November 1, 2017

"Saddest Slaughterhouse Footage Ever": What's Really Going On?


Commonly I hear suppositions, inferences, surmises and assumptions that the fat Charolais steer in the above video,"...knows what's coming..."; "...is so terrified/afraid of what's ahead..."; "is trying to turn around to escape to get away from what he knows is going to happen to him..." and so on and so forth.

But the question I post to everybody here is what is really going on?

I wrote a post earlier this year about animal slaughter, and why it's really and actually necessary here. I made the argument that slaughtering animals, or killing animals, for food, is necessary to make more room and more vegetation available for new animals coming in. Simply because of the fact that the amount of vegetation that the world produces is finite. Not killing animals threatens the capacity of the earth to feed all those extra herbivorous animals, thereby exacerbating inhumane issues such as starvation, malnutrition, and severe environmental damage.

But when we get down to the actual animal behaviour and psychology of animals prior to slaughter, there tends to be a way to expose the crazies, the ones who don't actually understand how animals may think and act and choose instead the far easier path of anthropomorphizing rather than using a bit of extra brain power to think outside of the human-shaped box.

The Simplicity of How Bovines Think and Behave


"Cows are not human, they don't think like a human," I argue.

"But humans are animals!" The response I often get in return. "If you were put down that corridor and seen what happened to those in front, wouldn't you be scared?!"

Typical straw-man argument.

Of course I would be scared because I, as a human, have much greater capacity and intellect to think and ponder about things that all other animal species cannot even comprehend. Simple things like how a pencil works, what makes grass grow, and that Death is always a part of Life; Things must die in order for others to live.

But does a bovine, like that steer in that video above, "feel" the same thing? Can he in fact comprehend the same concepts of Life and Death?

I've worked with and interacted with cattle for all of over two decades now. They've taught me a lot, and showed me the way they think and act in response to various different stresses, or lack thereof, in their lives.

Steers gathered around me a) because they can and
b) they think I have a tasty treat for them.
They know I'm not a threat, and a giver of good things.
That's why they're gathered up like that. Photo by the author.
Each and every time I've worked with them they've never argued with me about petty and trivial matters, talked back to me, questioned me about my behaviour or habits, nor have they attempted to or forced me into negotiations in attempt to reach a democratic decision with me or any other person of where they should go, what they should do and why.

They've never forged a grudge against me, hated me, plotted to murder me in cold blood because they know they're going to be killed in the end by me or another member of my species, nor have they ganged up on me and tried to torture and humiliate me.

Instead, they've been very forgiving, incredibly responsive to my own thoughts and feelings, and aren't afraid to tell me if I'm getting too close, or if I'm not close enough. They are quick to learn to associate certain sounds and sights of objects with good (food) or bad (pain); they can tell you if they like or feel afraid of their surroundings, and whether they like or not how they're treated. And, if you're particularly attentive, they'll tell you if they're tense and stressed out, or if they're calm and relaxed.

And they simply love being with their own herd mates, even after several others successfully escape from their own big, roomy pasture to join up with the larger group, and get to fighting over the bovine pecking order for a couple of hours. They love being with their herd so much that even those cattle that haven't had much to drink or salt to lick will quickly head back out to pasture to catch up to the rest of their pals.

Cattle, like all non-human animals, also live in the now. They don't fear or ponder about the future, nor do they live in the past. They certainly do remember things in the past, and from past repetitive experiences learn to anticipate things. But that still doesn't make them worriers or nostalgic renegades of the future and the past, respectively.

See, animals anticipate things by what they've learned from past experiences. It's not so much the situation they get put in, as the smells, sounds, and sights of certain objects that sets them into nervous bundles of bovid-snorting muscle, or causes them to relax and eructate some chewing cud.

Those sorts of things certainly do not make cattle (nor horses, nor dogs, nor cats, nor sheep, nor... etc.) human.

Nor does it nearly even make them capable of actually knowing, in a particular split-second moment that they're about to die. Not even when there's the business-end of a gun pointed at their heads just above their eyes. Nor, even when they get to be the last bovine to go down that chute into the kill box of the slaughter facility.

So what's really going on with that steer? Here's a hint: It's not what you think or what you read in the description.

Actions and Behaviour Tell Everything


As you could see in the video, first there was two, and then there was one. 

Right off I noticed these two were obviously in an unfamiliar environment. The steer in the first 45 seconds was attentive, ears pricked forward, staring forward. The one behind him has his head down, more for protection and because he has a herd member with him he feels safe with. But the leader up front is one who's the least sure. 

When the hissing of the gate is heard and suddenly opens up, the first steer balks and backs up. When cattle are in an unfamiliar environment, any sudden sights or sounds startles them and causes them to go into fight or flight mode. Flight was engaged first, and flight was to back up away from this unfamiliar, seemingly threatening sound he's never seen or heard before. But the steer wasn't so scared that he tried to leap up over the race to get out. 

That's the first hint you should get that neither steer are "so terrified of what's ahead." 

When the handler comes with the cattle prod and gets behind the hip of the front steer, the first steer knows that he needs to move away from that handler. The prod is just to make sure the steer keeps moving into the kill box, and doesn't baulk suddenly. 

I got into an argument with a vegan about this particular video, and the fact that the second steer actually willingly followed the first right into the kill box. The vegan tried to deny that that even happened, even though, right at 0:50 to 1:11, that steer exactly willingly followed the first steer right into the kill box, and would have also gone in with the first steer had the door not tried to stop him. Just two seconds after the door dropped down did the last steer finally decide to back up.

Following is primal herd-follower instinct of any bovine. They know there's safety in numbers, safety in each other's company. When they get alone, they start getting a little more nervous. And it doesn't help either that they're in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds. 

The last in the chute, the last in the bunch to be sacrificed for the human palate, backs up half-way down the chute, pricks his ears up at the sounds ahead, and predictably startles some at the sudden bang of the cap-bolt and the legs of the first steer crumpling suddenly down in the chute. He backs up a bit more down the chute, still nervous at being alone and in unfamiliar surroundings. 

But I still am very doubtful that he's "so terrified." Or even knows what's coming. 

Now, we need to remember that there's the person just behind him filming his every move. He knows that the videographer is there, and is just as unsure about him as he is what's around him. He keeps trying to move back, but doesn't want to, turning his head so his left eye is on the person above him rolling on the camera. Notably too he doesn't back all the way up so he's squishing his ass against the back gate. I know steers that have gotten themselves so worked up about being put in a chute that put their asses so far up against the back gate that their backs hunch up. Not this guy.

Eye on the videographer behind him,
yet curious about what's up front.
Curiosity is naturally bovine-esque
Nope, he moves forward again. He seems a little curious now; he can't see what's behind that gate but he hears curious sounds that he's trying to figure out, but can't. But then his insecurity gets the better of him and he backs up again, this time trying to get his head around to try to turn around in the chute. 

I can tell he's confused. He's alone, nervous, in unfamiliar surroundings, doesn't particularly want to stay in that chute for very long--he's probably getting a little hungry and thirsty since most cattle are forced to fast for over 12 hours prior to slaughter, and trying to find a way back to bovine company again. He's definitely not thinking that he's about to die. 

He's too big and fat to turn around, despite his attempts on either side. He certainly doesn't appreciate nor trust the human above him filming his movements, because he keeps cocking an ear back and casting a look back behind him. I can tell he doesn't even care if the person is a vegan with an undercover camera; It's a human to be wary of, like all humans. 

This steer is instinctually a prey animal, after all. And like most bovines, to him, all humans are predators to keep an eye on. 

Again he moves up, sniffing the walls as he goes, judging the scent of those before him, and backs up again because the handler has come back out to herd him up the chute. 

I don't believe that second hot-shot shock was necessary. 

He walks into the box without much fuss. You see, if he really was so terrified and knew what came, he would be fighting and putting up a hell of a fuss before eventually and finally getting into the box. But he went in pretty smoothly without much fuss. 

And when he was in the box, he wasn't kicking and screaming and putting up a hell of a rodeo before the cap-bolt put him down. I've seen cattle that just went into the squeeze chute for a little pokey needle that really made a real mad racket. Not this guy in this video, not even by some of the movement of his feet. 

Then hiss-BANG it was all over. 

That steer didn't know what was coming, that he knew he was about to die, nor was he nearly as scared or terrified as many are being lead to believe. He was just nervous about being in unfamiliar surroundings, about being alone, and liked that a lot less than the unknown prospect that Death was waiting for him just around the corner.

That's what was really going on. 

