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Graze Anatomy

Todd Churchill's cattle munch on tall fescue and red and white clover.
     
The blueprint for an agricultural revolution (and a better burger)

Will Winter and Todd Churchill have a plan. It's simple, it's workable, and if enough people do it, it will shrink our carbon footprint, expand biodiversity and wildlife habitat, promote human health, humanize farming, control rampant flooding, radically decrease the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and-for those of us who still eat the stuff-produce a first-class, guilt-free steak. Their plan: let cows eat grass.

The two men share a background in conventional farming. Winter came of age in the heart of the Midwest, starting his veterinary practice in the 1970s when industrial-strength livestock operations were gaining a full head of steam. "I had a syringe of antibiotics in this hand and a syringe of steroids in the other hand and I thought I was going to go cure the world," he says. "But I left conventional farming practice because it was so crude and so cruel. The cruelty drove me nuts." In the feedlots where cattle are stuffed with corn to produce almost all the beef Americans eat, he explains,"we were weaning [the calves], hot-iron branding them, vaccinating them, castrating them, dehorning them, and shipping them in one day. These are vets doing this, shooting them with 10-way vaccines, giving them 10 different diseases in one day."

For Churchill the epiphany was less dramatic, but no less wound up in the realities of industrial-scale farming. He grew up on a large, efficient corn-and-soybean farm near Moline, Illinois. "I spent all my summers as a child ripping out the fences, and we'd bulldoze all the trees and make one big cornfield. And then I thought: where do the birds live? The birds' job is to eat the aphids, but since we don't have trees anymore, we don't have birds, so we have to spray the aphids. Does that really make sense in the long run?" 

Winter left his veterinary practice and became a foodie, promoting and distributing raw milk products in Minnesota and working as a consultant for graziers. He is the sort of fellow to have several irons in the fire at all times, and he offered up some free-range pork, his latest venture, when I met him at his Minneapolis home for breakfast.

Churchill became an accountant, also in southeast Minnesota. He had heard the heretical claims of a few contrarian farmers finishing beef on grass pastures instead of feedlots. It seemed an anachronism, defying the conventional wisdom that only the feedlot system can yield the economic efficiencies that leave Americans amply supplied with cheap beef and milk. But criticism of that system has escalated exponentially and for a host of different reasons: rapidly rising energy prices, concerns about global warming, and feed costs that leave poor people begging for the grain that Americans use to fatten livestock. 

After sampling some grass-fed beef-some of it excellent, some inedible-Churchill decided to go into the business himself. He started the Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, in 2003. A year later he met Winter, and the boots-and-jeans cattleman wannabe invited the jovial, generation-older vet-foodie to join him. Thousand Hills is now a substantial business, buying, slaughtering, and selling about 1,000 grass-fed cows a year to whole food stores, co-ops, restaurants, and three colleges in the Twin Cities area. Churchill buys his cattle from a small network of regional farmers able to meet his standards for quality.

Thousand Hills is part of an evolving nationwide web. The Denver-based American Grassfed Association was founded by just eight members in 2003, but now claims 380. Carrie Balkcom, the group's executive director, says companies like Thousand Hills have sprung up throughout the country. At one end of the spectrum are large operations like White Oak Pastures in Georgia, which sells to the Whole Foods Market chain throughout the Southeast and Publix Supermarkets in the Atlanta area. At the other end are hundreds of small farms that sell directly to consumers, says Balkcom. Theo Weening, global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, says grass-fed beef is available in virtually all of his company's stores, and demand is growing.

Grass-fed beef, in other words, is poised to move out of the niche market and into the mainstream-as long as farmers can make it profitable.

Winter points out that for agriculture to be "sustainable," it must have a sustainable business model. "Todd says you have to earn the right to be here next year," he says. This was hard at first for operations like Thousand Springs, but the grass-fed system has matured to the point where significant chunks of the nation's corn-ravaged landscape can be converted into far more sustainable permanent pastures -- without a loss in production.At the heart of this shift lies a humble leap in technology, a fencing material called polywire, which you are sure to notice when you walk into a field with Churchill. A polywire fence is short and flimsy, composed of a single strand that resembles yellow-braided fishing line. This makes cheap, easily movable, and effective electric fences, and it is the key to the whole operation.

