Challenging the Cash Cow

Switch to Grass-Fed Beef a Painful Lesson in Economics

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No. 68 isn’t lazy, but she hasn’t done much today but eat. Grass stems hang from her slowly chewing mouth, and she seems irritated that the humans have disturbed her in the middle of her all-you-can-eat special.

As the sun sets on her prairie buffet line in Lenexa, the time this black Angus cow has on the open land may be drawing to a close. Joanne Preston, the owner of No. 68 and 74 other cattle, takes some of her cattle to auction, where they are purchased and sent to a feedlot. So far, the cattle have munched mostly on grass for the majority of their lives, but once they hit the feedlot gates, their diet will be switched to a steady stream of corn.

Preston said she feeds her cattle grain in the winter to help them survive the cold, but the high feedlot doses these cattle may soon receive is unnatural — unnatural by nature but necessary for Americans’ demand for a 24/7 supply of beef.

The evils of economics have ensured a steady supply of grain-fed beef in the United States through corn subsidies and a seemingly insatiable appetite for hamburgers, even though grain prices have increased. However, some farmers have seen the benefit — but unfortunately, usually not monetarily — of keeping cattle grass fed their entire lives.

Thanks to federal corn subsidies, the price of corn is about 75 cents less than the cost to grow it. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writes that because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps farmers easily dispose of their surplus corn by having animals convert as much of it as possible into protein for people to eat.

Grass-fed calves don’t usually need antibiotics, but after switching to a diet of corn, Pollan said they become prone to sickness.

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“The shift to a ‘hot ration’ of grain can so disturb the cow’s digestive process that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics,” Pollan writes in his article “Power Steer.”

But as demand for beef grew after World War II, the then-fledgling beef industry found a powerful tool in corn.

“Compared with grass or hay, corn is a compact and portable foodstuff, making it possible to feed tens of thousands of animals on small plots of land,” Pollan writes. “Without cheap corn, the modern urbanization of livestock would probably never have occurred.”

And neither would have McDonald’s.

“Farmers would optimize grass production to sell cattle at the end of the fall,” Larry Hollis, who specializes in cattle health at Kansas State University, said. “That used to be the way it was sold in the olden days, but that’s not how McDonald’s operates. They sell hamburgers 365 days a year.”

‘The market is all about dollar signs’

Local farmer Joyce Williams raises grass-fed cattle, but, at first, not because she saw the potential negative effects on the cattle.

“We have never fed them grain because we never realized that they needed it,” Williams said. “The cattle looked healthy and tasted good, so why did they need grain?”

Williams, co-owner of MJ Ranch in Lawrence, said the business has never made a lot of money from its grass-fed beef.

“The market is all about dollar signs,” Williams said, “but it’s not the right thing to do for the animals.”

However, market demands have changed, and more consumers look for grass-fed beef.

MJ Ranch has already sold out of its grass-fed beef for the year, the first time this has happened this early in the season.

Hollis estimated about 5 percent of cattle consumed in the United States were entirely grass fed, but said this niche market is developing.

Williams said the ranch has had a lot of visitors.

“People come to us and see that what we’re doing is what we say we are doing,” she said.

The Bottom Line

However, for some farmers, the cost of having more land for grass-fed is far more expensive than spending more money on pricier feed.

“You have to own a lot of grass or buy a lot of feed,” Hollis said. “Feed cost is extremely high, and it has affected the price of owning grazing land. This is driving up the price of grass-fed cattle because we are growing less corn.”

In the end, it boils down to an economic showdown, but the consumer seems to gradually be accepting a cow like No. 68 that is slower grown but more naturally raised.

Most cattle start as grass fed, even if they end up as grain fed.

“The grain gives the cattle the extra energy they need in the winter,” Preston said. “But they get good grass all through the summer.”

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