Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Why a Vegan should keep Cattle; Grass Fed Beef - An Environmental Solution


                                               Why a vegan should keep cattle!

                                                            - an Environmental Solution 

Grass fed beef farmers are amongst the most ardent and effective environmentalists but we have not been effective in explaining the substantial benefits that 100% grass fed beef has on the environment.
This is in contrast to environmentalist organisations, anti-meat advocates and headline grabbing announcements from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

As a grass fed beef farmer I am not here to defend the case of grass fed (finished) beef; the negative press towards livestock agriculture should be confined to the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) from which the developed world obtains up to 99% of its meat and eggs. It should be noted that the beef side of CAFO is probably the least environmentally damaging and is more morally justified compared to pigs, poultry and dairy but still not equivalent to the ethos of 100% grass fed cattle. The negative environmental press regarding the contribution of cattle to green house gases (GHG) amongst other detrimental effects is applicable to feedlot cattle which do not have the mitigating factor of vegetative grassland on GHG and also in the third world which may not have many feedlots but also do not have the mitigating factor of planned controlled grazing in vegetative grassland. The two countries with the largest numbers of cattle are India and Brazil, often with poor quality pasture and therefore overall high cattle associated GHG emissions.

The negative perception of beef is pervasive and assumes all beef is equal; this is not only untrue but exclusively grass fed beef in controlled planned grazing has substantial beneficial effect on the environment and is a potential solution to excessive anthropogenic GHG emissions. Climate change has produced a paralysis of action amongst states despite their promises, or minimal actions to take place over decades, a head in the sand approach or the refuge of climate change denial. By returning to or maintaining best farming practices thereby restoring natural habitats, the earth can restore itself. Grazing animals in particular cattle but also sheep, goats and restoration of wild herds of bison, antelopes, wildebeest and zebras etc can all play a part in this.

There is substantial hope for the environment through proper grazing management of ruminants especially cattle. The value of grass fed beef is not just the relative health benefits, local economic development, food production or enhancing landscape vistas but potentially stabilizing or even reversing atmospheric CO2 in combination with other land use changes. Vegans, animal lovers and others can also partake in a proper managed grazing setting with cattle and other ruminates balancing the joint care of animals and the environment. The unifying answer to all of this is soil.

                                               Soil, downtrodden and misunderstood  

Soil contains 2500 gigatons (2500 billion tons) of carbon, more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and more than five times the amount of carbon in plants and animals. Atmospheric CO2 (400 ppm today) is increasing by 3.5 gigatons a year. 60% of soil carbon is organic carbon which exchanges between the atmosphere and the soil via plant photosynthesis, respiration and decomposition. While there is a slight overall net gain to the soil this gain is unfortunately more than offset by current land use and human activity. By changing land use we can seriously address anthropogenic climate change.

Soil organic matter is directly related to soil organic carbon and is composed of soil microbes and decomposed material (humus). Soil carbon deposit occurs through root growth and death as well as plant litter at the surface. A symbiotic exchange of carbon occurs between plant roots and fungi in exchange for minerals. Fungal mycorrhizae can extend the reach of plants a hundred fold and plants in symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizae transfer 15 times more carbon into soil than do plants without mycorrhizae. In turn these plants are healthier, more productive and more disease resistant and as a consequence are more effective at photosynthesis and carbon capture. Other soil micro-organisms such as nematodes, protozoa, ants, micro-arthropods as well as bacteria and other fungi have as yet undetermined but probably beneficial co-operative roles. The above is nothing new, all children learn this at school yet the significance of it is under-estimated. Much remains to be discovered, in fact Glomalin which is a 30-40% stable carbon soil substance was only discovered in 1996. Glomalin is an aggregator, forming larger aggregates, making soil resistant to wind and water erosion, it helps O2 infiltration/transport and aids in nutrient transfer.

                                                       'Make Earth Great Again'

Increasing soil carbon by 1% would reduce atmospheric CO2 by 2%. Global organic farming has the potential to sequester 1.5 gigatons of carbon per year. By optimising soil carbon sequestration through natural non-resource dependent means we can mitigate climate change and stabilise food-   precarious communities even countries . To paraphrase someone who will not be named lets  'make earth great again'. The reader may regard this as wishful thinking but soil carbon sequestration through environmentally sustainable farming bears examination in detail as it will beneficially affect our children and their children instead of condemning them to the previous generations misuse of our most valuable and vital resource.

Plowing leaves soil exposed leading to wind and water erosion; kills microbes by exposing them to heat and light; destroys crop residues on the soil surface causing loss of nutrients and organic matter. Turning soil over causes sudden access to O2 which speeds up biochemical deposition releasing carbon into the air rather than back into the soil. Even conservation tillage (zero tillage) and high disturbance mechanical seeding cause soil erosion. Pesticides, fungicides and weedkillers are needed to control weeds and diseases that occur in degraded soil. A plant will take up commercial fertilizer in preference to exchanging minerals with fungi leading to carbon sequestration.

