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Reducing methane from dairy cows: it’s all in the oil

The Carbon Farming Initiative is about to provide incentives for dairy farmers to reduce emissions from their milking cows. Emissions will be reduced by changing the cows' diet. The proposed new methodology…

Dairy farmers will be able to claim carbon credits if they feed their cows right. Eli Duke

The Carbon Farming Initiative is about to provide incentives for dairy farmers to reduce emissions from their milking cows. Emissions will be reduced by changing the cows' diet.

The proposed new methodology alters the activity of the gut’s methane-producing microorganisms. This reduces the amount of methane “belched” by cattle from their digestive system.

The organisms in the fore-stomach of sheep and cattle produce methane – called enteric methane – from the hydrogen and carbon dioxide that result from microbial digestion of cows' food.

Strategies for reducing enteric methane include breeding for lower methane-producing animals, microbial interventions, and nutrition and animal management. Most of these are currently being researched through the National Livestock Methane Program. Over the next few years we may see a number of these strategies developed into new Carbon Farming Initiative methods to reduce enteric methane.

But in this case the research team explored dietary interventions, demonstrating that feeds containing tannins or high levels of oil reduce methane production from livestock.

There are five possible ways oil supplementation reduces methane:

  • reducing fibre digestion
  • lowering total feed intake (this is obviously undesirable, and only occurs when total dietary fat exceeds 6% to 7% of total intake)
  • suppressing the micro-organisms that make methane and suppressing rumen protozoa, on which those organisms depend.

Tannins, on the other hand, reduce enteric methane by directly suppressing methane-making micro-organisms.

A key part of the research was demonstrating that different dietary oils – all by-products from other agricultural processes – could reduce enteric methane equally.

The by-products studied included whole cotton seed, cold-pressed canola meal, hominy meal and brewers grains. All of these can theoretically be sourced as by-products of biofuel production. Additionally, if these by-products are adding energy to the diet, they will also increase milk production. The profitability of this milk production increase depends on the comparative price of conventional grain feeding.

The research team then asked the obvious question – if tannin and oils were added to the diet, would this have an additive effect on inhibiting methane production? However, when added to the diet as pure extracts, tannins and oils appeared to neutralise each other (perhaps with the tannin binding the oils making the combination ineffective). The focus shifted to potential feed additives that contain both tannin and oil, naturally occurring in one product. The obvious choice was grape marc, a by-product of wine making with a high concentration of both fat and tannins. Feeding grape marc to dairy cattle reduced methane by up to 20%.

Carbon Farming Initiative offset methodologies can only be built on peer reviewed research, so the team combined their published data with a global review of literature and demonstrated that for every 1% extra oil added to the diet of livestock, enteric methane can be reduced by 3.5%. The upper limit for dietary fats and oils in feed is 7% and the natural oils in grass range from 1% (summer) to 5% (spring), so there is a window of 90 days in the summer when natural grass oils are low enough that supplementary feeding can be introduced to reduce enteric methane production.

This evidence was considered sufficiently robust to underpin the first CFI offset methodology for livestock.

This method has now been released for public consultation. When it’s approved - together with those already approved for destruction of methane from dairy manure ponds and removal of carbon dioxide through environmental plantings - it will give dairy farmers options to take part in the Carbon Farming Initiative. As the income from the CFI for each of these methods individually is relatively modest, these methods are most likely to be adopted where they bring productivity gains or align with broader farming objectives.

This work is the culmination of over six years research by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and the University of Melbourne. The research, co-funded by the DAFF Climate Change Research Program, Meat and Livestock Australia and Dairy Australia, focused on providing dairy farmers with an option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from milking cows through feeding dietary additives.

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson

    Person

    what would marc do to the taste of the milk? a quick google suggests that citrus industry waste has an effect on milk, onion grass is notorious. lovely to believe this has no downside.

    brewers grains would be malted. so b2 rich. yummy vegemite flavour, pre-mix cheese... (joke)

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  2. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Great stuff, Richard!