October 31, 2017

The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Why it's Really a Non-Issue

Almost 38% of the earth's terrestrial surface (32.1 billion acres) is agricultural land (12.1 billion acres). "Agricultural land" refers to the sum of all arable land, permanent crops and permanent meadows and pastures. This means it encompasses all land used to grow crops and land used for grazing livestock on. (Source: World Bank Data on Agricultural Land)
"At present some 11 percent (1.5 billion ha) of the globe's land surface (13.4 billion ha) is used in crop production (arable land and land under permanent crops)."
From World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030. Ch. 4: Crop Production and Natural Resource Use
"Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface."
From Livestock and Landscapes Quick Facts and FAO Animal Production.
"About 60 percent of the world's agricultural land is grazing land, supporting about 360 million cattle and over 600 million sheep and goats."
From FAO's Livestock on Grazing Lands.

Finally:
"'If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,' David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, reported at the July 24-26 meeting of the Canadian Society of Animal Science in Montreal. Or, if those grains were exported, it would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year, Pimentel estimated."
From: U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists--Cornell Chronicle

After reading all that, you may be wondering what the purpose of all that kind of research was.

The answer is quite simple. Statistics can be interpreted in multiple ways, to shock people, or to inform. Rather, I was giving you a taste as to why these land-use arguments even exist. 

These kind of stats are commonly used in land-use debates all over the Internet to create shock-and-awe or to drive home the sentiment that somehow livestock are bad and they take up way too much land, way too much space, are too inefficient to feed in the current commercial agricultural system where many are confined, etc. 

Here's the caveat: These sentiments aren't something to be disagreed with; they do have a certain element of truth. 

David Pimentel touched on that in the quote above. That's why, in my prequel post, The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Breaking Down the Numbers, I specifically made the point that I am not denying nor ignoring the fact that you most definitely can and will produce a lot more "plant-based food" (i.e., vegetables, starches, fruits, and grains) on an acre of land than you can meat (be it from cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep, or goats).

What Pimentel is targeting is the problem around the industrialized, centralized, standardized, globalized, consumer-driven food system that is still called "agriculture." It's the system where most crops are grown as monocultures, and most animals are raised in intensive confinement operations--and I'm talking predominantly poultry, pigs, and dairy cattle. It's the system that is environmentally, socially, economically, and even culturally a major problem. 

Now, I didn't create this post to rant and rave about commercial agriculture. But, it does play a very big role here. 

What I'm most concerned about and really want to address is the overly simplistic view of comparing one (plant-based foods) versus another (animal products), as far as the very sentiments expressed above:
  • Efficiency of Resource Use
  • Space Requirements
  • Question of Quantity
I may be out to lunch with this thought, but my thoughts are that these memes follow precisely in the footsteps of what is industrial agriculture, with CAFOs, and with monoculture crop production. And that is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of all.

You see, while I will continually acknowledge the fact that it certainly does take less space and less resources to grow more plant-based foods on one or 1.5 acres, it consistently ignores the various hidden costs associated with just looking for better efficiency, higher quantity, and saving space.

And it's those particular costs that are associated with our current food production model which are posing an enormous, global issue today. I believe that we can address those costs by simply regarding this land-use argument as a non-issue.

Before we do that though, let's take a nice in-a-nutshell look at our current food production practices.

Cropping Agriculture

The vast majority of crops are cultivated and grown as monocultures, requiring artificial, chemical inputs to be grown. Fuel and machinery are needed from preparing the ground for seeding to harvest, and further equipment (and more fuel) for distribution upon sale. Irrigation is necessary in areas where rainfall is not enough to meet cropping water demands (and for other reasons I'll mention below). The primary focus on producing crops is quantity produced (yield). The higher the yields, the more income the farmer is expected to get. Compared with animal agriculture, cropping agriculture seems to be more the more lucrative venture.

Animal Agriculture

Like with cropping agriculture, commercial raising of livestock is also primarily done on a monoculture basis, in a matter of speaking. Most animals raised in intensive confinement are pigs, poultry, and dairy cattle. Intensive confinement typically is within a building that is climate-controlled (occasionally open-air ones, like with a lot of dairy facilities) which follows a system of harvested feed hauled in, manure hauled out. Feed grown and harvested for these animals is predominantly through the means already described above, with some exceptions depending on the farming operation, such as herbicide use, and use monoculture crops (most hay produced for dairy cattle is either primarily alfalfa, or a mix of alfalfa, timothy grass, and orchard grass). Beef cattle are the luckiest out of the four groups--three species--because they get to spend most of their lives on pasture, with most only seeing intensive confinement--outdoors dirt lots primarily--during the last four months of their lives. Animals that are harvested for their meat are not killed on-farm, but rather shipped anywhere from one to several hours away from where they were last held and fed. The slaughter plants follow a factory-style production system, which often are not so accommodating for different-sized animals.

Land-Use Arguments are the Bases for Environmental Concerns: But Soil is of Utmost Importance


With both types of agricultural systems, there are inherent and serious environmental issues at play. And it's these particular issues that neither have a monetary value attached to them, nor an economic price tag, and certainly not the kind of public relations nor attention that they deserve to have.

I often notice the kind of environmental issues that exist today, from desertification to soil erosion to ocean dead zones, get the wrong kind of PR from those who want to point fingers at anyone besides themselves and continually fail to see the whole picture of what's actually going on.

That has to stop.

And the only way to stop it is to continually educate, educate, educate.

So, the costs associated with the current food model are those costs that largely get ignored by the big-time agricultural establishments, as well as the extremist groups that consider the use of animals for food, among other things, an abomination. (Precisely the memes I used in my previous post are most certainly vegan memes. I do feel that these extremist groups largely depend on the industrial agricultural concept to push their ideologies forward; why else do you think those two memes from Cowspiracy and VeganStreet even exist, let alone can actually come to pass?) It may be argued that they do not, but I challenge that assertion.

I challenge it based on one particular resource that is largely ignored, misunderstood, neglected, abused, and treated like dirt. Literally.

And that resource is about the soil.

Therefore, my top reason as to why this meat vs. plant-foods land-use argument is a trivial waste of time is because of the soil. It's not something more... sexier, I guess, like the whole romantic and nostalgic aspect of raising livestock on the land. No, it's far deeper than that.

Dear God I can go nuts with all those soil puns...

Jesting aside, I am dead serious about this. The context of soil is very important if we are to understand how these meat vs. vegetable land-use arguments are unimportant compared with finding ways to improve and regenerate a seriously degraded resource. Once more and more people wake up to that thought, these environmental issues so often talked and debated about actually begin to fix themselves, with the help of us humans as a society, a multitude of cultures, and as a people.

Because, really, the entire basis of such arguments is about concerns for the environment. As I mentioned before, though, they're the misdirected kind of concerns that really do ignore the context of...

The Soil. 

This is were things get messy (pun not intended...). You see, soil itself is a resource that forms the basis for the support all plant life, and therefore of animals too. Because of that, this starts gathering a whole range of discussion spin-offs, from why there is such a range of different "plant communities" no matter where you go, to how land can be healed from conventional cropping production practices.

The Soil as a Resource for Growing Things


Here's your crash course on dirt *ahem* soil.

It's made up of geological material--stuff from ground-up rocks and minerals--called "parent material." It also has an organic component that is made of dead, decomposed or decomposing organisms. That organic component also has living organisms made up of detritivores, plant roots, and a microbial component comprised of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and archaea.

The most important resource for plants is in the top three inches. That's where most of the activity happens, and where most of the nutrients and moisture are acquired by the plants themselves. Even though many areas can develop a soil organic matter layer--let's call it SOM from now on--that goes much deeper than six inches, the other soil layers below that are called subsoil layers.

Soil scientists have particular labels of identifying those layers based on various parameters including depth, structure, geological history, etc., in order to essentially classify a type of soil. Use of that classification is sure-fire means of identifying what plants can grow where, just as the plant species that will actively grow in an area are indicators of what type of soil exists beneath.

What every gardener and farmer--and rancher--needs to be the most interested in is what kind of soil is making up the top six to eight inches. This is because that's where most of the root biomass is going to be. Three main things of concern are: How much organic matter is there, what kind of texture is the soil, what kind of structure is the soil, and what nutrients are available for plants.

Lately, more farmers--and gardeners--are looking at soil at a different way. More are looking at soil not as a growing medium that holds a certain nutrient cocktail for plants, but rather as a biological, living entity.

If you were to do a soil test on your property, typically you'd send it into a lab that does a nutrient analysis--Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Sulphur. It's optional for the lab to do a texture analysis. And, for extra payment they'll also look at pH (acidity/alkalinity), EC (salinity measurements based on "electric conductivity"), and "micronutrients"--Calcium, Magnesium, Boron, Iron, Selenium, etc. While I'm no expert on how these kind of tests are actually done in the lab, basically it's around the fact of treating soil as a growth medium, NOT as a living ecosystem.

