October 16, 2018

Dear Oxford Scientists: Regenerating Soil is What's Essential, Not Avoiding Meat

Cows are SO bad... according to some researchers.
But are they really?? This guy doesn't think so...
and probably doesn't care!
I've gotten to that point in time--or maybe my life--where I just cannot go reading a study and believe it to be factually true. I honestly don't care how many authors have signed their names to it, or whether it hails from some prestigious university or not. What I care about the most is the content of the study, what it's actually saying, and what the whole context and its purpose for being published actually is.

That's how I approached this brand new study that was put out by a number of scientists from Oxford University that I was made aware of thanks to some friends through both the Soil4Climate group and Ethical Omnivore Movement. Really, it wasn't the study itself that got my attention, but rather an article from The Guardian with the stark, attention-grabbing headline, "Huge reduction in meat eating 'essential' to avoid climate breakdown." The first thought I had was, "Oh Lord, here we go."

After reading the article, and grinding my teeth to the kind of message they relayed from the paper itself, I thought I'd better give the actual study a read-through as well.

Holy hell...

Springmann et. al. (2018)'s "Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits" was this so-called "the most comprehensive analysis of the food system's impact on the environment," according to Damian Carrington, author of The Guardian article.

Oh, I so strongly disagree.

But first let me summarize the contents of the study. That is, without my own bias and harsh critique, coming up next.

The authors are suggesting a push for more and/or better technology to be much more precise in the application of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers for crops. They also, rather ambiguously, suggested that we need to reduce food waste in a significant manner. Their final suggestion was that everyone should adopt a more "flexitarian" or should I just say vegan/vegetarian diet, where, "...the average world citizen needs to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling consumption of beans and pulses and quadrupling nuts and seeds." Within all that, they also made quite an effort to blame livestock for most all environmental problems, especially when it came to greenhouse gas emissions.

This paper, believe it or not, is actually a study that is funded by the largest food corporate giant, Nestlé, and others, primarily through their EAT Forum. In my professional and personal opinion, this "study" is merely a means to extend and affirm the giant corporation's stranglehold on the global food market.

I found that this study was much more of a speculative "scientific" piece, with no real substantial solutions that held merit or had any practical applications. In layman's terms, it was more fluff than stuff. While it really was, though rather loosely, based on the current issues that are occurring with today's food system, the conclusions they arrived at where so incredibly dubious and full of holes it was rather laughable, and shamefully so. Much of their methods and proceeding conclusions were derived only from poorly designed computer data models that completely ignored--whether that was deliberate or not, I'm thinking it could be the latter--some major inputs that would drastically affect the outputs in their models.

The thought processes that created the very context of this report was highly reductionist and mechanistic. That, considering the fact that the paper seemed, at least to me, an excuse to cling on to the intensive, inefficient industrialized agriculture practices, was hard to ignore. The paper also entirely and intentionally ignored a growingly significant branch of agriculture that has proven through practicality on millions of acresnot merely through theoretical over-simplified computer models, that regenerative agricultural systems, including advanced adaptive grazing practices and no-till polyculture cover cropping practices,  has (and continues to) restored soil health worldwide and provides a completely new revolutionary framework unlike anything we've ever seen before.

We know the other context for this "scientific" paper: Nestlé has its fingers in many holes, and certainly must feel threatened by this new grassroots agricultural framework. Why? Because this incredible agricultural advancement that goes far beyond new technology to satisfy the same old paradigm of Henry Ford and Justus von Leibig leads to an astoundingly enormous cut in their profit margins. They know that if more and more people get on board with growing their own food, sourcing local regeneratively-produced meats and produce from local farmers, Nestlé and its many brands will collapse like a deck of cards. And they are scared sh*tless about it. That's why they've formed the EAT Forum, and why they've produced this report and purposely went about to demonize meat and elevate veg[etari]an diets as "more healthy."

Really, when we get down to the barebones of it all, it's merely a marketing ploy to, as someone said on Facebook about this same paper, "...extend and consolidate Nestlé's stranglehold on its ability to profit from marketing their ultra-processed food products worldwide... [and] to push the food system towards foods with high markups that will maximize Nestlé's profitability."

To some of you this may sound like some conspiracy theory thing to wave off, but if you think about it, much of it really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

For me personally, it really casted an enormous amount of doubt on the efficacy of industrialized agriculture and its ability give any hope in hell of saving our sorry asses when our day of reckoning finally comes.

Want an even blunter opinion from me? I think that study is absolute insanity, and so utterly asinine on many levels it's amazing these people that dared to attribute their names to this paper think that anything they suggested will actually work in reality. Honestly, you simply cannot come up with any real solutions sitting in an ivory tower staring at computer monitors with fancy modelling graphics without getting your boots dirty.

Now that that's out of the way, let me take the time to explain a bit more about why Springmann et. al. (2018)'s "options" for the environment are so very wrong.

Stop Ignoring and Abusing the Soil


When a paper that is supposed to be "the most comprehensive analysis" on the impact of the food system on the environment bears only one tiny mention of the word "soil," and confines that mention only in their "Uncertainty" section where it's tied to their questioning of the validity and plausibility of soil carbon sequestration, it is most definitely not a comprehensive analysis. This study deliberately ignored a fundamentally important piece of the puzzle, and could only tout the "importance" of better and more advanced technology for more judicial means of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer application. 

I also noticed that there was absolutely no mention about the effects of tillage on the soil and the surrounding environment downhill, even downstream, either. It seemed to me that the soil didn't matter one iota to them. Not even the soil biota, the earthworms, the mycorrhizae, or even the effort to build back organic matter that has been so depleted from repeated tillage practices for the past century and then some.

This is so utterly shameful and disappointing for a paper that is supposed to be "the most comprehensive analysis" of the impacts of the food system on the environment!! Honestly, does the soil not matter as being an integral part of the environment?? Doesn't it bear sufficient importance to actually be much more front and centre than technology, demonizing meat and livestock, and even food waste?? 

I certainly think so, and I encourage everyone reading this, who have gotten this far with me, to do the same.

Beautiful Soil


Soil is the very skin of the Earth, the most crucial part of Life itself, that bridges the gap between the biotic (plants and animals) and the abiotic (rocks, water). It is made up of both minerals from beneath the surface that are brought up by geological and physical workings of the Earth, and the decomposed or decomposing material of plants and animals. Plants, for the most part, are the greatest soil builders, with the help of animals, and especially protozoa including bacteria, fungi and archaea. These microscopic organisms have formed mutually beneficial partnerships with plants' roots, where they actively run a bartering system. Plants receive necessary nutrients that only the microbes can break down with their enzymes, and in return give these microbes liquid carbon for energy. Plants that die get turned into organic matter, then eventually soil, just as animals that have died will (as well as their manures), and act to feed the next generation of life. 

Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? That's because it is. It's absolutely the most perfect, complex, organic, natural system that anyone could ever dream of, with a healthy balance of dark (death) and light (life), and is completely self-sustaining.  It's not something that needs fixing by human hands, it doesn't require fertilizer or tillage or pesticides. It is perfect the way it is. 

And yet we humans just had to go and mess it all up. 

I won't get into the boring details of the history from when we humans went from hunter-gatherer to agricultural masters, because that will just take up too much time, and detract from what I want to say. But, the very thing is is that we've been mistreating the soil for a very long time, and it has lead to the demise of various ancient civilizations of yesteryear. David R. Montgomery's book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is a very good book to read on that topic. I have no doubt that it will be the demise of this current, albeit far more global civilization if we don't do anything to fix our mistakes.

The Problem with Tillage


The rule to solving a problem is figuring out how it was created in the first place, and why. Let's start with tillage. Tillage is any kind of soil disturbance, whether it be light like harrowing that just scratches the ground, or deep tillage like with a subsoiler that goes down up to two feet deep for the purpose of breaking up hard-pan. Plowing, cultivating and discing are also methods of tillage. 

All of these mechanical disturbances introduce oxygen into the soil, particularly the methods that disturb only the top two to six inches. Introducing oxygen into what is normally a largely anaerobic system wakes up and encourages the proliferation of aerobic bacteria. These bacteria quickly set to work consuming organic matter, turning them into plant-available nutrients, particularly nitrogen. This is so that any annual plant seeds (which we like to call "weeds") which may have been laying dormant in the soil for many years and are stimulated into germinating by this soil disturbance, have these readily-available nutrients to quickly grow and protect the soil from any potential losses like erosion. These annuals stay and keep producing seed until they are eventually taken over by perennials.

Before I get into the cropping aspect, I just like to say that mechanical tillage "stirs" up the soil, breaking up aggregate structure to more powder form. Soil that has no particular aggregate structure, especially one that has been formed by the roots of plants for many years, is more conducive to erosion and compaction. Erosion, because the destroyed aggregate structure gives much more surface area for much smaller particles, meaning that water takes a lot longer to percolate or infiltrate down into the soil horizons. Therefore, water is more likely to run off instead, leaving only the top few inches wet, and bone dry underneath. Compaction, because these soil particles are more apt to stick together, and be pushed together when heavy equipment go over it, creating more of a platy or blocky structure instead of a normal and natural cylindrical soil structure. Compaction may not be seen at the top 6 to 8 inches of the soil, but there's more than likely going to be hard-pan just about a foot down where most tillage equipment, and no crop roots, can reach. 