    I'm also looking forward to the new rumin flora that are being developed to be released.

    Also, was there any data on improved efficiency of production? Given that methane is a waste product, does this process give gains from better rumination without the waste or just suppress production of methane.

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  3. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I don't think this should be the basis for a carbon credit so we lessen our efforts to reduce coal burning. Virtue is supposed to be its own reward and I'd imagine reduced methane (40 MJ/kg higher heating value) improves other outputs.

    The reality is that farmers feed whatever is cheapest at the time. In the drought circa 1998 I recall copra (coconut meal) from the Pacific islands was much used. Because in my opinion carbon credits are largely a feelgood exercise bordering on fraud I suspect there will be no penalties for lapses of a strict diet regime. Thus if dairy cows revert to a gassy diet due to feed shortages nothing will be done to reverse the credit. Do this for the right reasons.

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  4. Rex Gibbs

    Engineer/Director

    Carbon dioxide and hydrogen to methane er NO! this is the sort of sloppy science that is waved by those who wish to say this is rubbish so it must all be rubbish.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Rex Gibbs

      Yay - yet another engineer who knows more about science than working scientists!

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Those methane generating bacteria are animals and it is this animal protein from the bacterial bodies,( not exclusive, obviously, of other protein sources ie mad cow disease) that is used to produce the milk and flesh of commercial cattle.
      What happens when these methane producing bacteria are suppressed?
      And Yay, Felix the first three years of an engineering degree are regarded as the equivalent of science degrees,
      In other words, much as it may overturn the common image of them shovelling coal in to boilers, engineers study and apply science just as much as any other "scientists".

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    3. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Rex Gibbs

      Actually Rex, I'm afraid you're wrong. Methanogenesis via CO2/H2 is certainly catalysed by enzymes, but that pathway seems to be the most likely and well understood. My initial response was the same as yours, however.

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  5. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Lets just stop calling it milk.. we continue to change it ("millk") and add all sort of additives so it nothing like the original milk.

    changing the cow is surely like trying to get the tail to wag the dog!

    why not use some of the emerging technology to generate "Poo" into power?

    or "Poo" into fertilizer?

    Both these approaches will save the farmer money or make them money rather than increase the cost and change the quality of their core product..

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Don't know what you're complaining about, farmers aren't paid the full cost of production now.

      Your statements about milk are rubbish and show a palpable ignorance of the dairy industry.

      Fertiliser generated from "poo" is already being done (see Biosolids, SA and WA). Unfortunately it is not being developed with the end user in mind, only with waste management industries in mind. There is no quality control, it is a wet product not a granulated easy to use product and it is not refined to remove heavy metals.

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    2. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim,

      " farmers aren't paid the full cost of production now."

      My point exactly, Farmers need revenue generating ideas rather than a higher cost base. While this article looks at one form of revenue through "methane reduction", this is via a indirect mechanism that may fall victim to the changing whims of politics. Plus, other attempts, as you have pointed out, are "unfortunately" failing to tap into possible revenue source.

      An example of a more direct form of income: The "Poo…

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      So, I guess you'll be first in line to complain to Coles, Woolies and other industry buyers that they aren't paying enough to farmers. I expect you will also be making sure that you boycott price gouging activities like those done with milk of late.

      Again, the fertiliser idea is being looked at, but not by the right people, because R&D dollars are very limited. R&D budgets for agriculture have been declining and are set to be decimated at the next election if key lobby groups get their way.

      You'll get no argument from me over using the carbon tax for actual advances, especially in agriculture. I think it is stupid that the tax is current used to subsidise the polluters. But you are also forgetting that methane emissions need to be limited and are a waste product of rumination, hence the valuable research Richard's team is doing.

      And your palpable ignorance was of dairy products, when you implied milk wasn't milk.

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    4. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim,

      Supply and Demand.. Woolies, Coles are the distribution channels.. and they certainly "milk" the poor farmers dry. this is a completely different discussion so will leave it alone for now and if you do care then use services like http://www.themilkbox.com.au/ or direct milk delivery services.

