June 28, 2015

Cattle Raised on Grass Does NOT Equate to "Grass-fed Beef"

"Doesn't grass fed beef constitute only 3% of US output? How do you shut down every CAFO and turn those animals out on grass?" 
"Only 3% of US beef is raised on grass. CAFO's raise the rest—because it's more resource efficient."
These sentiments echo the fundamental misconceptions that almost everyone, these days, seem to have about cattle on grass. These quotes tell us about the misconception that cattle raised on grass somehow equates to grass-fed beef. They also tell us that these same people seem to think that, like dairy cattle, chickens and hogs, beef cattle are stuffed in a barn or an open dirt lot and are born and raised on grains and other feed brought to them for their entire lives.

To this extent, I've been told by another that my blog "does advocate grass fed beef." If that were the case, then why was my last post about what's wrong with grass-fed beef? Let alone the question as to why I'm writing this particular piece today!

True that grass-fed beef only makes up a tiny portion of beef sold nation-wide across the United States and Canada. But this certainly does not mean that only 3% of all beef cattle, in the US or elsewhere, are raised on grass, as per the latter quote.

In truth, all beef cattle are raised on grass. Yes, I do mean the 89.1 million beef cattle in the United States, as well as the 10 million beef cattle here in Canada. And as far as current cattle inventories are concerned (as of July 1, 2015, the total number of cattle in the USA is 98.4 million cattle, which means I'm excluding the 9.3 million dairy cattle that are primarily in CAFOs to get the beef cattle number), I could see a few hundred thousand more cattle or more that could be raised on grass. But that maybe mostly wishful thinking.

In the United States, 12.1 million cattle are on the feedlot being raised conventionally for beef, and these are made of mainly beef cattle, though dairy cattle also remain a significant constituent as well. As to what percent I am not sure at the moment. This means that these cattle have been born on pasture--on grass--and raised, on grass, for at least 12 to 18 months of their lives, before being shipped off to the feedlot to be finished for the last few months of their lives on a high-concentrate diet that is usually 80% grain.

But even dairy cattle have been on grass before being put in the milking parlour. Dairy heifers, once off the bottle, get to see some pasture for almost a year before they are put into the milking schedule inside the barn. The dairy cull bull and heifer calves--though there's not many of the latter compared with the former--will see pasture before being put in the feedlot for finishing. And I'm talking dairy beef here, not veal. Veal is another topic I might cover some other time in the future.

Now, what about that other 77 million head? Well, they're on grass too. These are your breeding animals, your beef cows, replacement heifers and bulls, with the cow and heifer total population out-numbering the bull population by about 25 to 1 because you don't need a bull for every cow or heifer on the farm or ranch. These cattle are what make up the vast majority of cattle raised on grass from birth right up to their death. And these animals aren't always on lush green picturesque pastures reminiscent of your Hollywood a-typical farm scene like that from Babe or Charlotte's Web. A lot of these cows and bulls are out on native grassland rangeland of the prairies or rugged forested lands, and it's land that is rough, rugged, and tough. Tough enough that a range beef cow like those rough-looking ol' Hereford and Angus cows could survive to live another day, but a Holstein wouldn't stand a chance.

So do most people truly understand what grass-fed beef means? The answer to that is clearly no, not at all. And that is coming from directly discussing the concepts and practices of grazing cattle with other people. So let me briefly explain.

There is a rather huge difference between raising cattle on grass and grass-fed beef. Raising cattle on grass is simply allowing cattle ad libitum, yet controlled access to pasture. It doesn't have to be confined to the growing season as a lot of grazing does happen outside the time when grass is growing, nor does it mean that cattle are strictly on grass with no other supplements or inputs.  The supplements and inputs are used or applied when necessary. Raising cattle on grass covers a very broad spectrum because it can encompass all cattle types, from lactating dairy cows to weaned beef stocker calves and everything else in between: beef cow-calf pairs, bulls, replacement beef and dairy heifers, veal calves, etc.

And for most cattlemen, the term "raising cattle on grass" is grass-fed cattle, because as I mentioned above, all beef cattle that are raised are certainly grass-fed. But it's not the same, still, as "grass-fed beef" or "grass-fed and -finished" cattle.

Grass-fed beef then, is not only marketing of beef from cattle that have been finished on grass instead of grain, but also the practice of finishing cattle on grass rather than grain. Understandably it would mean cattle on strictly grass and nothing else, but as I explained in my previous post "What's Wrong with Grass Fed Cattle," grass-fed is not nor should be limited to cattle grazing leguminous forbs like alfalfa and trefoil. And finishing cattle on grass takes a bit more than just raising cattle on grass or having grass-fed cattle.

Where people get the idea that beef cattle are born and raised on CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) is beyond me, but the only people I can blame for that are the animal activists. Those are the kind of people that have good intentions of wanting to get the truth out about the conditions and treatment of animals raised for food, fur, entertainment and companionship, but the results of actually telling the truth are abysmal to say the least. As an old proverb goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

So let them eat grass! And supplement with grain and/or cubes whenever you deem is necessary. Because the road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to Heaven is paved with good works.

An aside: Although the quotes above are about resource use of land and feed for cattle in feedlots or CAFOs versus pasture or rangeland, I merely wished to peruse the concept of grass-fed beef versus raising cattle on grass. Some time, sooner or later, I will cover the discussion and debates surrounding resource use of raising cattle on pasture versus the feedlot.
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