Monday, May 7, 2007

Ethanol Refineries - Fair or Foul?

The Environmental Protection Agency, just a few short weeks ago, revised downward the pollution control standards for ethanol producing plants. It wasn't exactly major news for the networks -- but it should have been. This action by the EPA no doubt is a result of strong lobbying efforts from major corn and ethanol producers. Prior to this revision, the threshold of toxic emissions allowed before an ethanol producing site must install the latest pollution controls was 100 tons annually; the EPA's April revision more than doubles that threshold to 250 annual tons of toxic emissions. In addition, the EPA agreed to allow so-called 'fugitive' emissions from small vents or pipes to be excluded from computation in reaching the new 250 ton pollution emission threshold for ethanol plants.

While many U.S. farmers and rural communities are eagerly on board for raising more corn and building ethanol plants in their communities -- many are not. The concerns abound regarding the permanent loss of quality of air and life and many are fighting to stop the building of ethanol plants in their rural communities. The EPA's willingness to relax pollution control standards for ethanol production facilities certainly strengthens the argument and position of those farming communities fighting to keep the fumes of ethanol production out of their air space.

One of the primary arguments for the use of ethanol, or ethanol mixed with gasoline, is that it reduces carbon monoxide emissions, which sounds just grand on the surface. However, what is largely absent from all ethanol rhetoric is that ethanol emissions contain "nitrogen oxides, acetaldehyde, and peroxy-acetyl nitrate". (Patzek, 2004) And that's just to name a few of the toxic by-products of cooling off the earth by pumping some ethanol into your tank.

What a joke. And the jokes on us. Do you really want to be an Ethanol Patriot and pump bio-fuel into your car? You see, ethanol is pretty volatile, it will break down while you are pumping it into your car. Take a deep breath, pull those carcinogens into your lungs - could that be the new American way to save the earth?

The State of Minnesota has embraced on a fairly large scale the construction and operation of ethanol plants, having some 16 ethanol plants in operation, and several more are under construction today. The following is an excerpt from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) web site -- and it surely must be scary for a state or region to feel like a virtual guinea pig or lab rat as the emissions from ethanol plants are studied after the fact to determine just what is coming out of an ethanol smoke stack.

"Consent decrees negotiated with the plant owners revealed underreported emissions and required pollution control equipment to be installed in an effort to accurately quantify and reduce air emissions. Most facilities consistently reported similar constituents including detectable levels of acetaldehyde, acetic acid, formaldehyde, ethanol and methanol, although there was considerable variation in quantities of analytes among facilities and among different processes at a facility. Although the data set is small, it is the most extensive available. Further systematic testing is necessary to thoroughly characterize the complex gas stream from various stages of the ethanol production process. Until additional data are obtained and analyzed, we cannot say with complete certainty whether data gaps have implications for risk analysis." Any state, any community, considering building a 'biorefinery' to produce ethanol should visit the MPCA web site -- it is pretty darn scary, and it looks like it's a money pit from an administrative and regulatory viewpoint as well.

The more than 200 U.S. ethanol plants in operation or under construction emit thousands of tons of pollutants a year, including nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog and damage to the ozone layer. As the EPA has apparently little concern for the air pollution of rural areas from ethanol production, other States are hopefully investigating ethanol plant emissions and implementing their own regulatory standards to ensure the cleanest air possible for those who must now live with an industrial smoke stack next door.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), which bills itself as the national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry, has a very lame response on their web site to the results of a very recent Stanford University study that concluded there were risks from ethanol emissions. Per the RFA, "this study by Professor Jacobson does show that most of the air quality “problems” he identified stem from acetaldehyde that is either emitted directly or results from excessive ethanol emissions. If these problems were found to be serious enough, then regulations could quickly be put into place that would require vehicles . . . meet more stringent ethanol and acetaldehyde emissions standards before they could be certified for sale." Excuse me? Why are we subsidizing the creation of a bio-fuel before we've even fully explored it's new and singular impact on the air we breath? How does this fella know we can find a way to lessen acetaldehyde emissions? He doesn't; he just has to be hopeful and positive, that's his job. By the way, acetaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Within the EPA's April decision to relax the pollution standards for ethanol refineries, there is an exception made that both undermines the basis for relaxing the standards and clearly shows a lack of concern for the clean air in rural communities: The newly revised EPA standards do not apply to ethanol plants in urban areas where air pollution is already a problem. So, just what does that tell you? Tells me there is known 'bad stuff' coming out of those smoke stacks, and allowing 250 tons to be emitted into good clean country air is a cop out on the part of the EPA.

