Ruminants make more life than they take

Does your food create, restore, caress and nurture life in you and around you? I’m about to say a radical thing… Maybe two or three or six!

Victory the bull contemplates me as I contemplate the majesty of the morning and the incredible symbolism of this photo.

There is so much about this scene that makes me happy. Moving the bulls and steers to a fresh break of grass before the sun was really up. The massive improvement in the pasture in just a year. This is the third year of adaptive grazing on this property, and the fifth property I’ve witnessed this principle come true: during the third year, things start coming alive. It’s a long slog to get there, and you feel like you are not making any progress.

The natural laws of disturbance and rest are not interested in our impatience. They are laws and they work. The earth’s crust needs the right kind of disturbance — and the cloven hooves of bovines are especially adept at this responsibility — and the right kind of rest. Ruminants make more life than they take.

Too little and the grasses don’t have time to bank carbon from the air in the form of sugars in their roots to store up enough energy to grow again. Too much rest and the plant goes to seed and the nutritional value of the forage for the animal goes by. It’s a delicate and intricate dance.

The plow is a violation, too big of a death for too little life in return. Centuries worth of bison following their instinctive pattern of disturbance and rest created a rich loam that is the key to our survival. Ruminants make more life than they take.

We are willing to sacrifice everything — massive, incomprehensible amounts of life — for a few years of corn and beans. And then tell ourselves that we aren’t killing anything to eat as we go on consuming non-foods manufactured with machines that tore up the earth to create substances that make us feel good while they are killing us. Bread and circus. The annihilation of the substrate that sustains us on the earth’s surface is so complete that we cannot even see our participation in our own destruction. Hubris wrapped in delusion.

Everything, everything, is always being created or being destroyed. There is no static in a dynamic universe. And ruminants make more life than they take.

Yet… Yet. It can come back. The soil can come back. We put the genie back in the bottle. The toothpaste can go back in the tube. All the carbon that doesn’t belong in the air BELONGS UNDER OUR FEET. And we must collaborate with four-footed wonders (aka ruminants) to do it. I’m tired of the lies that eating less meat is going to save us. “Eat less meat, eat better meat.” It’s not true! Eating plants takes the plow. The plow is death. The life in these picture makes more life, in us, and in the world. Ruminants make more life than they take.

A fresh break of grass. A fresh measure of hope. The truth will wrestle you to the ground until you listen. There is more life because these animals lived and grazed and yes, eventually die, than there would be without them. There is life-giving and life-taking death. We choose.

I say these words with both boldness and trepidation. Long ago I learned that we make decisions about food in the same place in our brains that we make decisions about God. I don’t think that is an accident. And I also know that means that there’s a whole lot of emotion for a lot of people when they learn that their beliefs may not line up with natural laws. There are some things that are true whether we believe them or not.

Life takes life. There is no escaping this law. We can destroy the soil, ground-dwelling birds, thousands of species of soil critters that are food all the way up the food chain, bunnies, frogs and insects by the trillions so we can tell ourselves that nothing died so we can eat. That is a lie. Something died so you could eat today. And despite popular opinion, the further down the food chain you eat — unless you are no-till gardening in your backyard with a shovel to grow your own vegetables, and even then there is death every time you put a spade in the ground — the more death you are participating in because eating lower on the food chain requires the plow. And make no mistake, the plow is death.

“The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” And so began this tome, July 5, 1943. It soon became a best-seller, but the ideas therein are so radical that it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to gain acceptance.

We are living in radical times. Radical really just means “root.” I believe we are getting to the root of the matter, in so many places, in so many ways at one time that it is dizzying. But there are two things about truth that I’ve learned: It always sets you free. And truth always comes out. Winston Churchill said that the truth is so valuable that it is protected by a bodyguard of lies.

If we all ate a traditional diet, including a lot of meat raised in keeping with natural laws, the planet could support more of us. If we eat more processed food, the planet can support less of us. Check out this really well-referenced scientific paper by our friend Fred Provenza. If it comes in the box, it’s processed. If it’s in the center of the grocery store, it’s likely processed. If it’s even sold in a grocery store at all, it likely contributes to your ill health and that of the planet.

As I was contemplating all of these before breakfast, I thought of the wonderful Alice in Wonderland quote about believing impossible things before breakfast.

So these are the impossible things I am going to imagine before I go get intimate with 2.5 eggs (an extra yoke, just because I can; the third white goes to the piggies), carmelized onions, cheese made by friends, mushrooms grown by other friends and bok choy grown by still other friends… Because I’m about to be late for my meeting. (Yes, farmers have meetings….) Then I’ll have a steak or hamburger for lunch, from an animal that grazed these very pastures. Here we go:

1. It’s possible to heal the earth and not nearly as difficult as you may imagine.
2. We can heal the earth while also healing ourselves. And nobody loses. Through the alchemy of grass, everybody actually wins. Ruminants make more life than they take.
3. Eating higher on the food chain is more healing to the earth and ourselves when done in keeping with natural laws than eating lower on the food chain.
4. Intimacy with what sustains us is beautiful, edifying and life-affirming.
5. All death is not the same. There is death that affirms life and death that destroys life.
6. We can choose in every moment to move towards the healing of ourselves, our relationships with one another and our ecological umbilicus. Things really can get better, and the more we believe that the more powerful that truth becomes. I know this because the world is too beautiful to have not been created on purpose by a loving God, who is Love itself. Creation is groaning for us to retake our rightful place as stewards.

We can choose to live in a garden or in a wasteland. How we choose to eat — and thus live — is a reflection of how we see ourselves.

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  • Dwight Thomas


    Well said – your old journalism skills are still with you. This message needs to be broadcast widely. Thank you.


