Friday, January 24, 2014

Chemical Agriculture 110 - Corn Fed Beef

Grain on The Farm. Photo by Reed Petersen.One of the artifacts of chemical agriculture is cheap grain. Historically grain has been an expensive and precious resource. Ancient literature including the Bible talked about the relative value of grain and it was very expensive. It is only recently in the 20th and 21st century that inexpensive petroleum based fertilizer, high yield hybrids and exceptional mechanization has allowed grain to be grown and harvested with extreme efficiencies. Today grain is a high energy and inexpensive feedstock used pervasively in agriculture.

Corn is king, due to the higher solar and fertilizer conversion efficiency, and is used in modern animal husbandry in ways never dreamed of only 100 years ago.  My father was very proud of his small herd of Iowa Corn Fed Beef. Those last 90 days before his steers and heifers went to market, they were on 100% corn and a little hay to keep the rumen going. Love it they did, but we fed that prime beef until they were morbidly obese. We didn't have some of the issues with feedlot runoff and ground water contamination that large lots have as we worked real hard to re-cycle nutrients.

So why did my father feed his steers this way?
Well for one thing the fat marbling in the meat makes for outstanding flavor and tenderness. It also makes the meat extremely tolerant to high temperature cooking especially grilling, with that much fat it is really hard to mess it up. The dark side to this whole scenario is what happens when you feed corn to a herbivore. Instead of the profile of fats with Omega 3-6-9's in balance, that you get when the herbivore eats grass, you get artery clogging fat with too many Omega 9's from the corn diet.

If you feed these same cattle on grass, you get a fat profile that rivals that of healthy wild caught salmon. Truly a low fat and good fat, health food. If we were to stop growing corn and put all our cattle on pasture we could solve a lot of problems with concentrated livestock feeding. The deep prairie soils that we rely on so heavily for the bread baskets of America were formed by massive herds of herbivores grazing on prairie grasses. If we went back to this model for raising cattle we could build enough soil in 10 years to sequester all the carbon released into the atmosphere in that last 200 years of the industrial age. Give that some thought.

Vote with your fork.

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