. An investment in a two-wheel tractor, with its wide range of available attachments, provides a means to help cope with such extremes at a reasonable initial cost and offers a high annual return on investment.

Excessive Rains

For vegetable growers in particular, excessive rain argues for the adoption of a version of JM Fortier’s method of creating raised growing beds, 6-  to 8-inches high, 30-inches wide, with 18-inch walkways. JM efficiently builds these beds using a two-wheel tractor’s rotary plow to remove soil from the walkway and distribute it on the top of the bed — a great way to concentrate your top soil, facilitate the warming of your soil in spring, and (most importantly) improve drainage.   

Rotary Plow in wet field
Photo courtesy of Rooted Locally in Williamsville, New York.

One caveat: with over-the-top amounts of rain in combination with clay soils, the walkways can become moats because the walkways between the elevated beds are lower than the surrounding terrain. For those with open fields surrounding the garden, the “fix” is simply to make a single pass with the rotary plow and extend the lower half of the walkway into the field until a lower elevation is reached. This converts the walkway into a mini-diversion trench that’s 10-inches wide and approximately 6- to 8-inches deep. And because the rotary plow can distribute the soil across a width of up to 20 inches, there is little soil buildup alongside the trench to disturb large equipment from making hay or most other types of field work. In fact, the trench gradually fills in within a year’s time and needs to be reestablished before each growing season.

When lacking the space for this low-cost practice, a higher-cost, permanent “fix” involves the construction of a French drain running perpendicular to your beds at one end of the garden. Simply extend your walkways until they “T” with the drain, and you’re done. Both of these alternatives require forethought and execution before the arrival of the rains.  Neither involve negative consequences if excessive rains do not occur.      

Dry Conditions

In the circumstance of extremely dry conditions, those of us not familiar with irrigation need to “get with the program.” One pass with the rotary plow can serve to get supply lines below the surface. And irrigation-related attachments for the two-wheel tractor include an irrigation pump, bed shaper, plastic mulch layer, and an optional drip tape layer. The use of mulch and buried drip tape optimizes the utilization of limited water supplies.

All-Weather Resilience

When growing high-value vegetables, some of the best insurance against damage from all weather-related extremes is the use of high and/or low tunnels. 

high tunnels on Levity Farms
Photo courtesy of Levity Farms in Atlanta, Georgia.

Particularly in the case of high tunnels, the maneuverability and low profile of the two-wheel tractor enables it to serve as the primary workhorse for multiple functions in addition to pumping water, laying mulch, and installing drip tape.

  • When starting with hard ground, the rotary plow can create a seedbed of loose soil 10 inches to 12 inches deep in a single pass.  With multiple passes, the tiller can produce a seedbed 8 inches deep.
  • The surface of established beds can be prepared prior to each succession planting with either the power harrow or tiller with precision depth roller.  Depth of penetration for both tools is calibrated in ½-inch intervals and is usually set at 1 to 2 inches.
  • Prior to final surface treatment, the compost spreader can apply an amendment evenly to a 30-inch-wide bed at regulated depths ranging from 1/8 inch to 1 inch.
  • After broadcasting seeds for a cover crop, the tiller with precision depth roller set at a 1-inch depth buries the seed and gently compacts the soil for good seed-to-soil contact/germination.
  • And, the flail mower quickly reduces crop residues and cover crops to a minute particle size for quick decomposition.


The good news — the silver lining to the cloud of extreme weather — is that preparing for it by improving drainage, enabling irrigation, growing in tunnels, and adding a two-wheel tractor with attachments to your “toolbox” all make good sense even if extreme weather doesn’t occur. 

Because these practices and equipment provide greater control over growing conditions, the result may be that each year will produce a higher percentage of crops that do exceptionally well, a higher percentage that meet your quality expectations, and a significantly lower percentage that don’t.

This article is sponsored by BCS America.  BCS Two-Wheel Tractors are built with all gear drive transmissions to power dozens of professional quality PTO-driven attachments for the small farm or homestead.

Tractor Time Episode 62: André Leu, Vandana Shiva and Ronnie Cummins

On this episode we’re listening in on a recent virtual event for André Leu’s new book, Growing Life: Regenerating Farming and Ranching. And he’s getting a little help from his friends, Vandana Shiva and Ronnie Cummins. Leu, Shiva and Cummins go way back and co-founded Regeneration International back in 2015. The organization promotes food, farming and land-use systems that regenerate and stabilize climate systems, the health of the planet and people. In addition to being the international director for that group, Leu is also a farmer in Australia and the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and Poisoning Our Children. We here at Acres U.S.A. are proud to be the publisher of all of his books. I should also mention that he’s speaking at our Eco-Ag Conference in Columbus Ohio in December. Go to for more information on that.

Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned environmental thinker, activist, feminist, philosopher of science, writer and science policy advocate. She is the founder of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India and President of Navdanya International. She is a prolific writer, speaker and author, and recipient of numerous awards. Find her books Food, Farming & Health and Oneness vs the 1% in the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Ronnie Cummins is co-founder and International Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica. Cummins has been active as a writer and activist since the 1960s. Over the past two decades he has served as director of US and international campaigns dealing with sustainable agriculture issues including food safety, genetic engineering, factory farming, and global warming. You can find his book, Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and Green New Deal in the bookstore.

Phosphorus Planning: Making Time in the Spring with Fall Applications

Sponsored by Ferticell®

Phosphorus is a necessary tool for plant growth and energy. With every essential plant nutrient comes the risk of a yield- and profit-limiting nutrient deficiency. When additional phosphorus is needed, questions begin to form around when and how to apply. With many benefits to applying phosphorus fertilizer in the fall, the “when” part of the equation can be more easily determined. There are a number of advantages and benefits to applying fall phosphorus that will help increase its availability for crops planted in the spring.

Crops can suffer seriously from phosphorus shortages during the growing season. A lack of available P can lead to a drastic fall in yield. The high reactivity of phosphorus is one reason for this. Metals in the soil can complex with P and it is attracted to soil particles. Therefore, even if it exists in the soil, your phosphorus may be unavailable to plants. This happens because P(-) has a negative charge and other elements in the soil have a positive charge and this ionic bonding can severely limit the crop’s access to the nutrient.

fall tillage sponsored image

Plants require phosphorus from their soil, but they can only recover a small amount of it due to the inactivity of the soil. A number of factors affect phosphorus diffusion in the soil. Under wet conditions, as moisture levels increase, diffusion will also increase. Soil bulk density, along with soil buffering capacity will make maintaining nutrient concentration difficult. It is important to consider the temperature of the soil since this will increase its concentration. 

In order to manage phosphorus levels effectively, soil pH should range between 6.0 and 7.0. This will have a direct impact on phosphorus availability. Phosphorus is rendered unavailable to plants once soil pH drops below 6.0, due to more iron and aluminum binding chemically to Phosphorus.

Even in soils with an ideal pH, only a small fraction of Phosphorus is soluble and is available for plant uptake, despite the fact that there is often plenty of Phosphorus in the soil. Phosphorus must be kept at critical levels. Due to the removal of nutrients via grain and stalks at harvest, soil testing in the fall after harvest provides you with crucial information about your fields’ nutritional status.

When time is of the essence, getting into the field for phosphorus applications can stretch the grower’s most valuable resource, time. Little differences in yield have been shown when phosphorus was applied in the fall, or in the spring. This flexibility can have an advantage to growers to take a bit of the spring workload off, while still having P availability and ready to go in the spring.

All crops tends to be highly responsive to phosphorus. In general, phosphorus is the second most limiting nutrient in crop production after nitrogen, and in some areas, phosphorus is more limiting than nitrogen. When a limitation of phosphorus is seen in soil and tissue reports early in-season, this can lead to limited yield potential. Generally, when crops are in need of phosphorus, it is 5-6 weeks after emergence. It’s a critical component to a well-rounded fertilizer program, making P levels in the fall extremely important when it first germinates.

During a full season, it can be expected to lose approximately 85% of applied phosphorus, making applications a requirement for most seasonal crops. 

Sponsor Message

To stay ahead of phosphorus loss, applications of Ferticell® Pro Phos™ or Active™ can be tremendous tools before or during fall tillage and will allow for the efficacious use of the nutrient in the key root zone. Incorporate Pro Phos™ into the soil with tillage to reduce the risk of runoff. Even in no-till fields, fall application gives a wider window for Pro Phos to slowly move beneath the soil surface before spring planting.

