- More humane animal treatment
- More nutritious meat and dairy products
- Reduced flooding and soil erosion
- Increased groundwater recharge
- More sustainable manure management
- Less E. Coli food poisoning
- More fertile soil and more nutritious forages
- More diverse and healthier ecosystems
- Reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow unsustainable corn and soy
100% Grass Fed Beef = No Grains | No Additives | No Hormones | Low Cholesterol | High Protein
Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef and other meat simply because they know it's healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart, and because they don't like the filth, cruelty and antibiotics inherent in the "concentrated animal feeding operations" that are now so prevalent.
The health claim is not speculation. Grass-fed beef and dairy products are leaner, but more importantly, lower in omega-6 fats that are linked to heart disease. Grass-fed meat and dairy products also are higher in beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids. Both reduce the risk of heart disease.
Besides, grass-fed beef tastes better. I know because I eat it. However, it only tastes better if it's raised right.
Better Grass and Rotational Grazing
The most important factor in quality beef, however, is the quality of the grass itself. Specifically, the grass should have a high sugar content. That quality is not automatic. It is not as simple as pointing cows at pasture and waiting for results. In fact, a trained eye will notice a similar scene at virtually any modern grass-fed beef operation: a couple of strands of electric fencing running around a bunch of cattle grazing in a clump. In fact, you could argue that the current revolution in grass-fed beef would not be possible without poly-wire electric fencing, which is cheap and easy to move.
The Grass-fed Beef Boom
The best evidence of this potential meat production revolution is a label that began showing up on packages of grass-fed beef across the nation early in 2009. The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. The label certifies the beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots; received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed; and were humanely raised and handled. It signals the emergence of a marketing network that already has placed grass-fed products in virtually every region of the nation in co-ops, health food stores and, in the case of the Southeast, in Public Super Markets, a chain of more than 900 stores. The grass-fed label is evidence that the idea has reached critical mass. It's been a long time coming, but what is driving it is profit, plain and simple.
A diverse collection of pioneers across the nation is raising not bison, but mostly grass-fed beef and dairy, an enterprise that can scale up quickly. They have a working model. It is not unrealistic to expect that we as a nation could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs that cannot currently be used for grazing) to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the bargain.
Doing so would have many benefits. It would give us a more humane livestock system, a healthier human diet, less deadly E. coli, elimination of feedlots, a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide, enormous savings in energy, virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on those lands, elimination of catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin, and most intriguingly, a dramatic reduction in global warming gases.
For thousands of years, the dominant big grazer of North America was the American bison. It is the rule of co-evolution that when species evolve together they come to thrive on each others presence, and this is true of bison and the grasses, forests and shrubs of the American landscape. But great herds of migrating bison grazed very differently than the way cattle graze on pasture today.
This has led graziers to develop a system that has many names but is often called "managed intensive rotational grazing. Many people think of intensive grazing as negative, because we're so accustomed to seeing the erosion that results from destructive overgrazing. But, intensive grazing is actually beneficial for grassland. It works this way: Graziers use the temporary electric fences to confine a herd of perhaps 50 calves or steers to an area the size of a small suburban front lawn for a short period, often as short as a half a day. Then the grazier arranges the easily movable fence to surround an adjacent small plot, on through a series of paddocks in a cycle of maybe 30 days, depending on conditions.
The result is the cattle graze all the plants down to a few inches, and then are moved to fresh grass. Each paddock is allowed to rest until the grass fully recovers. This roughly simulates the tactics of bison and in turn stimulates sweet, highly nutritious and palatable new growth, controls weeds and promotes biodiversity. In short, intensive grazing forces cattle to graze grassland the way bison used to.
Deep Rooting | Better Drainage | Richer Soils
A plowed field sheds rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can absorb, at most, about 11⁄2 inches of rain in an hour. A permanent pasture can suck up as many as 7 inches of rain in an hour. That's the difference between floods and no floods.
Most astonishing of all is what happens after the land is restored to grassland. Grass, like most plants, reacts to changing conditions. It builds a root system to support its leaves and stems, but when a cow munches off the top of the plant, there is not enough energy left to support all its roots. The plant reacts by sloughing roots, then builds back deeper roots as above ground parts regrow.
