Help slow global warming. Reverse desertification. Can an MSU experimental pasture for grass-fed beef at the Lake City Research Center achieve such audacious goals? Scientist Jason Rowntree is finding out.
Call him a cowboy. But not a real cowboy, or that fake caricature of a cowboy. As in, Jason Rowntree does not do cowboy things, including ride a horse or wear a cowboy hat or look out at the world from a perfectly stubbled face etched simultaneously with deep reflectiveness and complete aloofness. Rowntree actually smiles easily and is clean-shaven—though he once had a Fu Manchu mustache.
Cattle, though—yes, he works with cattle. And instead of a horse, he rides around on a rugged, two-seat four-wheeler and wears a simple forest green ball cap to shield his face from the sun. On the front of the hat reads: “MSU Extension Lake City Research Station.” Which is the biggest tipoff to what he actually is. Because Rowntree is a sort-of cowboy who is an actual scientist. And an actual scientist who, when discussing big ideas, can sort of sound like a preacher. He’d probably accept the latter comparison. Because at the end of the day, he wouldn’t argue with you saying that he seems to think what’s he’s doing on this 1,000-acre farm is God’s work. Or at least work that has a higher purpose. Certainly, work he feels called to do.
Rowntree’s is a roundabout story with a clear moment of reckoning. Other than his Texas heritage, few details in his biography suggest he’d end up surrounded by livestock. His dad was a cosmetic dentist. He grew up in suburban Houston—far from the feedlot mecca of West Texas. In fact, when Rowntree started showing an interest in the farm life, the family had to seek out a local Future Farmers of America chapter with a rent-a-barn program just so he had somewhere to keep his show animals.
When the hobby stuck, he ended up chasing his dream to Texas A&M and eventually all the way to Michigan State’s agricultural science program for a Ph.D. His specialty: the intricate and brutally efficient science of the feedlot system—an ever-modernizing paradigm designed to make cattle big, fast, to feed the world’s growing appetite for meat.
A reputation as an up-and-comer in the field landed him his first gig at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. But for Rowntree, the memorable part of his time there was the fact that his tenure overlapped a significant stretch of destruction in Louisiana. “Five hurricanes in five years,” he says, leaving the appropriate gap of silence at the end of the thought for emphasis. The late summer of 2005 was, of course, the worst. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 27 and ripped through the region for three days, after which there wasn’t much left of parts of New Orleans and numerous other Gulf communities. Then, one month later, Hurricane Rita arrived with an encore.
“It just hit me,” Rowntree says. “The semis couldn’t run down I-10, and they couldn’t get to the grocery stores. So here we were in the heart of ag country and there was nothing to eat.” In that moment, it crystallized for him: “We needed to start thinking about these things differently.”
It was a multi-layered epiphany bearing a lot that would get unpacked later. Thoughts about how humans were impacting the planet through climate change. How we had designed elaborate and efficient systems to feed ourselves, and that produced unheard of abundance, but also sowed the seeds of their own destruction—or at least fragility. Feedlots, Rowntree’s specialty, epitomized these contradictions.
Conventional beef farming, though massively productive, is one of the most resource-intensive forms of agriculture, often stretching the limits of water-starved landscapes and producing huge quantities of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. So if Rowntree wanted the world to start thinking about things differently, it would have to start with people like him.
At the moment, though, his cattle don’t seem to care about any of this.
The herd of 300 Red Angus simply don’t want to be moved from one side to the other of the two-lane country road that divides this research farm in the rolling hills of Missaukee County. One 900-pound, 16-month-old steer is being particularly stubborn about leaving the enclosure of pasture that the animals have been working over for the last day. But regularly getting the animals onto new ground is essential to the project Rowntree has put in motion here. Eventually, even the reluctant steer is persuaded of the value of science.
This has become Rowntree’s attempt at doing things differently—supervising a modest herd of just a few hundred head as they work their way through a field of orchard grass at a pace even the cowbirds seem bored with. Indeed, it’s about as far from the confines of a high-density feedlot as you can get—a throwback to the days when animals got big, slower, on the natural riches of the pasture.
From a scientific perspective, though, grass-fed beef is a much younger endeavor, leaving Rowntree with plenty to play around with. Here on the farm, for example, one can’t help but notice that for a grass-fed beef operation, there’s a lot more than grass growing in the pasture. All over these fields, the team has planted dozens of acres of experimental annually grown forages to see what else the cows might have an appetite for. There are things like cowpeas, a cousin of your garden sweet pea that’s packed with nutrition; and a variety of turnip that grows a sad little root, but some impressive two-foot-tall leaves.
The specialty menu has everything to do with the climate. Not climate change—though Rowntree can talk plenty on that. It’s Northern Michigan’s cold, long winters that are the issue here. A winter that squeezes on the warmer months to the point where getting cattle to fatten up just on summer’s seasonal grasses is a losing game. That is more or less why meat production has remained an elusive final piece of the puzzle in a region known for agricultural diversity. If Northern Michigan farmers wanted to produce pasture-raised beef, there would be no problem grazing their animals May through September on cheap, perennial, self-renewing grasses. But come October, when those resources start to die back, farmers would have little choice but to start feeding their cattle hay—an expensive substitute diet they would have to sustain until the return of spring. But Rowntree thinks the annual forages he’s experimenting with here could be the key to stretching the grazing season—and making the economics of beef raised in northern pastures work.
