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A better cut of beef:
Local, grass-fed cattle are as sustainable as red meat gets

By Dawn Hewitt 331-4377 |

Copyright The Bloomington Herald Times 2010 Used with Permission

Beef production raises concern among environmentalists for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • Cattle emit gas from both ends, making them a source of methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • It takes about 2,400 gallons of water and seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of conventionally raised beef, according to a 2002 report by Johns Hopkins Bloomburg School of Public Health.
  • Conventionally raised cattle are fed grains such as corn, which is grown using chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, and harvested with heavy
  • Feedlots or confined animal feeding operations produce tons of manure that must be hauled off for disposal, and runoff from such operations is a
    source of water pollution.
  • Conventionally raised cattle are routinely given antibiotics to keep them healthy and growth hormones to enable them to reach market weight faster.
  • Some beef sold in the United States comes from cleared rainforest in South America, or is shipped from farms in New Zealand, with transportation creating a deep carbon footprint, or it originates from arid rangeland in the Western U.S., where water and grain have to be hauled in.

Another way

There is another way to raise cattle. Actually, it’s an old way, and it mimicks how buffalo roam. Farmers can let cattle eat grass, which their
four-chambered stomachs have evolved to process. Such cattle graze year round, and forage is all they eat. They move directly from the pasture to
the slaughterhouse, bypassing the feedlot and its environmental concerns.
It takes longer to produce beef that way, and that raises the price of grass-fed-only beef, which is a small but growing segment of all retail beef sales.
According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, retail sales of natural/organic beef trended upward from 1.1 percent of all retail beef sales in
2003 to 2.5 percent in 2007. The category represented nearly 3 percent of all beef sales in the third quarter of 2009, and consumers were willing to
pay an average of $1.91 cents per pound more for such products. However, retail data may not be the whole picture, since many consumers buy
grass-fed beef directly from the producer, according to the American Grassfed Association.
Studies have shown that grass-fed cattle produce more methane than cattle fed grain crops, but an emissions comparison doesn’t tell the whole story.
Both the Swiss Connection dairy farm in Clay City and Maple Valley Farm north of Bloomington are grass-fed-only cattle operations that use “high
stock density” and “management-intensive grazing.”
In other words, the herd grazes in a small pasture for a short length of time rather than in a vast field for a long period of time or in a confined feedlot
for any amount of time.
"In history, with buffalo, they’d be in tight groups for predator protection, and graze one spot intensely and then move on. This type of grazing mimics
that,” said Swiss Connection farm manager Kate Yegerlehner. “Your pastures improve in density and fertility.”
"Our lightweight portable fences serve as the ‘predator pressure’ to induce mob behavior in which the cattle herd feeds as one unit and with reduced
selectivity,” said Larry Howard of Maple Valley Farm. “Each day, the cows are moved to a completely fresh and fully recovered section of pasture.
Meanwhile, the paddock just grazed ... will be given time to fully recover prior to grazing again. Sometimes a patch of grass in high stock density
grazing is grazed only one to four days out of an entire year.”
Grass-fed cattle act like fertilizing lawn mowers. They prune the vegetation intensely for a few hours to a few days while fertilizing it. Then that patch of
pasture lies fallow for months, while the plants grow back nourished, with stronger, deeper roots, sequestering carbon dioxide as it grows, preventing
soil erosion.
Credit the buffalo for the thick, rich sod of the ancient prairies. Grass-fed cattle operations are aiming to restore that kind of natural balance between
animals and soil.
The vegetative productivity of the pasture increases. That doesn’t happen with conventional cattle operations, and it certainly doesn’t happen on a

Video farm tour
Take a visit to Maple Valley Farm, where cattle are pasture-fed only, and hear farmer Larry Howard’s definition of a sustainable cattle operation at Click here for the video.

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Larry Howard moves a barrier to open access to a new grazing area at his sustainable cattle farm north of Bloomington.
Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times


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A calf runs across the pasture.
Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times

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Larry Howard, left, and Ethan Howard hike up a hill after tending to their sheep and cattle on the family farm.
Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times
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Irish Dexter cattle eat grass beneath the snow.
Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times
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Story above is Copyright The Bloomington Herald Times 2010 Used with Permission