The Virginia Forage and Grassland Council will hold a winter conference Jan. 18-21 that explores the challenges faced by the livestock industry as it seeks to be understood as part of the solution to global environmental problems.

The conference, a one-day event called “The Green Side of Beef: Defending Grassland Agriculture,” will be repeated in four different locations across the commonwealth: Jan. 18 in Wytheville, Jan. 19 in Chatham, Jan. 20 in Rapidan, and concluding on Jan. 21 in Weyers Cave.

Whether the argument touches on morality, economics, ecology, policy, or nutrition, cattle farming is contested territory. Cattle farmers have long been under siege as perpetrators of a host of human problems, from erosion to climate change to obesity. But current science and historical evidence suggest that the cow itself may save the cattle industry’s poor reputation.  

Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of “Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat,” sums it this way: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Niman will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming annual winter conference of the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, aimed at both farmers and environmentalists alike.

One of the “hows,” according to Niman, is rotational grazing, which can improve soil health, and in turn improves water quality, increases biodiversity both above and below the soil, and sequesters carbon.

Mike Phillips, a fourth-generation farmer in Rockingham County, and winner of the National Environmental Stewardship Award for his Valley View Farms, explains that he figured this out on his own. He was once on a rare trip away from his farm and looking at a scale model of the Great Plains when he envisioned the buffalo migrations there.

“I ask, ‘what was it like here before the Europeans came and started disrupting the life cycle?’ The buffalo herd was the biggest rotation grazing system ever,” Phillips said. “They’re moving, eating forage, dropping manure.”

That’s when Phillips went home and set up rotational grazing for his herd.

Becky Szarzynski, co-owner of Mountain Glen Farm in Rockbridge County, where she has a thriving herd of 125 purebred South Poll cattle on 325 acres, attributes her success to her cattle, a breed especially adapted to the Virginia summers.

On a warm August morning, standing nearly hip-deep in native grasses and legumes, with a herd behind us, she announced, “I heard a Bobwhite quail out here this week.”

The Bobwhite is rarely seen these days, though decades ago they were prolific in this area. Szarzynski takes no credit, but it’s clear she sees the evidence of the Bobwhite as a promising sign.

“I hope to work in collaboration with my livestock so that everyone benefits …to encourage healthy ecosystems within my farm borders, but I also hope those benefits extend past them.

“I often swim and boat in our local rivers and hike and forage in the forests, so I believe the practices that take place on my farm are helping to contribute to these environments as well,” she said.

Matt Booher, Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources with Virginia Cooperative Extension, believes that Virginia farmers like Phillips and Szarzynski, who have been successful at stopping erosion and building the volume of healthy soil on their farms, may soon be positioned to sell carbon credits owing to the carbon sequestration capacity in their soils.

Scientists, chefs, environmentalists, nutritionists, and farmers have backed Niman’s assertions. "Defending Beef" has been praised by publications as disparate as The Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones. Republished in 2021, the revised and expanded edition includes additional references and updated statistics from both private and government sources. It also includes a section addressing meat supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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