Modern grass farmers almost universally rely on something called managed intensive rotational grazing. Polywire fences confine a herd of maybe 60 cows to an area the size of a suburban front lawn, typically for 12 hours. Then the grazier moves the fence, to cycle through a series of such paddocks every month or so. This reflects a basic ecological principle. Left to their own devices in a diverse ecosystem, cows will eat just a few species, grazing again and again on the same plants. As with teenagers at a buffet, cows that eat this way are not acting in their own best nutritional interests. Rotational grazing, which forces them to eat the two-thirds of available forage that they would normally leave untouched, produces much more beef or milk per acre than does laissez-faire grazing.

Quality, of course, is just as important as quantity. I watch Churchill hop a strand of fence to enter a pasture. He whips out a kitchen garlic press to smush a sample of grass, then spreads it on a slide and sticks this into what looks like a miniature telescope. The gadget is a refractometer, and he is testing the grass for sugar content; this varies widely according to a range of conditions, not the least of which is the skill of the grazier. Sugar content is key to quality beef, and it is affected by the mix of grass species, the matching of species to local climate and soil, the proper selection of complementary forbs (such as clovers), and proper rotation time.

"When we started with grass-fed the quality wasn't that great," says Theo Weening of Whole Foods. "It has improved a lot in the last 12 months." And as the quality improves, so does the potential to scale up grass-fed farming, with all its environmental benefits.

 

image of Richard Manning
Richard Manning is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books on topics including agriculture, poverty, and the American prairie. His articles have been published in Harper's, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Audubon, and more. He ha... READ MORE >

I'm not sure why growing grain is such an eco-disaster. The raising of beef cattle is more of an ecological threat than the production of grain or vegetables. I happen to be a proponent of a vegetarian diet, although I'm not strictly vegan. I think the world would be better off if people ate more beans and whole grains and less animal foods. Public health would improve, there would be less animal suffering and whole grains would feed people, not livestock (as would legumes, like soybeans). The production of grain is more expensive, when you feed it to cattle, but people need it for protein and the B-vitamin complex. Also beans cost less than meat to feed people.

In reply to Elizabeth and to those who did not understand the environmental impacts of growing grain: the grain discussed here is mostly transgenic modified corn or soy grown to feed CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).

The environmental impacts of those crops are multiple:

- being annuals, it means the fields in which they grow is left bare for a large part of the year, resulting in soil erosion and watershed pollution.

- being GMOs, it means they corrupt the natural gene pool of the countryside.

- being monocultures, it means they basically make vast areas of the countryside left with no food for insects for a long part of the year.

- being grown for maximum crop volumes, they need either lots of fertilisers (for corn) or pesticides (for corn and soy), meaning the additionnal burning of fuel to spread the fertilisers and pesticides, and also meaning that some of those will end up in the soil, in the aquifer or in the nearest lake or river. Fertilisers ending up in rivers and lakes are the main cause of algae blooms, and most pesticides in rivers and lakes are hormone-imitating substances causing havoc in fish and amphibian reproduction.

- being monocultures, it means they are susceptible to pest infestations and crop failures (thus all the subsidies and crop failure insurance).

The industrialisation of agriculture is not a pretty thing. Grass farming, I think, is a step in the right direction.

You say that GMO's cause the use of added pesticides, but aren't GMO's designed to provide genetic pest resistance through the DNA of the plant? I, personally, think if we had better management of fields and control of development, as well as proper maintenance of brush country, that pesticides would be almost unnecessary. I'm not in favor of genetic altering of plants. Also importation of pests through illegal plant imports, like illegal drugs, may be a problem too.

The idea that GMO's are bred to be resistant to disease and parasites is not always true.

Many GMO's are simply bred to be resistant to the chemicals sprayed on the fields so you can spray everything else without killing your crop. (Round-Up ready Corn for example) So, in fact, many GMO's actually encourage MORE use of chemicals.

Often, the best pest control is natural pest control. The only problem is that in order to use a natural system, you have to take the time to learn how nature works...something that often is hard for us to understand, so we just dump on chemicals instead.

