Feeding The World or Feeding Our Habit

I attended a conference at which a professor from a major University spoke of the need for implants, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and other inputs to increase production so American farmers and ranchers can continue to feed the world.  She argued that the 98% of people who aren’t involved in production agriculture just don’t get it.  I think she’s right.  If the 98% saw some of the things that we do, they wouldn’t get it.  They’d think we’re nuts.  Consider the following and tell me what you think:

Breakfast in Bed for Cows

Feed lots are the ruminant equivalent of breakfast in bed. BSE reminded us that cows are herbivores, not carnivores.  What we haven’t seemed to learn is that ruminants are celluloseivores not starchivores.  The high grain (starch) rations we use to finish animals only work because we kill them before it kills them. 

A Daily Dose of Penicillin with Your Wheaties

To keep animals from getting sick before we kill them we lace their feed with sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics.  My father was a professor at UC Medical Center. In his research, among other things, he discovered a new antibiotic. He was a smart man but he was bewildered and outraged at the careless use of antibiotics in agriculture. He warned me, and anyone else who would listen, over 40 years ago that sub-therapeutic feeding and other improper uses of antibiotics in the livestock industry would make what we once considered “miracle drugs” useless. Even worse, he predicted that we would create super virulent, resistant organisms.   It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see this one coming…just a scientist.

Giant Pooper Scoopers

By confining grazing animals in feed lots we concentrate waste that under natural conditions wouldn’t be waste at all.   The synthetic N fertilizers we use to replace the lost fertility burn up the soil’s organic matter. That further impoverishes the soil and intensifies our addiction to chemical fertilizers and the oil required to produce and apply them.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

In nature, grazing animals don’t naturally give birth in the winter.  As with other ruminants, the length of post-partum anestrous for beef cattle decreases the closer they calve to the summer solstice. Yet many ranchers insist on having their cows calve closer to the winter solstice.  They match the period of their animal’s most critical nutritional need with the period when feed is most scarce. 

We have made all of this work by using massive amounts of energy.  Our addiction to oil has made us productive, but as our increasing reliance on off-farm income testifies, it is bankrupting us economically. It is also bankrupting us ecologically.   BP may say that the Louisiana coast is clear, but by whose measure and at what cost?  BP is responsible for the spill, but our insatiable appetite for energy is an accessory to the crime. Burt Smith was spot on when he said, “There’s a lot of oil in a pound of steak.” 

Some in this industry insist that the techniques we use are necessary to maintain productivity so we can feed the world.  As many of our alumni prove, that simply isn’t true. Breaking our addiction is better for our animals, our land, our bank account, ourselves and the world. 


What did you think of this article?

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  • 6/12/2013 3:03 AM Guy Glosson wrote:
    This is right on correct. We can feed nearly double the population just with the food that we waste, how many can we feed if we used what we produce more efficiently?

    Second I don't think we know just how much production we can get from HEALTHY SOILS, 98% of the world has never seen truly healthy soil...
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  • 6/12/2013 7:49 AM Jesse Bussard wrote:
    Thank you for taking the time to so boldly share your thoughts on this topic. While many in the mainstream cattle biz reading this post will likely be upset with your statements, it is a reality that must be faced. Oil is not infinite and input expenses continue to rise. The production techniques described and the perceived increased yields we see from, while they may make things seem more "sustainable" in the short term, are sending us in a downward spiral towards economical and ecological ruin in the long term. And that my friend is not sustainable. It seems to me that the mainstream cattle industry is behind the times and because of the lobbying money they receive from pharmaceutical & feed companies may never "see the light," so to speak. As a business blogger I follow says, they need one hell of a bitch slap to bring them out of this one.
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    1. 6/13/2013 8:11 PM George Kahrl wrote:
      I wonder if bitch slapping our horses, cattle, dogs, or help would be part of Bud Williams low stress cattle handling recommendations? Perhaps it is of another methodology? And would it create sustainable change? I have not found a bitch, nor bitching, nor slapping a person,to affect positive change which outlasts resentments.
      Reply to this
      1. 6/14/2013 8:48 AM Jesse Bussard wrote:
        George, you are taking my statements too literally. I did not mean actually slapping anyone. Geeze, lighten up!
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  • 6/12/2013 8:51 AM ed malesich wrote:
    I agree with most of what you say, I do however love a grain fed steak, not so much grass fed
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    1. 6/13/2013 7:02 PM scott strosnider wrote:
      I agree.....but why not feed more cattle grain but do it in a pasture setting. I've often thought this would be the best of both feedlot & pasture = happy and healthy cattle along with being "lower input"

