Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

The poor old cow's not just to blame


October 9, 2019

Brazil is burning the Amazon again.

Their new president has declared an open season on both the environment and indigenous people. I liked his rhetoric as a candidate, but that was just a politically moderate costume he used in order to win the voters. He's bad.

But all the deforestation is blamed on the poor old cow. She's a horribly inefficient food source, so bad, in fact, that she hardly produces enough for the people who take care of her, much less a meat hungry public.

The environmentally concerned people are right in their alarm over the Amazon jungle, but they don't quite understand the cows' role in the whole ugly process.

I saw thousands of acres deforested when I lived in Mato Grosso during the 1970s, and I was able to revisit those areas when I was there last year. Almost all the acreages were planted to soybeans after a number of years of cattle usage. In Barra do Bugres, where I lived, the old pasture areas are planted in both soy and sugar cane, which is used for alcohol production.

The areas that remained as cattle pasture are populated with scattered trees, and other native plants. Some producers have planted small groves of rubber trees in the pasture to provide shade for the cattle, plus help the cash flow.

Macaws and other birds are common in the cattle pastures, as are numerous varieties of jungle animals, whereas in the soybeans there is nothing. The sugar cane receives more toxins in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, but the soy is spread border to border with ROUNDUP, which they purchase by the truckload as a powder made in China.

So most of the deforestation we see and abhor is not meant solely for cattle, as they're just a step in the process of human greed at work. They're a somewhat benign occupant (excluding methane production) of the soil, but the mechanized farming of thousands of acres for soybeans eliminates even the earthworms.

The Brazilian cerrado, small scattered trees over huge areas on Brazil's high plains, are taking a terrible beating. They put two caterpillar tractors with a ship anchor chain between them, then they go back and forth, eliminating everything for miles. Later, the fallen vegetation is winnowed and burned. Then the plows come in and all-natural life is ended – even the worms and beetles are destroyed.

When I was in Barra do Bugres this last time, an old friend took me to his ranch, where he runs a couple thousand steers. His pastures are somewhat old but are in top shape. He doesn't use any herbicides or pesticides at all, but he does put an effort forth to cultivate the population of dung beetles in the pasture.

Like here in Montana, the horn flies are a problem in Brazil. The cattle don't get much peace for most of their lives.

But Rodolfo knew that the heel fly used the cattle feces as an incubator, laying its eggs when the manure is only two to five minutes old. Then the little dung beetle or tumble bug arrives and rolls the manure into little balls, holding one egg each. Later, the larvae hatch and eat the ball of manure, along with the horn fly eggs.

The tumble bugs bury their egg and its manure in the ground, and in the process both fertilize and aerate the pasture. Rodolfo's steers showed no horn flies at all, but I could see that the neighbor's cattle were tossing their heads and using their tails against the flies. Under the dried feces, Rodolfo showed me the holes that the bugs had excavated. They were an inch or two across and some inches deep. The ground was loose and permeable to water around the hole. He had created an impressive symbiotic system without either spending a dime on chemicals or disturbing the ecosystem.

But land that has been farmed for cash crops don't offer that option to producers. If a cattle pasture is abandoned, it's soon overgrown with native plants, although not the huge trees that once populated the ground. But if chemically treated farmland is abandoned, I doubt if much of anything will sprout, given the proclivity of most people to overdose the long-suffering soil with an excess of chemicals in an effort to get production back to what it was when the soil was new.

So don't blame the old cow exclusively. She's just a pawn we use in our human mania to make it big, and damn the environment. She's doing her bovine best to keep at least her owner fed.


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