With crop production, tilling *temporarily* eradicates competition from other plants (all in a perfect world), creating a "clean canvas" for seeding annual grains and legumes into. That's actually not true. Tilling stirs up dormant annual forb seeds (again, we love to call them "weeds") to germinate and quickly cover the soil. This "infestation" is detrimental to the ultimate goal of getting a clean grain crop off, and bad to the conventional farmer, but a good thing on Nature's terms. I always chuckle at the surprise that farmers I talk to get when I tell them they're always going to have a seed bank in their soil.

The sown crop takes advantage of the temporary lack of competition and the nutrients released by the bacteria consuming the organic matter to give a bumper crop. This production boost is only temporary. The soil basically cannibalizes itself out of increasingly less organic matter, and with the regular tillage activity before seeding and after harvesting, there is also a lot of loss of topsoil from erosion by wind and water. Quite frankly erosion still also happens while the crop is in the ground, just not as heavily as in the spring and post-harvest. 

This has been going on for many decades now. There are pictures and reports of as much as 6 feet or more of topsoil that has been lost from tillage. Many farmers are no longer farming topsoil, but actually subsoil, the B (and maybe some in the C) horizons instead of the OM and A horizons. How depressing is that? Not only that, but the southwestern states, as well as other parts of the world undergoing desertification, are seeing massive dust storms the likes of what was seen during the Dirty '30s. 

That soil that gets eroded away doesn't come back, folks. It goes into waterways and fills up streams and rivers, choking them with fine soil particulate. This gets carried all the way out to the ocean. Tiny soil particles picked up by the wind are carried for miles upon miles, and deposited elsewhere. All, lost from its original source forever. 

Since a lot of precious topsoil and organic matter is all but gone, which is that natural "skin" that bonds plants with the microbe community so that plants can easily get nutrients without human assistance in the form of fertilizers, in order to keep growing crops on this naked, hungry, thirsty, and feverish soil, regular fertilizing from pelleted or liquid petroleum-sourced fertilizers is needed.

The Problems with Fertilizer


The man-made temporary solution to the loss in productivity from the substantive loss in organic matter is to apply fertilizers. Fertilizers are really a short-term, band-aid solution to a much larger problem that is being willfully ignored. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Essentially fertilizers make plants quite lazy in getting nutrients for themselves. They don't grow as extensive and large a root network to search out nutrients, nor need the natural interconnection with arbuscular mychorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria to assist those plants with breaking down and converting "tied up" nutrients into plant-available nutrients. Instead, the plants have what they need right there, in man-made pelleted form. Wonderful right? Yeah, sure...

What it does is makes plants weak--did I mention lazy--towards pests and diseases. The conventional "wisdom" laughs down this agroecological claim, even though the science is out there if you know where to find it, stating that plants are just plants and it's more to do with what's in the soil. That's partly right, particularly since bare soil, thanks to tillage, isn't protected from rain drops hitting the soil surface at a high velocity. The impact sends soil particles and microbes onto the stems and leaves, creating unsanitary conditions ripe for disease (bacterial and fungal) to proliferate. But, plants aren't "just plants," they are sentient, living beings that have immune systems and are capable of becoming stressed and sick just like animals.

Pests (mostly insects) respond to plants that are in distress or are sick, and emerge to eat those plants so that the more healthy neighbouring plants can continue to thrive, unaffected. Conventional industrial agriculture doesn't see it that way either. They just think that all bugs that "like to eat" any kind of annual crop as bad and therefore deserve to be executed via insecticides.

I'm including pests and diseases here because it's all inter-related. The point is, though, fertilizers are not a good thing. Of course they're going to be needed for a farm that is shifting from conventional to regenerative practices because their soil is going to be just like a drug addict, and if they stop buying and applying fertilizers cold-turkey, they'll have one hell of a train-wreck on their hands. And we don't want that, do we?

But it's just not necessary, period, end of story. It doesn't matter what these scientists have calculated out and what kind of data they see on their computer screens. Even the most precise, frugally-applied amount of fertilizer is going to cause harm the environment, and has been for a number of decades, ever since the end of the Second World War. As if tillage wasn't bad enough...

Fertilizers come in pelleted, liquid, or gaseous form. The most common is the former, and the gaseous form is primarily anhydrous ammonia. Now, anhydrous ammonia is particularly toxic, and has been used as a pest control agent for killing gophers--and more than likely other underground critters. The off-gassing vapour of anhydrous is also concerning, since that would contribute to the nitrous oxide emissions (with ammonia reacting with the air molecules and converting into the most potent, long-lasting greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere.

If you think that's bad, take a look at pelleted and liquid fertilizers. When coupled with tillage and rain events, which creates quite a bit of erosion (because the ability of tilled, bare soil to have any water infiltration ability is severely compromised thanks to the mechanical stirring that breaks up aggregate structure largely formed by plant roots), a significant portion of these fertilizers are going to runoff the soil surface, mixed with the rain water and fine soil particulate, and be washed into neighbouring water bodies. This creates and contributes to eutrophication of ponds and lakes, high and toxic algal blooms, and killing off aquatic life, particularly fish and amphibians. There's an ocean dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has been attributed to nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from croplands.

Do you honestly think that a more precise application of fertilizer is going to solve anything? That an increase in technology, or rather continued focus on the chemistry set and the physics applications, and ignorance of the biology, is going to help us? Please, I hope you say no to this too!

It's the Biology, Stupid!

Let's face it, continuing tillage, being more precise with fertilizing application, and continuing to have to use pesticides to kill weeds and pests--stoking the "kill, kill, kill!" mentality--has not helped us and I guarantee will definitely not continue to help us.

Not only that, but it's not the Earth that needs saving, it's us humans that need saving. And it seems to me that one of the only ways to save us all is to adopt practices that mimic Nature and encourage Life and more Biological interaction. Let's strive to get more "live, live, live," rather than this senseless "kill, kill, kill."

Nature already has the blueprints and fundamentals set out for us to follow. We just have to start following them. Some of us, thankfully, already are, and are helping others to see that something like Regenerative Agriculture, Holistic Management, or heck even Permaculture, actually works in practicum, and doesn't just look good on paper.

But there's more I need to cover with this study. Hold on to your hats.


Land Isn't Fungible


Is it really so simple an assumption to be made that grazing lands, or even pasture land, can be converted into cropland? No, it's not.

Even the most highly productive grazing lands are grazing lands because this very land isn't suitable for crop production for a wide variety of reasons. These range from soil type, to climate, plus topography, as well as other factors including ease of access for machinery, access to water (if irrigation is needed), the question if this land is conserved and protected for wildlife and endangered plant and animal species, and other factors that obviously these scientists probably never thought of.

Shall I include here that tilling up land with perennial vegetation is going to do a whole lot more harm than good, or have I made my point already with what I said above?

The thing is farmland is quite specific as to what can be grown on it. There's actually currently a lot of farmed land that is used for crops that is considered marginal, yet is being conventionally cropped for oil and biofuel, primarily. That land should've stayed as perennial vegetation in the first place, and been used for livestock instead. Of course, big money is in industrial crop production, not livestock, which explains why there's a whole lot more cropland than grazing land.

There was a disturbing quote (paraphrased) in the study that plays in part in this section, that I find a little worrying, and needs to be cleared up:

"Converting highly productive grazing land to cropland could free up the boundary pressure put on forests [for a variety of purposes, which can often lead to deforestation]..." 

Over two-thirds of agricultural land is used for grazing. And there's nothing wrong with that. But as I'll explain later, the issue is not the amount of land being used, but how it's used.

I've got a better solution. Graze these highly productive lands better than they already are being grazed. Utilize grazing principles and strategies that are management-intensive and adaptive in nature. Portable electric fencing, portable shelters, and portable watering systems are tools to help with this. This kind of improvement in grazing practices can create even more forage than most think is possible.

Not only that, but it gives a whole lot more wildlife more options for foraging, living, nesting, etc., than going from forest to monoculture soybean or wheat crop. I have walked in areas such as these that hold quite a diverse array of plants that support a biodiverse ecology of animals, and from an aesthetics point of view, it's a wonderful place to be in. You cannot get the same feeling of ecological wealth in a corn or canola crop.

Forested land typically isn't all that great for crops to begin with (most of the time), and some disruption with livestock in forests isn't going to hurt them any, either. I hear pigs and goats are great at being used to manage and clean up the brush in forests, and restart new growth once they've been moved out.

That's a better thing for the livestock too because they're not getting as much, if any, of their food from industrial monoculture crops as this study--and its big-company funders--wants us people to.