“After we have our freeze, it’s really hard to get cattle to put on the kind of weight we need them to in order to get them ready for slaughter,” Rowntree says. “But with our annuals, our research indicates that we can get close to three pounds of gain a day out into the fall. That’s feedlot performance. There have been years we’ve even had the cattle grazing out into mid-December.”
In fact, drive by the farm practically any day of the year and you’ll see Rowntree’s herd out there doing their thing. He says his old-timer Michigan farm neighbors look at him a little funny when they see his cattle pasturing in the snow at Christmas time. This ain’t Texas, after all. But Rowntree says the animals can take it. As descendants of ancient aurochs of Europe and Asia, it’s actually weather they evolved to survive—and even thrive in. And even winter can be a surprisingly important time for wrestling with one of the other big questions lying dormant in Rowntree’s Louisiana epiphany: the importance of soil. And how, as some scientists now believe, the soil can help save us.
The two-seat four-wheeler feel likes it’s still in motion when Rowntree decides to make an abrupt exit. In seconds, he’s leapt from the driver’s side and completely disappeared into a field of chest-high grasses.
“Just look at this!” he yells, poking his head up, parting the grass to reveal the loamy dirt that’s dark with moisture, despite the summer’s drought-like conditions.
“Even though it’s approaching 90 degrees, the soil is cool to the touch. If this was open, and the sun was beating down on this, the soil would get hard. And then when we did get rain, it’s just going to run off. So when we get rain, it stays here.”
It’s not about the rain you get, it’s about the rain you keep, Rowntree explains, repeating the phrase as if it’s a well-worn Texas aphorism. Maybe it is. But if this is the test, the soil appears to be doing its job. Apart from banking moisture laid down by earlier storms, this dirt is also modeled over in a near-continuous layer of bumpy, claylike middens—tiny structures made of mud and earthworm castings that are a telltale sign everything in this prairie ecosystem is working as it should. It’s a fact that is doubly impressive when you consider this field was one of the more unproductive parts of the farm not so long ago. And here’s the kicker: Rowntree thinks the cattle have made the pasture that way.
It’s a counterintuitive thought. Worldwide, cattle have nearly become the poster species for grassland denigration—chewing through landscapes, ripping them free of vegetation, leaving nothing behind but bare soils. It’s a traumatic and nearly irreversible process known as desertification, where otherwise productive soils are transformed into moonlike wastelands. It’s true that it’s happening on grasslands-turned-grazing-lands all over the world. And it’s also true that cattle—by way of our hunger for meat—have largely been considered the main culprit. But Rowntree explains that grazing, if done differently, won’t just not destroy soils; it can actually help improve them.
The still controversial idea is one most of the world learned about through a TED talk. In February 2013, a little-known biologist and former member of the Rhodesian Parliament named Allan Savory gave a presentation titled, “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.” In it, Savory put forth the radical idea that not only was grazing not to blame for desertification on grasslands worldwide; but grazing livestock like cattle and goats was a critical—and perhaps the only—tool for restoring lands that had been laid to waste.
Savory’s basic argument revolves around the idea that grassland plant species and large herd animals evolved together over hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this, they actually need each other to survive. It’s obvious, of course, why grazing animals need the grass. But Savory argues that the animals also provide an essential reciprocal service: If allowed to grow unchecked, tall grasses actually form a suffocating, slowly decomposing mat when they die back in the colder or drier seasons. This hinders regrowth of the grasses when rains and warm temperatures return in the spring.
Allowing livestock to graze the land knocks back the tall growth, leaving the plant with the necessary breathing room to grow anew. Moreover, the cattle cover the landscape with a layer of manure, which adds organic matter back into the soil and creates a blanket of permeable insulation to help the landscape retain moisture. Of course, there is nuance to the process. Savory’s research suggests that livestock must be concentrated in large, tightly packed groups to mimic the way wild herds once moved across the landscape thousands of years ago. And they must constantly be moved, to prevent the animals from killing the grasses by overgrazing.
Savory calls this method “holistic management,” and if his theory holds true, it would be a real paradigm buster—not only in agriculture, but for those working on climate change mitigation. Cattle, of course, have long been considered part of the problem when it comes to climate change. For one, ruminant animals, just through the nature of their digestive systems, produce a lot of methane—a greenhouse gas that is dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. And desertification, aside from wreaking the obvious havoc on landscapes, also leaves scars that contribute to climate change: Healthy soils can store massive amounts of carbon—carbon that is released into the atmosphere when soil systems are disrupted and destroyed. Some scientists believe that the loss of stored soil carbon worldwide—which has been mostly attributed to modern agricultural practices—could be a significant contributor to the dangerous carbon dioxide levels now present in the atmosphere. Moreover, there’s a growing body of research suggesting that sequestering carbon in soils through natural processes could be a potent tool for climate change mitigation.
