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.



Anonymous said...

As an agriculturist with a degree in Animal Science. I would like to shed some light on the subject that might interest you. We feed cattle corn because it is actually more efficient to fatten young cattle on corn. However grass is great for mama cows. Fattening cattle on grass can take one to two years longer than corn fattening. Also you can raise a lot more calories per acre with corn than with grass which adds to the efficiency. One note on soybeans. There is currently a type of diesel fuel that is being made from soybeans. It can be burned in any diesel engine with no alterations and the side affects are actually positive. It also burns cleaner and could cut down on the amount of crude petroleum we need. The other nice thing is that soybeans require very little or no nitrogen fertilizer to grow so the reliance on petroleum for the production of soybeans is fairly low as nitrogen is the component in fertilizer which requires the most petroleum to produce. The problem is the big petroleum companies would rather you did not hear about it and it is not getting much publicity yet. I hope that will change. They are putting in a big biodiesel plant in my state right now. Also as a hunter I know 70% of all US land is owned by farmers and therefore about 70% of all wildlife is on agricultural land so as a hunter agriculturalists are my best friend. Also agriculturists are working every day to find more environmentally sound farming practices that don't sacrafice production and they are making progress. Read a few farm magazines like successful farming or the furrow and you will see what I mean.

PBurns said...

No arguments here to any of your points!

The incredible boosts we have seen in American farm production have resulted in massive amounts of land being taken out of production for the benefit of wildlife. I have written a bit on this here >> but the thing to really check out are the links to the maps which give some scale to the almost 40 million acres of farmland we have taken out of farm production and "banked" for wildlife. This is a very good thing, and America's farmers and their pentient for scientific farming have made it all possible.

You might find this squib interesting as well, as it's a piece I wrote about Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution >> The basic point is that with farming we are playing a very long game in which the plough tries to outrun the grim reaper. So far the farmer is winning, but there may be limits (such as fossil fuel limits).

As for Soy diesel and the other biofuels (ethanol, methanol) I think these really have to be thought of as boutique fuels -- at least for now. A great deal of money has been spent trying to figure out how to turn biomass into fuel in an energy-efficient way, but so far it has not panned out. The threshold may have been crossed with sugarcane (different people present different numbers), but not with corn or soy. With soy diesel you still have a fuel that costs more energy to create that it generates. The scientists keep tinkering, however, and new technology is coming on line. A refinery is now being built that will turn almost any kind of animal waste (chicken guts, offal, manure, human sewage) into oil, and it looks like it may be the real thing. The U.S. Dept. of Energy is funding a large-scale refinery to see if the technology can actually be scaled up and still work. No news on that front yet, btu the big innovation is that they reduce the water mass by flashing it off by dropping the pressure -- an obvious thing in hindsight, but missed for about 500 years despite all that.


PBurns said...

Just looked it up and you are right about soy biodiesel and I was wrong! Not sure if we can grow enough of it to use as anything more than an on-farm tractor fuel source, but it seems to produce more energy than it consumes to make. Corn looks like it has crossed over too do to better distilling technology. Again, we may not be able to grow enough to make a big difference, but every litle bit helps.