Being organic dairy farmers who graze, I can help explain the problems with GMO's. What Monsanto doesn't want you to know is that you end up using more chemicals to fight off weeds and insects because they become immune to the changed GMO traits. Weeds and insects are nature's way of getting rid of unhealthy plants. Every year they come out with "new and improved" GMO's, and every year, conventional farmers have to spray more and more to get rid of them. It isn't just because of the CAFO's that farmers are encouraged to use these products, it's the saying that "Farmers feed the world and people want cheap food". Cheap food equals unhealthy food, grown on unhealthy soils, and in turn, unhealthy people. Consumers drive the market, if you want to be healthy, demand from your grocers organic, sustainable meat, dairy, and vegetables!

Being organic dairy farmers who graze, I can help explain the problems with GMO's. What Monsanto doesn't want you to know is that you end up using more chemicals to fight off weeds and insects because they become immune to the changed GMO traits. Weeds and insects are nature's way of getting rid of unhealthy plants. Every year they come out with "new and improved" GMO's, and every year, conventional farmers have to spray more and more to get rid of them. It isn't just because of the CAFO's that farmers are encouraged to use these products, it's the saying that "Farmers feed the world and people want cheap food". Cheap food equals unhealthy food, grown on unhealthy soils, and in turn, unhealthy people. Consumers drive the market, if you want to be healthy, demand from your grocers organic, sustainable meat, dairy, and vegetables!

All i know is this: i moved from a rural/coastal area of california with several dairy ranches to washington d.c. here, i bought supermarket brand milk & it went bad after a couple of days. i buy organic, it turns out to be more economical in a lot of ways. we've turned the corner out west, we require fresh produce, free-range beef, cruelty-free breeding and slaughering methods. There's zero tolerance for animal abuse in an area where horses are ridden and winter prey's waiting to hit the dinner table.

Just about all the calls to convert to a completely meatless diet to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions concentrate only on the emissions, and
ignore the fact that somewhat natural grasslands sequester carbon, in
addition to providing habitat for wildlife. If they cannot be used
in some form, they will disappear. Thus if pastureland is not used
for (low-density) grazing, it will be converted to another use, with
concomitant release of greenhouse gases. Some studies indicate that
more CO_2 equivalent will be released than the cattle or sheep that
grazed on it emit. Another point that should not be ignored is that
the production of soybeans for tofu involves the use of chemical
fertilizer and pesticides, with emission of N_2O which is an even more
potent greenhouse gas than methane.

Thus, Graze anatomy is right on when calling for more natural grassland. The message should be urgently sent to Brazil and Argentina, where grassland is being converted at an alarming rate to soybean culture (for agrofuels)

Given all the other issues surrounding the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal products, the switch to grass-fed cattle seems to do very little in making our steaks any more "guilt-free." A responsible account of agricultural and commercial practices, nutrition, and, in particular, the environmental effects of "burger" should be less worried about alleviating the psychological anxiety surrounding our choices and more focused on bringing to light previously unseen relationships between humans and the earth. After all, that's what environmentalism and ecologism are (or, I think, should be) about. And when this is done, it tends to become harder and harder to conceptualize what it means for Americans to enjoy a "guilt-free steak."

There is no such thing as humane meat.

There is no such thing as "guilt-free" factory farmed vegetables either.
Human habitation and reproduction necessitates the conversion of habitat into productive space. This loss of habitat leads to the direct diminuition of other animal populations. Whether it is by starvation or carefully controlled production and culling, farming of any kind means that other animals die off.
This is the nature of competition for resources, which is why animals are not friendly even to each other, unless it directly inflates their likelyhood of survival, such as in a herd mentality.
Like it or not, a robust human population infers a less robust population of any other animal that depends on that same space for food.
A pasture, at the very least provides a space for birds, smaller mammals, and insects to live and thrive in harmony. Unlike a field dedicated to grain or vegetables, organic or not, in which their is no chance for habitat formation.
While buthcering and eating animals may not be called a kindness, -destroying all available habitat and thereby precipitating starvation and extinction; as well as relying on fertilizers and pesticides that poison the remaining ambient and the life in those systems,- is hardly what I would call "Guilt-Free".
You don't have to eat meat, but a rationale person would have the good judgement to relinquish the high horse.

I hope you will pardon my failure to edit for spelling. I would like to think the content is more important.

We support the views in totality as we got similar results by feeding guinea and green maize to local hampshire cross pigs in north eastern hill region of India.The economics of these system very favourable and high rate of return.These experiments were conducted from 1984 to 1990.Dr Arun Varma Principal Scientist ICAR India (drarunvarma@gmail.com).