Savory’s TED talk inspired a rowdy round of internet debate. For parts of the environmental community that have been slow to embrace a complete vegetarian or vegan worldview, the idea that their taste for pastured-raised gourmet burgers wasn’t destroying the planet came as welcomed news. (Foodie environmentalist superstar and longtime advocate for pastured beef, Michael Pollan, even tweeted out that maybe we should all be eating more meat.)
But many scientists and journalists provided persuasive counterpoint. Among other things, they pointed out that the biggest research trial supporting Savory’s claims was done in Zimbabwe back in the 1970s. And even by Savory’s own assessments, his 30 years of research into holistic management have produced uneven results.
To use an oft-batted around scientific cliché—more study was obviously needed to determine if the big idea that sounds too good to be true actually is. Which is where Jason Rowntree’s work in Northern Michigan factors in. Because while the work is ostensibly focused on developing models for grass-fed beef farming in colder climates (a declared objective that is useful for securing research grants), it’s also true he’s seeking answers to much bigger questions. This research station in Missaukee County is now one of 30 farms worldwide putting Savory’s ideas about holistic management through their scientific paces. (It’s also the only research trial happening at an American university.) The goal here is to see if cattle could indeed be a tool for improving landscapes, sequestering carbon in soils and thereby mitigating climate change.
Which is why Rowntree wouldn’t shy away from you calling what he’s doing here “God’s work.” “To me, I wanted us to model something that has a larger meaning. Without question, we have to do hypothesis-driven work—mainly to get our funding. But in our heart of hearts, what we want to do here is propagate thinking that is oriented toward addressing the complex issues that we face in our future. And that includes climate change. So we are supplying the scientific lens to add validity to this equation.”
As any good scientist would be, Rowntree is reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions after just a few years of experiments. But his team is already seeing signs that things might be headed in an interesting direction. Case in point: that patch of loamy ground that compelled Rowntree to launch out of a moving vehicle. As noted earlier, that land was once one of the least productive parts on the farm until Rowntree decided to put cattle on it.
They turned the herd loose there in the summer; and then in the colder months, followed it with a round of “winter grazing,” where they fed the cattle hay over the snow-covered ground. The resulting manure laid down that winter added a second layer of nutrients, thereby boosting the soil’s organic matter and speeding up the land’s overall recovery. Now, a year later, the pasture could serve as an archetype for a healthy grassland—not only in terms of its role as a grazing land for beef cattle, but perhaps also in its ability to store greenhouse gases.
Just what degree of carbon sequestration may be happening on this land is something Rowntree and his team are still investigating. When you ask him straight up whether they’re putting enough carbon back into the soil through their grazing practices to produce beef that meets the holy grail of environmental stewardship—carbon neutrality—he’ll give you an equally straight answer. “No way. But, yes, that’s the goal.” Keep Rowntree talking, though, and his pride about what they might be doing here gets the better of him: The preliminary data, he says, show they’re currently sequestering enough CO2 per acre through their management practices to offset all of the greenhouse gases they produce. Possibly more.
Whether that endures as his bottom-line finding, though, is far from certain: Soil science is a tricky, still-emerging area of research, with many processes scientists still don’t fully understand. Rowntree says their ability to store carbon could still, for instance, taper off or even regress when measured over a longer period of time. But if the trend holds, that would propel this operation straight through the realm of carbon neutrality and into the world of climate change mitigation.
It’s a result which, not long ago, would have sounded like fiction. It’s also a conclusion that Rowntree, as a man who feels a powerful sense of stewardship for creation, would love to be true. As he discusses that bigger context, he transforms from restrained scientist to impassioned preacher—referencing again that moment of reckoning in Louisiana that compelled his own life onto a new course. As a researcher, he’ll no doubt wait and listen to the science. But if it all works out the way he thinks it might, he could end up on a TED stage himself some day. In that setting, his preacherlike ability to elevate the facts and figures of existence into lofty rhetoric should serve him well.
If nothing else, he can fall back on the fact that he’s helping farmers in northern regions become real cowboys—despite an oft-frozen landscape that even global warming has not yet thawed enough to make beef farming viable without scientific breakthroughs. And in that domain—for all his advanced scientific techniques—Rowntree says the definitive experiment will still be a simple taste test. To be counted a success, his herd raised on cowpeas and turnips in addition to grass must produce meat that tastes the way consumers like it. His team has already done blind comparison tests with focus groups, with good initial reviews. And though less scientific, he’s always anxious to collect feedback from people who visit the farm—including journalists—who can’t escape without a hunk or two of beef under each arm.
Indeed, the pot roast was tender. The burgers, as good as anything from Texas. Perhaps the first taste of an era of Michigan farming where local beef is a staple on menus. And where steak helps save the world.
Lou Blouin is a writer and public radio producer based in Detroit. [email protected]
Andy Wakeman is an editorial and commercial photographer. andywakemanphoto.com