Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Die For Our Sins

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In this talk, he speaks in vivid terms about the environmental disaster of desertification (the process of arable land turning to desert because of drought, deforestation, etc.), and the counterintuitive miracle of using livestock, which are often blamed for the agricultural practices that lead to desertification, to reverse it.

I ate his talk up and bought his book, “Holistic Management.” At the time I was still a software engineer living in Washington, D.C., looking to make the leap from the tech industry to sustainable agriculture — bison, in particular. Savory, along with handful of other proponents of managed grazing like Allan Nation, Joel Salatin, and Allen Williams, fed my confirmation bias about the wonderful potential of grass-fed herbivores that would not only let me eat all the beef I could ever want, but would also save the planet in the process.

It’s Not the Cow, It’s the How
Between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advocating good riddance to “farting cows,” to the EAT-Lancet commission report publishing a “Healthy Reference Diet” that allows for a mere hamburger a week, to the Amazon being set ablaze at record levels to clear land for livestock production, animal agriculture, and beef cattle in particular, has become a favorite target of environmental and climate activists.

Cattle in the United States has traditionally been managed in ways that are either environmentally inefficient (e.g. continuous grazing, which causes cattle to use more land that necessary) or deleterious (e.g. grain finishing, which relies on everything from non-renewable resources like mined water, to severe land-use change like deforestation). And it’s this traditional management that’s been the target of environmental activism, since it’s that management that puts beef into the bellies of nearly all Americans who eat it.

What non-farmer activists don’t see, however, is a nuanced and raging debate about cattle management going on within the beef industry itself — much of that debate centered around grazing methods and finishing methods.

While the grass-finishing vs. grain-finishing war continues to rage with no end in sight, most of the beef industry is beginning to unite around the notion that continuous grazing — the practice of giving cattle continuous access to all the acres on a farm — is a bad idea both economically and environmentally.

There’s growing scientific evidence that intensive grazing management and grass finishing can actually turn cattle herds into a net carbon sink, supporting a long-held notion among indigenous graziers (a notion recently Thunberged* by people like Allan Savory and Joel Salatin) that animals, including livestock, are critical to ecosystem health when properly managed.

But then, some people take that evidence and go too far.

*The environmental-racism phenomenon wherein indigenous people spend centuries advocating for something and being utterly ignored until someone White comes in with the exact same message and ends up being lauded as an innovator and a hero

Beef For Everyone, Beef With Everyone
I recently found myself in a nasty spat with a popular dietician named Diana Rogers over a comment (that she’s since deleted, as is often the sustainability advocate’s preferred method of handling critical peer review) someone left on one of her Instagram posts.

Sustainable Dish
The comment asserted, as I do in another essay I’ve penned on regenerative grazing, that there isn’t enough land available in the United States to move all existing beef to rotational grazing methods and grass finishing. Doing this would require substantially reduced herd numbers that would spike the price of beef, making it completely unaffordable for America’s poor and shrinking middle class.

That comment was of a piece with a common, valid criticism of regenerative agriculture: that it leans really hard into the personal responsibility ethic of conservative politics, ignoring the structural issues that put “clean food” like regeneratively raised meat out of reach of the economically vulnerable — especially people of color.

Rogers asked this commenter to provide the math supporting her claim. I stepped in and offered the math in my essay. And as I debated with someone else about the subject, Diana suddenly blocked me and deleted the entire discussion from her page. She later attributed this sudden censorship to a torrent of vegans being mean to her, because apparently she couldn’t distinguish between vegans calling her a murderer and me posting math about stocking rates.

We eventually spoke privately about the issue, and Rogers offered two pieces of information to question the math in my essay:

An essay penned by Dr. Allan Williams, in which he argues that there’s enough grass in America not only to maintain current beef cattle levels, but to double the size of the U.S. beef harvest.
A personal exchange with Joel Salatin, who told her his farm has 400 cow-day grass instead of the 100 cow-day grass I referenced in my article (the 100 cow-day number came from my own personal exchange with Joel Salatin in 2013)
We’ll talk about these in some detail. But first, we need to take a trip to my farm.

Cow Days and Bull Sh*t

Devon cattle in rotation in our farm’s west field
We graze cattle at our farm in Virginia’s Northern Neck, moving from paddock to paddock in a strip grazing scheme. One of my favorite farm chores is moving the herd from one paddock to the next.

The cows know what’s up when you arrive at the paddock in the afternoon and starting walking the fence line. They crowd the single line of electric wire separating them from the next batch of fresh grass and start bawling something awful. When you finally roll up that line, they dash into the new paddock. They don’t start eating right away; they tend to walk around for a bit looking for a patch of something sweet like clover. But after 30 seconds or so they’re all head-down, walking and eating.

The paddock they’re in can range in size from one to a dozen acres, and they can remain there for as little as a few hours or as long as a couple of weeks. It all depends on a large array of variables: time of year, forage height, rainfall, herd composition and nutritional needs, condition of the field, grazing goals, etc. We usually leave our cows in a paddock until it’s become clear they’ve eaten all they’re going to eat — or all we want them to eat — and are ready to move on. When they do move on, it’s always interesting to see what’s left behind in the paddock they’ve just left.