      Regards, Scott Strosnider~ VA cow/calf producer
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    2. 6/17/2013 9:54 AM Dave Pratt wrote:
      I've had some lousy grass finished beef...but then I've had some lousy grain finished. Likewise I've had some great grain finished beef...and some great grass finished beef. I may be dead wrong about this, but when it comes to taste I wonder if the issue is as much (or more?) genetics and aging as it is grain v. grass.
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      1. 6/27/2013 4:30 PM JR Hayden wrote:
        I believe that genetics and aging are the two most important things when it comes to grass finishing. A lot of people don't know how to cook grass finished beef either. Cooking it correctly makes a world of difference. I've been to a graziers production school by Allen Nation and there is alot more that goes into correctly raising a grass finished animal. From low stress to adequate forage at the right time in that animals life.
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  • 6/12/2013 12:14 PM David Schneider wrote:
    I see this article is at a 50-50 voting ratio. Which probably mimics most of the American population as well. Fertilizers, antibiotics, and confining cattle in a cow-jail are definitely not a natural occurrence. These are all designed to push production to higher levels then would occur naturally. The world population is increasing at an alarming rate and the farmer population is decreasing at an alarming rate as well. The land base is decreasing daily by giving way to more roads, subdivisions, hotels, homes, shopping malls, and blacktop. Once this soil is lost to these things, it cannot be replaced. The economics of a modern beef farm/ranch in a cow/calf environment are not very attractive to the younger society. The average age of an agricultural producer is 57 years old. Only humans could create such a situation. A food shortage is looming in the world's future. The beef producer who can follow the principles taught at the Ranching For Profit School by working with mother nature instead of against her, has a much better chance for survival into the future. The future obviously holds much higher prices for beef protein, if we can naturally hold our inputs down, the profit is there for the making.
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    1. 6/17/2013 12:34 PM Dave Pratt wrote:
      This link will take you to a short video showing a dramatic depiction of world population growth and distribution since 1 AD: World Population Growth 

      Clearly we demand more from a fixed, or as you point out, even dwindling resource base. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, and nearly all of the other ecological issues in the news are not so much problems as they are symptoms. The underlying problem is exponential world population growth. This rate of growth is slowing, but there are a lot of people putting a lot of pressure on finite resources.

      The "fertilize, feed, implant" and other “input” focused strategies focus on replacing what nature can’t provide. Input focused solutions are, at best, short term solutions.

      Rather than replace what nature can’t provide a more sustainable alternative is to increase the productivity of natural systems. This involves matching enterprises to the environment and managing those enterprises to mimic natural systems. Increasing the productivity of natural systems results in the maximum sustainable carrying capacity for all of God’s creatures, including people.

      As far as the average age of farmers and ranchers? When I've been hearing this statistic that the average age of farmers or ranchers is 57 or 59 or 64...depends on your source....since I was in college....and if it is getting older, maybe that just means more opportunities for folks who are younger....provided those properties don't get broken up.
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  • 6/12/2013 1:03 PM Rich Bringelson wrote:
    We hear comments about the US feeding the world. How do the people needing the food pay for it? How does our food supply system destroy the local capacity to help the host country feed themselves? How does our food supply destroy the social structure and create social unrest and unbalance a wide range of local and international relationships? A very good fiend from Africa told me, "A hand up is more important than a hand out." We are struggling with this same issue in the United States of America. Where is the balance that is life giving to all concerned?
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    1. 6/17/2013 1:16 PM Dave Pratt wrote:
      Great questions. To crudely put it in livestock terms; if the stocking rate of a region is not limited by the carrying capacity of that region, the carrying capacity will go down.

