Weekly Topic | Editorial—The many dimensions of value for ruminant livestock
Julie Adamchick


The complex reality

Our environment, where human life flourishes, is an equilibrium of complex, dynamic processes. Those processes are maintained by ecosystems, via interactions between living communities and their physical and chemical environments. Food production is both an output and a modifier of those processes. 

Humans manipulate the ecosystems in their environment in order to increase the benefits produced—most notably via agriculture and urbanization. Agriculture has enabled tremendous social progress, facilitating economic development beyond mere subsistence. At the same time, we are in the middle of staggering loss of biodiversity associated with the simplification of ecosystems in pursuit of human gain. Reversing that trend is crucial for supporting the ecosystems needed to sustain the still-growing human population.

Ruminant systems are a double-edged sword—they have the potential to both degrade and cultivate biodiversity-rich ecosystems. The interaction of herbivores with their landscape has an ancient ecological role, and ruminant grazing systems can contribute to soil health, carbon sequestration, and positively influence the variety and quantity of life present. However, the consumption of resources and concentration of waste associated with focused food production systems can put pressure on the capacity of local and global ecosystems to buffer negative impact.

The simplification 

Too often, the production of food from cattle and other ruminants is framed as a simple process: feed in → food and waste out. In this perspective, we primarily value the food produced, and perhaps the ratio of output/input or food/waste.
Advances in dairy production illustrate how the industry has responded and improved with respect to those values. The US dairy herd today produces 1.6 times the volume of milk with roughly 1/3 of the cows compared to 1950, reflecting improvements in genetics, technology, nutrition, and health. This month’s Dairy Herd Management, sitting on my kitchen table, features the article “3 Myths About Livestock and Climate Change Debunked.” Cattle farmers and the industry are proud of their efforts to continue supplying a wholesome food at an affordable price while decreasing their individual and collective carbon footprints. 

However, the focus on short term outputs—efficiency of food production and waste reduction—makes it easy to overlook the other functions of livestock whose impacts are not felt until much later. Furthermore, if cows are valued only for their milk-to-money or milk-to-carbon ratios, then it is a logical choice to phase them out when given the option of superior production technologies. 

Do we even have the framework to assess the impact of that choice, both positive and negative, on long-run ecological outcomes? It is crucial to understand and value the many impacts of cattle and ruminant farming systems in order to compare between options and incentivize approaches that will be farsighted and beneficial. 


Woman with brown hair smiling

Julie Adamchick

Julie is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Minnesota working with the complicated links between animals, food and people. She grew up in upstate New York on a 120-cow dairy farm and worked for 3 years as a managing veterinarian on a large commercial dairy farm after receiving her DVM. 

Her current studies focus on situating veterinary planning and interventions within the socioeconomic context of livestock systems and value chains. She holds a bachelor's degree (Animal Science, International Relations, 2009) and DVM (2014) from Cornell University.