The recent placement of the monarch butterfly on an endangered species list – compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – highlights the growing concern about biodiversity loss. Factors driving this loss include climate change, environmental toxins and the decline of supporting species. You may wonder, “Well, who needs the butterflies anyway?” The short answer is: We all do. True, you might not need the butterflies, or the plant species they depend on, for your daily sustenance. And you probably don’t eat white rot fungi, earthworms, beetles, millipedes and other detritivores, either. However, if all those species stopped working to convert dead plant and animal material back into soil organic matter, we’d be in a heap (literally) of hurt – or at least a deep mess.
Increasingly, agriculturists are realizing that human survival and well-being are more tightly linked to the well-being of other organisms than we might have considered in the past. There can be definite tensions between managing farms and ecosystems to achieve multiple outcomes. Part of that may be based on how we’re paid. It’s easy to see the value in products (like steak, potatoes, ketchup and napkins), but the value of provisioning services (including pollination, water filtration, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration) may be a bit more obscure – and we don’t get paid directly for those services. Another part of that strain likely arises out of how we view ourselves. If we are simply livestock producers or forage growers, we may miss our opportunity on the bigger stage. Some of those tensions could be resolved, however, if we spent more time actively considering our farm in a “both/and” framework rather than the more common “either/or" or "yes/no” binary opposition framework. Summer pasture walks from my neck of the woods highlighted two takes on this both/and approach.
On a farm in western North Carolina, increasing diversity was a significant objective for one producer, and it’s paying off in terms of system resilience and productivity. The farmer has observed his cattle eat a variety of plant materials – from nimblewill to pokeweed – that would often be called weeds and considered grounds for herbicide treatments on many farms. Greater diet diversity is good for both cattle and humans, but it may have to be taught. Just as your mother may have worked on you to get you to eat your peas, land managers may have to play schoolmarm to help their cattle learn to appreciate these plant materials. Another both/and approach on this farm involved intentionally leaving space on the landscape for an array of “non-forage” plants and wildlife species. A traditional view might see that as unproductive, but by managing this way, the farmer has given both the predators and their prey a place to roam. In addition to the sheer pleasure he derives from seeing the wildlife, he’s gotten the added benefit of having no depredation on his calves, despite a healthy coyote population.
Restoring wetland habitats that were degraded by unregulated cattle access, adding native pastures – which included both warm-season grasses and flowering species that support beef, grassland birds and pollinating insects – and incorporating novel-introduced perennials and warm-season annual mixtures were the improvement strategies on one southern Virginia farm. Each of these changes has significantly impacted both the animal output and environmental outcomes on the farm. However, I note this point in particular: By almost any standard, the warm-season annual stand looked weedy, and the producer said that would have been a problem for him in the past. However, as his cattle have learned to eat a more diverse diet (and in this case, they have taught him), he has increasingly recognized their capacity to make use of what he once would have viewed as a liability. All of his efforts have been driven from a perspective of creating healthier soils, which create better, more healthful plants for cattle and wildlife alike – a both/and approach.
The monarch is a beautiful and photogenic creature with a fascinating migration story, and the threat of extinction is likely to stimulate great societal action. However, we have far more to steward than that single species and a great opportunity in so doing. We can make greater inroads to benefit our ecosystems if we take a larger ecosystems approach to managing our farms. It will take some hard work to think and act differently, but if we pause and consider how to best manage for multiple outcomes, we'll see ourselves both as ecosystem stewards and as livestock, grassland and soil health professionals.