Food from Industrial Crops


Springmann et. al. (2018) isn't piecing the puzzle together that the so-called "healthier" flexitarian/veg[etari]an diet still must come from industrialized, soil-destroying, petrochemical-reliant monoculture crops. In my book, that isn't anything close to being healthy, let alone healthier than a diet that includes or maintains meat, milk, and eggs.

I'm no dietician, and never purport myself to be. But while the American Standard Diet that is mostly of carbs, sugar, and CAFO meats, eggs, and dairy and most certainly is not healthy at all (just look at the number of people with weight problems, not to mention the increase in metabolic and cardiac conditions in these last several decades that more and more doctors have had to deal with), and while a veg[etari]an diet is admittedly healthier (somewhat), a study that ignores the healthful inclusion of meat from regenerative, holistically-managed farms and ranches is cause for concern.

Not only that, but the produce (vegetables and fruits) and grains that come from these industrialized systems do not have the nutritional value like they did back in the turn of the 20th century, well before supermarkets showed up. I don't have the numbers on hand, but let me tell you something: You can really taste the difference when you chow down on a carrot from your own organic garden versus one you get from the store. And you know which one is nutritionally better for you? The one from your garden, or if you don't have a garden, from a farmer who raises vegetables, fruits, even grains, from regenerative agricultural methods.

Nothing can compare.

But the thing is, from my standpoint, saying that meat-eating is bad on the whole isn't getting the whole picture. And before I get into that, I just want to say that while vegan/vegetarian seems better and more healthier than the SAD, from the things I've read and the pro-vegan supporters I've met and communicated with, the veg[etari]an diet is more of a temporary cleanse than a long-term dietary solution to follow for the rest of one's life... or that everyone should be doing.

Long-term, most people on a vegan diet especially aren't going to be healthy (there are a few lucky ones who can be vegan and be healthy, but they do not represent the majority). There are some important nutrients that they may think they're getting with just going plant-based, but the reality is that they're not getting enough of them, or their body cannot synthesize those nutrients to sufficiently meet their needs. And this goes for those vegans who really do try to follow a well-planned, whole food diet, not just the ones who think they're going to be "healthy" on a junk-food diet of french fries, potato chips, and soda.

Not that I'm saying that choosing to go vegan is a bad thing, I'm just warning you of the things I've heard from many ex-vegans--and there are quite a number of ex-vegans out there, let me tell you. Such as, mental issues (loss of short-term memory, unable to think clearly...), being still liable to get sick from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, for a fair number it encourages high weight gain (obesity), for others it's the other end of the spectrum (too thin, borderline anorexic with loss of muscle tone), loss of masculinity in men (due to high amounts of plant-estrogen-promoting soy products), reduced fertility (some women have reported to have lost the ability to have regular, normal menstruation), and a whole lot of other issues. And no, veganism doesn't cure you of cancer; Apple's Steve Jobs was vegan and died of cancer.

Essential nutrients that are not in sufficient amounts includes iron, Vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, iodine, Vitamin D3, several types of amino acids (saying "protein" isn't enough, as protein comes in many forms) and others. Many of these nutrients come in sufficient form in meat, dairy, and eggs to meet a man's, woman's or child's need. Plants do certainly provide other nutrients not found in meat, but the point is, plants alone for most people isn't enough to suit their nutritional requirements.

But I didn't start writing this blog to put down plant-based diets and purport meat-eating because, again, if you choose to be vegan or vegetarian, that's fine. However, blaming meat eating as a cause for all bad things, environmentally speaking, that has happened in this world is rather quite ignorant. You see, it's not the meat itself that's the problem per se (although CAFO-sourced meat isn't nearly as decent quality as meat from a regenerative farm), but rather how it's produced. 


It's the HOW, Not the Cow



Livestock have been demonized for quite a number of things, from taking up too much land to ruining riparian zones. Much of these have been a result of people not really understanding WHY this is. I find many people are more worried and obsessed with the how than stopping to ask whyWhy does it seem like cattle take up more land than crops do? Why do cattle ruin riparian zones? Why do livestock overgraze? Why do cattle get finished in feedlots rather than on grass? Why... ?

Go look in the mirror, as I have done, and you will see why. It's us that is doing these things, and supporting these things with the meat we choose to buy, not the cows and cattle themselves.

Cows overgraze and ruin riparian areas because we let them. Why do we let them? Because either don't know a better way to manage them, or don't know how to do things differently, or our forefathers did the same thing and therefore the mentality is that it's okay to keep doing that.

Of course we humans get a little scared of our own mirror reflection and are quite reluctant to go blaming ourselves, so it's much easier to blame a tool for being faulty, or for not doing the thing we intended it to do. I don't mean to be insensitive to the cow-ness of the cow, and her intellect and emotions, but a cow and her herdmates are basically tools. So think of it this way: A handyman that blames his hammer for not doing a proper job of hammering a nail in isn't a good handyman. A rancher who blames the cows for damaging a riparian zone isn't a good rancher. Not that I have anything against handymen or ranchers, but I hope my point is being made here.

People who follow this logic of tool-blaming aren't getting the whole picture, and don't get the human side of the equation, which for some dumb reason always seems to get left out.

But those who don't follow that tool-blaming logic see and understand that we are at fault for a lot of things. Now, here's where the men and women are separated from the boys and girls: Those who acknowledge that we're at fault, then find solutions to fix the problem using the same tools we once blamed in the first place, are the leaders and beacons of hope to follow. 

Just like what Allan Savory with Holistic Management International realized back in his younger days, and has worked so hard over these past 50 years to get people to understand.

Let me put things this way: I don't think the handyman should quit and do something else, and I don't think the rancher should do the same. What I think is that either shift their paradigm of thought to see where and why they are going wrong, then find and work on the solution to make them even better than when they first started.

If more people did that, boy oh boy wouldn't this world be a much better place?




I think these scientists need to understand exactly that. If they can look beyond just data and numbers, and see the world around them as it is, and how it could be made better if more of us broke up that compaction between the ears, softened that constipation of imagination, and realized quality over quantity, a massive shift would be seen that would be one helluva ripple affect across the pond.

Yet, my greatest hope lies with you, the reader. You are my greatest hope for staying with my long-winded raw ramblings so far. You are a part of the shift in change, the grassroots effort humanity needs to make things better for our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren...

And I see that as the most beautiful beacon of hope that could ever exist. Thank you, and God Bless. 

October 12, 2018

Cows Don't Need Grain. Or Do They?

When you have a cow, you gotta know not only how to feed it, but what to feed it.

Problem is, there's a surprising amount of misinformation that exists out there--Internet sites, videos, even podcasts--just on feeding cows alone. I can't exactly put a finger on where it comes from nor how it gets perpetuated, but I certainly do understand that a lot of it is based on fear; Fear of what we do not understand.

Part of it is to do with what comes from the agriculture industry, with the common use of feedlots and confined feeding operations for both beef and dairy cattle, and the myriad of issues that come from them. The other part is from those who are against these industrialized operations who have the good intentions to get the message out to readers like you about how awful these places are, but often simplify some of the bad stuff a little too well.

One particular "bad" thing that I really want to focus on today are the common statements that come in their various forms that, "Grain is bad for cows; Cows are not meant to eat grain; Cows don't need grain."

There certainly is a significant element of truth to these simple statements. There's no doubt about that. But, there's more to the story than what meets the eye.

Please note that this is not a post showing my support of industrialized livestock systems that support a heavily grain-dependent feeding system. This is merely a post that needs to inject some common sense into the messages above, the kind of common sense that tells everyone that, "It [actually] depends.

I had already touched a little bit on the fears around grain feeding in a post I made a few years ago. You can read it here: What's Wrong with Grass-fed Cattle?

I've felt a need to revisit this and expand a bit more on this whole anti-grain issue after spending some time watching some YouTube channels of a particular couple homesteading families who recently lost their family milk cows (both were Jerseys) this past summer. Let me briefly explain, without naming names.

Neither, as far as I was aware, fed their cows grain, even at milking; both strove to be as grass-fed as possible. One family had a first-calf heifer that had her first calf on their farm once they bought her. The second family took in an older cow, around 8 years old. Both Jersey cows went downhill with being on grass pasture, significantly decreasing in body condition to the point that they were more emaciated than they should have been.

The first family lost their cow when she got caught under a fence for some reason, in trying to get herself up, and most likely died from a displaced abomasum (my uneducated guess). The owner tried everything to get her to stand up, from an IV injection of calcium magnesium for milk fever, to ropes and a hip-holder on her to get her to stand up. In a matter of less than a couple days after, she died.

The second family was the most concerning. They were well-meaning, and made it look like that they tried *everything* to get her health back up, from herbal remedies and a 16-way cafeteria mineral mix at the last week of her life, to blood tests to remedy some mineral deficiencies. She just wasn't gaining weight or getting better. The last few days of her life she had high temperature from fescue toxicity, and seemed to be acting unthrifty. They slaughtered her for meat.