And the funny thing is, the way I've heard it, is that you can send the exact same soil sample from the same hole you dug from the same property with the same soil and soil type to several different labs and--get this--get different results from each lab.

I personally will need to try that some time, just see what I get. It would be interesting.

Now, if you were NOT to send a soil sample to a lab that does the nutrient analysis, but instead a lab that does a soil health assessment, you'd get some really interesting results.

A soil health assessment looks at the soil not for its nutrients so much as for the structure and biology that exists in the soil itself. (I'm not saying it abandons the whole nutrient analysis whatsoever, but rather looks at it in an entirely different way.) The Haney test looks at soil by how much organic matter is there, what level of compaction or hardness is there, aggregate stability, water retention capacity, respiration (soil microbial abundance and activity), and others.

On-site soil health assessments can be easily done: All you need is a shovel. Digging up a clod of soil can reveal a whole lot, from compaction layers to where the roots are, to even evidence of mycorrhizal fungi and earthworm activity.

What I'm getting at is that soil should be looked at more from the aspect of biology, not just chemistry or just physically. The biological component is often ignored to satisfy the question of the other two aspects of the soil.

Some Key Things on Soil Biology


Soil organic matter is made up of dead, decaying or decayed things, yes--I already mentioned that. But actually, it's the plant roots that contribute up to 60 to 80 percent of the soil's organic matter, not the litter material; not even the dead and decaying or decayed plant and animal remains.

In the top three inches if soil, there is more soil organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there is people on Earth. These soil organisms are largely bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protozoa. And plants need these organisms to make soil nutrients more readily available for absorption through the roots.

How do they do it? It's a little more complicated than this, but basically through bribery, seduction, selectivity, and bartering. Plants take the carbon they get through photosynthesis from the air, push it down into the roots, and release it to the microbes through root exudates, essentially feeding the microbes, and exchanging that carbon for nutrients only the soil microbes could extract with their enzymatic activities. Plants can use these microbes to communicate with other plants, protect themselves against pathogens, find more nutrients, and survive--or ensure the survival of their offspring--the unpredictable changes of their environment.

Mycorrhizal fungi are a part of those soil microbes that benefit plants. The Latin term literally means "fungi + roots", and, literally, refers to the mutual coexistence between fungi and plants. The benefits plants get from this partnership is an extension of their root system beyond what the plant can grow itself. Fungi have these very, very fine, hair-like projections called "hyphae" that expand through the tiniest spaces between soil particles to access water and nutrients.

The advantage of mycorrhizal fungi for the soil itself is its ability to form soil aggregates. It does this, rather indirectly, through glomalin, a glycoprotein produced by the mycorrhizal fungi as a means to coat the hyphae to keep water and nutrients from getting lost to and from the plant.

You see, the purpose of glomalin is more to ensure the exchange of nutrients and cations goes smoothly rather than to act as a glue to knit soil particles together. But in order for this exchange to occur, glomalin is needed so that these "pellets" remain a good source of nutrients that resist erosion, break-down by water and other microbes, as well as high temperatures (up to 121ºC or 250ºF). This is what creates aggregates that increase porosity, water retention and infiltration, and hold soil particles together during a heavy rain event.

Essentially, hyphae is the frame upon which soil particles collect, while the glomalin glues them together and protects them.

More can be read here: What is Glomalin? Does it Hold your Farm Together?

It's that partnership between plants and these microbes that enable plants to grow even in the most questionable places. Like a tree in a rock. Someone who doesn't consider the power of biology would still be scratching their head at how a plant can do such a thing!

And it's that kind of thinking--that paradigm, or preconceived notion--that persists in that plants require soil as a growth medium in order to grow, and nothing else. The concept of organic elements, of living organisms and soil biology does not exist in such a frame of thought.

But where did this come from?

The Advent of Soil Chemistry and Modern Agriculture


A lot of events and famous people had lead to where modern commercial agriculture has come about today. From Charles Darwin's discovery if the concept of evolution, to Henry Ford's creation of the automobile and the adaptation of mass production and the assembly line, to the first steel plow created by John Deere, and finally to German chemist Justus von Liebig.

Now, it wasn't Liebig who was the one who discovered plants pulled nutrients from the air. That all started with Jan Baptiste von Helmont in1634 during house-arrest as commanded by the Church. During his forced stay he was trying to figure out just how plants grew. He didn't quite put two and two together (one where plants grew by taking on water, and the other that burning the plant material produced more gas and ash than expected) like Swiss chemist Nicolas-Theodore de Saussure put it all together and, in 1804, discovered the process of photosynthesis: Plants did not pull carbon from humus, but rather from the air! 

But the quandary about where plants get other nutrients from was still puzzling scientists after this discovery. After all, the old understanding that manure helped plants grow still remained, and seemed to have countered de Suassure's discovery. And that despite scientific attempts to prove that this material--and other rotting organic matter--couldn't possibly be absorbed by plants because it wasn't water soluble.

But then, Justus von Liebig in 1840 picked up the thread and lead the way to discrediting the humus theory of plant nutrition. He wrote an influential treatise on agricultural chemistry where he reasoned that carbon in soil organic matter did not fuel plant growth because, as de Saussure had shown, plants obtained the carbon they needed from the atmosphere. And, the nutrients in plants--nitrogen and phosphorus--somehow were already there by demonstrating the mineral content of the ashes after incinerating the plants. He reasoned that the matter left over in the ash was what nourished plants, and therefore, soil chemistry held the key to soil fertility. 

So sprang the "Law of the Minimum" that is still used today: The nutrient in shortest supply relative to the plant's needs limits plant growth. 

Liebig and his followers took no time to identify five key elements essential for plant growth: Water (H2O), Carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K), the latter two which are rock-derived elements. They then jumped to the conclusion that organic matter played no important role to creating and maintaining soil fertility. 

So began the mining efforts to develop a supply of N, P, and K, starting with the Peruvian guano islands nearly mined into oblivion for nitrogen-rich fossilized bird droppings, the search for more rock phosphate, and then going into the First World War with he Haber-Bosch process of obtaining ammonium nitrate; initially used in bombs, later found to be useful for incredible boosts in yields of crops, despite the required substantial energy inputs. 

Today, ammonium nitrate is illegal to obtain and use because of the usefulness of it in making home-made explosives.

Through World War II, governments compelled farmers to increase their use of chemicals to apply to crops, and in doing so, paid a portion of their costs in subsidies; also subsidizing the development of the fertilizer industry. And the subsidies weren't about making bigger, better harvests: factories that made fertilizers could easily be converted to munitions manufacturing and vice versa. 

Of course the start for such conversions came about at the end of the First World War at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, where the Allies stipulated that the Germans, as part of the agreement, to share the then-secret of nitrogen fixation (which was discovered initially by German chemists Hermann Hellriegel and Hermann Wilfarth when studying the nodules of peas), and therefore the Haber-Bosch process. 

The consequences were felt across the Atlantic when the Tennessee River was dammed to generate cheap electricity so that fertilizer plants could be converted to munitions plants on short notice--that easily done so when the war started, and back again to fertilizer factories after the fall of Berlin in 1945. Such factories preserved the option of quick conversion of production should another war start up again. But really, the war never really ended; instead of war against nations, it turned into a war on the soil, which is still all too common in commercial agricultural practices today.

Environmental Costs Associated with Modern Agriculture


"Our soils are naked, hungry, thirsty, and running a fever."
                              -- Ray Archuleta, Soil Health Specialist and Conservation Advocate

Combining the use of fertilizers with tillage, as well as other inputs needed to grow a high-yielding crop has revealed a whole web of environmental concerns that have largely been ignored or ridiculed for the last 70 years, and only recently have more and more people began to wake up to. Myself included.

Since the end of the war and Liebig's treatise on the theory of the Law of the Minimum, the soil has been literally treated like dirt; like nothing more than a growing medium. The physical and chemical make up of the soil has garnered far more attention than the biological component which, in Nature, is equally the largest component that enables plants to grow and thrive without human inputs.

Because of that, many ecological issues have raised their ugly heads, despite the conservation and nutrient management plans and efforts to provide bandaid solutions to cover up the elephant in the room:

Erosion via wind and water. Poor water infiltration and holding capacity, creating runoff and flooding problems, and perpetual droughts. Compaction. Salinization. Infertility. Weed issues. Disease issues. 

Desertification. Deserts are getting bigger and bigger, and spreading out more. Why do you think that is? It's not only because of overgrazing by livestock, that's for sure.

So how do we fix it? And do we actually know what the problem is? Because, you know, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Well, our soils are damn broke alright. And they need fixin'. NOW.

