A Bit of Beef

Today’s blog is once again brought to you by our multi-talented farm manager, Dugan. 

I was having a spirited online debate in early January on a topic I am rather passionate
about, on every American has an opinion about, and probably less than 1% are qualified to speak about. That topic is rearing beeves†. It really got my blood into full steam whistle boil by the end from a sucker punch thrown in as a parting shot from a lurker on the post. I want to bring people through this and one other conversation I just had at the pub about what cattle eat.

This will be a lot of fun, and I will fill it with quotes and citations so that I am not speaking
from my own brain, but from the mouths of those with letters to prove they know what they speak of versus a farmer. This is another peeve of mine too… when did farmers become portrayed as dumb?

The parting shot will be more than enough fuel for this paper or speech to take off and fly.
“Except actually, not really. There has been decades of research on this, and the only people who believe cows are actually good for the environment all just happen to be cattle farmers, go figure?” This was the parting shot. It made me pause. I wanted to post a scathing perfectly planned rebuttal when it struck me. This person is absolutely right. The strongest voices for cattle, are the ranchers. With a little more thought it becomes very clear why these folks support it, and why really besides a land grant college there are not many others who are qualified to speak on the topic. Per the 2009 Beef Board Industry fact sheet, there are 1 million cattle farms in the USA. That is 31%, and most of them have fewer than 50 head. There are 94 million beeves produced each year, so there are a few mega farms that make the remaining 44 million head. This is a very skewed data set, and rather than work with averages, we need to work with median.

Most everyone has forgotten about my favorite statistical tool, so here is another tangent and 30 seconds of review. Two college kids are in a room with Bill Gates. The average income of that gathering is about $1000 dollars an hour, where as the median might be $12. The beef industry data and statistics are being skewed in just the same way.

Back to the issue with the debate I had and what it was about, not just that farmers appear to be stupid in the eyes of the masses. It was an intriguing article about real meat being produced from a twin screw extruder. No animals involved, but real meat coming out. Meat for vegetarians. Yup, I did say that. Meat for those who won’t eat it. I will not go into the difficulty I have with that whole issue of creating something your body is screaming and craving for, but you refuse to eat. We crave nutrients. When you crave something you are deficient in it. Darn tangents again, this is why I will never write a book I have the symptoms of something the Egyptians calls PADD, or Papyrus Attention Deficit Disorder. Meat from a machine that uses edible food products and some magic to make what they claim is the perfect environmental solution due to the fact that plants don’t fart, breathe, or poop. Hooray for plants.

Clearly because plants create less methane we should make cows go extinct. Ruminants are bad for the environment. I had to bite my hand as I cruised through very long paper that was full of refutable “facts”. Here is what I wrote to open a window into the mind of my friend who was giddy about the machine meat. “I don’t even know where to begin. I love this concept, but when I started reading this, and realized that there is so little I can do to say how wrong most of this article gets farming. 36000 cals for beef sure (eaten calories for 1000 calories of meat). That is 36000 cals of inedible into edible. Peas are edible. What did we win? Livestock graze where plows dare not go, and PLANT agriculture is more responsible for erosion and aquifer depletion than cattle. He hits hard on grassfed beef, but fails to point out that grasslands sequester more carbon that trees. Trees SUCK at sequestration. Migration and Mob grazing can build more than 2 feet of topsoil with up to 11% organic material. Find me a forest, or a plowed field that can do that? Find me a pea field that can absorb 10 inches of rain an hour! Runoff is from residential lawns and ag fields (and pavement). NOT well managed livestock fields. Feed lots are not well managed. Cows were never meant to eat that crap. EVER. That was all spawned by subsidy systems, NOT by a real economy, and not by cattlemen. Maybe it is cool this has become an alternative protein source, but until the sources of plants can be harvested in a way that does better than what a well managed grassland can do there is about 60% BS in this article. Stay away from industrial, be it meat or vegetable. Veg is not environmentally friendly, and the numbers can lay that bare. Local no till veg can be awesome, but most is not.

Sorry to rant, but as a farmer some of this makes my blood boil. This is cool technology, but the article SUCKS. I hope these guys can pull this off. We need options!” My high school friend responded to my rant “Uh, wow. I had no idea. I just want people to stop eating as many animals but I guess it’s complicated! Dugan Tillman-Brown, why don’t you write an article about this?” A new fellow chimed in with a bit of help, “What Dugan said. This is yet more trying to industrialize our way out of an industrial problem. Our focus should be on reducing and eliminating petrochemically supported monocrop agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).” Still excited about it, I added a little more fuel. “I talk about this on almost every tour that I give on my farms. There are several good books on this, and we are compiling a series of photographs of how wasteland can be converted over a short span of time with simple techniques, and we are backing it up with soil analysis. Next fall I am on the hook to talk about nutrition of pigs and the occurrence of FPCs (flatulence producing compounds) in their food, and what a balanced ration is actually like. Methane and cows is very dependent on nutrition, and the glandular strength of the herds. Modern body types are deficient due to the penalties levied by the feedlots for easy fleshing cattle. Easy Keeper cattle with the right bodies “finish” in 60 days or less, where as the leggy things take 150 days.