However, there's a third homestead family that I've been listening to and watching their videos on YouTube that have done an outstanding job with their Jersey milk cow (who is as fit and sassy and beautiful as a cow can get, in my opinion) and her heifer calf, and who I will name names because they're one of my favourite homesteaders to follow. Homesteady is, in my opinion, one of the best homesteading vloggers out there. You can watch their video on how they feed their cows, and why, via this link: Our Cow is Not Grass-fed Only - Homesteady vlog

With that lengthy introduction, let me get down to the guts of why cows may not necessarily *need* grain, but there are times when they actually do, and why grain isn't exactly bad for them, but can be if it's not fed the right way. I'll also briefly go over body condition scoring, something which is an important topic that every cow-owner needs to know, and may potentially become a separate blog post in the future...

Cows as Ruminant Animals 


No, cows don't have four stomachs, sorry folks. Rather, cows (and cattle) actually have three fore-stomachs in addition to their true stomach. These forestomachs are not true stomachs, instead they are extensions of the lower esophagus that have evolved from their ancient ancestors who first started developing a rumen, a reticulum, and an omasum in addition to their true stomach (the abomasum) to effectively and efficiently digest roughages, coarse plant material, or "grass" if you want to be that brief.

This makes them excellent grazers, something that no doubt they're meant to be. While they're not as "efficient" at turning forage and fodder into meat and milk, they're some of the best animals on the landscape because they are literally compost vats with a mouth and four legs. Their rumens have a teaming community of billions of microbes, from bacteria and fungi to protozoa galore. Those microbes, not the cow herself, have the job of taking the partly-eaten forage that she consumed and break it down in an anaerobic (oxygen-less) environment into much more easily digested components, and also release the nutrients contained in plant tissues.

The mutual relationship that the cow has with her internal microbial community means that the microbes get food from the fodder she's eaten, and the wastes they produce give her the nutrients she needs for her body. By-products called VFAs (volatile fatty acids) get absorbed from the rumen into the bloodstream, along with other nutrients. Other by-products that are not used by the cow, including carbon dioxide and methane, are released when she burps. A cow will usually burp once every minute.

Where does a cow get her protein from, you may ask? The quick assumption is that she gets it from the plants she eats. Well no, not quite. About half of the protein a cow gets is from the dead microbes that move from the rumen, past the omasum, straight into the abomasum where they are broken down into amino acids. The other half of the protein she gets is going to be from some of the plant material, thanks again to the activity of the rumen microbes.

There are two types of microbes in a cow's rumen, those that break down fibre, and those that break down starch. Both co-exist in the rumen, though depending on her diet, one will be more heavily populated than the other. As you may guess, a cow on a grass-fed diet would have more fibre-digesting bacteria than starch-digesting bacteria; the opposite is true for a cow on a high-grain or high-concentrate diet. It's those fibre-digesting bacteria, though, that makes cows truly great at converting forage into milk and meat.

Hence the common and albeit truthful belief that cows and cattle are meant to be on grass, not grain.

...and They Actually Like to Eat Grains, Even Though They "Shouldn't..."


Cows don't read books, public forums, social media posts, Internet articles... they just do what they darn well please. But they're not exactly dumb either, even though they can get themselves into fixes that leaves us scratching our head as to how and just why they got into such a fix in the first place.

And yes, they can and have died from such fixes.

We certainly know that cattle, as ruminant animals, are certainly perfectly designed for digesting forages--or just "grass"--because of their fermentation-vat fore-stomachs. But that definitely doesn't mean they aren't going to deliberately and purposefully select only for the leaves and stems of grasses and forbs and completely avoid the seeds or flowers in the process, because they certainly will, especially if it's edible and tasty. Only if that grass is known to previously cause discomfort or isn't palatable will cattle avoid eating the seed-heads.

In a managed-grazing system where cattle are mobbed up in a dense group, those matured grasses that don't get eaten will just be trampled to the ground, seeds dispersed, and the material decomposed into the soil along with the manure the animals leave behind when they're quickly moved to the next paddock. 

The way a cow eats is that she will wrap her tongue around the top quarter or third of a plant and pull it in her mouth, then break it off with her lower incisors (she does not have upper incisors like all her other ruminant distant cousins, from bison or buffalo to sheep) to chew briefly, then swallow. It's that top part of the plant that she will always go for first, never the bottom where most of the leaves are going to be. This is especially true if she and her herd mates are put into a stand of mature grasses. She will do the exact same thing if she were grazed in a pasture where grasses have not yet headed out, or have seed heads just beginning to emerge. 

Let's move this cow to a situation where she's grazing in a field of cereal crops (standing, or in swaths or windrows) or in standing corn, or even in a polyculture crop full of a mix of different annual grasses, legumes, brassicas, and other beneficial forbs from phacelia to plantain. What do you think her and her herdmates will do when they are moved into a new paddock in these types of forages?

Go for the cream of the crop of course! 

Remember, a cow always first bites off the top part of the plant, or the most succulent, most tasty part of the plant first. Cows will use their bodies to push the taller plants down to where they can reach the top parts of the plants, if the crop is taller than they are. They will tear off the heads, the leaves, and keep doing that until they have trampled down much of the material, and are ready to move to the next paddock.

Corn-grazing Angus cow
When we're talking corn grazing, of corse the corn is always going to be taller than the cows. But also remember that cows are smart, and are capable of solving problems. I have heard of stories and seen cows that will walk down a corn stalk--putting the stalk between their front feet on their chest--and push down the plant until they reach the cob, the best part of the corn plant. They will strip off the husks with their tongue, and once most of the husks are eaten, will take the whole cob in their mouths (with their powerful tongue's help of course), pull it in and start chewing it down and eating it up. When the herd is confined to a small area for a day, this makes the cows go for not only the cobs (or rather, not focus so much on the cobs), but also the leaves, and then eventually--albeit reluctantly--the stems. The rest the cattle will trample down into the snow and the ground, mixing their manure in with what's left.

Swath-grazing cows
Swath-grazing cows learn to use their noses to move away snow to get to the swath underneath. Of course some cows figure it out quicker than others, and sometimes it takes a couple generations for cows to become adjusted and knowledgeable about how to access swaths under snow. Even if swaths are partly or not covered by snow, cows still know where the good stuff is going to be and will, just like with the corn, eat that first before eating the rest of the plant. With being controlled by cross-fencing and electric fence, they are forced to eat as much of the swaths as possible before being moved on to the next area.

What if these animals were not controlled by electric fence?

They will overload on the best part of the crop, and ignore the poorer, less palatable part of the crop until all the best stuff is cleaned up. By "overload" I mean that they can and will suffer from similar maladies as what happens in a feedlot when cattle are introduced to a high-concentrate ration too fast; They will get acidosis, grain-overload, and bloat, and can die from that. A rancher can lose cows on corn or swath-grazed fields if those animals are not sufficiently controlled. A rancher could also lose cows on that same uncontrolled fields if the cows survived the bite of overloading on the rich grains, but then get impacted and constipated from the highly fibrous portion of the crop.

A recipe for disaster. This is why management in winter in a winter-grazing system is so bloody important.

Where Grains Can Kill (or are Actually Bad)


It's time I talk about the negative side of feeding grain to cattle.

Grains, as seeds, are high in energy, somewhat high in protein. Grains--that primarily fed to livestock--include corn, barley, oats, wheat, rye, and triticale. These are primarily your cereals, except corn which is generally regarded more as a large-seeded crop.

Grain is normally fed partly "processed," which is basically just putting it through a mill or steamer to crack, chop, steam, or roll each grain. This makes it easier for animals to digest. Ruminants normally only need their grain coarsely chopped compared with grain-fed monogastrics like pigs or chickens.

Grains should never be fed to ruminants as the sole ingredient of a diet, like you can with pigs and chickens--well, you shouldn't exactly do that either, but this isn't about feeding hogs and poultry. Rather, grains should be fed along with a roughage feed. But, when we start talking about feedlot diets, the last few weeks of a feedlot steer's life is spent on an 85% grain or high-concentrate diet. I won't ever say that this is healthy, and I'll explain later.

The most significant issues that come with grain and ruminants is when the animals are fed too much and introduced too soon. Frothy bloat, acidosis, and grain overload are the primary illnesses that come from such a practice.

Frothy Bloat


Frothy bloat is basically a condition where tiny bubbles form from the rapid digestion of proteins and starches in the rumen. These tiny bubbles are made up of a really slimy, viscous extracellular fluid that are difficult to break, containing within them the waste gases that rumen microbes give off in an anaerobic environment--primarily carbon dioxide and methane.

These slimy, unbreakable, CO2/CH4-gas-filled bubbles quickly build up in volume, in a short period of time, filling the rumen up so much that the rumen walls become tight as a drum, putting a continual enormous amount of pressure on the lungs. It is at this point that bloat is so severe that the pressure put on the lungs significantly reduces the animal's ability to breathe properly and get that necessary oxygen. When that happens, the animal dies of asphyxiation. Think of it this way: Bloat acts almost like a python that wraps itself around its prey and squeezes so tight that the prey cannot breathe, and with every breath exhaled, the tightness of its coils increases until the animal dies of suffocation. The only thing is that bloat is completely internal.

Yep, bloat is a nasty, nasty way to for an animal die from.