The world's agricultural soil carbon has decreased by 50-70%, this has accelerated over the past few decades but can also be tracked back over many centuries, some estimates are that 50% of land under cultivation will be unsuitable for this purpose in 50 years. Soil exhaustion contributed to the demise of the Roman, Greek and Mayan empires and was a contributory factor to the Arab Spring uprisings, the consequences of which are very evident today. Exhausted crop land is often then turned over to livestock grazing which if done improperly (which is usually the case) it either just stabilizes fertility or decreases it giving the false impression that livestock was responsible for the soil degradation.

                                                  The Herd effect and the Farmer-Predator

It is estimated that there were 60 million bison in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans, add in other ruminate animals, including now extinct species and you have numbers similar to the number of cattle today. To protect themselves against predators, in any part of the world, grazing animals stay in herds, this instinct is still present today in cattle where the dominant animals stay in the middle of the herd even where there are no predators but some perceived threat. Planned grazing of animals mimics the herd effect by confining animals through fencing in small pastures and then moving them in short time intervals from hours to a maximum 3-4 days.

Dense grazing herds moving frequently stimulate biological activity in soil. Being heavy animals with small hooves they break the surface, press in seeds, push down dead plant material; their hoof imprints trapping water for seed growth. Their manure and urine fertilise the soil boosting plant productivity for up to three years. This improves soil cation capacity helping mineral exchange, increases water retention and benefits a diversity of insects and microorganisms (as opposed to artificial fertilizers which ultimately damage soil structure and productivity).

Livestock remove leaves and stems just above the growth point of grass allowing sunlight to reach the growth point. During the rest period when the herd has moved on, the grazed grass plant balances by shedding roots, releasing carbon and then regrows above and below the ground through photosynthesis and mycorrhizal nutrient and carbon exchange. In the absence of grazing, plants accumulate litter, which chokes growth points and new shoots. The un-grazed grass is slowly oxidized and the animal dependent perennial grass becomes less productive and has decreased diversity of fauna. These grasses are often replaced by woody tap plants or in arid areas by desert bushes and bare soil.

Even in good grassland properly timed short interval intensive grazing followed by long rest periods (from a month to a year depending on climate) can increase vegetation by 45%, this new vegetative growth in response to grazing is particularly effective for soil carbon sequestration. It is the absence of grazing animals rather than their presence that has caused land to become decertified or less productive. Leaving it to nature doesn't work because ecosystems are not natural anymore following removal of grazing animals or improper grazing. Properly managed grasslands, which requires grazing animals have a higher plant diversity and better wildlife habitat. Grassland grazing by cattle and other ruminants has a side benefit of creating an aesthetic scenery instead of or in conjunction with forestry and monoculture cropland. By re-establishing and repairing an ecosystem using the natural behaviours of cattle in combination with other land use changes we will provide a way out of our climate change dilemma.

Topics for my next blog will include agriculture generated methane and nitrogen oxides; cattle and water resources; opposition and competition to grass finished beef by vegans and commercial feedlot beef.
All photographs in this blog were taken on my farm in Nova Scotia, Canada.
December 28th, 2016

Monday, 22 February 2016

Beef Flavour Notes


Raising cattle one expects sudden unplanned death to occur, mainly young calves from gastroenteritis or pneumonia or during prolonged labour, probably about a 5% death rate if one is lucky, this is now improved on our farm due to summer calving.  Occasionally an old cow will die from natural causes but the real bummer is when a young cow dies unexpectedly for no apparent reason which happened last week.  I debated doing an autopsy , decided to wait and see if any other deaths occur; in the meantime it was sent to a nearby rendering plant probably end up as pet food (there is no cost recovery with this, apart from a complete financial loss there are expenses incurred moving the carcass).

This winter is certainly better than last winter, the ideal weather for the animals would be slightly below freezing, sun and no wind, recent fluctuating temperatures especially above freezing with rain makes a mess of the pastures so they have to be corralled until the ground freezes again, not their choice nor mine.  It will be touch and go with the hay this year and I will probably have to cull some old cows for the benefit of the rest of the herd.  The two cows I have in mind are 15 years old, any cows that old and remaining in your herd are ones best cows and have given me lots of calves.  A humane dispatch will be preferable than a cow getting progressively weaker and having a lingering death, in this case I am just bringing forward what I planned to do a few months earlier....still I feel kind of sick about it having known them for 13 years.
Life and death are constant features on a livestock farm.