      I'm told that there are enough calories produced in the world to feed the world. The problem is distribution. If only we could get those calories to the people. Most people see the problem as food distribution. I tend to think it is population distribution. Here's a link to an edited version of a video I linked to another blog posting that shows population growth and distribution: World Population Growth
      Food needs to be produced where people are.

      In the short term, humanitarian efforts relieve suffering. As long as they focus on hand outs rather than hand ups, they perpetuate it. In the short term hand outs are needed to ease suffering but to avoid future suffering they must be accompanied by hand ups. The hand ups must include education, especially for women. I'm convinced that is key.

      Ages ago population centers were areas that were resource dense. Today, at least in "developed" nations, there is virtually no relationship between resources and population.

      I think Joel Salatin is on the right path in focusing on local distribution. You want to buy Joel's stuff, you have to go to Joel...or go within a relatively small radius of PolyFace Farms to someone who distributes for him. It has become fashionable among "Foodies" to eat local...but more than fashionable for the upper middle class, building local sustainable production systems is matter of survival for impoverished people thorughout the world.
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  • 6/12/2013 4:58 PM Cody Holmes wrote:
    Hello Dave,

    Since we have been selling meat direct, instead of giving commodities away,our vision has cleared considerably. Our customers educate us each day. Now late in my life I am completely embarrassed of our orthodox agriculture system. It may be, our farmers and input providers that are actually responsible for most of this countries' problems.

    Happy grazing and
    God Bless,
    Cody Holmes
    "Ranching Full Time on Three Hours a Day"
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  • 6/12/2013 7:04 PM mert taylor wrote:
    couldn't agree more, but how long is it going to take for the penny to drop
    Reply to this
  • 6/12/2013 7:43 PM George Kahrl wrote:
    All of Dave's comments are true, as are the supporting comments submitted,and there are other perspectives and truths as well.
    My grandfather started an organization, Pathfinder International, to help women around the world learn about and gain access to family planning. He helped in the distribution of salt sponges, rosary beads to keep track of a woman's cycle, had IUD's manufactured in Taiwan, continually carried condoms in his pocket, introduced the pill in parts of the world. He was one individual helping to make a change. He recognized women were having more children than preferred (6-10 children was/is not always a woman's preference). Is the question how we feed 7 billion, or how we help the 7 billion people gain access to family planning which we take for granted financially, physically, and culturally in the US? Is our need to feed the world, or to help the people in the world choose how many children they need to feed?
    It is true that calving later is a shorter return to estrus cycle. It is also true each day a herd of one hundred calves is gaining weight at approximately 2.25/lbs/head a day at $1.40/lbs there is a quantifiable equation which is weighed against winter feed resources and costs, conception rates, and death loss to winter storms.
    CAFO's do have some efficiencies, and inefficiencies and environmental costs - true.Part of this truth is we produce more feed than people and distribution channels will consume. This would say there is a surplus of feed for people. We feed the surplus to cattle. Is the problem distribution, associated economics, and markets, or is it the quantity of feed needed?
    I do enjoy a grain finished steak. I grain finish for 90 days a first calf heifer who lost her calf. I like the taste.I realize I am part of the global system when I eat my individual steak. I continue to travel, which is expensive and uses fuel, and I visit health clinics in rural third world areas where 70% of the women are illiterate (rural Mozambique)so they teach each other with visual cards. I continue my grandfathers work and support those women sitting under shade trees and learning from each other. I wean my calves in the fall because the feed resources change and they are less healthy on the short grasses of central Montana and cannot make it through the winter without supplemental, or full feed; so I ship them to a feedlot, and I am part of the process (problem?). I allocate my hay resources to the cows and not the weaned calves because I can easily sell and ship the calves.
    I do turn out to pasture, completely off all hay the first week of April. I manage my forage to have standing feed on the ranch at all times which is good for the land, and my cattle, and my P&L. I run moderate frame cows, teach my children to think globally, I drive a Prius with Montana Stockgrowers sticker. I am part of the world,I look at what I can do,I can help make small, progressive steps over time. Pathfinder has helped millions of w
    Reply to this
    1. 6/17/2013 1:46 PM Dave Pratt wrote:
      Perhaps the world would be a better place if every time I got in my car I thought about the geo-politics of oil. I'm not going to think about it every time...but I will some times...and on those times I'll look at my principles and values, question how consistently I live them and think about alternatives that can move me closer to alignment. I still won't be in alignment on everything. That's not possible because some of those values contradict one another (e.g. providing for a secure future for my family & contributing financially to organizations I believe in). The best I can hope for is to find balance.

