Grass fed beef 101 part 4

The truth about sustainable beef

Sustainable beef may mean different things to different people. Find out how cattle can be part of restoring our lansdcape and rewilding.

I have a confession to make.

I was watching TV. I don’t do that very often, but Kim’s friend was on the phone saying we should watch this programme about meat.

So we did. The show concluded that in the future, our meat will come from a lab. And for those who don’t fancy that idea, turn vegetarian or vegan.

I’m a scientist. I know what it takes to grow cells in a lab. How much glass pipettes, media, incubators, sterile cabinets and other things are needed.

Let me take you on a journey. Because if you’re like me and you can’t believe that vegetarianism or lab meat is the answer, follow me.

It depends on what you mean by sustainable agriculture…

It’s 16th century England. Small flocks of cattle and sheep are roaming the hillsides together. Every week, their herders come and move them to another hillside. When the winter comes, the animals are bedded in a barn and fed hay. In the spring, when the grass grows tall enough, they go grazing back in the hills.

In this age-old way, plants and wildlife were part of the farm and were kept to their original diversity. This was sustainable farming at its beginnings. It was sustaining what was.

People didn’t use to be destructive.

Then, 19th century arrived. People lost their lands and livestock during the Enclosures. The agriculture was modernised and made more effective. And large-scale.

Destruction of the countryside slowly began. It accelerated after the II World War.

Hedgerows were ripped out. Trees and woodlands felled. Wetlands drained. The centuries-old meadows were ploughed.

The land all around have changed. Silently.

What is the point of sustaining what we have? The degraded land we have inherited?

Instead, true sustainable farming should be one that restores the land. Regenerates it.

Sounds good, but how do we get there?

Who said that all 100% grass fed beef is sustainable?

100% grass fed beef comes from cattle that eat just grass. But. There are good farming practices and bad practices out there. And they could be just as damaging to the countryside as conventional cattle farming.

1. How unsustainable grazing practices lead to a loss of biodiversity

Let’s start with the most common grazing of beef cattle.

  • Cattle in a field. Still there. And still there. They are in the same field for months (or years) on end. This is called continuous grazing.
  • It kills grasses and other plants over time. Plant biodiversity decreases​1​. Why? The first time a cow grazes a field, it chooses the best, sweetest plants. When the plant is grazed, it has to utilize all its reserves to regrow. But when it does, the cow comes and eats its young shoots. The plant is weakened.
  • Over time, such preferential plant dies. The cow has to choose less palatable plants. So it does and kills them as well. The cycle repeats until all it’s left is just thistles.
  • This process is called overgrazing and is what leads to loss of wildlife, soil erosion and floods.

No, meat of such cattle is definitely not good for the environment.

2. A so-called sustainable practice which keeps biodiversity in its current state

Another way to keep cattle in the field is called rotational grazing.

  • Cattle don’t stay in one pasture for the whole year or grazing season. Instead, they go into a different pasture. Sometimes the farmer moves them 2-3x in a grazing season, other times it is every month or every week. This gives the land some form of rest.
  • This type of grazing is also often practiced on conservational land. Think places like New Forest and other protected meadow areas.
  • Some plants will still be overgrazed because the animals are present when they are trying to regrow. If they eat them then, the plant will weaken and die over time.

At least, this practice is not overly damaging. It keeps the state of the land consistent. It is sustainable farming in a sense of sustaining what is.

3. But only sustainable/regenerative practice can increase biodiversity

To understand this way of farming, let’s revisit the history. Somewhere like 12 000 years ago.

The tall grass is waving in the wind. The hundreds of different flowers are being pollinated by insects. A noise in the distance announces arrival of the herd. It is a herd of bison. Thousands of animals are ripping the grass with their mouths. The calves play amidst. But their parents are aware of the flock of wolves hiding in the grass nearby. They keep themselves to the middle of the herd. They are the lucky ones. It is the outsiders that will be taken by the wolves first.

Soon, the herd is gone. The once tall grass reaching past bison’s bellies is flattened, eaten and pooed on.

The land turned to a brown-green mess.

Sounds destructive? But that’s what grasslands love. Periodic visits from grazing herds. They couldn’t survive without them. They would turn into a forest or a dessert.

Imagine a woodland clearance. Here, the rainfall is quite plentiful. With such destructive impact of the herd, no tree saplings have a chance. Only fast recovering grasses and plants can handle it.

Now let’s consider African savannah. Not much rain there, right? Without grazing herds, the grasslands would die off during droughts and the dead leaves and stalks would kill the plant itself. And cause desertification.

What do herds of bison and wolves have got to do with farming?

If we mimic this way of grazing with our farming animals, we regenerate the land​1​. And reverse what current farming has caused.

Why? Because periodic, intensive grazing with herds of animals with long periods of rest allows grasslands to fully recover. No overgrazing and weakening of plants and soils. We can start building soil carbon and increase biodiversity.

What does it look like?

  • A herd of cattle graze part of a field. Electric fence is keeping them there together. The next day, farmer comes and moves the cattle into another enclosure with fresh grass. This repeats every day. The cattle do not return to the same piece of pasture until 30-90 days later.
  • It is called mob grazing and Holistic planned grazing.
  • The results of this grazing are staggering. From biodiversity of 5 species, the land explodes to over 100 species. From grass height of 1 foot, it grows to 4-5 feet.
Regenerated meadow with biodiversity that can be done by regenerative grazing management
Wildlife and biodiversity can return when we change how we graze livestock and use them to restore our landscape

How to recognize sustainable 100% grass fed beef

  1. Ask. If you buy meat direct from the farmer, talk about how he grazes his animals and how often he moves them from pasture to pasture.
  2. Research. If you buy your meat online, find information on grazing practices on their website. Or email the farmer.
  3. Check the photographs of the cattle or the fields themselves. Look for whether the grass looks like the cattle have been there for several days. Are there any bare soil patches? Does it look like a golf course? Or a tall meadow?

Real sustainable beef is out there. It makes the land sing. The soil, plants, insects and birds all find a place to thrive. The countryside is revitalized.

I know. It is hard to find and is more expensive. Will your grandchildren be eating lab meat at their lunch or will it be real sustainable beef?

References

  1. 1.
    Teague WR, Dowhower SL, Baker SA, Haile N, DeLaune PB, Conover DM. Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. May 2011:310-322. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2011.03.009

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The amount of feed and fertilizers per 1 beef animal

As a calf, it is fed 100 kg of feed in a creep feeder:
60 kg barley
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

growing steer (for 100 days) ratio:
350 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed

finishing steer (for 80 days)
600 kg barley

TOTAL feed per steer:
1010 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

Source: AHDB

Pesticide figure based on yearly application of pesticides on barley in 2018 (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):

spring and winter barley were mixed in equal ratio for simplicity.
Pesticides in spring barley:
157.5 g
Pesticides in winter barley:
307.5 g

TOTAL 465 g of pesticides = to litres it is about 465 ml of pesticides per year.

Source: Pesticides usage survey 284 for arable crops in the United Kingdom 2018 (National Statistics)

Fertilizer figure (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):
nitrogen: 24.14 kg
phosphate: 4.59 kg
potash: 5.95 kg
sulfur: 5.95 kg


TOTAL 40.63 kg of fertilizers

Source: British survey of fertilizer practice for 2018 (DEFRA)