U.S. ethanol production has jumped more than 300% since the year 2000. Per the RFA in early April, there are currently 114 ethanol biorefineries (RFA's earth friendly term for their ethanol plants) nationwide with the capacity to produce more than 5.6 billion gallons annually. There are 80 ethanol refineries and 7 expansions under construction with a combined annual capacity of more than 6 billion gallons.

The National Corn Growers Association says U.S. corn growers hold the potential to produce 15 billion bushels by 2015 - a third of which could be used to produce some 15 billion gallons of ethanol. But, corn based ethanol producers and farmers don't have a corner on the ethanol market. What happens when the subsidies and tax incentives dry up? or when there is a major long term drought? The Global Warming fanatics might be right. Where does that leave corn based ethanol? Nowhere really. Can that new corn based ethanol plant in Littletown, Kansas be converted to the latest and greatest? If so, at what cost? Or will it eventually become nothing more than a massive incinerator for the worst industrial waste money can produce in the world? I'll leave that possibility for another day -- but it is quite real.

How is it that we as a country have gotten in such a rush to subsidize ethanol production when we have not fully explored all the alternative sources and arrived at the most economic and healthy approach to producing ethanol in the USA? If this were a drug, it would still be under testing.

There are many alternatives to creating ethanol other than from corn that are being explored globally. The one I find most intriguing was recently announced by LanzaTech, a New Zealand based company. They are using bacterial fermentation to convert carbon monoxide into ethanol. Per LanzaTech, this technology could produce 50 billion gallons of ethanol from the world's steel mills alone, turning the liability of carbon emissions into valuable fuels worth over $50 billion per year at very low costs and adding substantial value to the steel industry. There would be some poetic beauty to that alternative, and one that would economically and environmentally have a positive impact on industrialized areas in the USA and around the world -- including Southeast Texas.

Research is underway as well to produce ethanol from other plants, including wheat, oats and barley. Sugar cane is already a viable source of ethanol -- while it is a water needy crop, it can withstand a wide range of drought and freeze conditions, and it's a perennial crop. Others are looking at genetically engineering microbes to produce enzymes that will convert cellulose in crop waste, wood chips and other plants into ethanol. The Energy Department is investing $385 million in six new cellulosic ethanol plants around the country. More than half the ethanol made in Kansas already comes from sorghum, which requires less water than corn.

And speaking of water, do you really find much coming out of Citizen Green's mouth about the massive amount of water required to produce ethanol from corn? How about the enormous fertilize, herbicide, and pesticide requirements for those annual crops of corn, and the post-production waste water the ethanol plant has to find a home for? How will all of this impact the biology of our water, our oceans? Do you know? I didn't think so. Have a chat with a long time resident of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and see what they have to say about chemical run off from the cotton, grain, and corn fields that makes it's way to the Laguna Madre and impacts the ecosystem of that once pristine bay. Ask them if they willingly drink water out of the tap. Then magnify their response by multiples of......oh, say 100, let's think big, let's think long term ethanol production, long-term blinders. Ouch, it's just too scary. It needs to be curtailed now.

I think most of us would go back to riding a bicycle before we'd knowingly create a national dependency and drain on our water resources just to have ethanol to buzz over to Cousin Joe's for a beer, or Aunt Bet's for bowl of gumbo. We can strap a bottle of water to that bike and life goes on. Suddenly car-pooling wouldn't seem such an irritating idea, after all, we can't live without good clean water -- or air, or for that matter good old Southern cornbread. If this corn ethanol takes off, just how costly will a pound of corn meal be?

If we're going to create a whole new dynamic in America's food supply in order to mitigate our dependence on oil, let's pick something that would have a healthy impact on the American diet. After all, we are the most obese country in the world -- let's fix that problem and at the same time create an alternative bio-fuel. With those joint goals, sugar cane becomes the ultimate ethanol crop with enormous positive consequences for the health of America. No doubt with less sugar in our diet we could breathe a whole lot more of that fouled country air -- our immune systems would be much stronger without all that sugar, and we'd be a lot thinner and could more easily fit in little bitty cars that run on bio-fuel.

Copyright, May 7, 2007, Jimmie Lynn West

Links: - Ethanol Fact Sheet

Ethanol BioRefinery Locations in the USA

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency - Ethanol in Minnesota

Massive Water Requirements of Ethanol - Let the Ethanol Producers Tell You Themselves How Much They Need

States, EPA Raise Water Quality Concerns Over New Ethanol Incentives, April 2007

Thermo-Dynamics of the Corn-Ethanol BioFuel Cycle, Tad Patzek, UC Berkely, 2004

The United States of America Meets the Planet Earth, Patzek, 2005

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Pasture raised Beef - True Natural Beef for the Consumer


Grass fit for beef
At Betsy Ross' ranch near Granger the restored land produces natural munchies that make for tasty beef
By Patrick Beach


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

GRANGER — On the subjects of nematodes, microbes and the ever-popular saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi, Betsy Ross sounds positively evangelical. They're the reason, she says, her beef tastes so good.

