Retiring Cows: What Would Happen to the Land?

If millions of dairy cows retire tomorrow and are somehow rehomed, the next matter is how the land they leave behind will be managed. For example, a pasture that was formerly used for cattle would no longer be used for that resource. Areas used for grain or fertilizer would also change functionality. 

Just grow more food! some may say, but it isn’t that easy. If dairy cows are no longer a part of US agriculture, pasture and grain land used for producing feed and sourcing cow waste as fertilizer will no longer exist. Focusing on grain, fruits, and vegetables in these areas is viable for some types of land, while others, such as land used for grazing, can sustainably grow only certain crops, if any. 

In addition to the potential loss of usable land, a need to grow more fruits and vegetables would spike greenhouse gas emissions due to the need of artificial fertilizers and rise in byproducts which cows currently consume. If cows aren’t put to work, then no one will go to collect their manure and use it as a fertilizer. And even if cows’ new owners continue to collect and feed byproducts like orange pulps and Brewers grain to them, the eventual decrease in cow population will lead to more food waste. 

So don’t use it! Let it return to nature. If not put to agricultural use, wouldn’t this land be developed, possibly leading to a rise in air pollution and other effects that follow a population growth in any area? 

And simply taking land out of production and reverting it to wildlife habitats is unrealistic. Dairy farmers would need to be financially compensated for property and revenue loss for the land and the newly retired cows. Some of this land is rented, which would also cause a financial loss for the landowners if they could not find a new tenant. Retiring cows would not only impact the area’s land use, but they would also greatly impact families’ income. 

Next week, the series will look at what would happen to the environment without working dairy cows.