Friday, August 13, 2010

Raising beef

Sabbath eve, August 13, 2010

I read quite a bit of material talking about how raising livestock for food is a poor use of natural resources. The argument usually goes, it takes X pounds of grain or protein derived from grain to produce Y pounds of meat, X always being a larger number than Y. And, left at that, the argument is correct. In the real world however, things are a bit more complicated. What some fail to understand is that sustainable agriculture (or unsustainable agriculture for that matter) involves a closed loop system. What you take from the soil must be replaced. Nothing is lost or gained, but rather moved from one place to another. While the process of photosynthess comes as close to getting something from nothing as it gets, utilizing the sun’s energy and chlorophyll to convert water into sugar in plant cells, those plants need additional nutrients to grow. And an animal burns a certain amount of energy moving or staying warm that is burned off or lost from the equation. However, in a properly run farm, animals play an important role, utilizing land and plants not suitable for cultivation to produce dense, high protein food we can eat, and also serve as vehicles by which nutrients can be returned to the soil.

To be sure the current arrangement of raising calves and shipping them to a few horrendously large and isolated feed yard/processing facilities where they are fed grains grown hundreds or thousands of miles away from both the farms where the grain is produced and markets where the resulting meat is consumed is a wasteful practice from the standpoint of sustainability, and totally dependent on cheap and plentiful supplies of fossil fuels. But raising livestock doesn’t have to be done that way and wasn’t until recent times.

A fairly large percentage of whatever cattle eat, particularly when it’s a grain product, passes though the animal and comes out as shit, or manure, for you of gentler natures. That’s where the largest loss of energy and protein takes place. If that animal happens to be eating that grain in some big ass pen full of his brothers and sisters in the panhandle of Texas or the high plains of the heartland, miles from anywhere the manure can be spread back on farms where grains are grown, or good pasture land where calves are produced, it becomes a hazardous waste product. Cattle manure is bulky and not particularly concentrated, so hauling it any large distance from where it’s produced is not an economically or energy viable practice.

In earlier eras, just about every small town in Texas had a slaughter facility. Small feed yards dotted the state as well. Butchers were respected members of the community and knew their clients. They also ate the meat they produced and took care to see that it was properly prepared and handled. If they didn’t, they would soon be put out of business by someone else that did.

These small feed-lots were in range of pastures and fields where grain products were produced and the manure could be reapplied to the ground, replenishing not only the principle nutrients like Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, but also trace elements and minerals not found in chemical fertilizers. In addition, this manure contained beneficial bacteria and organic matter to improve the texture and condition of the soil.

There are still a few farms utilizing primarily grass fed beef in coordination with other livestock and plant production that serve as models for a time when the current system fails. I first read about Polyface Farms in Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I don’t honestly think this type of farm is entirely economically viable at the moment, though some would argue otherwise. No doubt, Joel Salatin is making money, but he employs hands that work for free to learn his processes, interns they’re called, and also generates income by selling lectures to others wishing to learn his trade. I don’t know how well he’d do if his only income came from selling the produce he raises in the free market, or more properly termed rigged market in which we now operate.

Neverthess, I aspire to create something similar to what he does on our farms and ranches.

One of the most sustainable systems ever employed, albeit one that would not support the numbers of people currently living on the North American continent, was that of plains Indians that followed and hunted buffalo. Buffalo ate grass and deposited fertilizer to the ground from which they ate, constantly moving and grazing fresh ground so the grass did not get overgrazed and was allowed to reseed each year. This also kept the animals from being infested with intestinal worms, as the animals were long gone when any resulting eggs might have hatched.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to eat meat. In a perfect world, we probably wouldn’t. What I am saying is that the idea that eating animals by necessity causes famine in the world, is flawed thinking. There’s hardly anything in modern agriculture less sustainable than the endless waves of genetically modified, chemically laced grain we now grow with oil powered machines and oil and gas based fertilizers, perticides and herbicides. Absent fossil based fuels and fertilizers, this ground will become hard packed barren waste land in two years or less.

What you take from the soil, you must put back. There’s no way around this.

Here’s another fun fact: The largest population of cattle by country on the planet is in India. Because they don’t eat them.

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