Tuesday, August 7, 2007

American Veal Association - Confinement Phase-Out or Fake-Out?

I have to wonder what kind of folks actually sit on the Board of the American Veal Association, what kind of folks it takes to actually stick a baby calf in a crate and feed it for early slaughter, and not just one every now and then -- but rather there are multitudes of mewling calves confinement crated and fed every day by humans as a matter of the course of their daily business life. It's one of those things I rarely let my mind wonder about or ponder too long. It makes my stomach hurt, and my eyes glare at unknown culprits out there sharing the same blue sky I'm looking at right now.

While one might be inclined to give a hearty slap on the back to the American Veal Associations baby (calf) step to bring an end to the crating of calves for veal production, I'd much rather give them an extra kick in the pants to see if perhaps they might cut that absurd ten year phase-out by at least half.

Further, a ten year phase-out of the crating of calves for veal production is hugely, and might I say strangely, at odds with those one would assume are it's most influential members. As per the following article ". . .considering that the nation's largest veal producers have already committed to a two-year phaseout. . ." Those two widely varying positions - by essentially the same parties- do not sit well together, smells just a little rancid.

HSUS: Statement On American Veal Association’s Veal Crate Announcement

WASHINGTON (August 6, 2007)—Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle released the following statement:

“The Humane Society of the United States welcomes the news that the American Veal Association has recommended that the confinement of calves in crates should come to an end. For years, the humane community in the United States has said that these crates are inhumane and unnecessary. We are pleased that the industry now agrees and is taking some steps to phase out this confinement system. Last November, Arizona voters approved a ballot measure to outlaw veal crates.

The American Veal Association's recommended ten-year phaseout is a long time, especially considering that the nation's largest veal producers have already committed to a two-year phaseout, but it is a step in the right direction that further makes the writing on the wall clear: Veal crates are too cruel and inhumane even for the veal industry to continue defending.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Great Article for Guidance on Grass Genetics in Cattle and Producing superior Grassfed Beef

Jolley: Five Minutes With Ridge Shinn

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read Cattlenetwork.com. What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.

Ridge Shinn is a one man conglomerate - Hardwick Beef, Bakewell Reproductive Center, even a home building company. It must be that old, New England, Calvinistic work ethic that’s been buried deep within his bones. You might say he’s as genetically predisposed to hard work as his cattle are to giving up gourmet cuts of beef.

He’s a grass farmer, an avid advocate of sustainable agriculture and one of the leading experts on getting gourmet beef from grass-fed cattle. What he’s managed to do is take a product that has been uneven in quality and elevate it to a status that makes foodies drool and gourmet magazines seek him out. How many ranchers do you know that are quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines? And whose products are described with the same effervescent terms used for hundred dollar a bottle wines?

Have we gone from Clara Peller searching for “the beef” at Wendy’s to finding it in the most upscale of institutions? Has beef attained the status of a Joseph Phelps 2000 Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon which Wine Advocate describes this way: "The 2000 Insignia reveals a smoky, rich, cassis characteristic, medium to full body, and an open-knit, lush, generous style . . . Expansive, fleshy and seductive, it should drink well for 15–16 years."

Can we really talk about a t-bone steak that way? Let’s talk with Ridge Shinn and find out.

Q. How did you get into the cattle business?

A. I started milking cows in the 1970’s as a herdsman on a typical New England dairy (100 cows). Spent 20 years in the building business and returned to cattle when I started the New England Livestock Alliance (NELA) in 2001. NELA’s core business was figuring out how to finish and sell 100% grass-fed beef.

Q. You’re involved in Hardwick Beef, the Bakewell Reproductive Center and a home-building company called Hardwick Post and Beam. It makes for a busy daily schedule. When you do get a little free time, what do you do?

A. When I do have spare time I generally spend it on my farm. I have a home farm and lease a 150 acre farm in Hardwick and have a herd of Devon cattle there. It takes any spare time I can find.

Q. The Bakewell Reproductive Center is a cooperative venture with Gearld Fry that aims to build a “grass-based bovine gene pool that produces gourmet beef.” You’ve been quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines, two publications aimed squarely at the gourmet crowd, so you must be making some progress. Can you define gourmet beef for me and tell me what you’ve done to build a gene pool that meets your standards?

