Cows saving the planet? Why not? An idea that sounds preposterous begins to make sense if we stop to take a soil's-eye view of our current environmental predicament. To crouch down to ground level — literally or metaphorically — and see how human and animal activity enhances or does violence to that fine earthy layer that hugs our planet. To appreciate the imperceptible animal-vegetable-mineral dance that keeps us alive.
You see, that brown stuff we rush to wash off our hands (or, depending on our age, our knees) is the crux of most biological functions that sustain life. Soil is where food is created and where waste decays. It absorbs and holds water; or, if exhausted of organic matter, streams it away. It filters biological toxins and can store enough carbon to reduce carbon dioxide levels significantly and relatively quickly. It is home to more than 95 percent of all forms of terrestrial life. In any given place the quality of the soil greatly determines the nutritional value of food, how an area weathers drought or storms, and whether an ecosystem is teeming with life or the equivalent of a ghost town.
Where do those cows fit in? Cattle, like all grazing creatures, can, if appropriately managed, help build soil. When moved in large herds according to a planned schedule, livestock will nibble plants just enough to stimulate plant and root growth, trample the ground in a way that breaks apart caked earth to allow dormant seeds to germinate and water to seep in, and leave dung and urine to fertilize the soil with organic matter (aka carbon). The result is a wide variety of grasses and other deep-rooted plants and rich, aerated soil that acts like a great big sponge so as to minimize runoff and erosion.