The Lot makes money selling feed, so it is easy to see which ones they will allow in. This whole system is screwy. We are feeding food to animals that die from it because they were never meant to eat it and that food could have fed humans. The dying animal would have been fine eating what humans cannot. Feedlot cattle are timed to enter the slaughter house just before their liver craps out from all the junk in their diet that they cannot digest. Cattle are alkaline animals and grain makes them acidic. Ever wonder why the E.coli is now transferable when before it never was? Uggh. I wish more people cared about food. Thank you for your post and interest. Please keep learning! Grow a victory garden, or a square foot one if you live in the city! Happy New Year!”

Then came that goof with the parting blow. He even posted a dig at a man who has been
invited by countries, governments, universities, and concerned groups the world over to help them use their herds to restore the land. Allan Savoy of the Savoy Institute was the fellow who was offered to me as a quack. Allan has been watching the interaction of land and beast for years and began showing people how the environment could be saved by the same animals that had destroyed it. The difference was management. When we stopped animals from herding and migrating we stopped the environment that kept soil covered for the last few millions of years. Grass and cattle evolved at the same time, each one to assist the other. Cattle farmers are in decline because they are focused on only one thing and that is the cattle. Grass farmers are on the rise as they focus on the bottom of the pyramid, the grass, and have installed a well managed apex predator, the cow.

This is the crux. This is where we have come to the main hurdle for beef in America. Beef
herds are not often enough managed with the grass in mind, and the genetics of the herd are not managed for the thrifty gene, but for the big gene. Let’s look at the gene stock first. In our world bigger is better. Look at any competition for darn near everything, trucks, cars, veggies, cows, calves, ranches, the Guinness book, or the supermarket. Bigger is sought, but it comes at a cost, and it is one that we are not really able to pay. Imagine two cows, one is 10 lollymoozes tall, long, and wide, the other only 8 lollymooz. What is a lollymooz (LM)? No idea, I made it up so you wouldn’t try to compare it to the real world. The 10 lm cow is stunning to see! It is HUGE, it has a long stride, a 10 lolly mouth, it is awesome. The 8 lolly cow is not as awe inspiring is it. It is smaller in every way. It is 20% smaller in every way you can measure it with a tape, but there is something magical about the 8 lollymooz cow, and that comes when we do the math. A 10LM cow has a volume of 1000 cubic LM (10Lx10wx10h = 1000). The 8LM cow who does everything 20% smaller her stride, the bite of grass, the area she can range in a day all 20% reduced. We would expect her to be 800 cubic LM to follow suit, but she is not. She is 8wx8tx8h which is only 512 cubic LM. She has an almost 29% grazing advantage over the 10LM cow. She moves 80% as fast to feed half the body. It means she has the ability to cherry pick the cream of
the crop rather than just eat it all to just survive, it means the 30% extra harvest can go to her calf, or to weight gain, or to fat.

It seems plain that the smaller cow would be the go to animal, but the beef industry has followed the show ring, and everyone likes a pat on the back and to be the big man on campus, so the march in step, and make a cow that wins in the ring and the stud book, but that fails in the field. It is called EGO. This ego has crippled the industry because even cattlemen who don’t care about the ring, cannot really get access to the genes that will really thrive because they can become a laughing stock. Just picture it, poor old Joe getting laughed at for not being able to grow big calves, heck his cows only weigh 1000lbs. I’ve got tons that are 1600lbs. don’t you know how to farm Joe?

Managing the cattle and the grass are a pretty big paradigm shift not only for the growers,
but the seed stock producers, and for the market. There is too much for me to even touch on grass management, I have about 30 books on it that I have read cover to cover, seminars I have been too, and tons of time doing little else but watching the cattle eat grass. I would turn you to the books available through Stockman Grass Farmer as a great place to start, and much of the data I have used, and failed to cite comes from the works of Jim Gerrish, Ian Mitchell Innes, Greg Judy, Kit Pharro, Story Publications, Gerald Fry, and many many more. Dive into this rabbit hole, and see why I confidently claim that even the people who are researching this industry are often looking left when the meat is to the right. Oh, and a parting gift, learn about Dung Beetles.

† plural of beef