Frothy bloat does not occur exclusively on grain--often called "feedlot bloat"--it also occurs in pasture. The pasture bloat is another blog post topic all together, so for this post I just want to stick with feeding grain--that is, the frothy bloat that comes from feeding grain.

How do animals get frothy bloat on feeding grain? Two ways:

  1. Eating too much too quickly, or as a sudden change in diet: Ruminants need to have an adjustment period of over a week or so to new feeds that are either not familiar to them in palatability, and also in quality. Even if a homestead family cow is going to be put on organic grain because she needs to up her body condition, that change must be incremental over several days so that her rumen microbe community can adjust accordingly. If she gets too much too soon, there's just too much highly digestible matter that her microbes are going go in a frenzy to gobble up all that suddenly-accessible energy and protein. 
  2. Too finely ground feed is being fed: This is really where the term "feedlot bloat" contains merit, because frothy bloat tends to be pretty prevalent in animals that are in the final stages of finishing in the feedlot, where they really are on a 85 to 90% grain ration for the last few weeks of their lives. In a feedlot finishing case, and ironically enough, feedlot bloat can happen when cattle have been on this finishing ration for around 14 days. Often these cases are attributed to grain that is ground too finely, or dry-rolled with lots of tiny particles that gives greater surface area to the rumen microbes. When you get too finely-rolled or cracked grains, this significantly increases the digestibility of the feedstuff, releasing a whole lot of nutrients for those microbes to use, to the point that they will actually burst from eating too much. That creates the condition for the accumulation of slime that makes those tiny, gas-filled bubbles so hard to burst.
You can tell a ruminant has a nasty case of bloat by looking at its left side. If you see there's an abnormal distention of the left side (this is where the rumen sits), then you have a cow with bloat. If she's not wanting to eat and is having trouble breathing, you have a severe case that needs to be remedied NOW. 

I won't get into how to fix a case of bloat before it's too late and you lose your animal, but the two most popular methods used are tubing with mineral oil, or using a trocar to the side of the animal. You can read more about how to treat bloat by visiting wikiHow's How to Treat and Prevent Bloat in Cattle.

The main lesson here is, if you have to feed grain to your cow[s], make sure they are coarsely chopped or ground, or just cracked, so that most of the grain appears whole but only has one mark on it, enough that it will just fall into a couple of pieces. Tempering whole grain (soaking it for 12 to 24 hours in water) will also help, as well as steam-rolling. Both add water to reduce the incidence of the dry grain from shattering. 

The second lesson here is to introduce grains slowly in any ruminant diet. That means introducing grain incrementally. If your target is to feed your cow 5 lb of grain per day, over a week (say five days) build up on that target amount by first feeding your cow one pound the first day, then two pounds the next day, and so on and so forth until you're up to 5 lb by the end of the week. Or, you can increase every couple days so that it's more like a 10-day adjustment period. It depends on what you're comfortable with. 

Keep both of these lessons in mind as I get to talking about acidosis and grain overload. Both of them have precedence when it comes to these ruminant-killer conditions. 

Acidosis & Grain Overload

A metabolic condition that results in the drop in pH of the rumen to more acidic conditions for a period of time, acidosis is another serious malady that merits discussion when it comes to feeding grains to cattle. There are two forms to keep in mind: Acute acidosis, and subacute acidosis. 

Acute acidosis is also called "grain overload," and occurs when ruminants eat too much energy-rich feedstuffs (most commonly grains) at one time, and there is a sudden and rapid digestion of starch in the rumen. This causes the rumen to become severely acidotic for an extended period of time, killing off the acidic-intolerant microbes, except for the lactic acid producing bacteria which can thrive quite well in an acidic environment.  Unfortunately for the ruminant, these bacteria love these conditions so much that they contribute to ever-acidifying conditions, causing rumen pH to push even further downward. 

Animals with grain overload are truly noticeably sick (unlike with those of subacute acidosis). They are not eating, not moving around or acting lively as they normally do, breathing rapidly, have a bad case of diarrhea (greyish coloured), or are just found dead.  

Subacute acidosis is a whole 'nother monster. This condition is most common in feedlot animals and in confinement dairy operations. It is much more of an imbalance between acid production and absorption of the rumen, and much, much more difficult to detect. The problem is that each time the rumen has to recover from acidotic conditions (where rumen pH dips below 5.8), it can take longer to recover, resulting in just a little more damage to rumen function in terms of decreased nutrient absorption, decreased fibre digestion, and damage to the rumen lining. Ruminitis can happen when a bout of acidosis was severe enough to damage to the rumen epithelial tissue, which invites bacteria to invade these spaces causing infection, damaging rumen papillae and affecting absorption capability. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream this way and cause other secondary maladies, such as (and most commonly) liver abscesses and founder (or laminitis). 

Let me put it another way: Subacute acidosis happens when ruminants have a bout of grain-eating followed by a period of not eating, or a bit of a belly ache that puts them off feed (or just reduces their appetite). They recover from that, then get set back again by another bout of eating the same stuff that gave them the belly-ache in the first place, and the nasty cycle continues on. 

The main difference between subacute acidosis and acute acidosis (grain overload) is that one will just reduce feed efficiency and cause animals to reduce feed intake for a time, and the other can out-right kill in a matter of hours, respectively. 

If you want to read more about acidosis, I suggest to check out these links: 
These conditions are no laughing matter, especially when they result in dead animals, or animals that become chronic "poor-doers" for the rest of their lives. But these conditions are the reality, or rather very high risk, for confinement-feeding animals. That's why the fear around feeding grain is not, as I said above, unfounded, and to be acknowledged. And that is why I will stand with you grass-fed/grass-finishing folks and say that the feedlot and CAFO dairies, in the specifics of this bovine-related blog site, are not a good place for any animal to be.

Feedlotted Cattle Are "Healthy"... Or Not.


I know I'll ruffle some feedlot-supporter feathers with this last segment but it's the kind of things that just need saying. 

Not only is there the issue with cattle having to be living in a dirt lot that will range from hot and dusty to cold and muddy, even if it's just four or six months of their lives with their previous times on pasture just a memory, but the fact that these cattle are "forced"--using the term rather liberally--to be eating grain every day for the rest of their lives, right up until the day before are slaughtered, so that they grow faster bigger fatter and more "cheaply", just isn't normal nor right. Not from a real deep, compassionate animal welfare standpoint, nor from a nutrition and ruminant physiological standpoint. 

Their living conditions is another topic altogether. But when you look at those animals that are to be gaining at around 3 to 4 pounds per day (this is fairly normal, actually) on a feed--or one of the main feeds--that is basically nutritionally-deficient, and is mostly made up of carbohydrates, don't you ever think that those animals that are being finished on a feedstuff that is, really, not suited for them as ruminant animals, are actually suffering within, even though they can't talk and don't bear the same human emotions as us to tell us about it? 

You see, the immediate thought when I think of cattle being put on grain, I think of it like putting a person on a diet of nothing but candy, chocolate bars, potato chips, and soda, as much as they can eat (even though it's given to them as a limited diet), for the next half year? Oh, maybe at first they'll be some vegetables and fruits for the first week, but then the last few weeks of their diet it's 90% candy and chips! What did you say? It's not healthy for a person to be on such a junk food diet? Well of course it's not healthy! Then let me ask you this: Why is it then perfectly okay to feed a ruminant a diet that is completely the opposite of what they're physiologically designed to eat in the first place? Don't you think that's also a junk-food diet for them too? 

Yes, I know I've already said that cattle do in fact like to eat grain because it tastes like candy to them. But I'm sure you also like to sneak in that chocolate bar too when no one's looking, even though it's not healthy, but it tastes good too. Same thing, isn't it? My point being that feeding grains are okay because cattle like to eat it is a weak argument for continuing the practice of feedlot-finishing. They may like to eat it, but it's still not healthy for them to be eating so damn much.

Finally, if it's "healthy" for cattle to be on a feedlot finishing diet like that, why am I hearing a lot of cases with animals dying from acidosis, grain-overload, bloat, and other maladies I haven't covered that I seem to see a lot from bovine veterinarians who share their adventures, such as pneumonia, and even heart failure? I'm telling you, if you start connecting the dots...

In Conclusion... 


It really is not necessary to be feeding grain when there are other options available, including the capability to cull out those cows that are needing the extra TLC when you've got other cows and replacements coming in showing that they don't need nearly as much, if at all, supplementation. 

Honestly, especially in a cow-calf operation, if you're having to feed grain to your cows, something's wrong with your management. You either need to start looking at what you're feeding, and what kind of cows you have, what bulls you're selecting for, and what replacements you're selecting. 

I have no problem, and neither should you, with feeding grains to cows and cattle who need it as a supplemental form with other feeds, such as hay or pasture, that they're also getting because those other feed sources are just not meeting their energy needs. But I have a problem with the over-use of grain, especially to finish cattle, when other options that don't call for the need of grain, or as much grain, can be used to successfully finish a steer or heifer for the freezer or for your clients. 