Tillage (particularly excessive, "recreational" tillage) is the biggest culprit out there. It is a major disturbance that brings soil to the surface where it becomes oxygenated and wakes up these organic-matter eating, biotic-glue-digesting bacteria called "R-strategists" or copiotrophic bacteria. Their job seems like a bad thing until you realize that these organisms set the stage for what's called "primary succession."

What they do, while they break down organic matter, litter, glomalin, and other material, giving off carbon dioxide as they go along, is to create an environment suitable for what most consider "weeds" to help heal this damaged ground. When they die, they release nitrates (consider bacteria only have a 20 minute lifespan), which is an easily-absorbed nutrient source for weed plants to take up as they germinate and grow.

Most farmers are surprised to hear that all of their land has a weed seed bank in the ground. It's common thought that if you spray with something like glyphosate (RoundUp®), or other herbicides, the weeds will go away and not come back. Of course that isn't true, not especially when tillage continues to turn up new seeds to the surface, creating perfect conditions for those seeds that can sit dormant for decades at a time to germinate.

So tillage exacerbates the destruction of the biotic glues (glomalin) that holds soil particles together. What that means is destroyed aggregate structure and stability, which becomes much more sensitive to severe rain events and wind storms; both end up washing soil particles and nutrients away, never to return.

The rainfall simulator. The front jars is water that ran off. The back jars are what
has been infiltrated. Note the extra soil/water that ran off beyond the
run-off catchment jar on the far left.
It also destroys the ability of the soil to infiltrate and hold water. Water has a much more difficult time filtering through soil that doesn't have the large pore spaces in between either aggregates or particles. Water will filter through more quickly in sand versus clay, but it will also filter more quickly through soil with vertical ped (short for "pedestal-like") structure, compared with that with compacted layers, or a with a hard blocky structure. Instead, it ends up sitting on the surface for a long period of time, or, if gravity permits, runs off into streams or to the lowest part of the field, creating a large puddle or pond.

Growing up on the farm I've always heard my folks say that the reason for the huge puddle at the bottom part of the field was because, "the soil got so saturated from all that rain." I know now that that's not true; it's because the soil has poor water infiltration due to the damage caused by excessive disturbance of the soil.

And where does all that water go? Well, most of it eventually gets evaporated. For a lot of cropping areas, the minerals (largely salts) left behind after the water evaporates makes it unsuitable for crop production. ( Especially with monoculture crops, a lot of these areas remain bare, or get covered by weeds that the farmer *tries* to get rid of with spraying and yet more tillage.

It's no wonder farmers are feeling the hit so bad now with more severe droughts and flooding than "what's been seen in decades."

And what about compaction? Compaction comes about with tillage, that breaks up the natural structure of a soil that is created and maintained with the mutual partnership between mycorrhizal fungi and a perennial plant cover, as well as raindrop impact: A heavy rainstorm on disturbed ground helps "mold" the soil particles tighter together, creating a crust at the soil surface that can become impenetrable. Wheel traffic also creates compaction problems, as does a lack of diversity in crop rotation. You can read more about compaction here: Soil Compaction: Causes, Effects, and Control - U of MN Extension.

Finally, soil heating via solar energy is disastrous for soil microbes. Exposed soil tends to absorb heat, whereas plants dissipate heat. Bare soil can generate at least a 10-degree increase above air ambient temperature, making it feel hotter than it actually is. Soil microbes can only stand soil temperatures that get to 100ºF; above that, they start to decline in activity. At higher temperatures they'll either go dormant, or eventually die if they are continually denied nutrients they need to survive.

The truth is, the vast majority of farms today are not adapted to climate change. They are run by what Ray Archuleta calls "ancient sunlight," and have become very fragile, non-resilient systems.

A lot of pastures are also not adapted to climate change.

The reason for this is also largely due to management--mismanagement, rather.

The mismanagement is in the lack of actually managing the land itself. By that I mean farmers and ranchers just throwing out their animals to a large area for them to graze all season long.

The reasoning behind this form of grazing--which is called "continuous grazing"--is that animals are free to choose whatever, whenever, and wherever they graze with no restrictions. They can choose what is most palatable and nutritious to them, and ignore what isn't. Some would consider this "free ranging." Basically it's a "management practice" that suits individual animals, but certainly not the land--both the soil and the plants.

It's truly the most lazy way of grazing animals, as far as I'm concerned. You don't need much for fencing, and you don't need to be out every day moving animals. In the short-term it seems like it's not all bad, but over the long term that pasture becomes less and less healthy, with plenty of patches of overgrazed and undergrazed growth, more weeds, more compacted soil, less diversity, and reduced soil fertility. Costly fixes--I call them "band-aid solutions"--include pelleted fertilizer, or breaking up the pasture entirely, cropping it for a year before reseeding it back to forages again.

Rangeland areas that can't be broken up just become more weedy or, especially if the mentality that there's "too many animals on the land," more woody plants begin to come in and take over what was once predominantly true grassland. And, what grasses that die in order to regrow in the spring accumulate dead material.

In arid regions especially, if that arid material is not stomped into the ground by hooves or eaten because there are not enough animals on the land (or, as in the "protected" areas, none at all), it oxidizes and reduces a grass plant's efficacy and vigour in regrowth. Eventually the plant just dies because it gets snuffed out by the accumulation of its own dead material. The more dead plants there are, the further that area goes into desertification. Alan Savory has noted that desertification is not just about overgrazing, but rather due to severe undergrazing and under-utilization of a dying natural forage resource.

And if that's not bad enough, continuous grazing animals allows for excessive manure disposal around their loitering and watering areas. Uncontrolled animal movement can be severely detrimental to riparian zones of any natural or man-made water source, reducing water quality and impacting the wildlife that depend on these areas for their own needs.

But fortunately, there is hope. And it all begins by realizing that we can fix the soil by diversity and incorporating animals into the farming operation. This is where these land-use arguments become non-issue.

Regeneration and Healing is Possible--Regenerative Agriculture is Humans Working With Nature

Things will get worse before they get better. But as I said and also believe, there is hope. 

Hope is in the realization that the soil is a living, biological entity, a "sub-aquatic" ecosystem full of billions of organisms that work together.

Hope, especially is the changing of millions--perhaps billions--of minds to understand soil function, and of looking at the system and systems within a larger system holistically. 

Finally, hope is the fact that the Earth is a biological system in and of itself that is capable of healing and regeneration, even after the damage that has been caused by human activity and ignorance.

The thing is, I can't even begin to describe the thousands of different methods that any farmer anywhere in the world can apply to their own farm or ranch to help enhance this regeneration process. But the principles that apply to all remain the same. They are:

  1. Understand your social and ecological context
  2. Cover the soil at all times (with dead and living plant material)
  3. Grow a [diverse] living root 24/7
  4. Synergize with diversity: Crop rotations & Cover crops
  5. Integrate diversity of animals
  6. Reduce chemical, biological, and physical stress
Now, I cannot go into details on every single point, but because I'm reminded again of what this post is actually about, the aspect of integrating the diversity of animals is very pertinent here.

This land-use argument incites fear about "too many animals" and "too much land/crops used" for these animals. I'm saying that's nothing to be afraid of. 

When you're integrating livestock into the farming operation, you are doing so by changing the way you manage them. Manage them by mimicking the movements of the great bison herds in response to predation: Mob-graze them. Utilize short-duration grazing where animals are grazing a small area for much shorter time than it gets rested. The temporary electric fence and you are their "predator." 

Grazing them this way ensures that they get what they need but don't overgraze the area--as determined by the manager of course. Grazing this way also incorporates the control of where they get their water from, and more and more producers are realizing the benefits of providing a water source that brings water from undisturbed dugouts, creeks or springs, or from the well, rather than just having the animals drink from the dugouts or creeks themselves. 

Incorporating livestock into the cropping as a crop rotation, gives the land a rest from being used for growing crops, and has an annual cover crop mix or pasture mix used for various livestock species to consume. It also takes them off the pasture if an area of the pasture is being preserved for grazing in the fall, or if pasture resources are running low. (Annual pasture mixes are also great for grazing animals in the winter.) Doing this allows more nutrients to return to the land in the form of dung and urine, the kind of nutrients that diverse crop mixes alone couldn't generate in the amount of time that it takes to mob graze livestock over that parcel of land. 

All of this diversity and incorporation will, without a doubt, help heal the soil and build organic matter and top soil much faster than once thought. More and more farmers are practicing these regenerative agricultural practices and finding these out; these aren't just theoretical practices thought up by some wacko scientist. That's what makes this regenerative agricultural movement so great. 