That recently vacated paddock is covered in manure, moist with urine, pocked with trample divots, and left with large patches matted down from loafing. No matter the stocking rate, even if you’re mob grazing, there’ll be bunches of grass untouched and unfouled — sometimes the cows just don’t want the stuff.

This disturbance, as wicked as it looks right after the cows have left, is the stuff that builds soil. The regularly spaced manure and urine adds fertility. The pock marks from trampling retain water. The leaned over forage allows surface microbes to go to work on the foliage. The cows brushing up against grass that’s gone to seed helps re-seed the pasture. Each bite of grass sloughs off a bit of the plant’s roots, setting off a series of microbial events below the surface that form the fundamental basis of soil-building, stronger plants, and carbon sequestration.

But what also becomes abundantly clear when you’re looking at that recently vacated grass is this: an awful lot of it didn’t get eaten. Most of it got trampled, peed on, crapped on, or ignored entirely. Within rotational grazing circles there’s a rule of thumb for cows grazing a paddock — eat a third, foul a third, leave a third.

If you have an acre of grass, the amount of forage that acre will produce and the amount of forage your cattle will eat when grazing that acre, are two completely different numbers. And this is a key point to consider when creating a mathematical model of how much cattle the American landscape can handle.

Floating, Constipated Cows
In arguing that there’s enough grass in America to double the size of the U.S. beef slaughter, Allen Williams:

Makes a catalog of all the available and potentially available unoccupied grassland onto which feedlot cattle could be moved (he lists just under 50 million acres, which is roughly the size of Nebraska)…
Determines the amount of forage (in tons) that the acreage of each of these different types of land can produce, then adds them together…
And divides that sum by the amount of forage it takes to finish a steer (about 3 tons)
This yields the number of cattle you could potentially finish on grass in the U.S. But there are two problems with Williams’ model.

First, it seems to presume that cows don’t poop, pee, trample, or ignore any of the forage in their paddocks. From Williams’ essay:

“Soils with modest or better health profiles will produce anywhere from three to eight tons of forage DM per acre, and sometimes more. This means an acre or less is needed annually to grass-finish a beef steer.”
For this to happen, you’d have to finish the cattle on hay — because cutting hay is the only way to get 100% of the grass from an acre of ground into a steer. Otherwise, they’re going to crap and stomp all over 2/3+ of it. And to be fair, it’s absolutely possible that Williams isn’t suggesting the abolition of feedlots. You can definitely feed hay in a CAFO.

But when we’re talking about regenerative meat, we’re not talking about fifty million acres of acres of hayfields standing idle and waiting to be cut, baled, and shipped off to feedlots. Regenerative meat is about the soil-building power of managed grazing and the efficiency of multi-species and multi-story agriculture. In the best case, Williams’ model reduces grass to a mere finishing input.

In the worst case, he may be strongly overestimating the amount of available land for finishing cattle on grass. One number in particular stands out:

“Every state in the lower 48 has a minimum of 200,000 acres of unused or underutilized grassland. Many states have a million or more acres of such grassland. These acres are not enrolled in a conservation set-aside program such as the CRP, are not in crop production, are not in cow/calf or stocker production, and are not comprised of public lands. They are simply idle grassland acres.”
This claim doesn’t pass the smell test. Rhode Island, for example, is in the lower forty-eight states. 200K acres is more than a quarter of that state’s land area. That this much idle, non-farmed grassland would be available in a state that’s 50% forest seems fishy. Williams also doesn’t offer any citations for this figure, or any explanation of how he arrived at it. That’s a significant omission since this chunk of idle grassland comprises the bulk of the nearly 50 million acres he proposes devoting to grass-finishing.

In short, it seems dubious that the amount of grassland required in Williams’ model actually exists, but if it does — he’s suggesting hay-cutting and feedlot finishing; not regenerative grazing.

Diana Rogers dropped this part of the discussion and sent my essay directly to Joel Salatin. His short response, she said*, was that his grass gets 400 cow days (I had asserted 100 cow days, a number I got from Salatin himself). She suggested that I check my numbers, which is exactly what I did.

For the uninitiated, a cow-day is a unit of cowboy math that graziers use to estimate the amount of forage in a paddock. As described in Salatin’s books like “Salad Bar Beef,” it’s offered as a forage count for grazing: 100 cow-day grass means enough grass for 100 cows to graze for a day, or 1 cow to graze for 100 days, or 50 cows for 2 days. In Salad Bar Beef, Joel specifically talks about deriving the cow-day measure of your grass by turning cattle loose into a paddock of a particular size and seeing how long they remain in that paddock. When Joel told me at his IDS in 2013 that his grass offers about 100 cow days per acre, it’s the grazing measure he was referencing.

But Joel has a frustrating and confusing habit of describing different concepts with the same term; he will also use the term “cow-day” as a feeding measure as well as a grazing measure. And that’s precisely what he was doing when he told Rogers his grass gets 400 cow-days per acre.

