Questioning Our Grass Fed Success

Back in May, On Pasture author and heretic rancher/philosopher James Mathew Craighead had the gall to ask a bunch of questions, and I mean a whole bunch of questions, including some that appeared to cast doubt on the entire Holy Grail of grazing and grass and soils and meat and…well, heck, just EVERYTHING!!! Turns out, his attempt at stimulating us to examine our methods and practices and beliefs brought forth an eruption of comments, some of them from folks not all that happy with having their belief systems questioned. Bravo, James! On the home front, that article caused me to consider a few questions about my own little ranching experiment. Am I doing the right things? How would I know? How would I measure them, or what would the measure be? As I write this, I find myself reviewing the basic tenants of my own ranching belief system. These ideas don’t come from a holy book, but from several decades of study, practice and thought. I’ve adopted ideas from all sorts of people in many different fields of work, and that masala of experience leads me to some conclusions and some deep beliefs. Here goes. I believe ranching is a combination of two separate but deeply intertwined bodies of science: Economics and Ecology. These two fields are not in opposition. Rather, they are essential balance points, each side weighing in on every decision considered and every action taken. In the end, both economics and ecological interests must be served if we are to mak

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One thought on “Questioning Our Grass Fed Success

  1. Thanks so much for raising these issues, James. And to John Marble for pointing us back to this great discussion. Here are my random thoughts on some of these threads…Trying to link how ‘economy and ecology’ are working out where I live and farm.

    Praising my neighbors:
    We are privileged to live in the S. Appalachians, SW VA. When we began farming 12 yrs ago, people graciously taught us, to quote Wendell Berry “what works here”.

    People still raise one to many beeves to feed their families and friends, use our local butcher, and sell the rest. The topography means many small farms…split further by modern choices. So we also graze small plots of several neighbors’ land who no longer run cattle, to “keep it down”. Rotational grazing here easily allows 300 grazing days per year. Once my land became green year-round, this opened up neighbors’ land to our cattle to “green that up” as well.

    We have a community cannery, where mostly older people “put up” a year’s supply of green beans, soup beans, chili, beef stew, sausage, tomato sauce, apple butter. Also canned, local beef or pork or chicken, etc, etc. A few have their children and grandchildren helping and learning, and friends and neighbors jump in, too. At the cannery, we get to learn and see what others do in their home kitchens. The many ways of preserving local foods. These skills contribute mightily to many household economies. James, will your children learn some of these? Who will teach them?

    In this corner of Appalachia ‘feeding the world’ can still mean feeding friends and neighbors. If you have a local/regional, small-scale beef processor, consider yourself blessed. Use it or lose it.

    So, yes, it is possible to grow and preserve local foods, including meats, as part of our household economy. Either what we grow. Or buy then process from neighbors. And there are experienced people, if we seek them out, who would be honored to teach us to preserve a sizeable chunk of our yearly calories, sourced locally. Or sell us what they grow and preserve. Let’s choose to honor them. Modern realities have pushed us humans away from “learning from Mom” and Grandmom “what to eat” among local options. Our neighbors have been so kind to drop by and help us, again to teach us “what works here”.

    —If Kathy can teach us to honor and respect cattle moms passing “what to eat here” along to their calves: How do we honor and respect the elders in our communities who grow, can and/or cook local calories? Esp. the foods we know we should be eating more of. We who grow, source and cook local foods, beef included, are we teaching our kids and grandkids to do the same? Opening our farms, homes and kitchens to those wanting to learn how?

    —James, consider comparing like vs like on beef price affordability. Our butcher says our grass-only burger is 85:15. When I checked my beef price at farmers market vs. the local grocery, was surprised that price of the “ground lean” was the same. Higher fat beef costs less. Chicken and pork are even “cheaper”, but again from Wendell Berry, there is not a “full accounting” of the external human labor and ecological/land costs of the “cheaper” meats in the grocery. As a family farmer, I may only be earning the same wage as the laborer at a huge animal feeding or processing facility behind that “cheap” meat. But I sure prefer my boss, hours, coworkers, breaks, schedule, vacations, air I breathe, water & soil I steward, etc.

    John, how many of these self-employment benefits may I include in my margin, even if my bank account is not flush? As long as I am paying my bills…and ideally I am mentoring others on “what works here”.

    Karl and Dave, thanks for thoughts and links that help illustrate some of my jumbled concepts above.

    —Will close with these responses to my locally-raised foods: When market customers ask about my packaged beef in the cooler before us, I respond “I can show you each pasture and hayfield, where the sun grew the grass for each bite of this animal’s life.” Once a customer picked out a few items at my table (prices marked), then balked at paying the total price, set them down and turned to leave. The customer in line behind her turned to her and said: “He needs to make a living.” Then he turned to me and said “I’ll buy her items and mine, too”. Customers like this keep me going, in multiple ways.

    Thanks again James for throwing out so many ideas at once, to John for distilling some of these, and to Kathy for bringing us together!

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