And regardless, animals do have their benefits above cropping practices. They can be grazed in areas unsuitable for crop production, and consume by-products and wasted food not consumed by humans. Actually, pigs and poultry are much more efficient and better animals for this than even cattle or sheep. Cattle and sheep are great for utilizing crop residues and pastured areas filled with good grass to graze. 

So you see how this land-use argument is a non-issue, and how the FAO stats are nothing to be alarmed about? 

Really, we need more livestock animals on the land, not less. And I would love to see 100% of agricultural land used for raising livestock as well as food for people. Not either or. 

I leave you with this 23 minute video of one farmer who practices what he preaches about grazing and cover crops. 


September 5, 2017

The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Breaking Down the Numbers

When it comes to quantifying land used for either meat production or growing "plant-based foods," things can get a little messy, and I've been finding that a lot of the information that exists out there gets misinterpreted, or just outright misunderstood. Keep this quote in mind:

"There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." -- Mark Twain

No doubt there's a lot of misinformation out there on the Interweb, so much that you just have to use the DBEY(R/S)OTI method:

Don't Believe Everything You (Read/See) On The Internet!

And as someone that likes to peruse the variety of information posted on social media and websites and such, I get to come across some odd balls that makes my head cock sideways at times. Especially when I come across a few different vegan memes that have different statistics. 

I have to say, before I begin, that the vegans do have it right. By that, I mean that you most definitely can and will produce a lot more "plant-based food" (i.e., vegetables, starches, fruits, and grains) on an acre of land than you can meat (be it from cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep, or goats). I am not questioning that aspect of the "meat vs. veggie" argument. 

However, I have several "beefs" with this simplistic-seeming fact. Those issues I will address in the next blog post The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Why It's Really a Non-Issue

The primary talking-points I really want to address here and now are the actual statistics or numbers that vegans use to bring up the land-use vegan vs. meat argument. Not so much the discrepancies, but rather what the numbers are actually telling us.

Well, maybe more me than us, but whatever. 

Two primary memes, both with their relatively inconvenient discrepancies are what I really want to focus on in this post, largely because of the difference in beef amounts per amount of land required. The third meme I'm going to talk a bit about as well is just a bit different, as it will look at the amount of land needed for a person of a particular dietary choice to live off of for an entire year.

I hope you find this interesting as I did when writing this out.

But before we begin, just let me make the note the two major factors being disregarded in both memes:
  • Time
    • Growing season length
    • Monthly vs. Yearly basis
  • Location 
    • Growing season length 
    • Climate 
    • Soil type/quality 
    • Annual precipitation
Largely these are ignored because they're variables, and variables make things quite complicated. I believe I will cover these more in the second blog post. 

Meme #1:


I think it's best to look at the beef side first and foremost, just to see where the number above actually stands.

As already mentioned above, time is the variable that is largely ignored. However, I tend to assume that this is based on a full year of production, or a full "growing season." 

I assume these are the two sources from the meme used for their statistic on beef:
I find the former source highly unreliable for two reasons:
  1. The authors fail to define what "acre-days" are throughout the paper, leading one to assume that their "5 acre-days" versus "1.7 acre-days" means 5 acres per animal unit per day versus 1.7 acres per animal unit per day. That gives rise for my second reason SRBC paper is unreliable:
  2. To convert the SBRC's linked articles' statistics, 5 acres per cow-day (or per AU per day) (= 1 cow-day/acre ÷ 5 acres/cow-day) = 0.2 cow-days per acre for pasture; and 1.7 acres per cow-day (= 1 cow-day/acre ÷ 1.7 cow-days per acre) = 0.6 cow-days per acre. 



REMEMBER: 

One (1) Animal Unit = One Cow-Day = One (1) 1000 lb cow or cow-calf pair consuming ~26 lb of dry matter forage per day. 

(dry matter (DM) = all water removed)



Therefore, Reason 2 shows very clearly that the authors are surmising their numbers on unrealistic and extremely low forage productivity for any land base, crop or otherwise!! 

So, again, take note! The SRBC article is way out to lunch and an unreliable reference for any meme, and for use in any article, blog or otherwise!! 

Fortunately, the NRCS fact sheet is much, much more realistic. 

Their ball park average for number of acres per year per cow-calf pair is 1.5 to 2 acres. So to convert that into cow-days per acre:

(365 days/year) ÷ (1.5 acres/year/AU) = 243 cow-days per acre
(365 days/year) ÷ (2 acres/year/AU) = 182.5 cow-days per acre

Much better. 

Working backwards from their pre-determined 137 lb of beef (boxed and ready to serve), and assuming that 60% of the live-weight is dressing weight, and 60% of dressing weight is boxed beef, 137 lb of boxed beef goes to (137 ÷ 0.60 =) 228.33 lb dressing weight, and 228.33 lb dressing weight goes into (228.33 ÷ 0.60 =) 380.55 lb live-weight. 

Without looking deeper, sure 380.55 lb (round up to 381 lb) is quite a small animal, but we must remember that this is the amount of live-weight expected on one acre for, supposedly, an entire year. 

Since we know that the finishing live-weight for cattle, depending on the frame score (see Target Slaughter Weights: Are Your Beef Cattle Fat Enough for Market), and using the standard animal unit, we can figure how many acres the meme is actually referring to. 

1000 lb/AU ÷ 381 lb/acre = 2.6 acres/AU/year

What does that translate into as required cow-days per acre? Well...

365 days/year ÷ 2.6 acres/AU/year = 140.4 cow-days per acre. 

If we were to use the cow-day values I calculated from the NRCS article, I can figure out how big the meme is thinking a finisher bovine *should be* according to their value of 137 lb of boxed beef derived from per acre per year. 

1. From NRCS: 1.5 acres/AU/year * 381 lb bovine/acre/year = 571.5 lb bovine
2. From NRCS: 2 acres/AU/year * 381 lb bovine/acre/year = 762 lb bovine

So, funnily enough, the values from NRCS that VeganStreet sourced from actually surpass the amount of meat that would come from one acre in a year. Not by much, of course, but significantly enough to cause anyone who hasn't even done the calculations like I did to question the validity of this meme. 

The Reality of Grass-Finishing a Grass-Fed Steer


Realistically, a single steer raised for slaughter is not going to be eating the same amount of forage from the first year of purchase to the end of his life. 

A young steer is purchased when he's 600 pounds. At 600 pounds he's eating about (600 lb bodyweight * (2.6% bodyweight consumed feed DM per day * 100) =) 15.6 lb of DM forage per day. As he increases in bodyweight, so the amount of feed he needs to consume will also increase.  To demonstrate, if target slaughter weight is 1400 pounds, then the daily dry matter intake (DDMI) would increase for every 100 pound gain in body weight as:

700 lb * 0.026 = 18.2 lb DDMI
800 lb * 0.026 = 20.8 lb DDMI
900 lb * 0.026 = 23.4 lb DDMI
1000 lb * 0.026 = 26 lb DDMI
1100 lb * 0.026 = 28.6 lb DDMI
1200 lb * 0.026 = 31.2 lb DDMI
1300 lb * 0.026 = 33.8 lb DDMI
1400 lb * 0.026 = 36.4 lb DDMI

For a steer to get to 1400 lb in one year, he would need to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2.2 pounds per day. 

So that means that if we were to estimate how long it takes that steer to gain 100 pounds, at that rate of gain it would be about 45.5 days. From that estimate we can further estimate how much feed that steer is going to need, at 45.5 day intervals, over time. 

I won't bore you with all the math. But just to demonstrate yet again, just how much feed a 600 lb steer, to get to 700 pounds, needs to eat (on a dry-matter basis) over 45.5 days, I just use this calculation:

15.6 lb DDMI * 45.5 days = 709.8 lb DM feed

If you're following along with your own calculator, you basically just need to use the same calculation for each hundred-weight increase over the 45.5 day period. Then add all those values up to get how much feed that steer will need. Here's the values that I came up with, added up to the grand total:

709.8 + 828.1 + 946.4 + 1064.7 + 1183 + 1301.3 + 1419.6 + 1537.9 + 1656.2 = 10, 647 lb total feed per year.

You're probably wondering why I'm going to all this trouble to determine how much a steer will eat over a year. Stay with me, we're getting there.

When raising cattle on grass, the important thing to remember is: Grass will grow back. It will grow back readily particularly if you are using managed rotational grazing in an area where you can get at least two or three grazing sessions per grazing season, and timing your grazing so that you are having cattle eat grass at the right time at each session. 

Now, 10,647 lb of required forage per year for that bovine actually can be easily met in a good productive area that is even under 140 cow-days per acre (per the calculations derived from the meme above). An area with forage productivity of 115 to 120 cow-days per acre might be enough to meet the forage intake requirements of that steer with a year-round, management-intensive grazing (MiG) system. 