      I offered a link to existing technology that exists now. R&D not required, what is required is better marketing and business models.. sorry but great marketing beats great products every time…

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    5. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Oh, organic.... As in lets ignore all the advances in agriculture since the 1950s and make groundless claims whilst producing 30-40% less.

      Your CSG strawman is baseless, considering I am against it. You missed the point I was making about how methane is waste in the ruminant, thus cutting the waste makes the production better.

      The methane model you linked to is not new, I've visited similar setups in the US and I'm pretty sure there are some here as well. The thing is that you have to be able to collect the dung in large enough quantities, which means shedded animals, not grazing animals in paddocks, like we have here. Essentially, it won't really work here.

      Again with your milk claims. This isn't the US where milk is reconstituted from skim milk powder. This is Australia, where we have standards. Next you'll be trying to talk about permeate free milk (a physical impossibility). Grasp hold of reality.

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    6. Ewen Peel

      Farmer

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Really Joseph...

      What you say might work in theory and to a certain extent it is happening now already.
      It is virtually impossible to measure the gas output from livestock on variable feed so the ability to make income or be taxed accurate is near impossible.
      What this article highlights very well is that a simple change of diet, ( and a lot of cows are already on some of these products)
      can make a difference to gas output.
      The key to getting a good result here is not to tax or subsidies the feed but encourage its use by showing it has a production or health benefit to the animals.
      Diet can have a huge effect on gas production. Maybe we should clear the supermarket shelves of baked beans.

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    7. Marian Macdonald

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Poo as fertiliser is what already happens on almost all Aussie dairy farms.

      Most of our cows' manure falls straight back onto the paddock, since that's where our cows spend most of their days but some of it falls onto the dairy yard while they are waiting to be milked and is collected in a pond.

      We used to get a big vacuum tanker to spray that back onto the paddocks once a year. Now, we do this with it: http://milkmaidmarian.com/2011/09/30/new-technology-sparks-a-revolution-on-farm/

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  6. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Am I in a another universe?

    I was born onto a dairy farm on the Wakool River back in the 50's and I ain't never goin' back!

    Dairy farming is one tough job. Seven days a week you are tied to your milkers who are tied to you. You are tied to the dairy co-operatives, the milk processors, the A$ and the big supermarket chains who can make or break you at any time. You might make a living - just!

    And then along comes a professor from the University of Melbourne who says the government should divert money from schools, hospitals, roads and the Army and give it to stock feed companies to make low emissions food for cows.

    There is a better way and it is this - all of the academic staff at the University of Melbourne sign a declaration that they will turn off the air-conditioning in their university buildings and not burn JetA1 fossil fuel to fly overseas ever again.

    Do you think that would happen? No chance.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Right after they pay university academic staff enough for them to fly overseas, I'm sure they'll think about not flying.

      Love the fallacy fallacy, Gerard. Taking money from other spending, that's a lark.

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Mr Scanlon

      I am not sure what your point is. Are you saying that university staff are not paid enough to fly, or that university staff are not flown overseas by their employers, the universities.

      Whatever you are on about, the Professor's bio claims he flies oveseas often, 'Richard holds a number of national and international science leadership roles, being a keynote speaker at a number of industry and international science conferences over the past few years.'

      I have no problem with the Professor flying, rather, my point is that the amount of green house gases saved by spending millions on low emissions cattle feed would be better saved by reducing our greenhouse emissions from burning fossil fuels.

      And the simplest way for us to save fossil fuels is to stop discretionary flying and reserve our usage of fossil fuels for more critical areas such as food production.

      Thank you

      Gerard Dean

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  7. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    There is a reason why grape marc is not a good stock feed supplement as studies by the US Department of Agriculture showed in the 60's. It reduces animal production, probably because it suppresses ruminant biota. So the solution being advocated here is make the animal a little unwell in order to reduce methane...

