Blog – Beyond sustainable: beef in a new agricultural model

By Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger

This op-ed first appeared in the Greenfield Recorder, 9/12/2016 as “My Turn/ Shinn and Pledger: the secret of CO2 repair.”

Raise your hand if you believe that beef production is bad for the environment.

OK, lots of hands are up – but not everyone’s. While corn-fed, feedlot beef production does squander water and contribute to climate change, a growing number of environmentalists recognize that raising 100% grass-fed beef – with no grain ever – provides surprising and significant benefits for our beleaguered planet.

How can this be true?  First, to clarify, all beef cattle start their lives on pasture but eventually most are sent to feedlots for fattening on corn.  In New England, most beef cattle are trucked to feedlots out West; others are fed corn on the home farm. But 100% grass-fed cattle graze on pasture for their entire lives, with no corn, no feedlots, and none of the negative environmental impacts of the industrial model.

And there’s more. The recommended practices for fattening cattle on pasture (without grain) actually revitalize soil and address two pressing threats to human life: climate change and drought.

Regarding climate change, let’s acknowledge that cutting greenhouse gas emissions, even dramatically, is not enough to curtail global warming; we must also get carbon that is already in the air sequestered in the ground where it cannot escape.

For this task the most effective climate change activists are the smallest: the Glomales fungi, which are found on plant roots. When plants pull carbon from the air and send it down to the roots (photosynthesis), the fungi exchange some of the carbon for mineral nutrients needed for optimum plant growth.  Then they lock this carbon deep beneath the soil surface as stable humus. The fungi do this by making a waxy material called glomalin, which stores 27% of the world’s soil carbon according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’ve never heard of glomalin, you’re not alone; this key to soil health wasn’t even identified until 1996.  But now scientists recognize glomalin as an important low-tech strategy for sequestering carbon, and studies have been done to determine the best way to increase glomalin in farmland.

So what is the best way?  A 2013 study of three cropland scenarios and three grazing scenarios found the highest concentration of glomalin in native grassland pastures managed by rotational grazing, an essential practice for fattening grass-fed beef.  This method allows grazed land to rest and regrow tall grass before the cattle graze it again.

While soil chemistry is complex, rotational grazing goals for soil health are simple: (1) establish deep-rooted perennial grasses, and (2) manage pasture to foster abundant microbial soil life, including the Glomales fungi and associated bacteria. This reflects the way that buffalo helped build the topsoil of the Great Plains; the animals continuously moved to a new bite of grass, leaving behind a subterranean army of microbes creating glomalin that stored carbon. By the time the buffalo circled back to the area, lush, deep-rooted grass had regrown, and the cycle continued.

Glomalin also increases the land’s capacity to absorb and store water. In the western US, rain runs off vast acreages that lack the carbon “sponge” necessary for water to infiltrate soil and remain to protect against drought and erosion.  A USDA National Resource Conservation Service study demonstrated the dramatic difference in land managed by rotational grazing as opposed to cropland or pasture managed by conventional grazing.  A filmed experiment on three fields shows a given amount of water taking 31 minutes to infiltrate cropland soil, 7 minutes to infiltrate conventionally grazed pasture, and 10 seconds to infiltrate soil managed by rotational grazing.

Consumers are already demanding grass-fed beef for health reasons. In the next ten years it is predicted to comprise 30 to 40% of the total beef market. But for the most part, the grass-fed beef found in the meat case is imported from overseas. We must produce 100% grass-fed beef here in the Northeast to realize multiple environmental benefits for our region and beyond.

Some people choose a vegetarian diet. Fair enough. But it is important for everyone, regardless of dietary choices, to understand the differences between conventional and grass-fed beef production methods. To lump them together jeopardizes the success of an urgently needed, regenerative method for producing protein for humans and sequestering carbon. Because this approach dramatically increases soil productivity and is based on energy from the sun – not fossil fuel – this model offers hope for feeding world populations.

Producing 100% grass-fed beef utilizes natural systems that pre-date agriculture – and human folly.

Got Glyphosate?

By Ridge Shinn

 

It’s hard to leave the grocery store without it.  Virtually all corn-fed cattle raised in the US are fed grain that was raised with glyphosate, so it’s in the meat case. Virtually all corn syrup and food additives are made from corn grown with glyphosates, so it’s in many processed foods.  Consumers are trying to pass labeling laws to indicate the presence of glyphosate clearly on packages of food.

Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is a product developed for herbicides in agricultural use worldwide.  Genetically modified grains have been developed for use with glyphosates. Of the 97 million acres of corn planted in this country annually, over 85% are grown with glyphosates.  And most of the beef in stores today comes from cows that grazed on grass, but were “finished” on corn.

Dr. Anthony Samsel and Dr. Stephanie Senef have written, “…glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.”

The only way today to be 100% sure that you have no exposure to glyphosates is to eat foods that are 100% free of glyphosates, like 100% grass-fed beef that have had no genetically modified supplements like cottonseed cake, soy hulls, or BGS (brewers’ spent grain) .