And that is quite possible on one acre. Again, particularly in areas where winter is quite mild, and MiG will keep grass productive. 

No kidding. By my calculations, and with the help of an Excel spreadsheet on these very calculations that I developed, a person can actually raise a single steer to 1400 lb slaughter weight on one acre that is producing 125 cow-days per acre of grass; with daily moves, a 45.5 day rest period, that steer can graze between 0.005 and 0.01 acres (= 217 to 435 square feet) of pasture land per day, with almost 3 sessions per pasture during that entire year.  

And that means that, on one acre with 125 cow-days per acre of forage for that single animal, a person can get 504 lb of boxed, ready-to-eat beef on that single acre

Pretty cool, eh? And, even with NRCS's numbers, it's not impossible to get even more pounds of boxed beef per acre; 1.5 to almost double the amount of boxed beef I calculated above! 

Of course that's not saying that all areas in the world will have enough grass for to produce that amount of beef per acre, and there are other variables I didn't mention that will influence the ability to produce some grass-finished beef on one acre, but it goes to show you that you certainly can raise more beef on less amount of land than what's been conventionally thought possible. (I do believe this might be a good excuse to make another blog post about the misconception that "there's not enough land to have grass-fed cattle..." Some other time.)

Potatoes and Tomatoes: How Much Can Actually be Produced per Acre?


The easy answer is that it is highly variable. It really depends on soil type and quality, moisture, cultivars used, location, organic vs. conventional, climate/weather conditions, etc.

The meme claims that 53,000 lb of potatoes and 40,000 lb of tomatoes can be grown on an acre, assuming on an annual basis. From my research below, I've found some very different, and widely varying answers that questions the validity of the meme's claims... yet again.

For potatoes, the average yields differ quite substantially from year to year, and in different areas. Some examples I pulled from a Google search:


For tomatoes, I also found even more extreme variabilities with tomato production, with no real averages like with potatoes.

Basically, tomato growers will plant between 2,400 to 5,800 plants per acre. How much each plant will yield per growing season is variable, but most suggest to expect between 10 to 30 pounds of tomatoes per plant. Some folks are capable, if using the right varieties and ensuring good growing conditions, of 50 to 80 pounds of tomatoes per plant!!

This means, on a per acre basis, 2,400 plants on an acre may yield between 24,000 lb/acre to 192,000 lb/acre. If a person had 5,800 plants per acre, then they could expect to get between 58,000 lb/acre to 464,000 lb/acre.

Those are some significant variabilities. See Tomato ProductionHunker's Link on Tomato Production per Acre, and eXtension.org's Field Production of Organic Tomatoes for more information.  

Meme #2: 



(Just as an aside, my thoughts on this "documentary" can be read HERE.)


Again, let's work with the *meat* side of this comparison first and foremost.

But first of all, the three major things wrong with using the term "meat" in this particular meme:
  1. It makes things far too ambiguous
  2. Meat, by definition means "...the flesh of an animal, typically a mammal or bird, as food (the flesh of domestic fowls is sometimes distinguished as poultry)" (from Oxford Dictionary)
  3. One and a half acres will produce more meat from one species than another due to space requirements as dictated by body size. (For example, chickens need less space than pigs, and pigs need less space than cows, in that order.) 
This meme is actually making things far more complicated and more off the mark than a person thinks. If this Cowsmackery meme is going to be using the quote that 375 pounds of MEAT is produced on 1.5 acres, then that obviously means I need to really break things down and take a look at several things:

  1. How many animals (and their size) does it really take to make up 375 pounds of meat? 
  2. Given the time it takes them to reach slaughter weight;
    1. How many animals of each listed can be raised for a year on 1.5 acres? Or, 
    2. How many animals can 1.5 acres hold to be raised for meat per year? From those; 
  3. How much meat of each different listed species can actually be produced on 1.5 acres??
Without even starting on the calculations, I can tell right off that the meme is incredibly far off the mark.

And I'll also tell you right now that they're talking about beef being produced from that 1.5 acres, NOT "meat." But I'll get to that after I crunch the numbers for the various animals raised for meat.

Let's just see how many animals, of each species, it takes to even make 375 lb of ready-to-cook meat:
  • Beef: One (1) 1042 lb steer (Frame score 3, small-framed; assuming dressing percentage is 60% of live-weight, and weight of final retail cuts are 60% of dressing percentage)
  • Pork: Three (3) 250 lb pigs (assuming dressing percentage is is 70% of live-weight, and final retail cuts are 70% of dressing percentage)
  • Lamb / Chevon (Goat): Ten (10) 150 lb lambs (assuming dressing percentage is 50% of live-weight, and final retail cuts are 50% of dressing percentage)
  • Turkey: Seventeen (17) 30 lb turkeys (assuming dressing percentage is 80% of live-weight, and final butcher weight is 90% of dressing percentage)
  • Goose: Forty-one (41) 13 lb geese (assuming dressing percentage is 70% of live-weight)
  • Duck: Seventy-two (72) 4 lb ducks (assuming dressing percentage is 65% of live-weight)
  • Chicken: One hundred (100) 5 lb broiler chickens (assuming dressing percentage is 75% of live-weight)
  • Rabbit: One hundred (100) 5 lb rabbits (assuming dressing percentage is 60% of live-weight)
Now, we need to find the time it takes to raise each of these species to get to slaughter (from birth):
  • Beef Cattle: 18 to 24 months
  • Pigs: 5 to 6 months
  • Goats: 3 to 4 months
  • Lambs: 6 to 8 months
  • Turkeys: 4 to 5 months
  • Geese: 3.75 to 5 months
  • Ducks: 1.75 to 2 months
  • Chickens: 1.25 to 1.75 months
  • Rabbits: 2.5 to 3 months
From there, we can answer the question of how many animals can be raised for a year, using rotational grazing systems, on 1.5 acres (assuming pastures are productive all year long, and all animals won't need any other outside supplementation).

But, before we even do that, the question we need to answer first is how much do each of these animals eat per day? Since there's always a difference in body weight, it makes life and calculations much easier if the expected amount any species of animal is going to eat is based on dry matter intake on a percent body weight basis:
  • Beef Cattle: 2.5% body weight 
  • Pigs: 4.0% body weight 
  • Goats: 2.8% body weight 
  • Lambs: 2.8% body weight 
  • Turkeys: 2.4% body weight 
  • Geese: 5.0% body weight 
  • Ducks: 5.0% body weight 
  • Chickens: 4.5% body weight 
  • Rabbits: 5.0% body weight
Now we can look at how many animals can be raised, or pastured, on just 1.5 acres (ONLY of each species!):
  • Beef Cattle: Two (2) small-framed or "miniature" bovines weighing 800 to 1000 lb
  • Pigs: Sixteen (16) 200 lb hogs (or two batches of 8 hogs in one year)
  • Goats: Twenty-two (22) 150 lb post-weaned lambs (or two batches of 11 young goats)
  • Lambs: Same as with goats above
  • Turkeys: One hundred thirty-four (134) 25 lb turkeys (or two batches of 67 birds in one year)
  • Geese: Two hundred fifty-six (256) 13 lb geese (or two batches of 128 birds in one year)
  • Ducks: Two thousand five-hundred-two (2,502) 4 lb ducks (or 6 batches or 417 birds in one year)
  • Chickens: Two-thousand four (2004) 5 lb broiler chickens (or 6 batches of 334 birds in one year)
  • Rabbits: One thousand three hundred thirty-six (1336) 5 lb rabbits (or 4 batches of 334 rabbits in one year)
As with the first meme, I based my calculations on a pasture-based system that took into account the amount of grass produced, rest period needed for each pasture, amount of time spent in each paddock, weight and dry matter intake requirements of each species, and a few other things, to come up with the above calculations. Having a spreadsheet were I can just plug in a couple numbers and already have the formulas put in place is all I needed to do to come up with the above numbers.

Now, if we ignored the whole pasture-raised thing, and just looked at 1.5 acres as one, ginormous "factory farm," or CAFO (confined feeding animal operation), which can be easily done on 1.5 acres of land, we can answer part 2 of question 2 which I posed above about, "How many animals can 1.5 acres hold to be raised for meat per year?"

As I already mentioned, the space requirements for each species is different simply because of their body size. Do you want to know what the CAFO-standard space requirements for each species actually is? Okay... be prepared to be shocked (as if the values I came up with above hadn't put you into shock therapy already...)