    Perhaps the researchers should try 1% charcoal additive instead, increasing reports overseas that this both lowers methane emissions by favoring gut biota other than the enteric methane producing ones and lifts live weight gains by up to 25% by improving the overall activity and feed conversion efficiency (I think this was Prescott et al, but can;t find the link at the moment)

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  8. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Currently, the Kyoto accounting sets the greenhouse cost of methane at 21 times that of a similar weight of CO2. The latest estimates put the actual cost at 105. I.e, over the next 20 years a tonne of methane will produce 105 times the warming of a tonne of CO2.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.abstract

    This is part of why James Hansen (and others) have been absolutely clear. Dealing with climate change involves deep cuts to all methane, whether from leaky natural gas fields, coal mines or dairy cattle.

    It's remarkable how people who do so much damage to the climate are now able to make money out of an insignificant reduction. It's like getting paid for beating your wife with a slightly smaller stick. This is the tragedy of using market mechanisms to deal with climate change ... far too little, far too late and scammers everywhere.

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    1. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff Russel,

      The absurdity of trying to reduce the methane emissions from cattle would be significantly reduced if the prime aim was towards increased and more efficient production. The University of new England has been carrying out such research for a number of years but i am not aware of any useful outcomes.

      The main point to make about the emissions of methane by ruminants, even if it is "26 times more potent than CO2", is that it is produced from carbon dioxide sequestered from the atmosphere in the previous year. In about ten years time, more than half of it will will revert to carbon dioxide. So overall, there is NO net gain in atmospheric, methane or carbon dioxide nor in the green house effect
      John Nicol.

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    2. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to John Nicol

      Hi John, You say 26 times. The 6 authors of the Science paper who have both qualifications and considerable experience, say 105. I'd suggest you read it.

      These things aren't a matter of opinion, you are simply wrong. Not that its complicated to understand. If you take 1 atom of CO2 and convert it to CH4, the impact is insignificant. Obviously if you took EVERY atom of CO2 and turned it into CH4, then the planet would heat very rapidly indeed. We are somewhere in between and the people who do the measuring and calculating of such things are extremely competent and clear. The amount of CO2 we are converting to CH4 is enough to make a huge difference.

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    3. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff Russell,

      I do not know where you got that figure of 105 from but the standard statement for their relative effectiveness is a ration of 20 to 25 times for CH4 relative to CO2 in terms of equivalent numbers of molecules which is usually stated in ppmv for CO2. Even if it was looking at relative weights, CO2 being 44 and CH4, 16, the ratio would be increased by a factor of less than three from say 25 to 25 x 44/16 which takes it to 68. If you look at the spectra for the two molecules it is quite obvious that a figure of about 26 is the largest ration you could possibly get for equal numbers in the atmosphere.

      John Nicol

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    4. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to John Nicol

      John, you replied to my initial comment ... obviously without reading it or the reference I linked. Your "standard statement" was the standard statment back in the late 1980s and was explicitly for the impact averaged over 100 years ... but since the methane isn't around for 100 years, averaging its impact over this period is incredibly silly, unless you are a cattle producer and want to understate your impacts on the climate ... in which case its a brilliant trick. Over the ~20 years that the methane takes to change back to CO2, the impact is far more than 25 times. The "standard statement" in this case is about 72 times. However that explicitly doesn't consider the impact on other gases (e.g. ozone) because that wasn't fully known. The Science paper I linked gives the detail so that we can now be clear that dairy methane has 105 times the impact of CO2 but the farmers are only being measured for 1/5th of its impact.

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  9. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    I learned from a long career working in another livestock industry that scientists are very good at developing all sorts of strategies for achieving all sorts of outcomes. However, the key to their success is whether farmers can or will adopt them.

    In my experience there are some basic prerequisites that must exist before farmers will adopt new management systems.

