Monday, February 14, 2005
The Cow and the Derrick
I hunt several farms where corn and soy are grown and beef cattle are raised. One farm is entirely organic, and the cattle there are grass-fed Angus. Another farm has a mixed herd of cross-bred beef cattle, and they too are grass fed. A third farm has few cattle, but they raise over 1,500 acres of soy and roast it for cattle feed. All three farms also grow corn.
I mention this because in many ways these farms are oddities. When I was a young boy, almost all beef cattle were grass-fed, but today most beef comes to the table not from the farm, but the feed lot. You can drive a long way in parts of America today and see mile after mile of corn without ever seeing a cow.
A corn field is a lovely thing, but if you know what you are looking at it's easy to have mixed emotions. If you walk through a modern American cornfield today, you will find no weeds; almost all corn is now "Roundup Ready," which means it has been genetically engineered to be immune to the powerful herbicide "Roundup". Most soy is now Roundup Ready as well.
It has been said that the rise of modern feed lots has transformed cows from natural solar-powered ruminants into artificial fossil-fuel-guzzling hamburgers on the hoof. Because corn depends on fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides -- and machines to harvest, plant, and transport it -- it has a high "oil price." It takes about 1.2 gallons of oil to grow a bushel of corn which is then converted into a few ounces of beef.
Corn, and to a lesser extent soy, are the main live stock feeds used today because they are so cheap and plentiful. This is due, in part, to federal crop subsidies (in the form of cheap water, low-cost loans, and price support programs), genetic engineering, and petrochemical fertilizers. It is also due to the tremendous natural potential of America's lands, and the expertise of American farmers.
As a result of our tremendous corn-and-soybean glut, the USDA encourages farmers to find a new markets for corn and soy, and -- absent a new market to dispose of it -- that means turning as much of it as possible into animal feed.
Compared with grass or hay, corn is a compact and portable, making it possible to feed tens of thousands of animals on small plots of land -- the modern American feedlot.
We are not going back to grass-fed beef, for the simple reason that there are too many people in the U.S. and they are too demanding. Grass-fed beef tends to be harvested in late Fall, after fattening up all summer, and before the grass grows dormant in winter, while corn-fed beef can be harvested all year round. People want to eat McDonalds, and they do not want to eat beef "in season" like sweet corn and tangerines.