Antique Science Mismeasures Grassfed

Beefs and Beliefs

I write an open letter to my coworker, editor of Feedstuffs' Foodlink

Published on: August 3, 2011

After reading the Foodlink department article by my co-worker Sarah Muirhead in the May 23 edition of Feedstuffs weekly newspaper, I felt compelled to set straight some misstatements about “pasture-based” finishing of cattle.

First the background: After visiting Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia with a group of academics, Muirhead wrote that a “grass-fed system” of finishing all beef cattle would require an extra 64.6 million animals to annually produce the same amount of beef that’s produced through conventional methods. She also noted such a system would require more land and water.

None of these statements are supportable except by academic miscalculations.

In fact, before reading this piece I had recently gone through an accounting of these issues by telephone with Judith "Jude" Capper, an animal scientist at Washington State University. Capper has done some good work recently revising science to downsize the "carbon footprint" of the livestock industry. She also was with Muirhead on this visit to Salatin’s farm.

So let me lay out the facts for you as I understand them and have witnessed them. Keep in mind I have been friends with some of the best graziers in the nation for more than 15 years and I spend as much time as I can each year tracking down great graziers I haven’t met and learning from them, too.

The problem begins with the failure of scientists to verify the reality of the “facts” they are using in their calculations. The first thing I asked Capper was whether she always relied on established science for her calculations. She said absolutely yes. This makes her work viable for other scientists yet I say it handicaps it for reality.

The trouble with that approach is only one scientist I know of has spent considerable time studying the effects of the latest, most progressive knowledge about grazing – Richard Teague at Texas A&M University’s Agrilife center at Vernon, Texas. In fact you’ll find a story about his new research study in the August issue of Beef Producer in which he examines why scientists haven’t been able to duplicate the fantastic results of top-flight graziers.

Those results matter immensely because the best graziers always increase their stocking rate by double and later on by triple or more. The pulse of grazing followed by recovery time benefits the forage and the soil life so much their swards get thicker and more productive.

That means no additional land is needed for grass finishing. That’s because it is essentially impossible to grass-finish cattle using conventional, set-stock grazing and every established grass finisher I’ve ever met is at least an fairly good grazing manager.

Next, we need to address the claim additional beef animals are needed to produce the same amount of beef. This could become a complex issue, but the simplest answer is that the only additional thing needed would be time.

Grass-finished animals are usually ready at 20-25 months, versus feedlot cattle which until recently were commonly finished at about 14-16 months. Yet that has changed already as feeders are leaving cattle on pasture much longer and to much heavier weights to capture the cheaper gains from forage and minimize the expense of feeding high-priced corn.

In the end, however, when cattle are slaughter-ready they weigh roughly the same. We have reported on this recently in the May 2011 issue of Beef Producer in the article on pasture-based, grain finishing. We also reported on this in the November 2010 issue where data showed cattle achieved the same grades with early grain feeding or long pasturing followed by a shorter period of grain feeding, so long as they were finished to the same endpoint of body fat cover.

The only significant difference was days to finish. In the simplest terms that means the number of cattle needed in a 100% grass-finishing “system” would not change.

But I must add that nearly all grass-finishers and many cow-calf operators are downsizing their cows and most argue they can produce as much or more tonnage of salable calf with these shorter, more forage-efficient cows. The calculations of at least some scientists back support their claim.

As for the water issue, if we don’t need more cattle we don’t need more water.

In addition we should recognize the typical feedlot ration is commonly 80% dry matter. Live forage is often 80% moisture. That means during the growing season cattle will drink less water if they are grazing than when eating dry rations.

Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention Muirhead correctly stated Salatin’s real success has been creating a production system that works and makes a good profit for his family farm.

Further, let me add that no rational person would suggest we must have an all-grass production system any more than I believe a rational person should argue every beef animal must be fed grain before slaughter and consumption.

But the science needs updating. So scientists, please, let’s make the corrections and get on with it.

To read a more recent story by Jude Capper in Feedstuffs click here.

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  1. Sarah Muirhead says:

    Alan: I appreciate your insight and welcome the discussion. The article to which you refer was actually a reflection from my recent visit to Polyface Farms where I had the amazing opportunity to spend several hours touring with farmer Joel Salatin of Food Inc. fame. (One system does not fit all - http://bit.ly/lwJtva). Salatin adheres largely to a pasture-based system and beliefs that land and animal together create a biological system that most efficiently provides food and the essentials of life. He also believes that cattle are herbivores and should eat grass not corn. That said, all the other pasture-raised animals (chickens, turkeys, pigs) at Polyface receive over 50% of their nutrition from corn as pasture alone does not adequately provide for their needs. The cattle at Polyface graze the grass-based pastures during the spring, summer and fall. In the winter they are brought into a confinement type system where they are fed hay collected during the previous pasture season. Winter feeding at the farm is solely about building frame size rather than fattening, according to Salatin and that was obvious given the condition of the animals when I was there in mid-May when the grass was just starting to come in for the season. At Polyface, the cattle take as long as 28 to 30 months to finish and 15% of the herd never achieve that goal. That 15% is why Polyface sells hot dogs. Hot dogs that retail for $6 per 1 lb. package of eight dogs. Average carcass weights at market are 525-600 lb. “We are not in the speed business. We are not trying to grow the biggest animal,” said Salatin. The cattle at Polyface also are quite a mix of breeds and sizes but since processing is done at a small local abattoir on the basis of need and visual critique, consistency is certainly not the issue it would with more modern systems of processing. Salad Bar Beef - as Joel calls it and I admit that it is quite clever - does come with a higher price tag for consumers. Ground beef is $5.50/lb., hamburger patties are $7/lb., a T-bone steak is $20/lb., New York Strip is $18/lb. and a filet mignon is $27/lb., according the Polyface price list as set Jan. 21, 2011 and is subject to change at any time. As for the specific economics of grass-fed vs. contemporary feedlot beef, I must yield to the experts on that, and as you pointed so well there are various scientific perspectives that exist in that regard. Thank you for providing the link to Dr. Jude Capper’s work that I briefly referenced in my article in regard to increased land and water use. Personally, I’m a believer in all types of production systems and in choice at the grocery store or wherever one shops. I will quickly take issue with misleading marketing, particularly when it puts another sector in an unwarranted negative light simply through implication. For instance, I recently saw a group state that they do not provide expired pharmaceutical products to their turkeys. Does that not imply that others do such a thing, which is indeed a totally illegal practice? Alan, I understand your points related to the conventional versus grass-fed discussion but you know the really interesting thing I took away from Polyface actually had nothing to with farming practices or which is more environmental friendly. Unfortunately, it was the arrogance (I know that is harsh but there is nothing else to call it) of some within the contemporary food system, particularly some that openly “advocate” for the industry. Several in the group I took to the hills of Virginia to meet Salatin back in May were openly encouraged by leading industry advocates not to “waste” their time in making the trip. Videos and articles I produced were attacked as not having relevance and not being of any value as “there are so many farmers and ranchers out there doing really great things that should be highlighted instead of Joel Salatin.” I was told that I needed to broaden my circle and to stop talking to the “e