    1. The change must ensure a return on the costs involved. Otherwise it simply goes directly to the bottom line.

    2. The change…

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    1. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      The carbon tax/ETS doesn't apply to agriculture, so there is no tax penalty applied to the emissions of cattle. Instead, the carbon farming initiative allows farmers to earn money by reducing emissions. You wouldn't be measuring the emissions from each individual cow or farm, there would have to be some kind of estimate made, based on approved methodology. http://www.climatechange.gov.au/cfi

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    2. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Precisely my point. Where else do we pay taxes based on estimates? I am aware the carbon tax does not apply to enteric emissions -yet (it is incorrect to state it does not apply to agriculture).

      The argument that farmers can earn money by reducing emissions is therefore nonsense. It will simply be a subsidy, based on inaccurate information, paid by someone else.

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    3. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Dairy farmers are sufficiently numerous that wooing them as a voting block is worth doing with the added advantage that the Government will appear to be doing something without actually doing something. Australia's principle reductions in emissions have come via market forces and the crash of the wool market in the 1990s, with sheep numbers going from 170 million down to about 70 million. Land clearing reforms have added to this, but nothing else is worth a hill of beans (a nice yankee phrase!).

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    4. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Well I suppose all estimates are inaccurate by definition; more research will improve the accuracy of those estimates. How well do we measure emissions from electricity generation or industry? It can't be 100% accurate. We just do the best we can.

      OK, so the carbon farming initiative is a subsidy. We effectively subsidise renewable energy too. What's the alternative, do nothing? Convince everyone to be vegan?

      I think if we can reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by 20%, it's worth doing, and it might be worth subsidising, depending on the cost. Of course it's a drop in ocean, but every little bit helps.

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    5. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      "every little bit helps" No it doesn't. Suppose you want to climb a mountain, is it true that all uphill paths will get you to the summit? No. Before Earth Hour we were reminded that there were almost 1 million rooftop solar PV installations in Australia. Has this made our electricity cleaner? No. It hasn't even compensated for the loss of efficiency through having more interconnectors, so overall our electricity is now dirtier than it was in 1990. Those PV installations have given people a false sense of progress and allowed Governments to avoid doing the big and unavoidable things that we need to get to where we need to be. The Zero Carbon Britain report proposed to slash beef cattle in the UK by 90% and dairy by 80%. This is much close to the ball park of what can get us down to budget. Pretending we don't need to cut this deep isn't helpful. Pretending Solar panels can solve our problems isn't helpful.

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    6. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Getting off the subject a bit here, but according to the latest Australian National Greenhouse Accounts, emissions from electricity have actually declined for the past three years. In the year to September 2012 electricity emissions decreased by 2.4%. See section 2.1 of http://www.climatechange.gov.au/~/media/climate-change/emissions/2012-09/QuarterlyUpdateofAustraliasNationalGreenhouseGasInventorySeptember2012.pdf
      Part of the reason for that is reduced demand, and part of the reason for reduced…

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    7. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Exactly Eric - you want to tax something you cannot accurately measure. Where else in the taxation system does this occur?

      As for improving the accuracy with research - in fact that will not occur. Perhaps we can improve the standard deviation, but whichever way you cut it the absolute amount taxed will be and continue to be inaccurate for individuals being taxed.

      And let me assure you the 20% reduction predicted by this research will not be achieved in the field. Research trials are very different from actual farming practice.

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    8. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Most of it is due to reduced manufacturing activity. This trend is also observable in Europe - for the same reason.

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  10. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    The authors would be better converting their grape marc to biochar then feeding it to the cattle, then we might see win win.

    http://www.lrrd.org/lrrd24/11/leng24199.htm

    Measurable and significant reduction in methane >20% and increase in productivity 25%. Tell a farmer they could get paid a credit created by temporary government policy and they will simply go back to their work, tell him he can increase live weight gain AND get paid separately for doing it and you will have their attention...

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  11. Gerhard Grasser

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Surely this precious research money can be better spent on other than monitoring and devising novel methods of reducing belching, farting and burping ruminants! Different farm systems from the soil up should be thoroughly assessed for their diversity of soil and gut microbes which drive the whole production cycle. Without a healthy and functioning soil on a rising plain of soil organic matter, it can not be expected that healthy and functioning plants and animals will result. Grazing management…

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