Deep rooting is, in fact, an overlooked factor here. All of our row crops are shallow-rooted and so for generations they have worked a narrow layer of the soil. Constant harvesting of these crops has depleted this topsoil of essential elements such as magnesium and calcium. As a result, both are now lacking not only in our diets, but also in the diets of livestock. This is a human health issue, but veterinarians say it also creates a mineral imbalance in grain-fed livestock that lies at the root of many of their health problems. In contrast to shallow-rooted row crops, deep-rooted grasses dig down to fresh minerals. Those minerals then become available to everything up the food chain, supporting the overall health of the entire system.
The roots that are sloughed-off after every grazing rotation are equally important; they become decaying organic material that feeds microorganisms, restores subsoil health, creates water-absorbing voids, and ultimately steadily increases the organic matter, or carbon content of the soil. There are big implications here both for building fertile soil and fighting climate change.
Using Intensive Grazing to Store Carbon
When American settlers first busted Midwestern prairies, they worked highly fertile virgin soil that was about 10 percent organic matter. On average, 150 years of agriculture has cut that vital organic matter by more than half and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the leading driver of global warming, into the air. Permanent pastures managed correctly can tap solar energy to pump about 1 percent of organic matter back to the soil each year. If we convert from grain-fed to grass-fed meat, we can turn millions of acres of row crops into carbon sinks, and use permanent pasture to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as conserve water.
The carbon balance of any given enterprise is a complicated matter. We've understood some of this in looking at the carbon footprint of farming, but in fact, we have not made it complicated enough. There is a complex energy stream feeding industrial agriculture, both in fuels for transportation, tillage, storage and processing, and also in the natural gas used to make chemical fertilizers. All this makes modern industrial agriculture energy intensive and therefore gives it a pretty big carbon footprint.
Without exception, all of the tillage systems examined in one study published in Science were net contributors to global warming, and the worst offenders were the annual crops corn, soybeans and wheat farmed with conventional methods. Meanwhile, fields of perennial crops in the same study pulled both methane and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stashed it safely in the soil. There is even some evidence that perennial grasslands are, under certain conditions, even better at sequestering carbon than forests.
A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a source of global warming gases, but a permanent pasture is a pump that pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility. Even though we harvest meat from the pastures each year, still the soil grows richer and holds more carbon. We get all these benefits thanks to solar energy, plant photosynthesis and natural cycles of grasslands and grazing animals.
Intriguingly, though, the rules prohibit grazing on CRP lands under ordinary conditions. Imagine what could be accomplished with some creative changes in the rules to allow carefully managed grazing and connect CRP to the market driver of grass-fed beef and dairy!
All this raises the very point missed by industrial agriculture. Intensive rotational grazing offers a corrective to the narrowing diversity on the farm landscape. We are slowly learning that human enterprises work best when they mimic nature's diversity. Early on, especially in organic farming and with the rise of vegetarianism, we began thinking we could approach that diversity by raising a variety of a dozen or so tilled crops (never mind that an acre of pure prairie contains hundreds of species of plants). But it seems obvious now that this line of thinking needed to step up a couple of levels on the taxonomic hierarchy. Why did we think we could in any meaningful way mimic nature's biodiversity by excluding the animal kingdom?
Over the years, organic farmers have told me they relearned this important point: Many found out the hard way that they could not make their operations balance out both biologically and economically (they're the same in the end) without bringing animals back into the equation. Handled right, animals control weeds and insects, cycle nutrients, and provide a use for waste and failed crops. Healthy ecosystems, wild and domestic, must include animals. Now there's a chance we may realize how very important this idea is to the life of the planet.
In more modern times, Dr. Peter Mansfield has assessed the role which fat plays in our diet and whether it is responsible for the increase in heart disease. In 'Chemical Children', he says:
"More plausible is the suggestion that the kind rather than the amount of fat is wrong...we have already learned a lot by reflecting on the habits of our ancestors, many of whom thrived well on meat. But their animals were healthy and enjoyed a wide variety of food in all seasons. They ate grass not only young and green, but in seed a few months later. And they browsed leaves and shoots of trees as far up as they could reach. They still do, when they get the chance.
But trees grow slowly and...pastures are usually fenced off grass enclosures nowadays. No grass gets a chance to seed...so modern animals enjoy a much narrower diet than their ancestors...whole seeds and dark green leaves are conspicuous absentees. In times past these would have been their principal sources of two special fatty acids which they cannot make from any other source: and linolenic acid...without these animals do not grow...the fat composition of modern diets is clearly quite important and may prove relevant to a whole range of conditions which puzzle us now, from allergies to multiple sclerosis...animals not bred for health prove at times not healthy enough...we should be exposed to much less immediate or potential hazard if it (meat) were grown slowly, for health rather than quantity."
- Excerpt from The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young, 2003