Big is bad, small is good, organic is healthy, conventional kills you, grass-fed is better for you, grain-fed is wasteful, families are good, and corporations are evil…..
The pontificating purveyors of perpetual rhetoric have been rather vocal lately. Once again, discussion is swarming around the issue of the size of farms and ranches; the proverbial “good vs. evil.” To most farmers and ranchers, who rely on the productivity of their farm, ranch or forest to maintain a living, it is clear; size is relative.
For decades, individuals and groups have attempted, sometimes successfully, to fracture agriculture; to divide and conquer. Recently, in the past few years, agriculture has begun to come together, setting their differences aside and working together as one, for the benefit of all. This unity and healing of old scars has positioned many, who have relished in conflict, to encounter unknown waters and uncertainty.
In California alone, there are regions where a family can make a living on 1 to 5 acres. In other regions, it requires several hundred and for others more than a thousand acres for a family to survive. Climate, growing days, soil fertility and water availability are a few factors that heavily impact productivity of a farm or ranch. For example, my cousin-in-law has a 4.5 acre flower farm near San Diego, does very well for his family of four and is considered “big.” On the other hand, a good friend of mine, who lives in North Eastern California, is surviving running cattle on more than two thousand acres and is considered “small” compared to his neighbors. When it comes to size, relative productivity is what matters. Irrigated pasture might be able to carry three to five head per acre, while desert range might require 100 acres to carry just one pair. A twenty acre farm in the Salinas Valley might be able to grow three different crops in a year and be financially viable, while a shortened growing season in the Scott Valley, limited to one crop per year, will require three to four hundred acres of grain or hay to be viable.
Throughout the day, I could not help but picture the agricultural industry as a circus, each size and type of operation an act. Every act has its moment in the spotlight, just as trends, fads and niches do in real life. That does not make one act or operation good or bad. It is the collection of the diverse acts that makes a show successful. A one-act circus would be hard pressed to sustain business. It is the diversity of agriculture that provides choices to the public. It is the diversity of agriculture that provides choices to producers. Each act or operation offers something unique that meets the needs of a different segment of society. Diversity and variety are what helps keep the marketplace healthy and aids in growing the economy.
Furthermore, it is high time to move beyond the belief that all farms and ranches are solely focused on maximizing production. Times have changed. Modern agriculture is about optimizing production. It is about finding balance with yield, profit, input costs, the welfare of livestock, keeping the soil healthy, enhancing wildlife habitat and conserving resources. The mentality of “get big or get out” is from the past. We must move beyond the idea of preservation and embrace conservation.
The continued labeling of practices and the portrayal of one practice as better than another only serves to perpetuate animosity. Prejudice must end. Minds must open. Listening for understanding must occur. It is time to recognize the importance that all aspects of agriculture play. Small or large, organic or traditional, the ability for families to make a living, while conserving and managing the resources is essential.
I have now written seven posts pertaining to feeds and the feeding of cattle, with the hope to explain with clarity two things: corn is not the only feed fed to cattle and grass finishing cattle is less efficient than grain finishing.
Do not take this the wrong way, please. I have nothing against grass finished cattle. In fact, I fully support the marketing of the product as a wonderful opportunity to offer consumers more choices. In fact, I raise some grass-fed to meet that specific market.
What I do take exception to is when some individuals make claims that are untrue and misleading.
Claim: Grass finished cattle take the same amount of time to reach their end point.
Grass is wonderful for growing cattle, but due to the low digestible energy (DE), when compared to grain, is not an efficient means to finish cattle. Grain finished cattle reach an endpoint around 13 – 15 months of age, while grass finished cattle reach an endpoint around 19 – 23 months. An animals breed, genetics and frame size also play a role in determining how quickly an animal will reach their endpoint. However, the biggest factor is the animals diet; high energy yields quicker gains and lower energy yields slower gains.
Having discussed feedstuffs and ration formulation it is now time to talk about pastures, an essential component in the cattle business.
By definition, a pasture is an area of land which there is growth of forage which livestock may graze at will. Good pastures have ample growth of lush, green, nutritious, actively growing forage from which livestock can eat all they can consume in a relatively short period of time. Pastures vary greatly, depending on type, growing conditions and stage of maturity.
Legumes and Nonlegumes
A legume is a plant which has the capacity to harbor nitrifying bacteria in its roots and is able to meet at least part, if not all, of its own nitrogen needs. A nonlegume is dependent upon outside sources of nitrogen. Read more…
So far I have discussed what influences the nutrient requirements for animals and have provided some basic information regarding feed values for several popular feedstuffs. In this post, I will try to explain in simple terms, how a ration is formulated, after knowing what the requirements are.
When feeding concentrates, it is often necessary to blend two or more feeds together into a mixture that contains the required nutrients for the specific animal.
- Draw a square.
- Write the % crude protein for the final ration in the middle of the square.
- Write your grain, with its % crude protein on the upper left corner.
- Write your protein supplement, with its % crude protein on the lower left corner.
- Subtract the %CP of your grain, from the %CP of the ration and write on the lower right corner. This will tell you the parts of supplement necessary.
- Subtract the %CP of the ration, from the %CP of the supplement and write on the top right corner. This will tell you the parts of grain necessary.
- Add the two results together and use this as the denominator to determine the percentages of each on a Cwt basis
Over the years, there have been hundreds of different products utilized as feed for livestock. Alternative feed supplies vary by region. I am only going to address some of the more “important” feeds, as based on annual usage within the United States.
Corn is the most widely used energy feed and excels in pounds of TDN produced per acre. It is very low in calcium, fair in phosphorus, deficient in vitamin B12 and must be supplemented with protein for most classes of livestock.
Sorghum is grown in semi-arid regions where corn does not grow well. It is similar to corn in its nutrient load, but is slightly higher in protein. It can be used to replace corn in rations, however, feed efficiency and gains may be decreased by as much as 10 percent. To overcome this loss, rolling or feeding as a high moisture grain is recommended. Read more…
I’ve begun hearing an argument among “green” activists and some Grass Fed niche marketers that grass-fed cattle are “greener” and produce less methane (CH4) than their grain fed counterparts.
Folks, go back and review your feeds and feeding class, nutrition class and biochemistry class.
First, grain has a higher TDN (total digestible nutrient) than forages. Due to higher TDN, in most comparisons, grain digestion results in an average of four times less methane (CH4) production. In addition, due to the higher digestibility of grains, it requires less energy to breakdown, thus results in a higher net comparable energy gain than forage digestion.
For example, think back to that steer you fed in 4-H or FFA. When you started them on feed your ration was probably around 80:20 (roughage:concentrate or hay:grain) and over the course of feeding, as you neared the end point, that ratio changed to around 35:65. A lower energy, higher protein diet was utilized to maximize growth at the beginning of the animals growth curve and transitioned into a higher energy, lower protein diet to encourage inter muscular and subcutaneous fat deposition. Now, remember how that steers phenotype changed over the course of feeding him? At the beginning, he walked around the pen with a what? “Hay Belly?” Correct! and as time went on, that belly gradually diminished as the ration increased in the percentage concentrate being fed. That “Hay Belly” is methane gas (CH4). OK, enough for the feeds and feeding lesson.
Those in the beef industry need to make sure that the information they present to the consumer is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I fully support niche marketing, however, utilizing mis-information to gain a market share, mislead the public and potentially hurt others within the industry is not the Christian thing to do. Utilize the true scientific merit or consumer preference to support your endeavors.
For those in the general public, before you believe what you read or hear on the news or from a friend, or organization, always check the science.
The grass is not always greener.