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The amazing benefits of grassfed meat: a profitable model brings healthy beef to market.

For years now, I have been fascinated by the permanence and healing power of grassland. If we respect the great original wisdom of the prairies, I'm convinced we can heal the wounds inflicted on the American landscape by industrial agriculture. I first had a hint as to how this might work for America's farms when a friend explained to me why he chose to raise bison for slaughter, marketing the meat with a guarantee the animals had eaten nothing but native grasses. He thought if he could make such a model pay on his own land, he could do more to save native landscapes than any amount of activism, litigation or regulation. Profitable solutions self-replicate. Like viruses, they creep from one farm to the next, eventually exploding in exponential growth. They scale up.

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Now there is big news on this front. A diverse collection of pioneers across the nation is raising, not bison, but mostly grassfed 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 grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs) 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 greenhouse gases.

The grassfed beef boom

The best evidence of this potential meat production revolution is a label that began showing up on packages of grassfed 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 grain in feedlots; received no supplemental hormones or antibiotics; and were humanely raised and handled. It signals the emergence of a marketing network that already has placed grassfed products in virtually every region of the nation in co-ops, health food stores and, in the case of the Southeast, in Publix Super Markets, a chain of more than 900 stores. The grassfed 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.

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Todd Churchill runs Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, which buys about 1,000 head a year from local producers, then processes and sells them to natural foods stores, restaurants and three colleges in the Twin Cities area. He says demand for his product always exceeds supply, and he sees no leveling for its growth curve.

Churchill's operation is, in fact, a sort of model, a regional company that buys animals from a handful of graziers and meets a local need. Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the Grassfed Association, says consumers now can find quality grassfed beef just about anywhere in the United States. All of this has been fueled by demand. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grassfed beef and other meat simply because they know it's healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart.

The health claim is not speculation. Grassfed beef and dairy products are leaner, and more importantly, lower in omega-6 fats linked to heart disease. Grassfed meat and dairy products also are higher in beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids. Both reduce the risk of heart disease.

Besides, grassfed beef tastes better. I know because I eat it. However, it only tastes better if it's raised right. Churchill tells me that when he first considered going into the business, it was because he missed the taste of beef he remembered as a child. So as an experiment, he bought two quarters of grassfed beef from local farmers. One was the best he had ever eaten; the other so rank he fed it to the dogs.

To be sure, the quality of grassfed beef is subject to a number of variables, such as genetics. A major problem for today's graziers is that the industrial beef system has monopolized the gene pool, and, for more than 50 years, the industry has selected for cattle that are adept at standing in a feedlot and eating grain as efficiently as possible. It may sound odd to say so, but this has left us with cattle that are not good at eating grass. That's pretty much all cattle ate from domestication 8,000 years ago until mid-20th century. But Churchill says it's virtually impossible to find Herefords, the classic beef animal, that finish well on grass. His operation has done best with Red Angus, and, over the years, he has been able to select for a set of traits that now yields animals that fatten well on grass. This selection for appropriate genetics is a key element in building the infrastructure of a scalable solution. We now have the correct foundation traits.

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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 when grazed. That quality 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 grassfed beef operation: a couple of strands of electric fencing enclosing a bunch of cattle grazing in a clump. In fact, you could argue that the current revolution in grassfed beef would not be possible without temporary electric fencing, which is cheap and easy to move.

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 other's presence, and this is true of bison and the grasses, forbs and shrubs of the American landscape. But great herds of migrating bison grazed very differently than 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 young 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, then they are moved to fresh grass. Each paddock is allowed to rest until the vegetation 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.

Go with grass, not grain

Churchill's producers are raising cattle this way on converted corn and soybean land in Minnesota. They take this row-crop landscape and plant it to permanent pasture--permaculture modeled on the tallgrass prairie that was the native cover. Many of Churchill's producers don't own tractors; they don't need them. The land takes a couple of years to recover sufficiently to produce high-quality beef, but it does recover. And after that initial setup, his producers begin showing a profit; more profit than the corn and soybeans yielded. Part of this is a result of lower or no costs for inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, pesticides and machinery. This profit is one of the factors that will allow this system to scale up.

Churchill says that on properly recovered land, he can finish about two steers per acre. That is almost precisely the acreage it takes to grow the grain to finish those same steers in a feedlot. This whole system makes economic sense, acre by acre. More than half of our total grain crop goes to feed livestock, so it follows that we can convert half of the 150 million acres used to grow corn and soybeans to permanent pasture and lose not one ounce of meat production. At the same time, we can produce healthier meat.

Yet there are even more benefits to intensive grazing systems. Consider that the upper Midwest was flooded in the spring of 2008, an inundation that caused catastrophic dislocations, massive erosion of topsoil and billions of dollars in damages. This is the landscape of corn and soybean agriculture. Iowa, for instance, has been almost wholly converted to row-crop agriculture, maintaining only about 1 percent of its native habitat, which was largely prairie and oak savannah. A cultivated field sheds rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can absorb, at most, about 1 1/2 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.

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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's not enough energy left to support all its roots. The plant reacts by sloughing roots, then builds back deeper roots as aboveground parts regrow.

Deep rooting is an often overlooked factor. 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.

All this raises the very point missed by industrial agriculture. Intensive rotational grazing offers a corrective to soil depletion and 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). Why did we think we could in any meaningful way mimic nature's biodiversity by excluding the animal kingdom?

Over the years, organic farmers 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.

Richard Manning is the author of eight books, including Rewilding the West and Against the Grain. He lives in Missoula. Montana.
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Author:Manning, Richard
Publication:Grit
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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