James Matthew Craighead asked this question: “Is grass fed the worst thing that happened to agriculture?” Don Ashford, one of On Pasture’s Writers in Residence shares these thoughts.
No, absolutely no.
What is Grassfed?
If I understand the labeling requirements correctly, any animal that has eaten grass anytime in its life can be labeled grass fed. Grass finished means that the animal has only eaten grass its entire life. It is possible to feed corn that has all of the starch removed and be classified as grass fed. I guess this is brewer grain. I can tell you stories about this stuff. (I am sure that someone will correct me on any of this if I have it wrong).
As in any business of selling to the public there will always be folks who game the system. There are outfits out there that are buying calves from the sale barn and turning them out on pasture for 90 days or so and selling them as grass fed. They are not lying, but what they are doing is misleading the consumers. But if every animal that has ever eaten grass can be labeled grass fed they are doing neither. There is nothing wrong with their product it is just that the consumers are not getting what in most cases they believe they are getting. And rather than getting the commodity price for these calves these outfits are getting whatever the market is for grass fed, which is substantially higher.
My daddy was a trader and one of the things I remember him saying about deals was that if both parties thought they had gotten the best of the deal, it was a good one. So I guess if someone is willing to pay $20.00 for a chicken and $10 or $15 for a pound of ground meat and is satisfied, it needs no justifying. I will agree that pricing will put grass fed out of the reach of a large part of the population but that doesn’t make it the worst thing that happened to agriculture.
With all of this being said try to imagine the cattle business without grass. I would guess that in some time in their life 99.9% of the domestic ruminant animals in our country have eaten grass. So I reckon they are all grass fed. It is a waste of time and energy to worry about this for even a minute.
Grass Fed Saved Us
The reason that I say not to worry is I have learned long ago not to worry about things I can’t control. I can only speak for myself, but since we started in this business in the 50’s, the years since 1997 have been the best. That was the year that we really began to understand and use management-intensive grazing, and how to maximize the utilization of our forage base.
Before that, in the years that we spent milking cows for a living, without any off the farm income, we spent our time trying to keep the feed man paid. Our operation was based on feed with a little pasture supplementation. We have learned since then we had it backwards. The grass should have been the main feed source and if necessary supplement with grain. In those days we fed mixed feed, brewer grain, and all the rest but nothing year after year has given a better return than our grass planted forages. The use of fertilizer, antibiotics, growth hormones, vaccines must be a personal choice and each of us has our reasons to believe that these things are important or even necessary.
Now y’all bear with me for a few minute and allow me to rant. The idea that grass fed is the worst thing that happened to agriculture is so far down the list of reasons that agriculture is in trouble it is out of sight. The colleges of agriculture in our country have stood by and been part of the nearly complete destruction of the family farm system. They have aligned themselves with the interests of the corporations that have done the most to destroy the family farm. The idea of getting larger and larger creates more losers than winners and as this continues year after year it may mean in the end there will be finally only one winner.
The family farm is the backbone of our country they say, but the industrialization of agriculture is more efficient. Being for the family farm is one of the essential political pieties but the planned obsolescence of the small producers continues faster each year. Look around! What has happened to the small broiler operations or the 50 cow dairies or the small hog operations? The world that I grew up in is gone. I want to pretend otherwise but I know this is so. All we can do is to try and save some of it before it all disappears.
But what we are seeing is a government that is incapable of solving the problems of the country because politicians are so indebted to lobbyists and the corporations which fund their campaigns that even if they recognize a problem they can’t do what needs to be done. I will freely admit that we are among the ones who really believe that there is a place for the small operations but we must also admit that we are little fish in a big, big old pond.
I’m going to end this now to your relief I am sure, with two quotes from two of the most insightful people that I have ever read.
And this one from Mahatma Gandhi:
So to answer your question, James, grass fed is not near the worst thing that happened to agriculture.