Planning Is Easy, But Getting Farm Equipment to Cooperate Is Another Story

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages!  Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature, produced by Chelsea Green Publishing, is American Hemp Farmerby Doug Fine. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Adventures in Hemp Planting: Planning Is Easy, But Getting Farm Equipment to Cooperate Is Another Story

The easiest part of hemp planting is figuring out your seed depth, plant spacing, and watering protocol. The hardest part of hemp planting is getting your farm equipment to implement those instructions.

In fact, I’ll tell you right here to plant at a half-inch depth in moist soil that allows for good seed-to-soil contact and thus maximum germination. Doing that with the 7-to-15-inch spacing we discussed will occupy 47 minutes of your 20-hour planting day. The other 19 hours and 13 minutes will mostly be spent under a terrible device called a seed drill. By, say, 11:00 a.m., generally the emotional nadir of a planting day, you’ll be dirty, bloody, very hungry, and thinking, Huh, I would’ve thought my first hemp-planting day would involve more actual planting of hemp. By lunch you should consider yourself in very good shape if you’re even sinking the first seeds in the ground. In case it helps you remember that you’re not alone, this diary of my group’s three-acre 2018 planting of the dioecious Samurai cultivar in Oregon’s Emerald Triangle reflects how planting day usually goes.

7:05 a.m.: Survey of Field, Yoga, Return to Child Mind. The ideal date range for sowing hemp is a latitude-factored-on-climate-change issue. It’ll vary from late March to mid-June depending on your spring weather forecast and cultivar. In 2018, it is at the end of May for our field above the Rogue River. By this point we’ve cultivated billions of microbial communities before the seed even hits soil — mostly by leaving it alone for 20 years.

Not long after sunrise I set my coffee on the tree stump that marks our snack stockpile and tool dump near the gate to the field. After a few Sun Salutations, the whole thing looks so doable. I’m sure we’ll have our 50 pounds of seed in the soil in no time and I’ll be tubing the river by midafternoon.

I should know better. By 2018, I am aware — as I wake in the farmhouse of my mentors and partners Edgar and Margaret up in the hills of southern Oregon’s famous cannabis-cultivation region — that before noon we’ll have basked in two dozen nerve-curdling delays. This is not my first hemp rodeo. I’ve chased goats, woodchucks, and one determined family of wild pigs out of hemp fields.

After a baker’s dozen plantings, I have learned that the only certainty will be joys and hassles we can’t dream up. For instance, the Pacific Northwest version of the — ho hum — Anthropocene epoch’s annual millennial wildfires won’t start for a few weeks in Oregon, and they will last for more than five weeks. But as always, I am willfully forgetting the coming realities of planting day. Spring has sprung. So right off the bat, I’d probably be happy in the DMV.

The easiest part of hemp planting is figuring out your seed depth, plant spacing, and watering protocol. The hardest part of hemp planting is getting your farm equipment to implement those instructions.

Being outside sets up a struggle between logic and endorphins, between deadlines and love, where the right brain wins every time. As you stretch, you’re smelling forsythia and raspberry blossoms. Working in the dirt. Your office has no walls. Courting hawks land in nearby limbs. Nothing else exists. For those unused to the feeling I’m describing, it’s called sanity.

From a practical perspective, this “child mind” is what makes you forget last season’s planting nightmares. It is probably some chemical wafting out of healthy soil that casts an indisputable spell of forgetting. This is, really, the essential component of childhood—you don’t know, or don’t care, what’s coming next.

It’s not only last year’s seed drill delays that you forget. Your product’s bottle caps don’t quite fit the bottles? Your state’s regulators are sticking with the absurd “field out of view from road” requirements for another season? Whatever, that was yesterday. Today is planting day. The ultimate now.

7:19 a.m.: Return to Barn for First Human Error–Caused Tractor Breakdown. The wise farmer approaches planting day very much the way a pro ballplayer approaches spring training. It’s intended to get the cobwebs out. But Major League Baseball is smart enough to have 37 days of practice games. We farmers have to wake up, get dressed, and immediately pour lubricants into the wrong reservoirs in tractors.

Terrible sounds and smells alert the group to the problem. In 2018, our perpetrator (not mentioning names, he is just playing an assigned role) avoids eye contact by checking irrelevant tanks with a dipstick. Then the tractor expires into a profound quiet. Our planting day stops before it starts.

This, of course, happens when the temperature is still frosty, and the last thing anyone wants to be doing is unscrewing metal plugs. The next 27 minutes are spent draining one disgusting fluid, pouring in a second, and remembering that we meant to run to town yesterday to pick up a third.