A. Gourmet beef is beef that is tender and tasty. All beef should be gourmet. Over the years in its quest for volume, the cattle industry lost sight of quality. The industry rewards pounds of beef and size of frame. The result is lower quality (read leaner or less marbled) and tougher beef. The continental breeds that were imported to increase size and volume brought with them lack of marling and slightly tougher beef. In a quest for gourmet beef, one always returns to the “British Breeds”. Historically they had the best fat and tenderness.

Wine Spectator and many others say our beef has a “more robust flavor”. What most people find remarkable is that we can produce beef that is well marbled and tender on a grass-only diet. Visit our web site (http://brcruminations.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html) to see the results of testing done on our meat at Clemson University‘s meat lab. In the first sample, the meat was 87% choice or better and the tenderness values measured by the Warner-Bratzler shear test were better than restaurant quality (average of 3.2 KG of force versus 4.1KG of force for restaurant quality). Remember this is a grass only diet and the cattle tested were steers produced by our Rotokawa® Devon bulls bred to commercial Angus mother cows.

Bakewell Repro imported 12 females from the Rotokawa® Devon herd in NZ and semen from Rotokawa® Devon bulls. Bakewell has harvested embryos and started new herds of Devon cattle in Wyoming, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and a number of herds in the Northeast. Using semen from these bulls on commercial cattle is the quickest way to move toward a set of cattle that thrive on grass. Every cattleman and woman has some cattle in their herd that will work on a grass-only diet-the challenge is to evaluate the herd and then concentrate on the breeding of these cows.

Q. At a time when ‘Angus’ has been marketed as the best source of top quality beef, you’re raising Devons, an old English breed. What advantages do you see in Devon cattle?

A. Angus was a premier breed for top quality beef. I use the past tense because today the “Angus” breed has been polluted by many other breeds. Because black covers all sins, any cattle bred to Angus come out black-indeed the Rotokawa® Devon cross Angus steers are black unless the mother cow has a red Angus gene. Even the Certified Angus Beef programs will admit that quality has gone down hill since it’s hey day. Recently, CAB announced they would not accept any carcasses over 1000 pounds. I am positive that none of the “good old Angus premium beef” came in a 1000 pound Hot Carcass. The success of the CAB marketing and the quality of the beef created tremendous demand and the breed made the mistake of accepting cross bred black cattle into the registry which diluted the original quality. It’s a sad story of a breed’s popularity being its undoing.

The North Devon or Red Devon breed fell out of favor in the ramp up of all other breeds to become “feedlot friendly” cattle. The Devon breeds only crime is that it is too easy-fleshing-they get fat too fast. The feed lot does not want this trait and it won’t work on the feedlot-the Devon will go to yield grade five or six in ninety days on full feed. But if your production method is grass-only you want an easy feeder that is easy fleshing that will get fat on grass. The breed also was never bred for frame size so most of the Red Devon cattle are still moderate in height (48” to 50”) a trait that correlates to early maturity and function on grass.

The Devon historically was known as the butcher’s breed and has always had an excellent meat to bone ratio because of its fine dense bone. When it was popular in the 1960’s and 70’s it won a great share of the carcass competitions they were placed in. Fortunately the breed changed little in the feedlot years and therefore the breed is ready to put back in production on a grass-only diet and return to prominence as the Butcher’s Breed.

Q. Raising grass fed cattle requires a very different management technique to be successful, something that’s foreign to most cattlemen today. Can you walk me through the process?

A. To succeed in raising quality grass-fed cattle one must choose the right kind of cattle. By quality, I mean cattle that will fatten and be tender on a grass-only diet. They need to be moderately tall and wide and deep (some folks say they need short legs but they need a deep body). Look at photos of the cattle from the 1960’s and those are the kind of cattle you need. You can choose a subset of the right kind of cattle from any of the British Breeds but will struggle with the continentals on grass---most cattle in Europe are not harvested until 36 months of age.