  • Nikki

    Reading blogs like yours, give me a lot of hope. Hope for the future, hope for myself to get further down the road in my own farm journey and dreams, and validation that my hope in seeing a lot more life (“pests” and beneficial) returning to my own homestead within the past 5 years, was indeed the earth around us coming alive. That the magic can happen sooner than we think, that even the most poorly treated soil, can still come back. Believing in redemption of the highest order. When we first moved to our home here in NC, the old owners had left bags of poison in the garage; poison for moles and voles, poison for ants, termites, snakes, spray for wasps and garden pests and wood boring bees, and poison for the ground against weeds. Chemical warfare against nature. I threw it all out. Some weak plants succumb, weeds do indeed sprout, moles have lovingly made superhighways out of our very compacted soil and our old deck looks like swiss cheese, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My aim is to not to pretend that I could ever exert ultimate control, it’s to ask “why” and “what if” and maybe help steer nature back on coarse to benefit all parties involved. Maybe that is the hardest thing for Western cultured humans, to give up the control and let nature take the wheel. To admit that we will only ever know one part of Mother Nature’s story, and because of that, we may always be groping in the dark, uncertain of what is really “right” and “wrong”. And that there isn’t always an easy answer to the guilt we feel in turning our back on her and allowing capitalism and corporations to choose for us how we live, breathe, and eat, because we are too busy watching cat videos and Netflix marathons.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you. You are so right about the purposelessness of distraction and how that prevents us from seeing how we could effect change in our own backyards simply and joyfully and with less input than we think and more reward. It does just take a bit of patience and a willingness to let go of the outcome. It’s the process that we must fall in love with. Believing in redemption of the highest order, indeed.

  • Peter

    A great article. We should all the cow [bovine] as the Indians do. Through their ruminations they heal the earth either as wild herds or as well managed herds where nature is observed then copied.
    Truth is always truth, we have the option to either believe it or not

  • Shaun

    So very correct and opposite to the current narrative. I will be passing this onto as many people as possible. Cheers 🍻.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you for passing it on! It means the world to me to get a message of hope and renewal out there!!

  • Cary

    Of course, intelligently managed cattle herds can be beneficial, and even necessary, for certain ecosystems. I question whether any large percentage of them are, and most beef is not grass-fed and finished, but ruined in feedlots, which are polluters and greenhouse gas emitters on an industrial scale. Similarly, most vegetable sources of food are produced, as you say, with life-destroying plows and chemical management, but there are an increasing number of producers successfully using no-till methods using cover crops and interplanting to produce in an ecologically sustainable way. To suggest that only hobby gardeners are doing so is misleading, at best. As with responsible beef producers like yourself, they represent a minority of operations, but show a way forward.

    You’ve set up a false dichotomy. There is room, and a need, for varied farming practices that are suited to their local conditions, and produce the variety of foods that people need to have a balanced, healthy diet. It’s not the cow or the plow, it’s moving on from backward, life destroying practices, and toward life affirming ones.

  • Suzanne Karreman

    You are absolutely correct, in every way. And I didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t vegetable growers participating in a big way in soil restoration and all that goes with it, so thanks for calling me out on that. I have been a huge fan for many years of Elliot Coleman, John Martin Fortier, Will Allen and others. What I was trying to point out is that the massive monocultures that are seen as an alternative to meat are no alternative at all. And most folks going meatless for the planet are not buying from small, regenerative vegetable farms but instead buying plant-based imitation foods that are part of the same plant- and people-destroying foods systems as feedlot beef. The raw truth is this: we could regenerate many more acres with cattle than we can with good gardening practices, simply because the former is land-extensive and the latter is land-intensive, and by definition uses much smaller acreages. The fact that cattle and the monocultures to feed them have been used to destroy so much of the earth’s surface is a reason they are demonized, but the same ability to effect massive change could be used in a positive context. Cattle can be managed to literally turn deserts into verdant Edens, which many deserts once were. We simply cannot accomplish land transformation at that scale with gardening alone. It’s not just about producing food with the least harm, or even some good, it’s about what could produce massive positive change and quickly. Cattle can do that. Carrots can’t.

  • The magic of grazing... - Thistle Hill Farm - Blog Thistle Hill Farm – Blog

    […] It’s easy to lose sight of the Big Picture but every once in awhile we come across a kindred spirit, such as Suzanne Nelson Karremanin North Carolina, who puts it into words better than most of can.  She deals with the holistic nature of this kind of husbandry…yes, including the ultimate death involved. […]

  • Virginia Thomas

    When we started our dairy in a rural poor county in NE Washington State, many questioned if we could make it. When we told them we were getting certified Organic, not feeding grain, and moving the cows daily on pasture, they questioned why we wanted to work so hard. But we sell out every week with our little herd, and people love to see cows grazing and have golden Jersey milk. We are in our third year of managed grazing, and we can see improvement every year. Thank you for your amazing words!

  • Suzanne

    Our stories are very similar. Thank you for keeping on this amazing journey, and especially for doing it in a rural and impoverished county. Our county is one of the poorer counties in NC, even though we are close to affluent areas. It’s always been our goal to serve real food to real people, regardless of socioeconomic factors. And to educate folks that real food is the best investment one can make in his or her heath and that of the community. Thank you for reaching back out and letting us know you are out there doing this important work.

  • Shaun Miers

    Well put. Pasture Production of Meat, Milk and Fibre should be “Heroed” and is so important for Health, Environment, Economies and Freedom. These pillars are being ignored and their recognition is now more important than ever! Thanks 😊.

  • Suzanne

    Definitely, thank you! Without folks believing in this and cheerleading and buying real food and holding the line against the insanity of monoculture to produce non-food, all of us doing this work in the field would have no back up. Everyone is important and I’m so glad you found this page. Please keep sharing the good news!

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