I am obviously biased for grass fed beef and I will continue to promote the numerous advantages to your health, the environment and animal welfare when choosing grass fed beef.  From the farm and studying the subject of grass fed beef I am aware of misleading statements, studies and opinions expressed or produced by others on the pros and cons of beef which fails to differentiate grass fed/finished beef, where cattle grow in their natural state compared to industrially raised feedlot beef which is 99% of beef in N. America.  Many generations have now grown up only tasting feedlot beef so it would be inappropiate for me to judge somebody for their preference for feedlot beef as food preference is highly dependent on lifetime taste conditioning . However, I firmly believe that any food grown slowly with care and respecting the environment it is grown in is best.  Food is best when you can taste the nature that nurtured it.

The inappropriately termed quality grading of feedlot beef i.e. Canada AAA and US Prime is based solely on the visual inspection of marbling ..... the small flecks or streaks of inter-muscular fat
between the 12th and 13th ribs.  Meat industry scientists state that marbling is responsible for flavour and tenderness with juiciness aiding mouth lubrication other food scientists independent of the meat industry provide conflicting evidence re flavour and tenderness in respect to marbling.

Tenderness is a reflection of genetics, animal husbandry, carcass conditioning with marbling responsible for only 10% of tenderness. The most tender meat has generally moderate to low marbling. Tenderness can be mechanically increased by knives/blades during industry processing, this generally occurs with older animals up to 20% of meat and is generally found in cheap steak houses or bargain wholesalers, unless labelled you can not detect these steaks (these need to be cooked to at least medium rare and should be flipped a number of times on the grill to kill E. Coli driven into the interior of the steak by the mechanical tenderizer).

Most foods grown quickly have lesser flavour, feedlot beef is finished at 14-16 months, grass fed beef at 18-30 months.  In France the preference is for 3-4 year old animals.  As cattle mature they develop more muscle myoglobin producing a redder meat and more flavour. beef like wine, cheese and whiskey needs time for flavour development.

Grass fed beef's more interesting flavour depends on soil minerals and different grasses and therefore is a location specific product compared to grain or corn fed beef.  Grass fed beef can have a subtle 'gamy' flavour which in reality is the real taste of beef and partly produced by increased omega 3 fatty acids.  Flavour primarily comes from amino acids, sugars and up to 25 different fats in combination with heat produce up to 340 different flavour compounds, some only in beef (medium rare is probably the optimum in enhancing flavour).  Fat extracted from feedlot beef in lab studies is white; fat from grass fed beef, Kobi beef and bison is much darker.  Alphalinoleic acid, one of the unsaturated omega 3 fatty acids found in grass and grass fed beef when combined with heat, sugars and other proteins forms complex compounds associated with a beefy flavour (Maillard reaction, caramelization on the meat surface).  Grass fed beef also gets its flavours from terpenes created by micro-organisms in cattle's rumen from chlorophyll.

Quantity and quality are two opposing goals, whether it is hormones, drugs or genetics increasing quantity there is a price to be paid in quality.  Feed lot beef industry specialises in quantity but tries hard to convince the consumer that quality is their sole concern deliberately ignoring the inconvenient presence and quality of slowly grown flavourful grass fed beef.

I understand that based on life-long taste conditioning that feedlot beef will be the preference for some over grass fed beef.  I also understand that not all grass fed beef is the best eating experience as it is much more difficult to manage and finish cattle in their natural pasture environment compared to the formula driven grain or corn diet in a feedlot.
However, I firmly believe that the best grass fed beef is always better than the best feedlot beef.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Calving Time (finally!)


while composing my next blog found this orphan blog from last summer

First calf came in early June, by my calculations 2-3 weeks premature. The mother cow was quite protective and adopted an aggressive attitude , bellowing loudly, ears pricked up and eyes widened showing a lot of white around the iris when I approached . I found them in the pasture when the calf was probably 10 minutes old judging by the amniotic fluid slicked coat, took some pictures and moved on. Being the first calf of the year there was more than the usual interest from other animals including one of the young bulls who had probably never seen a newborn calf, came back 10 minutes later and the calf is standing, partly dried off by the mother licking the calf's coat, much as I wanted to stay and watch cow calf bonding this was the time to back off and allow the calf to find her way to the udder for colostrum, vitally necessary for immune protection as the calf acquires immunity through colostrum as soon as possible , beyond 6 hours the mortality rate is very high.

Six more calves have arrived since then, some a result of artificial insemination, others from a clean up bull immediately afterwards, hopefully many more in the next 2-3 weeks. Finding them can be difficult and moving into a different pasture requires a keen observation to make sure calves and mothers are not separated which is quite easy in long grass and calves who sleep most of the day and mothers off feeding. Young calves often do not recognize their mothers and it can be hard or near impossible to link a calf with a cow especially if it is a first time mother and the bonding instinct is slow, the young cow being traumatized by the birth, seeing something strange on the ground making strange noises and the mother hungry and thirsty can often lead to separations while calf attempts to get milk from other cows who push the calf away,,,, anyway, so far, so good.


THE FOOD - tasty tales to follow shortly.