Lately I have been involved in (and observing) some frustrating conversations. We have so many systems at play in the world of agriculture right now, and people are fighting tooth and nail to gain an edge on the competition. Even if that means throwing our neighbor under the bus. It is incredibly difficult to be a person who honestly believes that multiple systems can coexist and do so sustainably.
Grass-fed versus grain-fed.
These marketing terms are inaccurate and leading customers to believe that if beef isn’t labeled “grass-fed” or if it was in a feedlot, it must have never been on pastures or fed grass. Reality is that most all beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, consuming forages, even those that finish on a diet high in grains. If we’re going to voluntarily label for a premium, it is more accurate and does better justice to the producer to label the products according to their finishing phase, whether that be on grass, pasture, or grains. We don’t need to fuel misperceptions of the life cycle of beef cattle or lead customers astray. Once again, it goes back to my opinion that labels make us lazy. Instead, let’s do a better job of describing the work, dedication and management that goes into raising healthy cattle for nutritious beef.
Corn does not harm cattle.
No, cattle on a high-grain diet is not comparable to making frequent trips to the dessert buffet like an obese, diabetic American. Cattle are ruminants. Ruminants are able to utilize a great number of feed sources for energy by utilizing two different populations of microbes to digest the sugars found in their diet (primarily cellulose from forages, starch from grains) to form volatile fatty acids. Depending on the diet, the proportion of these microbes found in the rumen varies, making it possible for cattle to obtain energy from a forage-based diet AND a grain-based diet. I have explained this in more detail in previous posts. Your beliefs on the sustainability, health, or naturalness of feeding cattle corn does not change this process. If you do not have a decent understanding of the science behind ruminant animal nutrition, please refrain from making broad over-generalizations that misrepresent the science.
Multiple Livestock Systems Can Be Sustainable!
I am tired of hearing that livestock systems, different from your personal choices, cannot be sustainable. Everyone has room for improvement, but that does not mean sustainability is not obtainable or practiced. Sustainability looks different on each and every single operation. Two ranches across the highway from each other can practice different types of management styles and still be sustainable. One recent eye-opening experience I had was moderating a panel where the three participants (an organic local vegetable farmer, a Monsanto employee, and a conventional beef cattle rancher), each defined sustainability in different terms based on three principles of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental. Just because their answers were different does not mean any of them were wrong. Sustainability can be defined differently by different operations. Different does not equate to bad.
Feeding the world with Conventional and Alternate Farming Practices
Moving forward in livestock production with a growing global population means that we will have to utilize the tools that are available to us and make the best of our resources in producing food, which often times will mean encountering circumstances that we cannot control. This means demand will exist for local, alternatively produced food. We should cater to and encourage that. This means demand will exist for food produced on a larger scale for global markets. We should respond to and facilitate that. Both systems will exist. It is a much more global system than most Americans recognize, and we are not going to accommodate these needs by believing only one system can exist.
The basic “beef” I have with food conversations today is that we are fighting at the expense of our neighbors. Last week, I was at a ranch that has a goal of farming holistically and sustainably. They market beef that is raised on and finished while eating only forages. They have established a great system that works for their environment, their community, their employees, and customers. We were visiting with a television crew from the United Kingdom who wanted to compare grass-fed beef and feedlots. This was not an apples-to-apples comparison featuring a cow-calf setting of one system and the finishing phase of another.
The manager was very diplomatic in his conversations with the reporter, representing his beliefs and production methods, while not relying on the weakness of other production methods (as he perceives them), to elevate his own operation. Even though he had room to be a stronger advocate for his management decisions, he understands why he raises cattle the way he chooses to and is able to communicate that with others without throwing his neighbor under the bus, recognizing their production methods work for their operation. That gains my respect. Why can’t we all recognize and practice that more often?