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Beefs and Beliefs

Antique Science Mismeasures Grassfed

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

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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