I will never sit here and tell you what you can or cannot do with your cow[s]. That's totally up to you. But I hope this post has given you some "food for thought," so to speak, and given a little different incite on the feeding of grains to cattle. 

March 4, 2018

Another Land-Use Debate: Feedlot-finished vs. Forage-finished

I have a hypothesis that I want to test out on this blog post: I want to find out for a fact if forage-finished beef does in fact require more land than grain-finished beef, or whether it's a load of hot air.

The common rhetoric that, "There's just not enough land to produce grass-fed beef for everyone," is a common mantra repeated by several groups, more strongly the anti-livestock animal extremists, as well as the conventional agriculture promoters. And personally, I'm tired of hearing this rhetoric again and again without having some ammunition myself to debunk such claims. This ends now.

Have you ever done a Google search to even find out if there has been such an analysis done by anyone? I have, and the results are disappointing, to say the least. There is only one article (and this phrase is repeated by other articles, nothing that is original) that gives a very ambiguous comparison, supposedly from some unpublished research paper that hasn't even been cited in the article itself, which claims that, "a grain-fed cow will require three acres of land, while a grass-fed cow requires nine acres."

I'm sorry, but that's just pathetic.

And what makes it worse, as a major caveat, is that the very article claims that the author of that unpublished paper is partnered with a pro-CAFO (which includes feedlot production) company. That will certainly create a huge influence on land-use analyses and resulting data obtained.

So I think it's time I pulled back my sleeves and dug out my calculator and my formulas I used in my other blog post I had a lot of fun creating, to take a really good, hard look at just how much land is actually required by both forage-finishing and grain-finishing cattle, and to test the hypothesis that it is true that "grain-fed" actually do require less land than "grass-fed." As I write this out, this will be both an adventure for myself, and for you to read though!

Key Points on Feeds, Forages and Cattle


Before I begin, there's several key things to understand.

  1. Grass will grow back after being grazed, provided it's done so when those plants have not yet reached full maturity (i.e., seeds out and ready to be dispersed). Grain crops do not grow back after being harvested for grain or feed; not to the same yield that was first obtained at first harvest. So unlike with pasture, cropland needs to be broken up and re-seeded again in order to get another crop.
  2. Both forage and crop yield and quality will be dependent on precipitation, temperature (i.e., the weather), and species used. Conditions unfavourable to any forage or crop species will make for unfavourable yields; the opposite is also true. I will not be accounting that in the calculations below, however.
  3. Forage and feed quality is not static. They are always prone to change based on various factors from stage of maturity at harvest, storage conditions, weather conditions, how they're managed, and soil quality. For the purpose of this exercise I'm using expected average quality of the typical feeds I've chosen for both types of feeding operations, particularly for the grain-finished side. 
  4. Forages mean both grasses and forbs (including legumes). I have a pun-intended beef with the term "grass-fed" despite it being so widely used because cows and cattle voluntarily eat far more than just grass. Pastures should not be exclusively grass, as that flies in the face of the opportunities, benefits, and need for biodiversity in any plant stand that can be used to graze livestock on. Hence my insistence on using the term "forage-finished" instead of "grass-finished" or even grass-fed. 
  5. To compare forage-finished with grain-finished more accurately, I'm eliminating the time period before weaning. I don't think it fair to include the amount of feed and therefore land for a cow-calf pair when the start of both forage- and grain-finished animals is very similar. There might be a date when I'll come back and take a second look at this post, and change my mind.  
  6. Animal type and breed is going to really determine age and weight of finish. There are a lot of different breeds out there and a lot of different ways to get them to the right slaughter weight/age. For the purpose of this blog I'm purposely using a smaller-type, British-type beef breed like Angus or Hereford that starts at a smaller weaning weight than the larger breeds like Simmental or Charolais. The latter breed-type could have the potential for larger land-use numbers because of their size and demands for higher-quality feeds. 
Now that that's out of the way, the best way to do this comparison is to start with a scenario of a typical grain-finished animal versus a forage-finished animal. Both virtual steers used in this post  are of similar breeding (British-type), as mentioned above. The significant differences between them are carried forward below.

The Typical (Canadian) Grain-finished Steer: 

I start with a weaned calf weighing 500 pounds. I work through some different "step-up" diets from when he enters the backgrounding phase. The first five months is feeding through winter, and the next four months (the last half of the backgrounding phase) is continuing feeding in a drylot/feedlot situation, or the option for when he goes on pasture. He then gets sent to the feedlot when he reaches 1050 pounds, and is fed up over four months until he reaches target weight of 1425 pounds. All that is assuming that he was weaned and brought into the backgrounding phase when he was 6 months old, was 15 months of age when he entered the feedlot, and was sent to slaughter by the time he was around 19 months old. 

Note: I understand that there's lots of times where beef cattle have been finished and sent slaughter at a younger age, like around 12 to 14 months old. But because I'm working with a British-type breed, that backgrounding period is needed for growth. If he were a Continental-type animal (like a Simmental or Charolais), he wouldn't need that backgrounding period and could be sent to begin the feedlot-finishing process almost immediately after weaning. Reasons are Continental-type beef cattle have different metabolic requirement where they need more higher-quality feed for bodily maintenance, growth, and (for cows only) lactation than British-type. Continentals are less likely to put on a lot of fat if put on a high-energy diet than British types when growing, because they reach maturity at a later age. 

The Forage-finished Steer:

For the grass-fed/forage-finished steer, the weaning age and weight are significantly different. This steer is weaned at 8 months of age (born in late May, weaned by end of December), and weighing about 700 pounds. Target slaughter weight for this steer is going to be around 1100 pounds. Age at slaughter will be around 18 months of age. 

Note: Depending on the animal's frame size, finishing weights will differ for forage-finished animals. Typically you'd want smaller-framed animals than the larger-framed ones, as they take less land and less forage to feed and finish up, and you tend to get more meat from more smaller animals than fewer larger ones. Also, animals with larger frame sizes and more later-maturing breeding, such as Simmentals or even Brahman-type cattle, tend to take longer to reach a decent finishing age on forage than early-maturing animals, such as Angus, South Devon, Hereford, or Shorthorn. Where an Angus or Shorthorn may take 18 to 20 months to reach finish on forage, a Simmental, Charolais or Limousin may take 24 to 30 months, and Brahman-type may take 30+ months to be ready for slaughter. This link from Grass-fed Solutions explains more. 

What is being fed?? 

Before I launch into the feeds I've laid out for this post, I have to mention again the importance of understanding that forage/feed quality is never static and is always prone to change from season to season, year to year, farm to farm. I've chosen to go with average feed/forage quality values to prevent potential skewing the results from choosing instead from either extremes of best quality to poorest quality possible. 

For forage-finished animals, I have to assume that the land is being managed as best as is possible with management-intensive grazing that is holistic in approach and adapted to forage quantity and quality. This is a significant difference from the grain-finished steer, which when given the option to be on pasture, is instead put in the typical conventional, continuous-grazing form of pasture management that purposely forces more acreage per animal on the landscape. You'll find interesting to note that, because the grain-finished steer is fed grain while on pasture, the amount of pasture he has access to is going to be less because at least a quarter of his feed requirements are met by the inclusion of grain in his diet, compared with if he wasn't fed grain during this pasturing period. 

Diet of the Grain-Finished Steer

For the Canadian grain-finished steer, I've started him off with alfalfa-grass hay, barley grain, and eventually barley silage. Throughout the backgrounding phase, his hay is decreased and silage and grain increased. By the time he's in the feedlot, he's almost completely off the hay and fully onto grain and silage. The last 22 days he's been put on a finisher diet of mostly grain and silage. He is put on a "step-up" program of feeding, where changes in feed occurs every 50 to 60 days, up to that last 22-day final finishing period. This is based on the link Feedlots 101 - Alberta Cattle Feeders Association

I figured I'd do an American feedlot-finished steer simulation as well, to satisfy the inquiring minds of my American audience (you're welcome). I just substituted the barley grain and barley silage for corn grain and corn silage. Rations are the same as with the Canadian feedlotted animals, and according to this link: Rations for Beef Cattle: University of Wisconsin Extension. You'll be interested to note the differences in amount fed, as well as land use results from what I have calculated. 

Diet of the Forage-finished Steer

Coming up with the diet for a forage-finished steer was a bit more challenging. There are a lot of reasons why this would be made more challenging, and these range from different management practices to differences in climate as well as differences in forage species available for a forage-fed/finished animal to eat. 

I would also like folks to understand that grass-fed has (and still does) gotten a bad rap largely because of poor management practices that encourage a continuous grazing system on pasture--just like what I did with the grain-finished steer above--leading to degraded pastureland. 

So instead, I have chosen to have this steer in a well-managed system that encourages healthier soil with greater organic matter which feeds the plants and provides more nutrients to the plants, more biodiversity in the pasture stand, and therefore higher quality and quantity forages for grazing that you wouldn't find in a conventional operation. This well-managed system encapsulates high-stock density grazing (or mob grazing) with daily moves, with over double the stocking rate of continuously-grazed pastures. This way, in essence, I am purposely comparing the best way to feed and finish a grain-fed steer versus the best way to feed/graze and finish a forage-fed steer. And because there is such enormous variances in the types of forage to graze, I thought it best to come from two different climate type examples.