7:46 a.m.: Talking Big. This important phase of planting day commences when, already three-quarters of an hour behind schedule and clustered around the stalled tractor and seed drill, your whole team is now on-site. Just seeing a bag of hempseed unleashes passion. The infectious excitement about the season opening in front of you all results in conversation that goes something like this:

“We can probably do two hundred fifty thousand units,” your partner gushes, pouring a bit of test seed into the seed drill reservoir from a 25-pound bag balanced precariously on his shoulder. “These babies look like they’re ready for it.”

Before you can decipher that remark, the tractor-fluid situation gets straightened out and the engine turns over, leading to a group cheer. The ice is broken.

The aged diesel motor is loud. You shout louder. The hawks scatter. You and your team continue crunching numbers, visualizing the killing the enterprise is going to make when this superlative crop finds itself on shelves.

“Gonna be a great season,” you agree, ignoring the fact that implementing your colleague’s 250,000-unit suggestion would mean 25 times the storage you have dialed in for the flower harvest alone.

As the seed drill is attached to the tractor in a sort of awkward Iwo Jima re-creation, you spend some moments wondering if they award prizes for Most Righteous Farmer of the Year. Before getting a seed in the ground, you tend to put the cart before the oxen.

In the business cycle, planting time represents what you might call the R and D retreat, or the spitballing phase. Some good ideas do come from these field meetings. But really what unfolds represents the primate love of daydreaming. It’s pleasant to visualize that “lying on the beach with an umbrella drink” moment that provides the final scene in 73 percent of movies produced in the 1980s. Everything is ahead of you.

Learn more about American Hemp Farmer here.

Add American Hemp Farmer to my cart.

About the Author:

Doug Fine is an investigative journalist and pioneer voice in cannabis/hemp and regenerative farming. He’s an award-winning culture and climate correspondent for NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. His previous books include Hemp Bound, Too High to Fail, and Farewell, My Subaru (a Boston Globe bestseller). Find him online at and @organiccowboy.

Learn from Doug in person this December!

Join Doug and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Livestock in Sustainable Farming Systems

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Small Farms are Real Farms, by John Ikerd.

The challenges for livestock producers are fairly straightforward and similar in most respects to those of crop producers. Can livestock and poultry be produced by methods that conserve natural resources, protect the natural environment, provide adequate supplies of safe and healthful foods by socially acceptable means at reasonable costs, and still provide an acceptable level of economic return for livestock producers?

Large confinement beef, poultry, and dairy operations tend to be the focus of such concerns. Water and air pollution from livestock wastes, residues of antibiotics and growth additives in meats and milk, humane treatment of animals raised in confinement, and impacts of large, corporate operations on opportunities of smaller livestock producers are all questions raised by those concerned about the sustainability of conventional livestock systems.

Large commercial livestock feeding operations are the source of most questions regarding energy use in meat and milk production. Grain-fed beef, for example, yields only a small fraction of the energy embodied in the feedstuffs consumed by cattle in the production process. Poultry and pork production are more energy efficient than beef production, but all are far less efficient than direct human consumption of grains.

However, those in the livestock industry should insist that questions of energy efficiency in meat production be addressed in the same social context as the disproportionate use of energy in the more developed countries of the world in general. Affluent societies do consume more grain-fed meats, but affluent people use more energy of all types. The inequities in energy use reflect the reality of current world economic systems, not the ethics of cattle feeding or any other particular method of energy conversion.

Most environmental questions for livestock producers also relate to large-scale confinement animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Nutrient runoff from feedlots is an obvious potential source of water pollution. But mismanagement of manure removed from cattle feedlots or confinement hog and poultry facilities can be just as important. Farmers may apply manure at such times or by methods that result in most of the nutrients being volatilized, eroded, or leached rather than used by growing plants. Or they may apply manure effectively, but still apply the same amount of fertilizer they would have used without manure, resulting in pollution from excess nutrient application.

Confinement livestock and poultry operations are also the primary users of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics. Such practices may result in pathogenic resistance, thus reducing the effectiveness of these antibiotics for therapeutic uses in humans. Growth hormones have also been used extensively in livestock feeding operations. The association of DES with cancer has resulted in heightened public concern regarding the use of growth hormones in general. The concern for use of growth hormones is combined with public distrust of biotechnology in the current public controversy concerning the use of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rGBH, in milk.