Learn more about Glyphosate:

AG Chemicals and Crop Nutrient Interactions by Dr. Don Huber

Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Senef

FAT—Good or Bad?

By Ridge Shinn

 

Fat has been vilified over the past 50 years, but all fats are not equal. The common belief that fat causes cardiovascular disease and many other ailments is an over-simplification that can be misleading when it comes to evaluating the health benefits of beef.

There are two essential fatty acids (EFAs) in meat; omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Both fats are essential for the human body’s functions, including brain function, but the optimum ratio of these fatty acids needed by the human body is two Omega 6 for every 1 Omega 3 fatty acid. 100% grass-fed and finished beef has that perfect ratio for human health—and is also delicious.

The plethora of health problems associated with eating beef comes from feeding grain to cattle. Grain is an unnatural food for ruminant animals.  Research shows that grain feeding produces meat with a ratio of fatty acids that is dangerously unbalanced:  10 Omega 6 to 1 Omega 3.   Dr. Susan Duckett, who sits in the endowed chair for forage research at Clemson University, says that this ratio is like a fingerprint and by assessing this ratio of fats she can tell what a bovine ate; grain or a grass-only diet.

Check Out These Great Articles on Fats and Vitamins in Grass-Finished Meat from eatWild

The Queen of Fats: Why OMEGA-3S were Removed from the Western Diet & What We Can Do To Replace Them

Carcass Data on 100% Grass-Fed and Finished Steers (Clemson U)

Listen to Dr. Susan Duckett Discuss the Research on Grass-Fed Beef 

 

 

Natural protection from E. coli

By Ridge Shinn

 

Several years ago the nation was shocked to read about a young Minnesota woman who was nearly killed and perhaps permanently disabled by eating a home-cooked hamburger tainted with E. coli.

It’s no surprise that the burger was not made with grass-fed beef. The chances of contracting this dangerous strain of bacteria from grass-fed beef are slim to none.

Corn—or any grain– is not healthy for ruminants. Nevertheless, feedlot cattle are given large quantities of this inexpensive feed, and often endure a condition known as acidosis, or “acid indigestion.” While E.coli is a normal bacterium found in humans as well as cattle, in the unnaturally acidic environment of the stomachs of feedlot cattle an acid-resistant strain of E.coli has developed that can cause illness or death.

The deadliest form of E. Coli is more common than originally thought. Fortunately, grassfed animals are much less likely to transmit the disease.

A study in the March 28th, 2000 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that as many as one out of every three cattle may play host to the deadliest strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H).  This is ten times higher than earlier estimates.

As explained in more detail in Why Grassfed Is Best!:The Surprising Benefits of Grassfed Meat Eggs, and Dairy Products by nutritionist Jo Robinson, feeding cattle their natural diet of grass instead of grain greatly reduces the risk of E.coli. Why? First, it keeps the overall bacteria count low. Second, it prevents the bacteria from becoming acid resistant; acid-resistant bacteria are far more likely to survive the acidity of our normal digestive juices and cause disease.

Some time ago Cornell University advised that to reduce the threat of E.coli, switch the cattle feed from grain to grass and hay as the time for slaughter draws near.  Of course it makes much more sense to give cattle food that is natural for them their entire lives: 100% grass.

Note that people should still take the normal precautions when handling and cooking grass-fed meat, however. As few as ten E. coli bacteria can cause disease in people with weakened immune systems.

 

 

Evaluating cattle: tender meat

By Ridge Shinn

 

Many people are incredulous that an examination of a live cow can reveal the likelihood that the animal’s meat will be tender – but I have tested the following techniques and found them to be reliable.

A company in Australia, Classic Livestock (www.classiclivestock.com ) selects cattle for slaughter by visual appraisal.  In the manual they have developed for producers, they say that the most obvious visual clue to tenderness in cattle is flatness of bone: “Bone shape: this trait is the most direct indicator of meat tenderness…for an animal to be slaughtered.” The flatness of bone is a subjective measurement, but one can learn to feel it.

The jaw, ribs and back leg are places to feel and develop a sense of flat compared to rounded bone—it will be convex in rounder boned animals and concave in flat boned animals. The rib is easy; if you have an animal in a squeeze chute put your thumb or finger directly on the 13th rib and push—does it feel flat or even indented a bit? Or does it feel rounded?  The jaw is also an easy place to evaluate an animal at hand. On the leg, the easiest place to feel is on the outside of the ankle/lower leg, below the hock.  Expect a kick when you are feeling this bone; the leg can be seen at some distance and is a good visual indicator if you cannot touch the animal.  In general, the British breeds’ bones will be flatter, the continental breeds will have a more rounded bone, and the Brahma will be rounded and generally tough.

Another visible clue is docility; docility is directly correlated to tenderness.  One gets a sense of docility when moving and handling animals, but one can also observe it from a visual appraisal. A clear indicator of docility is when an animal’s head is lower than it’s body.  Producers have heard the expression “high-headed”; the high-headed animal will most likely be tough.