The first climate example is in a drier area (14 to 18 inches [350 to 450 mm] annual precipitation) in a more northern climate where the growing season is only from April to September (~5 months), and the rest of the year plants are in dormancy, often under the cover of snow. For this forage-finished steer, grazing is going to start mid May, and ends at the time when he goes to slaughter. However, since he is weaned by January, he's going to be on good quality legume-grass hay (or bale-grazed, using hay from that farm), until he's put on good quality legume-grass mixed pasture. 

The second example is in an area that receives ~40 to 50 inches of annual precipitation, in a much milder area than above. Grazing is able to be done year round, with stockpiled forages from November to early April, and grazing green growth the rest of the time. 

So, How Much are the Grain-Finished and Forage-Finished Steers Eating?

If anyone is trying something different from what I'm doing, what I need to caution you on is to never assume that a grain-fed nor a forage-fed steer eats the same amount from weaning to the point of slaughter. We are dealing with a growing animal that experiences changes in nutrient requirements and the amount need to be consumed on pretty well a monthly basis. In other words, what that steer is going to be eating just after weaning will not be the same amount a few months later. You'll see what I mean when you  read more below.

I saved myself a lot of extra math and arithmetic by doing this first section on grain-fed/finishing by using a beef ration balancing computer program called CowBytes. I selected the feeds I mentioned above, and based on the step-up program used for transitioning weaned calves to all the way through to the final finishing phase I was able to come up with some fairly accurate values for how much to expect a steer to eat on a daily basis based on various parameters I set the program to account for. That means you don't have to see a bunch of complicated formulas posted here, just the values I came up with. 

Barley (Canadian) Finished Steer Rations and Daily Feed Intake

For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of alfalfa-grass hay, and 6 pounds of barley grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay and 300 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 600 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 6 pounds of grain, and put on 4 pounds of barley silage per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 300 pounds of grain, and 200 pounds of silage over 50 days.
For a 700 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 10 pounds of silage, and 6 pounds of grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 500 pounds of silage, and 300 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 5 pounds of hay, 11 pounds of silage, and 10 pounds of grain per day
  • 250 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 62 pounds of grass per day.
  • 250 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 3100 pounds of grass over 50 days.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 4 pounds of hay, 15 pounds of silage, and 10 pounds of grain per day.
  • 240 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain per day.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 77 pounds of grass per day.
  • 300 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 4620 pounds of grass over 60 days.
Upon entering the feedlot and the start of the finishing phase, a 1050 pound steer to have an ADG of 3 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 2 pounds of hay, 25 pounds of silage, and 13 pounds of grain per day.
  • 100 pounds of hay, 1250 pounds of silage, and 650 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 1200 pound steer to gain 3 pounds per day, his finisher ration would be fed:
  • 27 pounds of silage and 14 pounds of grain per day.
  • 1350 pounds of silage and 700 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For a 1350 pound steer to have a ADG of 3 pounds per day (until he reaches a finishing weight of 1425 pounds), would be fed until being shipped to slaughter:
  • 10 pounds of silage and 22 pounds of grain
  • 250 pounds of silage and 550 pounds of grain for 25 days.
The totals over this 12.5 month feeding period for this single steer are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-Grass Hay: 1940 pounds (0.97 tons or 0.88 tonnes)
  • Barley Silage: 5550 pounds (2.775 tons or 2.52 tonnes)
  • Barley Grain: 
    • a) 3850 pounds if continuously feedlotted (83.3 bushels), or 
    • b) 3300 pounds if pastured (71.88 bushels)
  • Pasture: 7720 pounds
Corn (American) Finished Steer Rations and Daily Feed Intake

For a post-weaned, 6 month old 500 pounds steer to have an average daily gain (ADG) of 2 lb per day upon being put into a backgrounding ration, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of alfalfa-grass hay, and 5 pounds of corn grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay and 250 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 600 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 5 pounds of grain, and put on 6 pounds of corn silage per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 250 pounds of grain, and 300 pounds of silage over 50 days.
For a 700 pound steer to have an ADG of 2 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 9 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 5 pounds of grain per day.
  • 450 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 250 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 8 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 7 pounds of grain per day
  • 400 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 350 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For an 800 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.2 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 62 pounds of grass per day.
  • 250 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 3100 pounds of grass over 50 days.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he continued to be fed in a feedlot:
  • 6 pounds of hay, 12 pounds of silage, and 9 pounds of grain per day.
  • 240 pounds of hay, 600 pounds of silage, and 500 pounds of grain per day.
For a 910 pound steer to have an ADG of 2.3 pounds per day, he would be fed if he were put on pasture but supplemented with grain, he would be fed:
  • 5 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 75 pounds of grass per day.
  • 300 pounds of grain while expected to graze and consume 4500 pounds of grass over 60 days.
Upon entering the feedlot and the start of the finishing phase, a 1050 pound steer to have an ADG of 3 pounds per day, he would be fed:
  • 2 pounds of hay, 23 pounds of silage, and 12 pounds of grain per day.
  • 100 pounds of hay, 1150 pounds of silage, and 600 pounds of grain over 50 days.
For a 1200 pound steer to gain 3 pounds per day, his finisher ration would be fed:
  • 27 pounds of silage and 14 pounds of grain per day.
  • 1350 pounds of silage and 700 pounds of grain for 50 days.
For a 1350 pound steer to have a ADG of 3 pounds per day (until he reaches a finishing weight of 1450 pounds), would be fed until being shipped to slaughter:
  • 10 pounds of silage and 20 pounds of grain
  • 250 pounds of silage and 500 pounds of grain for 25 days.
The totals over this 12.5 month feeding period for this single steer are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-Grass Hay: 2210 pounds (1.105 tons or 1.002 tonnes)
  • Corn Silage: 4970 pounds (2.485 tons or 2.254 tonnes)
  • Corn Grain: 
    • a) 3440 pounds if continuously feedlotted (61.43 bushels), or 
    • b) 3100 pounds if pastured (55.36 bushels)
  • Pasture: 7600 pounds (as-fed) 
    • Dry matter content is (7600 lb x 20% dry matter =) 1520 pounds DM
It wouldn't be fair if I posted the land-use results now.

Let's see now about how much a forage-fed/finished steer would eat from weaning to slaughter.

Northern (Canadian Prairie Provinces) Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels

For a post-weaned 700 pound calf that is bale-grazed on good legume-grass hay, with an expected ADG of ~1 pound per day (slow growth in the winter is advantageous because it allows the calf to still grow good bone and muscle, and not develop too much fat), would be fed:
  • 17 pounds of hay per day.
  • 1700 pounds of hay for 100 days.
Because the now-800 pound steer (with the same target ADG of 1 pound per day) isn't going to go on pasture for another 68 days (since this last feeding period took us to a third of the way through March), the steer is continued on with bale grazing. The amount he would be fed during this time is:
  • 19 pounds of hay per day.
  • 1292 pounds of hay for 68 days.
The ~870 pound steer, now with an expected ADG of 2 pounds per day, is moved from bale grazing into a grass-legume pasture. He should be consuming:
  • 96 pounds of forage as-fed (19.2 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 6240 pounds of forage as-fed (1248 pounds dry matter) over 65 days
For a 1000 pound steer, with an expected average daily gain of ~2 pounds per day, is moved onto high quality annual polyculture pasture of legumes, grasses, and some brassicas, about the same quality as the high-quality perennial legume-grass pasture he was on previously. He should be consuming:
  • 92 pounds of forage as-fed (18.4 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 4600 pounds of forage as-fed (920 pounds dry matter) for 50 days.
By the time this pasture is done grazed, which would be around mid-September, the steer will have reached the target weight of 1100 pounds and be ready for slaughter. 

The totals of amount consumed overall are as follows:
  • Alfalfa-grass hay (bale-grazed): 2992 pounds (1.5 tons or 1.35 tonnes)
  • Legume-grass Pasture: 6240 pounds as-fed (1248 pounds DM) 
  • Annual Polyculture Pasture: 4600 pounds as-fed (920 pounds DM)

South-Eastern USA Forage-Finishing Steer Consumption Levels

For a post-weaned 700 pound steer calf, with an expected ADG of 1 pound per day, the amount consumed is:

  • 18 pounds per day of stockpiled grass pasture
  • 1800 pounds of stockpiled grass pasture for 100 days
For an 800 pound steer now being put onto good-quality pasture by the end of the first week of April, and with an ADG of 2 pounds per day, the steer is going to be consuming:
  • 90 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 18 pounds dry matter) per day.
  • 4500 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 900 pounds dry matter) for 50 days.
For a 900 pound steer moved onto high quality grass-legume pasture, he is expected to consume:
  • 95 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 19 pounds dry matter) per day
  • 4750 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 950 pounds dry matter) for 50 days
For a 1000 pound steer still on high-quality grass-legume pasture, he's expected to consume:
  • 100 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 20 pounds dry matter) per day
  • 5000 pounds of forage on pasture as-fed (or 1000 pounds dry matter) for 50 days
By the time the steer is at 1100 pounds, he should be ready for slaughter, which would be around mid-September. 