Social questions regarding animal welfare are also most frequently associated with confinement livestock operations. To date, producers of veal and caged layer chickens have received most of the animal welfare publicity. However, the basic issues are the same for all animals produced in confinement. To what extent can the activity of animals be restricted for purposes of production or economic efficiency without violating our social values concerning humane treatment of animals?

Forage-based beef production has some potentially strong positive ecological attributes of sustainability.

Confinement livestock operations can put more beef, pork, and chicken on the market at a lower dollar and cent cost than can freerange operations or farmer feeders. Thus, confinement operations have been considered more economically sustainable than alternative systems of livestock production. But questions are now being raised regarding ecologic and social costs of confinement production. The answers to these questions could shift the competitive balance in favor of less grain feeding, smaller farm-based operations, or even more grass- and forage-finished livestock.

One example of how small farmers could profit from this shift may be found in the Missouri beef industry. Many of Missouri’s rolling farmlands are exceptionally well suited for forage-based beef production. Much of this land already supports herds of beef and dairy cattle. However, many of Missouri’s marginal crop lands could be utilized more sustainably in forage production if cattle could compete with crops in terms of productivity and profitability.

Forage-based beef production has some potentially strong positive ecological attributes of sustainability. Many forage crops are close-growing perennials which protect the soil from erosion and facilitate water infiltration. Forages also require less nonrenewable energy to establish and harvest than do most row crops. And in many cases, forages are less reliant on the commercial fertilizers and pesticides that represent environmental risks.

Forages may also be the most efficient sustainable converters of solar energy on many soil types. In fact, the greatest inherent comparative advantage of cattle may be as intermediate energy converters. Some soils and climates will not grow crops that can be utilized directly by humans. Cattle, or other ruminants, may represent the most practical means of converting such energy to a form useful to humans.

Cattle on pastures are less likely to develop diseases than are cattle in feed lots and thus, are less likely to require use of antibiotics or other drugs than feedlot cattle. Parasites, however, may be a greater problem for range cattle. Growth hormones are sometimes used in cattle on pasture but less commonly than in feedlot cattle. Raising cattle on pastures is also commonly conceded as being more humane than is confinement cattle feeding.

In general, forage-based beef production tends to be more ecologically sound and socially responsible than is grain-based cattle feeding. However, forage-finished beef may well be more costly to produce and less acceptable to American consumers than is grain-fed beef. But intensively managed grazing systems offer promise of lower costs and greater production efficiency, resulting in both more pounds of beef per acre and higher quality meat products. Such systems require a much higher level of management and a somewhat higher labor input than do conventional grazing systems. However, the true cost of the human input depends on the nature of competition for management and labor within whole-farm systems. Time demands for managed grazing tend to be more evenly spread over time than do demands of most cropping systems.

Consumer acceptance of grass- and forage-finished beef remains a major challenge. Consumer surveys and test markets have indicated that consumers prefer the appearance, tenderness, and taste of marbled beef produced with grain. Grain-fed beef tends to be higher in saturated fats than is the leaner forage-finished beef, even though attempts to produce and mass-market beef leaner than the USDA Choice grade thus far have met with limited success. Forage-finished beef could be produced without growth hormones and without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics, which could be positive attributes with health conscious consumers if production and marketing standards were developed to insure such practices. In addition, many processors are currently experimenting with merchandising livestock products through claims that they are produced by environmentally sound and socially responsible means.

Livestock have an important role to play in the development of a sustainable agriculture. Most of the questions of sustainability of livestock production are associated with large-scale, confinement animal feeding operations and most of the opportunities exist for grass- and forage-based livestock operations. Perhaps most important, the challenges of sustainability for grass and forage-based livestock production can be met through more careful and thoughtful management of the animals, grass and forage plants, and the land.

About the Author:

Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, retired from the University of Missouri in 2000. He was raised on a small dairy farm, worked in private industry, and held several other academic positions, prior to returning to the University of Missouri. In the 80’s, John had a “conversion” of sorts after seeing the failures of the policies he had been advocating to farmers. He then reoriented his work toward agricultural and economic sustainability a means of supporting small family farms and rural communities. Since retiring, John has maintained an active speaking schedule and has authored numerous books and papers, many of which can be found at his university website. John is recognized as a longtime leading voice in the sustainable agriculture movement.

Learn from John in person this December!

Join John and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

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