4 frustrating agriculture messages we need to fix

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.

Exhibit A. Because wild cod definitely has a rumen to diet forages.... Misuse labels, they lose their effectiveness. Image via Facebook.
Exhibit A. Wild cod does not have a rumen to diet forages….
Misuse labels, they lose their effectiveness. Image via Facebook.

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.

The beef cattle farming and ranching community is great, diverse, and strong. Let's not ruin that with in-fighting when there are bigger issues to be concerned with.
The beef cattle farming and ranching community is great, diverse, and strong. Let’s not ruin that with in-fighting when there are bigger issues to be concerned with.

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.

gmo feed hungry people

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?


  1. Being pedantic, but if these are the messages that we need to fix, doesn’t that mean that they (as written) are wrong, i.e. the fixed message would read “Corn does harm cattle”? As you rightly point out, it doesn’t. 🙂

  2. Your points are so true! A lot of people miss so much of the earlier stages of raising beef cattle. All they focus on is the end when they might be in a feedlot being fed a high corn diet.

  3. Your sentiment rings true with me. As a conventional but small dairy farmer, we’ve made a conscious decision to not transition to organic methods. Nothing burns me more when organic marketing makes specific claims that are simply untrue – like one yogurt company claiming
    their farms don’t use “toxic, persistent pesticides.” It may be true of some by way of not using any pesticides but certainly not all. Besides, we don’t use pesticides here and we’re not organic. Make no mistake, I have nothing against organic farmers – at the end of the day we are all farmers (and there are so few of us left) and doing the best job we can taking care of our land and animals in a sustainable way. The wedges that might get put between us, in my opinion, are often created by outside forces.

    Your label comment also is right on. Just saw an article about another new “Fair Food” label being released having to do with fair labor issues. Call me old fashioned or dreaming, but I would prefer that we wouldn’t need those labels (what’s next?) and that all those attributes they may tout would be innate coming from America’s farmers and ranchers.

  4. Having sleepless nights now wondering if my water drinking dairy goats are a threat to the grass fed fish…… Great blog, by the way, I completely agree. I believe that there is room (and NEED) for all kind of farms if we are going to be able to feed the entire world. There’s a place for small and huge farms and for organic and conventional farms. As for me, I just wish people would understand that with the current environmental regulations the very large (cow) dairy farm I work for, is as environmentally safe as the very small (conventional) dairy goat operation we own ourselves. Large and small conventional farms can be as environmentally sustainable as their organic counterparts.

  5. Bullshit. Corn does harm cattle. Corn in general isn’t a good diet for animals or humans because of how it’s produced in this day and age. Watch Food Inc. It explains it.

    1. Your opinion of how corn is raised doesn’t change the fact that cattle are able to digest grains like corn and utilize them for quality nutrition.

      Now, if you want to bring forward a discussion that commodity grain production has room for change, we can talk. But not utilizing a documentary titled Food Inc. as evidence for that justification. Documentary films do not equal science or reality.

  6. Even if every production system has pros and cons, there are limits that should not be crossed nowadays, regarding the respect for environment, employees, their health and well-being, and the ruthless exploitation of soil, air, animals and manpower.
    These are the challenges for agriculture in the future.
    Your way of thinking and argumentation seems to favour every type of production method. It is time to stand up for values, and not just $$$!

    1. I’m definitely not suggesting a free for all, do whatever you’d like. Rather, I’m against suggesting ‘X’ method of farming is the only way to grow because ‘Y’ farming cannot be sustainable, responsible, etc.

      We have a responsibility to be proper stewards of our environment and resources. There are farmers of all production methods doing so. That should be recognized and celebrated. Not fought against.

      1. Totally agree with those last four sentences. Great post! There is room for all of us in agriculture; there is no one way that will work for everyone, but we each have a responsibility to do our best with our resources.

  7. National Geographic has been doing a series on food, and November takes a remarkably balanced view on production issues and benefits, downsides to current practices. It is definitely worth a read!

    1. It’s definitely a great series from NatGeo! I actually have a blog post, as part of my series on feedlots, on Monday discussing their post on feedlots since it was the feedlot in Tulia where I worked.

  8. Science based in a false paradim like the correct answer are almost always the most harmful and damaging. Blogs wont make your misinformed beliefs true…ever.

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