  • Beef Cattle: 250 sq. ft. for weaned calves; 300 sq. ft for heavy yearlings or cows & bred heifers
  • Pigs: 20 to 50 sq. ft. 
  • Goats: 8 to 10 sq. ft. for young goats (~1 to 3 months) raised for meat
  • Lambs: 8 to 10 sq. ft. 
  • Turkeys: 2.5 to 4 sq. ft. 
  • Geese: 6 sq. ft. in coop
  • Ducks: 3 sq. ft. in coop
  • Chickens: 2 sq. ft. in coop
  • Rabbits: 3 to 4 sq. ft.
Using those values above, let's see just how many animals 1.5 acres (65,340 sq. ft) could actually hold in intensive confinement:
  • Beef Cattle: 254 to 211 cattle (weaned calves to heavy yearlings, respectively)
  • Pigs: 1,271 to 3,177 pigs (or two batches making for totals of 2542 to 6354 pigs per year)
  • Goats: 6,354 to 7,942 young goats (or two batches for totals of 12708 to 15,884 goats per year)
  • Lambs: Same as with goats
  • Turkeys: 15,885 to 25,416 birds (or three batches for totals of 47,655 to 76,248 birds per year)
  • Geese: 10,590 birds (or four batches for a total of 42,360 birds per year)
  • Ducks: 21,180 birds (or 6 batches for a total of 127,080 birds per year)
  • Chickens: 31,770 birds (or 7 batches for totals of 222, 390 birds per year)
  • Rabbits: 15,885 to 21,180 rabbits (or four batches for totals of 63540 to 84720 rabbits per year)
These values do not take into the extra space needed to grow the feed for these animals. This is why my choice of words are to "hold," not "support." "Support" would indicate also growing feed on that same parcel of land to feed those critters. 

That means that the numbers of how many animals 1.5 acres can hold (under intensive confinement) are grossly inflated because they don't support the ability to grow feed for the animals. For most animals, more than twice the land, if not greater, will be needed to raise just a fraction of most of the animals in this list. 

And that means that I'm going to ignore those values above, and only use the ones I made for raising animals on pasture to answer my third question:

"How much meat of each different listed species can actually be produced on 1.5 acres??"

Using the same dressing and and cutting percentage weights that I started off with to look at just how many animals need to be killed to produce 375 lb of meat, here are the results that I came up with:
  • Beef Cattle: Two (2) small-framed or "miniature" bovines weighing 800 to 1000 lb will give 720 lb of boxed beef;
  • Pigs: Sixteen (16) 200 lb hogs will give 1,568 lb of boxed pork;
  • Goats: Twenty-two (22) 150 lb post-weaned goats will give 825 lb of boxed chevon;
  • Lambs: Twenty-two (22) 150 lb post-weaned lambs will give 825 lb of boxed lamb;
  • Turkeys: One hundred thirty-four (134) 25 lb turkeys will give 2,412 lb of ready-to-cook whole turkey;
  • Geese: Two hundred fifty-six (256) 13 lb geese will give 2,329.6 lb of ready-to-cook whole goose meat;
  • Ducks: Two thousand five-hundred-two (2,502) 4 lb ducks will give 6,505 lb of ready-to-cook whole duck meat;
  • Chickens: Two-thousand four (2,004) 5 lb broiler chickens will give 7,515 lb of ready-to-cook whole chicken; or
  • Rabbits: One thousand three hundred thirty-six (1,336) 5 lb rabbits will give 801.6 lb of ready-to-cook/eat whole rabbit
Right off the bat that makes the meme's 375-pounds-of-meat claimed value so far off the mark I'm laughing hysterically in my chair right now.

But really, where are they coming up with 375 lb of "meat" on 1.5 acres? That's the next big question I want to answer and figure out, like with the first meme above. 

I think we can all agree that it's actually based on meat from cattle, not the disingenuous term "meat" that was, in my honest opinion, stupidly used. 

How Did the Makers of Meme #2 Come Up with 375 lb of BEEF on 1.5 acres? 


It makes things easier when I can work backwards.

As mentioned above, I'm going to assume that 375 lb of beef is boxed beef, and not the dressed weight after slaughter. So, the actual weight of the animal is:

375 lb of boxed beef ÷ 60% retail weight from carcass weight = 625 lb ÷ 60% carcass weight from live weight = a 1041.6667 lb or ~1042 lb steer or heifer

According to Grassfed Solutions link on "Target slaughter weights: Are your beef cattle fat enough when they go to market?" a 1042 lb steer is between a frame score of 3 and 4 for steers, and 4 to 5 for heifers. This indicates the size of the steer is on the large side of "small frame" or medium-framed. 

Frame scores (based on hip height in conjunction with age) range from 1 (one) to 9 (nine), with one being the smallest. Miniature cattle, I believe, could be smaller than FS-1 cattle... but let's not get into that. 

Most cattle are slaughtered when they reach between 1300 and 1500 pounds. Either of these animals should yield 460 lb to 540 lb of boxed meat. And those sized-animals are large-framed animals.

But I digress.

In order to find out how to get 375 lb of beef from 1.5 acres, I need to, again, work backwards from the point of the actual live-weight of the animal so that I can ultimately find out the forage productivity of that 1.5-acre parcel. Here's basically what I did: 

I know that typically the daily dry matter intake (DDMI) is 2.6% of body weight. 

So, 1042 * 0.026 = 27.1 lb DM forage per day consumed.

I'm expecting about 50% utilization of a pasture (where half of the forage is eaten, the rest trampled and sodden on), and daily rotation, with 120-day rest period per paddock.

The amount of forage required per day is 27.1 lb DM ÷ 50% utilization = 54.2 lb DM per day of forage for that animal.

The number of paddocks needed is (120 days of rest + 1 day/paddock) ÷ 1 day/paddock = 121 paddocks in total. 

On 1.5 acres, that means that I would probably need (1.5 acres ÷ 121 paddocks =) 0.0124 acres per paddock. Or, to do it in square footage, 1.5 acres (43,560 sq. ft./acre * 1.5 acres) = 65,340 sq. ft; Therefore 65,340 sq. ft. ÷ 121 paddocks= 540 sq. ft. per paddock.

The expected amount of forage, therefore, that a pasture is expected to produce is (54.2 ÷ 0.0124 acres per paddock =) 4371 lb/acre of forage

That translates into... (4371 lb/acre * (50% utilization ÷ 100) / 26 lb per day daily DM intake of one Animal Unit =) 84.1 cow-days per acre. 

Or, a stocking rate of... (4371 lb/acre * (50% utilization ÷ 100) / 800 lb per month DM intake of one Animal Unit =) 2.7 AUM/acre. 

If I shortened up the rest period to 45 days, I would get a larger area for the animal to graze:

(45 days rest + 1 day/paddock) ÷ 1 day/paddock = 46 paddocks total
1.5 acres ÷ 46 paddocks = 0.0326 acres/paddock = 1420 sq. ft/paddock.

To the average Jane/Joe that seems like "lots of space to roam" but to me, that's too much space for just one animal to cover sufficiently in one day. If there's a lot of forage available per day, which my next calculations show that shouldn't be the case:

54.2 ÷ 0.0326 acres/paddock = 1662 lb/acre of forage that needs to be available, or 32 cow-days per acre, or 1.04 AUM/acre stocking rate. 

In other words, on a really shitty pasture (pardon the pun) you can graze one 1042 lb bovine on 1.5 acres. But there's a catch. 

The number of times that bovine will need to go over that pasture in a year is eight times (0.0326 acres/paddock/day * 365 days = 11.899 total acres needed for entire season (with no returning to previous paddocks grazed) ÷ 1.5 acres = 7.9 or 8 required grazing sessions for 1.5 acres in one year-long grazing season). Not all pastures are going to be that productive, especially when they have that low of forage quantity to begin with. 

On the other hand, the pasture with 84 cow-days per acre will mean that it will be gone over less times over the year, make that only three grazing sessions per year (0.0124 * 365 = 4.5 ÷ 1.5 = 3 sessions for 1.5 acres in one year-long grazing season).

But the question is, are pastures only that good to graze on? My answer is look at how much a lot of hay fields can produce. You can get some that will be highly productive, as in around 4 to 5 tons per acre (or 8,816 lb/acre to 11,020 lb/acre), or more--some hay fields can get as much as 10 tons/acre (22,040 lb/acre). If a pasture can be made to be as productive or better as the average hay field (no matter if it's irrigated or not), then that means that a person can indeed raise more beef than what the meme is suggesting on one or 1.5 acres. Easily; like at least double the amount of beef than what Cowspiracy's meme is proselytizing

So, is this second meme out to lunch? Not entirely. It's only indicative of pasture mismanagement that doesn't manage grass and animals to their full potential. It also doesn't show the huge potential that better grass management can do to actually help increase pasture productivity and thereby needing to increase the size of the herd to match that increased productivity. 