Ross, her sister, son and daughter-in-law run some 150 head of cattle a year through their operation near here, along the San Gabriel River, and once the cattle are weaned they're placed on a novel diet: grass. Rye grass, clover, Bermuda, alfalfa and native prairie grasses, grazing on 500 acres divided into 100 paddocks. They eat what, in other words, they were built to eat — as opposed to grain. Some of the cattle are sold to other producers; the rest wind up as about 20,000 pounds of packaged beef annually.

Betsy Ross beef, sold as frozen steaks, roasts and ground beef, is available at all the People's Pharmacies in Austin and, Ross says, should soon be stocked at the downtown Whole Foods Market.

Ross and a handful of other livestock producers in Texas and nationwide are no threat to conventional operations that raise huge numbers of cattle on corn: According to the Texas Beef Council, there are 140,000 beef producers in Texas alone. By comparison,, a site for "grass-fed food and facts," lists just 42 grass-fed beef producers in the state. (Ross believes the number to be closer to 100.) But with the obesity epidemic, food safety scares (contaminated spinach?) and books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" raising public consciousness about what we put in our bodies, there are signs the movement is growing, albeit not at the rate of a pound a day as Ross' cross-bred cattle do.

The argument that Pollan and other believers make is that it's not necessarily our food that's making us sick, but what we feed our food. And when we raise cattle on corn, pump them full of antibiotics and fatten them to market weight rapidly, what winds up on a hamburger bun is invariably unhealthy.

And, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that fat equals flavor, a lot of folks say the leaner grass-fed cow actually tastes better, too. It does. Really. A couple of years of personal eating research confirms a meatier, slightly stronger taste, but enough fat to keep the meat from being too dry or tough.

"People are connecting the dots," Ross says. "I mean, come on — people are having to drink bottled water."

Not that it didn't take Ross herself a while to connect the dots. After a career in Austin real estate and retiring as the Web master for the Texas Department of Insurance, this former West Texas ranch girl wanted to get back to the land. Ross' brother, Joe David Ross, had owned the former cotton farm 13 miles north of Taylor since 1975, and Ross and her elder sister, Kathryn, a retired geologist, moved there around the turn of the new century. They were feeding the cattle a lot of corn when they had to, Ross recalls. Not coincidentally, to her mind, they also kept a refrigerator full of antibiotics.

Her change of heart came when a grandson was born prematurely and she was worried about what the boy would eat.

"I wanted to give him some good meat," she said. "But I didn't know what that meant, either."

After perusing a booklet from the Soil and Water Conservation Society called "Soil Biology Primer" (carbon sequestration, anyone?), she was off to Oregon State University to study under Elaine Ingham, an authority on healthy soils.

The idea is simple: "Soil organisms decompose organic compounds, including manure, plant residue and pesticides, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants," according to the booklet. "They store nitrogen and other nutrients that might otherwise enter ground water, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants."

That means that nitrogen fertilizer, which is dumped onto farms and ranches by the barrel in conventional agricultural operations, is produced naturally.

As a result of switching to grass in the mid-'90s, Ross is known in some circles as "the crazy lady with the green pastures." But she doesn't seem to mind.

"This is sweet clover!" she exclaims in one of the paddocks. "This is just free! We're finding the old seed bank is still here. This is an old cotton farm that's been chemicaled to death. But Momma Nature is powerful. It took us 10 to 12 years to quit fighting nature. All of this is Old World knowledge that people have brought to the front again. The movement of people wanting to rehabilitate their land is moving right along with the good food movement."

She points to another section: "That's an alfalfa patch right there. They told us we can't grow alfalfa in this part of the country. It's not easy to rebuild this whole system. All grass is not equal. Until we found the soil biology, we really didn't have the cattle humming."

But all this requires a fundamental shift in thinking, summed up by Ross' son, J.R. Builta, who works the ranch with his wife, Kim Builta:

"What a row farmer considers a weed, we consider food," Builta says.

It also requires careful management vastly different from conventional farming. Each paddock, containing different warm- and cool-weather grasses, is grazed seven or eight times a year and rested otherwise. Natural nitrogen is being slowly released into the soil.

Ross likens it to conducting a symphony.

