If you were a dairy cow, you’d probably want to live with Stephen Costello. Because Costello and his brother Paul keep their animals on their farm in Brandenburg the way they know it from their Irish homeland: the four-legged friends spend the whole year outside on the pasture. His cows, a Jersey and Holstein cross, can take it. The robust animals can withstand both sub-zero temperatures and high summer temperatures. They don’t need a stable. This distinguishes them from German grazing. Farmers only have to allow their animals to run out on the pasture or on the farm for six hours a day on 120 days. “It’s not grazing,” says Costello, “that’s a joke.”
The Costello brothers have 1000 cows. The animals stand on the pastures in Netzen, a district of Lehnin Monastery. The cattle feed on the grass in their meadows. In winter, they switch to a sandy area to avoid standing in the wet, and eat grass silage from their own farm during this time. The life of the cows is adapted to the seasons. They will have their calves when the grass begins to grow again. In the winter months, the animals and the farmers have a break. In December and January, the Costello brothers do not deliver milk.
In times when more and more people attach importance to animal welfare, the Agrargesellschaft Emster-Land mbH with its Brandenburg grass milk is a model company. The cows are not trimmed for high performance, they only give half as much milk as the turbo animals. Even the stork, which has its eyrie in the yard, fits the picture. In 2020, the Irish received the Innovation Prize of the State of Brandenburg for their cattle farming.
But this idyll is now threatened. Because the land where the cows graze is moorland. A pumping station ensures that the water does not come too close to the surface. The proximity to the water means that the grass does not wither even in the dry summers. However, the pumps prevent the grass from turning to mud, the cows from standing in the water and getting hoof rot, which is dangerous for the animals.
But now the state of Brandenburg wants to renaturate the moor areas again – for reasons of climate protection. Because wet moors store large amounts of carbon. However, if the moors are drained, the CO2 sink becomes a CO2 slingshot. Oxygen and carbon then combine to form carbon dioxide. “Drained moors are major sources of carbon dioxide, which often emit more than 30 tons of CO2 equivalents per hectare and year,” emphasizes Axel Vogel, Minister for the Environment and Agriculture of the State of Brandenburg. “Peatland protection is practical climate protection,” says the Green politician.
While the Federal Ministry for the Environment is still putting the finishing touches on a national peatland protection strategy, the federal and state governments agreed on specific targets a year ago. According to this, emissions from German peatlands are to be reduced by five million tons per year from the current 44 million tons of CO2 equivalents – that’s about five percent of Germany’s total emissions – by 2030. Brandenburg plays a central role in the success, because the state is rich in moorland. Currently, however, more than 200,000 hectares of moorland and moorland follow-up areas are used for agriculture, which is roughly the size of 280 soccer fields. This releases around 6.2 million tons of CO2 equivalents. To prevent this, the water level would have to be raised so that the moors are wet again. According to the federal-state agreement, around 50,000 hectares in Brandenburg would have to be flooded by 2030, which is larger than Cologne.
In 20 project areas, investigations are now to be carried out into how renaturation can work and how environmental protection and agriculture can be reconciled. One of the regions affected is the Netzen polder – and with it the pastures where the Costello cows are currently still at home. The only question is how much longer.
The situation is getting uncomfortable for the Costello brothers. They have leased part of the 500 hectares that they need for their cows. The state of Brandenburg is now making purchase offers to the lessors, which is causing unrest – and increasing prices, reports Stephen Costello. “Prices in the region have risen by almost 50 percent,” says the 34-year-old. He doesn’t want to sell, he wants to stay and continue grazing. He doesn’t understand that he in particular should give way when heaps of asparagus fields around him are being artificially irrigated. “Grass stores more carbon dioxide than fields,” he argues.
Carsten Preuß, state chairman of the BUND, agrees that grazing is better than arable land from a climate point of view. In addition, cattle keep the moorland clear of trees that would draw water. Use and moor protection belong together, says the environmentalist. “Making the moors wetter again does not mean that use is ruled out”.
This is also emphasized in the Federal Environment Ministry. “We want to design moor protection in close cooperation with the people in the moor regions,” says the Tagesspiegel. It is clear that those who cultivate these soils need an economically viable future perspective. The ministry wants to promote photovoltaic systems there and promote sustainable management methods that work on moor soil that has been wetted again. The Federal Environment Agency recommends, for example, the cultivation of reeds for thatched roofs and the keeping of water buffalos, which do not mind wet conditions.
The Costellos already have twenty water buffaloes, they graze in the nature reserve, which the Irish also look after. You can make mozzarella from their milk, but drinking milk? Probably not. And so the brothers fight to be allowed to stay. They have made alternative suggestions as to how the water could be diverted to other areas. Even if the water level were raised to 40 centimeters below the ground surface, the farmers and their animals could survive. The Brandenburg Ministry of Agriculture emphasizes that the process is still at the very beginning. A spokesman assures that the country is interested in amicable solutions. But Stephen Costello is skeptical: “I’m afraid Brandenburg no longer wants grazing”. he says.