Want a tasty steak? Demand well-raised cattle, speaker urges – Billings Gazette, Nov. 20, 2016

By Mike Ferguson

Nicolette Hahn Niman, a lawyer, author and rancher from Bolinas, Calif., jokes that she passionately argues for good grazing and animal husbandry practices because her cattle “needed a good lawyer.”

Hahn Niman, who operates BN Ranch with her husband Bill, was keynote speaker Saturday for the 45th annual conference of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Some of her friends were surprised when the vegetarian married a rancher, but she said she’s stuck with the dining discipline throughout their marriage.

“I also know a vegetarian butcher,” she said with a laugh. “We are a very small group. What you choose to eat is a personal choice.”

Correcting misinformation

Hahn Niman is the author of two books, including “Defending Beef,” which makes the case for sustainable beef production.

“There is a growing assumption that ranching is inherently a negative for the environment,” she said, citing studies that indicate producing a pound of beef requires thousands of gallons of water.

The real number is about 440 gallons, she said, when one doesn’t include the contribution of “green water” — the water found in the grass that animals graze. That water shouldn’t be counted “because water in grass is beneficial to the whole ecosystem,” she said, and is mostly returned to the system anyway.

While grass, which covers at least 40 percent of Earth’s landmass, is vital to the planet’s health, so is what’s going on beneath the surface, Hahn Niman said.

About 90 percent of grass is below the surface, “and there’s all kinds of important things going on down there, including creating an optimal subterranean environment for microorganisms and nutrients,” she said. “That diversity is incredibly important.”

The truth about beef

Hahn Niman spent part of her hour-long talk debunking what she called common cattle myths: that overgrazing has destroyed the American West, beef consumption causes heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and that it’s also a leading cause of climate change.

While some reports say that more than half of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of American agriculture, Hahn Niman pegs that at 10 percent or less, with cattle producing about 2 percent. A Penn State University study showed that pre-settlement ruminants thousands of years ago actually emitted more methane than their modern-day bovine counterparts do.

“I believe both those numbers can be dramatically reduced” by sequestering carbon in well-managed grasslands, she said.

During a question-and-answer session following her talk, Hahn Niman was asked how ranchers can make a sustainable living in a world where cheap production — by subsidizing grain production, for example — is encouraged.

“We are not operating in a free market system now,” she said. “We must have a system where a rancher can do the right practices and make a living out of it.”

The meat company she and her husband operate “has gathered like-minded people to provide meat to retailers and restaurants,” she said. “We provide the customer awareness about what they’re getting.”

Americans once spent 30 percent of their income on food, she said. Today that portion is 9 percent.

“A good first step from the Trump administration would be making it easier for people to get their food to market,” she said. “I don’t think we should support farming that produces environmental devastation.”

Asked about best practices, Hahn Niman said that one thing she’s learned in 13 years of ranching is that “good practices are incredibly site specific. We have to make careful decisions about how every piece of land is grazed or not grazed.”

Resting the land, she said, “is a very important piece” of an overall strategy.

“With well-managed grazing, you have life and more water,” she said, even during the historic drought that still plagues California agricultural producers. “Where you take grazing away, you have death. You need density, and you need movement.”