"Once the biology is in there, it has its own community," she says. "These are live critters. When you come in with a tractor (and a disc) four or five times a year, you kill the community. This is spotted clover. This is free clover! I didn't have to plant it."
Jimmie's Comment: (This clover is an example of 'free clover', both planted and sustained by nature's work.)

On the other side of the road from the clover, a calf born hours earlier is beginning to nurse while its mother eats the placenta. And next to an outbuilding there's a huge compost pile, another critical part of the operation. Running the compost through an extractor with water can produce 3,000 gallons an hour of organism-rich — 25,000 species per teaspoon — of irrigable water. (Ross is also founder and co-owner of Sustainable Growth Texas, which uses liquid compost to fertilize homes and agricultural operations.)

Ross now laughs at the memory of what her brother said when he paid a visit years ago: "Whatever you do, don't go organic." The operation follows organic principles but the beef is not certified organic. ("We just don't see any sense in it right now," Ross says of the rigid certification process.) Nonetheless, Ross says again, there's evidence the end product of all this work is better for you — less fat and better fats, including Omega-3s and no hormones or antibiotics.

No hormones also means it takes longer to raise a beef to slaughter weight: A conventionally raised animal is ready in about 14 months to 16 months; Ross' can take as long as 29 months. (That means from pregnancy to finish, it takes three and one-half years to make money on a beef.) And if the animals have to be treated with antibiotics or fail to gain weight on schedule, they're sent to the sale barn.

The market-ready animals — what Ross calls "a block of butter with four little legs" — are harvested humanely at Readfield's in Bryan. Then the cuts are aged 14 days, cut, wrapped in Cryovac and hard-frozen. In addition to People's in Austin, Old Thyme Garden, an organic nursery in Taylor, sells the meat, and Ross is partnering with Whole Foods' producers alliance to get their products into Austin's flagship store. They also do a mail-order business and will deliver if it's to a nearby destination.

Because grass-fed operations tend to be small, they can't hope to achieve the economies of scale of so-called factory farms and that translates into higher prices, even though it costs eight times as much to feed a cow out of a sack as on grass: A 12-ounce to 18-ounce bone-in Betsy Ross ribeye is $13.50 per pound, New York strips $14.25 and ground meat $5, a good bit north of supermarket prices.

But customers say the meat doesn't evaporate when it hits the grill and the more flavorful product — there's more than just texture to this cow — often means it takes less meat to feed a crowd. Ross and her sister usually split a single-serving sirloin.

There's often a three-month wait for tenderloins.

Their customers come looking for them.

They don't want economies of scale.

They want to make food that's good for you and, not to get too high-falutin', reflects the web of life.

"There's more than one way of doing things," Betsy Ross says. (And yes, that's really her name.) "Nothing sits alone. We're all so connected."; 445-3603

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Economics of AI Breeding vs. Maintaining a Group of Herd Sires

Suggested Guidelines for Beef Heifer Selection

**Moderate frame & milk - 425 lbs at Weaning, 600 lbs at Yearling, 700 lbs at breeding, Frame Score of 4

**Large frame & milk - 500 lbs at Weaning, 750 lbs at Yearling, 875 lbs at breeding, Frame Score of 5

"The University of Minnesota maintained records and summarized the net profit or loss for heifers sold during a developmental period during a three-year period. Heifers culled on the basis of pelvic area, average daily gain, reproductive tract scores, disposition, or structural soundness at the time of the prebreeding exams and finished in a feedlot had a 3-year average net profit of $9, whereas heifers diagnosed as nonpregnant shortly after the breeding season were sold for a net loss of $86. The loss for pregnant heifers that were then diagnosed nonpregnant after wintering on native pasture and sold at a sale barn was $133."

"These figures indicate the importance of identifying heifers that will not breed during the breeding season and culling those heifers before they become an economic liability. Heifers that were diagnosed pregnant during the breeding season were allocated to three groups: first-service AI, second-service AI, or natural mating. Average profits were $163 for first-service AI heifers, $139 for second-service heifers, and $83 for heifers naturally mated. These figures take into account all synchronization costs."

"Therefore, the advantage of AI over natural mating is certainly evident from these analyses, but without sound data these results could not have been noticed. In fact, many people would (and still do) shy away from AI because of the initial costs associated with synchronization, management, and an AI technician. Nonetheless, these results would encourage a producer to seriously consider AI, realizing that the profit potential is far greater than just using natural mating.

Net Profit or Loss Associated with the Sale of Heifers at Various Stages of Reproduction . . . follow the link in the article title above for the remainder of the cost analysis provided by this Cattle Network article.

Source: Steve Boyles OSU Extension Beef Team