The major keys to success in raising grass-fed cattle are to get your breeding season in synch with nature. You want to calve when the wild ruminants have their young---May or June in most parts of the country. You want to have the calf nurse on the mother cow for at least ten months and then be weaned (with virtually no stress) onto green grass. With the right kind of easy fleshing mother cows you will develop reproductive problems if you do not make them work through the winter. Today, the industry typically weans at 6 months so our tall, hard-doing, late-maturing mother cows can build back some condition to make it through the winter. We find that the calves that stay on the mother for 10 months will gain about 15% more than the calf weaned in the fall. With this head start, and being weaned onto green grass, the steers can finish in 18 months on a grass-only diet.

Grass feeding requires grass management. There is no better feed for a ruminant than green grass. The key to success is learning how to keep the grass vegetative throughout the growing season and then figuring out how to extend the grazing season. Every ounce of stored feed fed is extremely expensive. Any time the bovine can walk out and harvest its own feed is like money in the bank. So...one has to give up on a lot of paradigms and be open to learning some new ways of grazing-MIG or management intensive grazing emphasizes the management because that is the intensive part-it is different on every farm or ranch and it is different every season of every year. Electric fence and plastic water pipe to deliver water to paddocks are two of the tools that are critical to our success. Obviously many areas of the country have different challenges, but the key is to let the cattle graze in great density and then move them to let the grass rest and re grow-the circuit around the ranch might be as long as once a year or as quick as every 23 days depending on rainfall, sunshine, etc. The model is the buffalo that moved in herds of incredible density but then they moved on. We need to replicate this with our cattle.

Another level of management of our grass is to measure the Brix of the grass with a refractometer to gauge the nutrient density and sugar content of the grass. The rumen is a remarkable compost facility that needs the proper carbon nitrogen ratio as well as the right amount of protein, energy and minerals to function optimally. It is our job as a grass farmer to optimize the inputs to the rumen in terms of quality, if our expectation is to get quality in the meat that we harvest.

Although this all sounds complicated it is not unplowed ground. New Zealand has spent years farming this way principally because, as well as being the healthiest for the rumen; it is the lowest cost of production. They have to produce efficiently if they are going to access markets that are oceans away.

Q. “Grass-fed” has become a fast-growing niche in the beef business. Some foodies even use terminology similar to that used to describe fine wines when they talk about it. Are those kinds of glowing description justified? And can “grass-fed” escape the niche business?

A. Grass-fed is the current clamor of the market. Many folks do not know what it means. My feeling is that it is critically important that people understand the terms and what they mean. I like to compare 100% grass-fed beef to pregnancy-either you are or you are not. All beef producers want the “grass-fed” claim since all cattle do eat grass for a substantial part of their lives.

The real changes to the tissue and the health benefits of the beef occur when the cattle begin to eat grain. When cattle eat just grass they cannot get Mad Cow (the consumer doesn’t want this); they have almost immeasurable levels of E. coli because acidosis does not occur in the gut. Read about the Cornell research at http://brcruminations.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html. There are no nutrient loading problems since manures are spread evenly daily and incorporated into the soil. Once you remove grain from the cattle raising equation, you eliminate plowing, petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soil compaction, fossil fuels for tillage, harvest and transport.

The real compelling part of the story is that the fats in 100% grass-fed beef are much healthier for the human. The ratio of Omega 3 Omega 6 is very different in the grass versus grain fed and nearly a perfect 1:1 ratio.

The “story” of 100% grass-fed and finished beef is a compelling story and most people will buy it. The only way that “grass-fed” can escape the “niche” status it has today, is if producers learn to produce gourmet beef on grass and then they put a great piece of beef in the hand of each consumer that buys the “story”.

The challenge today is that many consumers have heard pieces of the story and they find it compelling once they do-the challenge is how we produce enough quality beef to satisfy the demand. As I said to a restaurant crowd in NYC a while back, it took me 2 ½ years to grow the piece of meat you are eating tonight-from a gleam in my eye, to breeding the cow takes 2 ½ years to the plate-so it is hard to ramp up a product like this.

Today with fuel prices, many cattle men and woman are beginning to be open to other options. The feedlots are feeling the pinch and the time of opportunity is upon us. It is a rare time in history when the producer is demanding quality, clean (no antibiotics or hormones), healthy food and they are willing to pay for it-It is a time of opportunity for the cattle industry.

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read Cattlenetwork.com. What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.

Copyright 2007 Integrated Management Information, Inc.

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


EnergyJustice.net - 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, Eatwild.com, 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."

pbeach@statesman.com; 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