      As you know, as an alumnus of Ranching For Profit, our focus is not on saving the world. It is on saving your ranch. Perhaps "saving" is a bit strong, so let's say on making your ranch sustainable. Our focus is on microeconomics rather than macroeconomics. My experience with Ranching For Profit alumni is that the dollars and cents of alternatives generally drive us to the best ecological choices.

      As far as grain v. grass...might it be that grain has an appropriate role in the diet of a ruminant animal? To a limited extent there may be (I'll bet that some of the grass seeds (grain) get consumed with the leaves of mature grasses...at least I've never seen a cow spit them out.) The economics usually fall apart when animals are kept in confinement and on high concentrate rations for extended periods. Either way, I'm happy to let the economics drive decisions (provided we are looking at long-term profitability, not just short term gains at the expense of long term profit. 9 times out of 10 or more, it will be toward a more ecologically friendly alternatives.

      Thank you for sharing the important work of your Grand Father. I visited the Pathfinder International website and got the full story. Very impressive.
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  • 6/14/2013 3:42 PM W Mark Hilton DVM wrote:
    I totally agree with your big picture view that we spend too much on inputs in cow-calf, our cows are many times too big and many calve at times that are not in tune with nature. I was surprised to read your quote "To keep animals from getting sick before we kill them we lace their feed with sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics."

    The most used antibiotic fed to feedlot cattle is Rumensin and it is an ionophore that improves feed efficiency. Even though it is a coccidiostat, it's primary use is to allow cattle to be fed less and gain more. It along with growth implants are some of the most "green" products available to beef producers.

    We need a combination of less food waste globally, working more with nature in cow-calf production along with technology that benefits cattle, humans and the environment.
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  • 6/14/2013 9:11 PM Kenny wrote:
    So why is it that we always hear about the dastardly beef producers? People that refuse to eat beef seem to almost always admit that they do eat poultry and usually pork.
    We get condemned for putting cattle in a feed yard for less than %20 of their life span with the rest being in their natural environment while poultry and pork is exclusivley grown in confined buildings.
    We cet condemned for using a growth promoter that may give us a %2 increase in growth while chicken producers have reduced the time to raise a fryer by %70.
    We get condemned for feeding corn and sometimes a low dose ionophore which is more of an immune stimulant than an antibiotic for a small %15 of their growth period, while poultry and pork producers would not think of going 1 day without antibiotic in their rations.
    Reply to this
    1. 6/17/2013 2:02 PM Dave Pratt wrote:
      I focus on beef producers because they are >90% of our alumni...and I don't think they are dastardly. The article is intended to slam practices, not the people who use those practices.

      As far as the way Pork and Poultry is produced, take everything I said for cattle and multiply it by >10! But just because they do worse doesn't mean that we can't do better. After all, better than bad doesn't necessarily mean you are good.

      As I responded to another posting, I'm happy to let economics drive our decisions. >9 out of 10 times they will take use to the best ecological outcomes. That should be no surprise since economics and ecology are just two sides of the same coin...perhaps we ought to be pronouncing it eco-nomics.
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