Can Cows Be Climate Heroes? New Research Shows How Cattle Can Combat Global Warming

Photo by Quaritsch Photography

Cows have long been both revered and reviled for their environmental impact. As ruminants that emit methane – a potent greenhouse gas – cows have been blamed by some for contributing to climate change. But experts in biodynamic agriculture say that with the right methods, cows can actually benefit the land and climate.

In an article for the magazine Fonds Goetheanum, Lukas Maschek, a research assistant at the Goetheanum’s Section for Agriculture, wrote “Whether cows do damage to the climate or whether they are carers of the land depends also on our views and actions.” He added, “They can only become climate killers when people instrumentalize them as that.”

It’s a bold statement that challenges conventional wisdom. But Maschek and other biodynamic farming experts say that when you look at the full life cycle of cows, a more nuanced picture emerges.

Methane is indeed a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping heat at around 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide. Cows and other ruminant animals produce methane as part of their digestive process, leading some to call for reduced cattle farming to fight climate change.

But biodynamic agriculture, which emphasizes circular systems and waste reduction, provides a different model. Crop residues and processing byproducts are used as cattle feed instead of becoming waste. In turn, cow manure is used as a fertilizer for pastures rather than being a pollutant.

“Fertilizer in this case means pure cow dung without urine,” explained Angela Schmidt, a leading agronomist. “This kind of cow dung becomes a habitat for microorganisms and insects, which serve as food for amphibians, reptiles, bats and birds.”

The manure also contributes to humus formation in the soil. Humus-rich soils have increased carbon sequestration, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. This local carbon cycle has a cooling effect on the climate, biodynamic experts say. The soils also retain more water, increasing climate resilience.

In addition, grazing and mowing stimulate root growth in grasses. “Grass grows fine and deep roots that also absorb carbon dioxide from the environment,” Schmidt said.

According to a 2019 study from the University of Vermont, well-managed grazing systems can lead to net carbon sequestration in soils, partially offsetting methane emissions. The key is keeping animal populations calibrated to the land’s natural carrying capacity.

When this balance is achieved, Maschek said, “the methane emitted becomes part of a positive spiral.” Over time, methane breaks down into carbon dioxide, which plants and healthy soils can absorb. Soil fertility is maintained, not depleted.

More research is needed, but biodynamic agriculture offers evidence that with the right methods, cows may yet be part of the climate solution.

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