The publication, Livestock’s Long Shadow, shows how rapidly growing populations and incomes increase demand for livestock products. Livestock are important, accounting for 40% of agricultural gross domestic product and globally employing at least a billion people; however, livestock require a significant number of natural resources and they are responsible for about 14.5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Consider these global livestock interactions:

  • The cattle sector in Brazil is burning the rain forest to clear it for grazing, which is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon.
  • Livestock production is shifting from rural to urban and peri-urban areas, moving closer to consumers and trade hubs where feed is imported to serve Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFOs create serious environmental issues
  • Manure management is at the heart of CAFO operations, including solid-liquid separation, anaerobic digestion, and frequent manure removal for treatment, energy production and by-product recycling.

Water — The livestock sector accounts for over 8% of global water use, mostly for the irrigation of feed crops. The major sources of livestock water pollution are from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, sediments from eroded pastures and fertilizers and/or pesticides used for feed crops. Livestock also affect the replenishment of fresh water by compacting soil, reducing infiltration, degrading the banks of watercourses, lowering water tables, increasing runoff, and reducing dry season flows.

Biodiversity —Livestock production occupies 30% of the world’s land surface, once habitat for wildlife, and livestock use 70% of the planet’s agricultural land. Scientists suggest that the sixth major mass extinction is happening now and grazing plays a part because early and heavy grazing seriously affects plant flowering and seeding. About 20% of the world’s grazing land (including 73% of rangelands in fragile dry areas) have been degraded by over-grazing, compaction, and erosion, contributing to loss of biodiversity.

Cattle in Oregon — The May 2020 livestock report for Oregon shows that most cattle ranches are In Malheur, Morrow, Harney, Klamath and Lake counties. In these counties, cattle graze on private land, federal rangelands and timberlands, where land is arid and unsuitable for farming.

Livestock and hay are nearly always among the most important agricultural commodities in Oregon. Water is needed to produce both. In Eastern Oregon, water is unsustainably pumped for hay production, lowering water tables and affecting the availability of drinking water for local citizens. Closer to home in Deschutes County an intense debate pits agricultural water use against aquatic life in the Deschutes River. The root cause of the problem is related to unsustainable water allocations to agriculture starting when Bend was settled, over 100 years ago.

Economic transitions — The population of Bend has grown by 31% in the last decade, from 76,660 in 2010 to 100,421 in 2019, but this growth is not related to agriculture. Statistics from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, comparing changes from 2012-2017 in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties, show the number of farms increased by 13% and 16% in Crook and Deschutes counties while falling 16% in Jefferson County. Jefferson County farms are getting bigger to capture efficiency gains while farms are being subdivided in the other two counties.

The net cash income per farm (and percent change compared to 2012) was $7,408 (-25%) for Crook, $12,866 (-12%) for Deschutes, and $31,281 (+209%) for Jefferson counties. High value crops in Jefferson County are contributing to Oregon’s state revenues while agriculture is shrinking in the other two, especially in Deschutes County where data suggest that farming is more a lifestyle choice than a commercial activity that sustains livelihoods.

During the past three decades, Oregon made the transition from a resource-based economy (think timber) to a more mixed manufacturing and marketing economy.

Across Oregon in 2017, beef cattle and calves brought in $977 million, with Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties contributing $49 million or 5% of the total. Now compare the values for cattle production with total direct spending for travel in Oregon, which was $12.8 billion in 2019. In Central Oregon (Crook, Deschutes, Jefferson, and south Wasco counties) the total was $935 million or 7.3% of the state total. This was the 10th consecutive year of growth in travel spending — contributing to local employment and the tax base.

The reality is that our natural resources bring more visitors to Deschutes County than agriculture. It is therefore critical to prioritize the conservation of its natural resources like water, fish and frogs to sustain other productive sectors like tourism and recreation.

Animal agriculture and hay production are part of Oregon’s identity and history, and should remain so, but stewardship should guide decision-making. We need to keep agricultural water use within natural sustainable recharge rates so that other sectors are not negatively affected.

Scott Christiansen is an international agronomist with 35 years of experience. He worked for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

(1) comment


What is this: an opinion piece like a guest column, a "special" non-staff column that expresses The B's editorial opinion (thus the odd "climate changed" logo and "editor's pick" placement) or something else? I'm confused.

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