The total amounts of forage consumed over this period (250 days) are as follows:
  • Stockpiled grass pasture: 1800 pounds 
  • Early grass pasture: 4500 pounds (900 pounds DM)
  • Grass-legume pasture: 9750 pounds (1950 pounds DM)

The Land Use Comparisons of Feedlot Finished versus Pasture-Finished 

For this next section with regards to calculating the land-use values for raising grain-fed cattle, I purposely used the averages for the amount of hay, silage, and grain produced to feed feedlotted cattle both in Canada (primarily Alberta), and the United States, to get an albeit more accurate representation of the amount of land that is going to be used. The sourced data is linked below for both countries.

For the pasture option, I also purposely created it so that it represents what is done conventionally, which I mentioned above as being continuous grazing. 

However, for calculating land-use values for the forage-finished/grass-fed cattle section, I was also being deliberate with choosing to go with the best quality pasture to be expected under a well-managed, mob-stocked, multi-paddock grazing system. Also of importance is what I just mentioned: That the steer is not continuously grazed, but managed under a management-intensive, mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing system (or however you want to name it, because the name doesn't matter, only the management does), as I feel that is the best representative of producing forage-finished grass-fed beef.   

Make sure you're sitting down when you read this next part. Because I was just as shocked as you when I plugged in the numbers. 

Grain-fed Land Use Values: Canadian Barley-finished Feedlot Steer

Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration:
  • Hay (Alberta average 2017 results via Stats Canada table HERE:): 1.9 tons/acre (1.72 tonnes/acre)
  • Barley Silage (Alberta average 2016 results found HERE): 6.99 tons/acre (6.34 tonnes/acre)
  • Barley Grain (Canada average 2017 results found HERE): 64.00 bushels per acre
  • Barley Grain (Alberta average 2017 results found HERE): 71.80 bushels per acre
  • Pasture (Alberta averages no annual data found): 1.25 AUM per acre
Taking the total amounts of hay, silage, grain, and pasture used, the amount of land used for each type of feed is as follows:
  • Hay: 1940 pounds = 0.97 tons ÷ 1.9 tons/acre = 0.51 acres
  • Barley Silage: 5550 pounds = 2.76 tons ÷ 6.99 tons/acre = 0.39 acres
  • Barley Grain: 
    • (feedlotted) 3850 pounds = 80.2 bu ÷ 64.0 bu/acre (Canada) = 1.25 acres
    • (feedlotted) 3850 pounds = 80.2 bu ÷ 71.8 bu/acre (Alberta) = 1.12 acres
    • (pastured) 3300 pounds = 68.75 bu ÷ 64.0 bu/acre (Canada) = 1.07 acres
    • (pastured) 3300 pounds = 68.75 bu ÷ 71.8 bu/acre (Alberta) = 0.96 acres
  • Pasture: @ 1.25 AUM/acre, producing 2,000 lb/acre with a 50% utilization rate, and an average 855 lb steer expected to consume the same amount as a 535 lb steer (because of the inclusion of 5 lb/day of grain), over 110 days, land used is: 1.54 acres 
The Grand Total of land used for the Canadian Barley-fed/finished Feedlot Steer is: 
  • Feedlotted Only: 2.15 to 2.02 acres
  • Pasture Included: 3.51 to 3.4 acres
Grain-fed Land Use Values: American Corn-finished Feedlot Steer

Average yields of the feeds used to formulate this steer's ration (all data came from THIS LINK):
  • Hay: (USA average for 2017): 2.44 tons per acre
  • Corn Silage (USA average for 2017): 19.9 tons per acre
  • Corn Grain (USA average for 2017): 176.6 bushels per acre
  • Pasture: (no data overall): 1.25 AUM/acre
Taking the total amounts of hay, silage, grain, and pasture used, the amount of land used for each type of feed is as follows:
  • Hay: 2210 pounds = 1.11 tons ÷ 2.44 tons/acre = 0.45 acres
  • Corn Silage: 4970 pounds = 2.66 tons ÷ 19.9 tons/acre = 0.13 acres
  • Corn Grain: 
    • (feedlotted) 3440 pounds = 61.43 bushels ÷ 176.60 bu/acre = 0.35 acres
    • (pastured) 3100 pounds = 55.36 bushels ÷ 176.6 bu/acre = 0.31 acres
  • Pasture: @ 1.25 AUM/acre, producing 2,000 lb/acre with a 50% utilization rate, and an average 855 lb steer expected to consume the same amount as a 470 lb steer (because of the inclusion of 5 lb/day of grain, making up about half of the steer's energy intake), over 110 days, land used is: 1.36 acres
The Grand Total of land used for the American Corn-fed/finished Feedlot Steer is:
  • Feedlot Only: 0.93 acres
  • Pasture Included: 2.25 acres
Forage-fed Land Use Values: Northern (Canadian Prairie Provinces) Grass-fed Steer

I used the same average yield for hay as in the Canadian feedlot example above, which is 1.9 tons/acre

As far as pasture is concerned, I'm going ahead and saying that it's a very highly productive pasture, above that for hay (as hay is an average value). While the value I came up with for pasture productivity under management-intensive mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing seems pretty high, let's not forget that for one, these values are always prone to change, but too I'm trying to aim for a scenario that is under great management, and is thriving because of it. 

In this case, the pasture is producing just above that of the average hay yield, at 126 cow-days per acre (or 4500 lb/acre with a 65% utilization rate). To put things into perspective, a hay yield of 1.9 tons per acre is 3800 lb/acre, which, if grazed at the same utilization rate, gives us 98.8 cow-days per acre. To also put things into perspective, it isn't uncommon for a lot of areas in the Prairie Provinces where hay yields are a bit higher than 1.9 tons/acre! 

Finally, this steer is being finished on a high-quality annual polyculture pasture, which gives a nice high yield of 240 cow-days per acre (or 8000 lb/acre at 75% utilization rate)

For the actual amount of land used, the values I came up with are as follows:
  • Hay: 2992 pounds = 1.496 tons ÷ 1.9 tons/acre = 0.751 acres
  • Grass-Legume Pasture = 126 cow-days per acre for 65 days = 0.49 acres
  • Annual Polyculture Pasture = 240 cow-days per acre for 50 days = 0.21 acres
The Grand Total then for the amount of land used to raise this steer in this area up to slaughter is:

1.451 acres

Forage-fed Land Use Values: South-Eastern USA Grass-fed Steer

For this steer, because there's a bit more moisture than with the northern example above, there's going to be expected even higher productivity over all with the same management principles around mob-stocked multi-paddock grazing.

The stockpiled pasture should yield about 200 cow-days per acre (or 6670 lb/acre with 75% utilization).

The early grass pasture can be expected to yield a little less, at around 150 cow-days per acre (8340 lb/acre at 45% utilization rate)

The legume-grass pasture in this environment is expected to perform at 275 cow-days per acre (10,580 lb/acre at 65% utilization rate).

The land use values I came up with are as follows:

  • Stockpiled Pasture: 200 cow-days/acre for 100 days = 0.35 acres
  • Spring Grass Pasture: 120 cow-days/acre for 50 days = 0.34 acres
  • Grass-Legume Pasture: 275 cow-days/acre for (50 days for 900 lb steer + 50 days for 1000 lb steer) = 0.17 acres + 0.19 acres = 0.36 acres
The Grand Total for the amount of land used to raise this steer in this area up to slaughter is: 

1.05 acres

Conclusions

While the results that I calculated definitely are surprising and most certainly dispells the myth that you need much more land to raise grass-fed cattle than grain-fed, I implore on EVERYONE who read this to remember that the numbers that I came up with are not static

Every single one of those values that I used are prone to change. There is always going to be the fact that more or less of the amount of feed and pasture, and the amount of land required to grow this feed and pasture will change for greater or for less than what the values that I came up with. That will all depend on annual environmental influences (such as precipitation), the vegetation being grazed, and the management. 

The biggest caution I have is with the pasture values for the forage-finished steer. I may have angered some people or caused them to immediately question how and where I came up with these numbers and so on and so forth, but again these are based on the very, rather approximate values that I have found among those graziers who have significantly changed the way they have managed their land from the conventional way to the way that is much more holistic and accounting for the plants and the soil, not just their animals. 

I tell you though, I am just as shocked and excited as you to see these numbers. These give me hope and reason to believe that there's a lot more benefit to forage-fed cattle (and therefore forage-finished beef) than we realize now. Like the simple fact that grass often will regrow to be ready to graze again anywhere from 1 to 4 months later, meaning the same land can be used again for grazing, unlike with annual crops when having to harvest for grain and/or silage. 

I guess it's safe to say here that forage-fed beef and cattle really are better for the Earth!