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Can cows save the planet? - book review

The book Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, covers a whole range of topics including soil carbon, water, minerals, and of course, cows, and their impact of climate and human health.  When I read about this book, I knew I wanted to read and review it, and Judith was very kind to arrange for me to get a copy from New South Books.

I enjoyed this book so much I started to get a little jealous that Judith got to travel around and meet all these fascinating people and learn so much about soil, but I'm also very glad that she shared her journey with us.  Whether you have a personal interest in soil as a farmer or gardener, or just wonder how we humans are going to get ourselves out of this climate change mess, there is much to learn from this book.

Here's just a few of the people that Judith met and wrote about in a very approachable style:
See why I'm jealous?

The most confronting chapter for me was the forth, "The return of lost water", in which Judith describes the latest theories of how human activites, particularly clearing forests and draining the land, have disrupted both rainfall paterns and surface water supplies (creeks, streams, rivers, dams etc).  The New Water Paradigm Group warn that lack of water could be more dangerous than temperature increases due to climate change, apparently we only have a few years supply if the rain stopped completely.  Maybe because we are in the middle of a drought, but that chapter filled me with slow creeping dread.  Especially because it is very similar to the theories of Peter Andrews, but backed by some pretty credible research.

Later in chapter eight Judith writes about seeing first-hand a couple of ranches that were using Allan Savory's Planned Holistic Grazing and seeing not only improved pasture, but also more surface water.  At first I couldn't see the connection between soil and surface water until I saw a few other diagrams when I was looking into our plans for bores.  This is what I put together: surface water is connected with ground water, if the water table is high, then surface water will be "gaining", but if the water table is lower than the surface water, it will be "loosing".  Removing trees and draining the land lowers the water table, so more surface water will be loosing water to the ground water.  If we can maintain trees and build soil carbon to hold more water in the soil, we raise the water table and improve soil water, and then we will see surface water improve.  That's why creeks that used to run don't run anymore, but we can restore them when we understand the water cycle better.  You know I'm obsessed by water at the moment, but the other chapters are equally fascinating.

Image source

Image source

And how can cows save the world??  If we manage them correctly, we can use them to build soil carbon, which is good for stabilising the climate and the water table.  We can also improve soil nutrients, which is good for our health, and biodiversity, which is good for the planet in general.  One strong message of the book is that it is not enough to focus on reducing emissions, we need to start putting that carbon back into the soil, and we need plants (and cows) to help us to do that.

Did this catch your interest?  Do you think cows can save the planet?

If you want to know more about house cows, my eBook is available for purchase on Scribd.  Its only $4.99, and it includes lots of information about keeping a house cow in Australia.  There's more details about the eBook on my house cow eBook blog.  If you don't want to go through all the Scribd/paypal effort, just send me an email on eight.acres.liz at and I can arrange to email it to you instead.


  1. This is good stuff to know. Not being a person of the earth, I don't normally read or learn about solutions unless I read of them in a blog. Thanks for sharing this review in a way that makes it easily understandable for a person such as myself.

  2. Conversely I have read reports that cows produce a significant amount of methane, which exacerbates global warming and the amount of land used to produce feed for cattle could be more productively used for feed for humans acre for acre.
    Just playing Devil's advocate here. I am a meat eater, who has reared beef in the past.
    Regarding drought, here in England we have had the wettest winter for a long time, with many farms and towns flooded since before Christmas. However our ability (or lack of it) to retain/conserve the said water, might mean that after a few fine weeks we could have a hose pipe ban!

    1. Good point Gill, this is also addressed in the book in detail, and I can't explain it all here, but very quickly, ruminants eating grass and making methane is part of the normal carbon cycle, if cattle didn't eat the grass, it would be digested by microbes in the environment and still make methane (although interestingly, kangaroos eat grass and don't produce methane as they have different bacteria in their stomachs). Also beef in feedlots make more methane per animal due to their unatural diet of grain, but because they grow so fast on that diet, its less methane per kg finished beef. I think I need to write a more detailed post on this, but I hope that gets you started!

  3. Cows are a good place to start, as its something the average layman can relate to. You can see a cow, because they're big and happen to produce tasty by-products for human consumption, just by eating grass. But I was more interested in the, "Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth."

    That's because I live in terrain which couldn't really use cows en masse. It could sustain a few but a large herd on sloping land, would cause more land degredation - at least on our narrow block. Was there mention of inter-species relationships in regards to improving soil, beyond cows?

    I wholeheartedly agree, helping the environment never should have been made about carbon emissions. Because if you have enough trees and plants growing on high water tables, an excess of carbon in the atmosphere just makes those plants grow bigger. Emissions don't actually kill the environment, because they're a natural part of the oxygen producing cycle.

    Cows could well be a part of rehabilitating our past destruction of natural cycles, but the main message we need to get across to all primary produces, is to stop killing stuff they see as unhealthy competition. Perhaps cows in the fields weren't the problem, or an increase of human population - rather it was the systematic practice of spraying pesticide, because producers didn't want anything else to compete on their land. I wonder if the book was able to convey this, hence my interest in, "Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth."

    If it did, I'd be interested in reading the book. Thanks for the review, by the way. :)

    1. Thanks Chris, you always make such thoughtful comments. Firstly cows are useful because they are ruminants, and if you look at the holistic planned grazing, its about using ruminants to sustain the decay part of the carbon cycle through a dry period (in wet tropical climates, this can happen outside of animals, but when it gets too dry, the microbes don't survive in the environment), so any ruminant can help you, including goast and sheep. This book did focus on cows because they are commonly used on larger scales. As for the other improbable ways, I think this related to improving biodiversity, fixing the water cycle, the idea that plants are feeding microbes in the soil etc. Much of this is not new to us, but I suppose putting it all together in one book is the novelty.


    Fiona linked this documentary a few days ago and it shows how the water can be returned with just a little effort.

    1. Thanks Lynda, I'll check that out....

  5. That sounds just like my kind of book. I was lucky enough to hear Graham Sait speak at the Woodford Folk Festival this year and it was so interesting. I have a half planned post about it (must get it finished) along with some other guest speakers I saw.
    I think that cows are definitely part of the solution along with other animals, plants, fungi and micro organisms.

    1. Thanks Fee, sounds like we have lots to discuss :)

  6. Liz, I should know better than to get behind in reading your blog posts; they are all wonderfully informative and relevant to my interests! Like Rubye Jack, the first thing I thought of was the "lets get rid of cows because they make methane" folks. So glad this book addresses that. Unfortunately, there is a distinct anti-agriculture mindset out there, even amongst environmentalists and conservationists, who ought to know better. I hope this book helps them understand what permaculturists already know, that there is a balance, even with "undesirable" things.


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