Vegetable Production of Meme #2


This meme is also suggesting that a person can get 37,000 lb of so-called "plant-based food" (or rather, just food excluding meat and poultry) on 1.5 acres. That, in my mind, translates to the ability of getting 11 tons/acre of vegetables/fruit/grain etc. 

Pretty ambiguous, yet again.

In the first meme above I already showed the incredible variability and discrepancies between the amount of potatoes and tomatoes--"plant-based food" essentially--that are even produced on just one acre of land. Compared to those, 37,000 lb of vegetables, fruits, and/or grains on 1.5 acres (or 11 tons/acre) is not exactly a whole lot. 

Therefore this meme shows, yet again, a poor example of the potential productivity of any area of land that is even capable of being used to grow food for people. 

On To The Next...


Now that I've crunched the numbers and really took a hard look at what both memes were (and were not) showing, I would like to switch gears and provide another post to explain why the land-use argument comparisons are really a non-issue, and as much of a proselytizing erroneous statement that needs to be taken with a giant grain of salt as any vegan shock-value "fact" should be regarded. 

July 10, 2017

What Do Cows and Cattle Eat?

The obvious answer to this seemingly mindless, extremely easy-to-answer question is...

Grass.


In all it's various forms.

But, of course, that's really only partly right.

Sure cows and cattle eat grass because that's what they're built to eat. They are ruminant animals, meaning they have three fore-stomachs plus the true stomach that is structurally adapted to a diet of fibrous plant material.

Plus they have millions of microflora to help them break down that plant material into usable nutrients.

A quick Google search will give you several sites that tell you the three primary feeds that cattle eat:

- Hay
- Grain
- Silage

A fourth "feed" that cattle will "harvest" themselves is pasture forage (also called fodder).

There is also a fifth feed that takes on a minor precedent known as "by-product."

Now, the three four five primary feeds are largely of grasses or derived from grasses.

Hay is cut and sun-dried forage that is gathered up into bales (NOT "bails"). Plants used for hay are primarily perennial grasses that come up to be harvested year after year without any need to cultivate and re-seed (usually).

Grain is a collection of seeds from domesticated grasses such as corn, barley, and oats.

Silage is wet, wilted forage that is cut, then chopped up and stored in a wrapped bale, in a pit, pile, bunker, or silo and allowed to ferment for several weeks. Most silage is of domestic grasses like barley, corn, or oats; it can also be made up of grasses that could be used for hay.

By-products are waste material from processing grains or crop seeds into various products for human use or consumption, such as beer, biofuel, baked goods, or vegetable/cooking oil. While domestic grasses make up a large part of this production, other crops like sunflowers, canola, and soybeans are used. By-products may also include waste from supermarkets due to grading and aesthetic concerns. Waste vegetables, starches, and fruits make up a lot of this, and to some limited extent, be fed to cattle.

I purposefully did not include animal by-product as a part of the by-product list for cattle because such feeds are prohibited from being fed due to Mad Cow Disease concerns (also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.)

Oh, but wait! I forgot to add two more items to what cattle are fed! I'll bet you didn't know that cattle also eat:

Making hay before the storm hits
- Greenfeed
- Straw

Greenfeed is treated just like hay, except that the forage component of that hay is not your typical perennial grasses as a "hay stand." Instead, this is usually made up of annual domestic grasses primarily of oats and/or barley that are cut green, dried in the sun, and baled up. Another type of greenfeed is "yellowfeed" which is a crop harvested for feed after being desiccated with a herbicide, usually glyphosate. Yellowfeed can also be a cereal crop  that has gone to maturity, and is cut and baled up for feed. (Farmers have been known to also bale up non-cereals like peas or canola to feed to cattle.)

Barley ready to be harvested for feed
Straw is what's left over and gathered up into bales after a cereal crop is harvested for its seed (grain).

What are Cows and Cattle Fed to Eat? 


What feeds are fed to cattle depends on how they are raised. Dairy cattle in confinement will be fed a variety of feeds in what's called a TMR (total mixed ration). It ensures that they get all their nutrients and types of feeds they should have for healthy rumen function and milk production. A TMR includes hay, silage, grain, and maybe some kind of by-product like soybean meal or canola meal.

I should really answer this in an other post on "How do Cows Eat" but what's funny about dairy cows being fed a TMR is that they're not stupid or dumb about carefully selecting out their "desert" first (the grains) and leaving the "vegetables" (the hay component) behind until they really have to eat it. That's why I used the words "they should have" because the human component behind the dairy-cow ration balancing expect the cows to eat everything in equal portions, when they really don't!

Beef cattle are primarily fed hay with some grain and/or silage. At least, those cattle or cows that are still raised traditionally (kept in pens during the winter, out on pasture in the summer). Cattle being finished in the feedlot are primarily on silage, with some hay and grain, then progressively fed more and more grain and silage (with a little hay) by the time they reach the end of their short lifespan prior to slaughter.

Here's where the waters get pretty cloudy. The aforementioned methods of feeding beef cattle have been practiced for many decades. But now, farmers and ranchers are taking winter feeding into more winter grazing, where hay is either being fed out in the field, or cereals are cut into swaths, but not gathered up into bales. Instead, electric fencing is used to get those cattle to eat those swaths instead.

Producers in more southern locations where winters are mild or non-existent can graze their cattle on pasture 365 days of the year. (Many cannot due to not understanding proper grazing practices of rest and rotation.)

I mention greenfeed and straw because beef cattle will be fed those feeds as well. The kicker with these is that the straw needs to be fed along with grain because a cow cannot handle an extremely high-fibre, poor protein feed source, and greenfeed needs to be fed along with a high-calcium/magnesium mineral, unless it is mixed with a hay that has lots of legumes in it (like alfalfa).

The other fun part of this question is that, continuing on with grazing, is that cattle can be grazed in annual crops that contain a variety of species that are primarily legumes, grasses, and broad-leafs (like kale, turnips, sunflowers, phacelia, flax, radish, etc.). A few producers are able to finish their cattle on this stuff, and get those cattle about as fat and sassy on that standing forage as those cattle being finished in the decades-traditional feedlot.

What do Cows Eat Other than Grass??



Legumes. Legumes make up a pretty hefty portion of a bovine's diet. Legumes are primarily found in hay, as well as pasture. Cattle will also readily eat other non-leguminous broad-leaves (or "forbs") if they find the plants particularly palatable (there's an alliteration for you!)

Did you know that grass makes up 95% of a bovine's diet? That means 5% of the diet is legumes, forbs, and some trees and shrubs, if they come across them.

Bees like legumes too!
Alsike Clover top, American Hedysarium bottom
There are quite a few species of legumes that cows will eat, including:

- Alfalfa
- Sainfoin
- Cicer Milkvetch
- Birdsfoot Trefoil
- Red Clover
- White Dutch Clover
- Kura Clover
- Alsike Clover
- Yellow/White Sweet Clover
- Hairy Vetch
- Persian Clover
- Soybeans
- Field Peas
- Beans
- Lentils
- Cow Peas
- Lespedeza
- Sunnhemp
- Faba Bean

Other non-legume forbs that cows will eat include:

- Dandelion
- Hawks-beard
- Turnips
- Radish
- Phacelia
- Flax
- Sunflower
- Kochia
- Carrot
- Squash
- Quinoa
- Plantain
- Spinach
- Chard
- Buckwheat

Cows Eat Grass on Pasture. Right?

Partly. Cows will also eat legumes, as mentioned already. A pasture that has a good legume component means that those cattle will get a lot of nutritional benefit from those plants.

Pasture for cattle isn't limited to the perennials that come up every year. Pasture also includes arable land that is typically used for cash crop production, but can and has been seeded so that it provides temporary pasture for livestock.

(This is why I strongly believe the land-use argument for not eating meat versus a 100% plant-based diet is a non-issue. That's another blog post some day, though.)

When cattle are pastured in any plant stand, they will select what tastes good to them. They are incredibly selective, much more than we think, using their tongues to both taste and grab what they want to eat.

If there are dandelions in a pasture, they will eat those with relish. Certain weeds will be eaten by cattle if they are trained to, such as Canada thistle. And when grazed in a large group where competition between animals is prevalent, they will also eat those weeds that normally, in a continuous grazing system, they would avoid (simply because they can).

So, Cows Eat More than Just Grass. Got It!!


Yes indeed. The take-away message here is that cattle will eat more than grass, not because they are forced to, but because they choose to, and can. 

In the end, they are herbivorous ruminant animals who will eat more than just grass for reasons including taste, and a craving for something lacking in their diet. Plant choices are also due to what they have learned from their mothers at a young age, or through trial and error.