Did you ever have something you see or hear that just doesn’t sit right? And it takes a little bit of time to sprout into a nice little bloom of quite unexpected red rosy anger? Well this one took just a little over a month, and it started when I watched another producer’s seemingly innocuous video about raising beyond organic grass fed beef.
Footage of placid, coiffed looking cows, interspersed with verdant and lush stands of grass under blue skies with talking heads walking through knee high stems presented a well-manicured image of grass fed beef production. A smooth-talking baritone voice-over caressed my ears with a soft lullaby of words that completed the picture that all was well. But my trained eye told me that he couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s a season of transition on Alderspring. The snow is slowly melting, but the nights are cold enough that not a stitch of greenery can be found in the tapestry of the ranch. Yet the beeves wander around all day grazing last year’s grass in spite of the nice green hay we feed them. Sure, they eat their fill of the hay, but their recreational time is entirely spent grazing old stuff. Brown. Flavorless (I’ve tried it). It couldn’t have much nutrition to it. So why?
I spend quite a bit of time on the “whys.” Caryl, my PhD plant ecologist wife, has more whys that I do, and often brings them up in the middle of the night (it makes for an interesting marriage). But there is always something to learn from watching the animals and the land. You might think we know it all by now, but in fact, we are just cracking the egg here on these vexing questions. I’m thankful that the beeves can be trusted, and know their way around how to eat and what to eat and when to eat it. Humans often just ignore that trust and just bumble along and shovel food in front of them and think that’s OK, when in reality it may be absolutely the wrong thing.
So in the last few years we’ve adopted the philosophy that our job is to provide a wide range of choices, a complete opposite to feedlots where rations are machine-augered into concrete feed bunks under the noses of waiting cows. It’s also why we put the beeves on big pastures. Like their ancestors, they’ll have many choices to select from. In the summer, their pasture is 70 square miles.
But this time of year, I’m fascinated about why they persistently graze the brown stems from last summer, as soon as the snow rolls back enough to expose it, in spite of the fragrant green hay we put out for them.
My theory: bugs. Not the bugs we can see, but the bacteria that we can’t. Sure, we likely swept up some bacteria in our green grass hay, but as soil emerges from the snow, it is likely rippling with living microbiota, just waiting for a cow to lap them up and integrate them into their elegant digestive tract that converts cellulose and lignin into energy (we humans cannot touch that elegance, by the way).
Son-in-law Ethan suggested next year we test manure for bacterial composition before the snow melts and after; my guess is that it would be dramatically different and richer after the melt when at last bovine Bessie can gather them off the ground again. Too much information? To a husbandman of beef, no information is too much.
In fact, we always feel ignorant alongside beeves that know best. Thousands of years of symbiotic perfection in a system of grass harvest and fermentation in their guts has left the cow with all the instinct they need to harvest and live efficiently when they have choice to do so.
So, dear reader, you likely may ask “What’s all that got to do with the nice grass fed beef video? You seem like a pretty mellow sort of chap; why did you get angry?” I think it has to do with experience. I’ve been around agriculture nearly all of my 55 years. I’ve worked on dairies, vegetable farms, grain farms, orchards and ranches most of my life. I can look at something and tell if it’s a planted crop, and whether or not it has been chemically treated. I worked many toxic agriculture jobs in my younger days; many days went by where I went to bed with burning skin, throbbing headaches, or itchy eyes afire after spreading pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides unprotected. So I see things when I watch somebody’s grass fed beef video.
Here’s a for instance. On the video in question, this guy’s pastures were entirely annual crops, planted by a tractor every year with a drill behind it. And because he had no weeds in his lovely sward of annual grass he planted that was now knee high, I know by experience that he must have sprayed it and fertilized it with chemical fertilizers to get it that high, maybe several times. I would put money down that he used Monsanto’s Roundup on it at some point in the cycle. So the cows are now eating glyphosate and other chemical amendments. And that shows up in the beef.
