Telling the story of grass

Is the beef industry ready – and willing – to use extra forage if more producers add it to their rotation?

If you’re looking for proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity, beef may be a good example. For years it’s been painted as a public health and environmental villain, and recently there were more reports on how bovine frontal and rearward methane emissions are a major source of climate-altering greenhouse gas.

All that bad publicity doesn’t seem to affect consumers. They continue to pay record prices for beef, and life for producers is pretty good these days. If it ain’t broke…

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On the other hand, one recent study suggested that consumers worried about climate change should eat pork and chicken instead. That suggests that beef producers have some work to do.

Let’s be clear about this. Obesity is a serious problem, and North Americans eat too much of everything, meat included. And as a piece on page five last week (written in part by beef industry representatives) suggested, processed red meat isn’t good for you. It isn’t the meat, it’s the other stuff they put into it.

However, the science now suggests that unprocessed beef is not the artery-clogging menace once thought, and its forms of natural trans fats may in fact be good for you.

Beef producers will be happy to embrace that science, as they should the science of climate change. It’s for real, and everyone should do their part to reduce it.

On the other hand, climate change is not the only threat to the environment. Soil erosion is at least as great a threat, along with its accompanying nutrient run-off. It’s a partial contributor to the serious algae problem in Lake Winnipeg and an even larger contributor to the even more serious “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Steps must be taken to solve these problems. Cultivating more land to grow corn and other annual crops is not one of them. In fact, some erodible land that should never have been cultivated should be returned to… forage, of course. Meanwhile, much of the land remaining in crops is facing a growing problem with herbicide resistance. One of the solutions to that, as well as the other problems of soil erosion and nutrient run-off, is to introduce a forage into the rotation.

What’s going to happen to all this extra forage? The answer is obvious to a cattle producer.

Or is it? If you check out cattle industry organization websites and their material directed to the consumer, you’ll find they are saying all the right things about how cattle turn grass, that people can’t consume, into beef that they can. While that may be true for the first few hundred pounds of gain, it isn’t about the last few hundred in a feedlot. Most of those pounds come from that agronomically questionable continuous corn or corn/soy rotation. That is even partly the case in Canada, where feedlots use plenty of corn or corn byproducts from U.S. ethanol plants when the price is right.

The beef industry is a little quieter when it comes to talking about that source of the last few hundred pounds of gain, but its critics aren’t. Again, times are pretty good these days, so maybe the best plan is to say nothing. But if the industry wants to defend itself if chicken and pork are said to be a better environmental alternative, then it has some thinking to do.

That includes recognizing that grass fed versus grain fed is not just an issue for consumers, but something of an “elephant in the room” one within the industry. A&W’s promotion of antibiotic- and hormone-free beef is an example. It ruffled some feathers in the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the feedlot industry, but let’s be honest — there were quite a few grass and grazing advocates quietly cheering. Unwillingness to address the grass-versus-grain question is one of the reasons for the fractured state of the Canadian cattle industry, which was highlighted by the recent report of the “straw men” review.

This may be about more than promotion and public relations. Again, there is a growing number of reasons to start putting forage into North American crop rotations — herbicide resistance, soil health, control of nutrient run-off, disease management and the ability to capture free nitrogen instead of making it from fossil fuel. What if it actually happens? Is the cattle industry ready to use the extra production? Or does it want to get out in front of the issue and actively promote beef cattle as a better environmental option than continuous cropping?

Once the Canadian industry addresses these questions, it may see an opportunity instead of a menace in the ongoing dispute with the U.S. over how meat from animals born in Canada is labelled.

Perhaps a Canadian brand, differentiated by environmentally sustainable production practices producing meat that offers enhanced nutrition, isn’t such a bad thing.

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