400 cow-days per acre means there’s enough forage in that acre to feed 400,000 lbs of live cattle, which is about 7 tons of dry forage**. That’s about what you can expect from deep, well-managed soils with good rainfall, which is what you’ll find at Polyface. So Joel’s claim to 400 cow-day grass made sense to me immediately, as did the discrepancy between the number he gave me and the number he gave Diana.

Still, the number Joel gave her presents the same problem as Williams’ numbers: they’re assuming you’re feeding hay in a feedlot, which is not a valid basis for the argument that the 15 million head of cattle in feedlots can be converted to regenerative meat. Because regenerative meat means managed grazing, not feeding hay.

*She didn’t offer whether or not Salatin had anything else to say about the essay. But she did take care to mention that he’d never heard of me before. Sustainability is often more about popularity than facts, which explains why an Instagram Influencer-cum-Dietician is mouthing off about grazing to a professional grazier, and doing it with a straight face.

**400 finishing cattle at an average weight of 1,000 lbs will consume about 3.5% of their body weight per day. 400 x 1000 x 3.5% = 14,000 lbs = 7 tons.

Fire and Blood
Rogers, unable to refute the above explanations, was reduced to a torrent of “how dare yous” about my challenging the (mis)applied math of Williams and Salatin under the odd charge that I need a Ph.D to perform simple arithmetic and 40 years of grazing experience to understand that cows don’t eat the grass they crap on.

Our exchange ended with her commanding me to bring any topical disagreements to her in private; a courtesy she herself doesn’t extend to people she disagrees with, in between bouts of appropriating Black vernacular on a website devoid of Black people whom, upon encountering, she orders not to get all uppity:

This is all symptomatic of a number of dangerous diseases coursing through the body of regenerative agriculture:

Chronic aversion to self-reflection and objective peer review; and an incestuous tendency for experts in the industry to cite one another in a circle
A strained relationship with large-systems thinking: we spend so much time arguing against scale (as evidenced by almost ANY book on permaculture) that, when we do dabble with mathematical modeling beyond our own farms, we fall all over ourselves
A tendency for non-agricultural voices to dominate the conversation and spread misinformation. People like Michael Pollan, Diana Rogers, etc. — lacking the technical expertise to evaluate (or the will to fact-check) the information they’re given by people like Joel Salatin and Allen Williams — end up amplifying well-intended but flawed conclusions
Breathtaking levels of environmental racism. Regenerative agriculture has been dominated for decades by a monolith of white, wealthy, and privileged individuals sporting virtually identical food politics (regardless of where they otherwise fall on the political spectrum), resulting in a longstanding calcification of thought leadership that’s left the movement inspirationally, intellectually, and physically anemic
The last point is particularly troubling: indigenous-held landscapes comprise less than 20% of the Earth’s landmass and 5% of the world population, while heroically protecting some 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. Meanwhile, the conversation around sustainability is somehow dominated by those least qualified to speak: White people from wealthy nations in environmental freefall.

The poster children of Western civilization — arguably the most environmentally irresponsible culture in human history having ushered us into the planet’s sixth mass extinction — proselytize consumerist solutions ranging from veganism to keto/paleo to zero-waste, all while managing to ignore the wisdom of entire societies wholly architected around the successful stewardship of natural resources.

Cows Save The Planet, But Not Our Souls
Truth is, a lot of regenerative graziers, the disciples of Joel Salatin and Alan Savory (whose ranks used to include me), want to believe the conclusions of Allen Williams: that it’s at least theoretically possible, if not altogether realistic, to have our cake and eat it, too. That we can have a 100-million strong beef herd, that they can all be raised in a way that builds soil, traps carbon, and somehow makes meat as available to everyone in some orgastic future as it is today.

Unfortunately it’s just not that simple. Well-managed grass-fed cattle can help save the planet, but they won’t pay for our sins of excess, overproduction, and the long half-life of the abundance wars we began waging 70 years ago. Herd sizes will have to fall to numbers that make sense for environmental restoration and, when/if those smaller numbers push the whole of nutritious meat out of economic reach for a broad swath of people, in the developed world we’re likely going to have to invest in technology that affords less resource intensive means of producing it affordably at scale.

In the developing world, we’ll need to make space for a resurgence in regional ancestral knowledge, a breaking of the colonialism-derived dependence of their natural resources on exploitative global markets, and a resistance to the urge to export our way of life and our way of thinking all over the planet.

None of that is going to happen just by moving grain-finished beef to grass, “knowing your farmer,” turning up your nose to meat and plastic, or other decisions you make with your wallet. The revolution we need is one of the mind; a seismic, indigenized shift in the way we fundamentally view and relate to the world and all the things in it. And it’s time we stopped avoiding it just because it’s harder and less glamorous than taking to Instagram to brag about or derive a living from our purchasing decisions.

There are sacrifices and hard choices on the good red road to a happy future on this planet. They won’t be made by some sacred cow.