Research suggest that because the field is sprayed each year, the soil biota are likely severely impacted. The plants grow well simply in response to nitrate (petroleum manufactured) fertilizers that cause them to grow quickly and produce sugar, because the plants have been engineered to do so (I recognized the plant). Like humans, cows respond to sugar. They get fat. The beef marbles, just like it does in a feedlot on high sugar grain rations.
But the nutrition that living, biologically rich soils provide is lost to the cow, and compromises the nutritional value of the beef they produce. This bothers me, because most people I know that buy grass fed beef do so because of the improved nutritional value.
Then, I looked at the cows. There was not a fly on them. I know where this producer lives. I’ve been there. Flies are endemic in large numbers in his locale. We used to have more flies than we do now, but still our cows always have a few flies walking on their backs, catching a ride. It’s natural, and not in any way a problem or a discomfort for the cows. We’ve changed up our management so that native birds break the life cycle of flies on Alderspring, in addition to our continual movement of cattle and intensive pasture .So why doesn’t this guy have flies? What’s the secret?
In one word: chemicals. Aggressive application of pour-on insecticides eliminates flies. These pour-ons are used ubiquitously in the cattle industry, and they kill both external and internal parasites (you read that right- pour on the outside, kills stuff on the inside). It works. There’s even injectables you can give your cattle that will kill flies that land on them. It’s the unseen condiment for that ribeye.
I consider this producer’s “grass fed beef” to be not much different than feedlot production. The cows have no food choices, just like in a feedlot. They are fed simple carbs, sugars, to rapidly gain weight, just like in a feedlot. They have a minimal area in which to move and are propped up by chemicals. Sounds like feedlots. It doesn’t look like a feedlot, but it is a production paradigm that is very similar.
When we started Alderspring 24 years ago, we were literally grass fed pioneers. Just a few years later, when we ventured into selling our beef online, there were only 8 other producers online on the entire World Wide Web. All of us were purists, true believers. Most of them are still practicing today, because they were driven by passion. Most practiced organically or were certified. It was understood that we were learning to raise cattle in nature’s image, the polar opposite of corn feeding in feedlots.
But now, producers like the chap standing in the tall grass with the fly free cattle call their cattle “beyond organic” when they haven’t even come close. They emulate feedlots, without the concrete. The big tractors are all still there, just like in the feedlots where they are used to bring feed to the cattle, except they came, ripped the land, sprayed it, drilled it, fertilized it, and left their near hydroponic crop to respond to rain and sunshine. And people are sold a bill of goods as these producers capitalize on the ignorance of the consumer, who doesn’t even know the questions to ask. The dinner they serve comes complete with the same chemical residue complements and bad fat composition that the corn fed feedlot has, because those cows were essentially fed sugar cane (it’s a grass, as is corn).
So is that kind of “grass fed beef” really healthier for you than corn-fed feedlot beef? If it is, the margin between the two in health differences is pretty narrow. I’ve heard nutritional numbers of occasional testing of big ag grassfed, as I call it, and those numbers look a lot like feedlot beef. Consumers of grass fed beef have no idea. Even the USDA definition of grass fed beef (when it was a thing—it has now been repealed) allowed for feeding fish meal and many other agriculture wastes, including gmo non-grain crop (like beets) or crop waste (like soy and corn stubble). The government was complicit in the “de-grassing” of grass fed, lowering standards to facilitate more production so more agribusiness could take advantage of market demand. With the repeal of even that language, the window is now wide open. Grass fed is essentially an unregulated term.
It makes me angry. They get a premium from unsuspecting buyers, and don’t deliver the goods. And people with real health challenges who are hoping that spending more money on their protein will be part of their wellness journey are being taken advantage of. And they won’t get well eating de-grassed grassfed. And the land won’t get well either. Or the birds, or the soil, or the water and the fish, and all those things that I really care about, they won’t get well either. And the promise of wellness that I once saw dawning in the change in how we raise beef in this country will never be realized.
And that’s my rant for today (every now and then a guy needs to have one!). Next week, a nice story about life on the ranch, or perhaps some genuine old boy I’ve worked with who lived heart and soul as part of the landscape and animals on it, quite unlike the beguiling counterfeits above.
Happy Trails to you all.
Glenn, Caryl , Cowboys, and Girls at Alderspring