From the July/August 2018 CONCEPTIONS Beef Newsletter
By Richard Young Policy Director, Sustainable Food Trust ( excerpts from June 14, 2018 speech )
The annual per capita consumption of beef and lamb in the UK produces less greenhouse emissions than one economy class flight from London to Stockholm (for our chief to attend the latest EAT forum). The current media attention on the carbon footprint of beef production – especially time cattle spend eating grass in pastures – is generating lots of spurious calculations to support the contention “avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.” Promotion of vegetarian and vegan agendas underlies many of these reports, with little broader consideration of the issues.
Activists need to face the fact that a majority of the grazed land on the earth surface is not automatically suited to row crops. (in the UK only 12% of all “arable” land is approved for tillage under current EU rules.) Soil degradation when grassland is converted to row crops is often visible within one farming generation [as can be seen in the limestone shelf of central New York, once prime dairyland until grass pasturage was replaced with row crops; now abandoned farms are being slowly resurrected by Amish conversion to grass-based dairy and beef]. UK Environment secretary Michael Gove warns we are 30-40 years away from running out of soil fertility on large parts of arable land… with minor exceptions soil degradation is not a problem on UK grasslands. Grass heals the land while trapping carbon.
Contrary to popular belief, continuous crop production is not sustainable. Soils lost to the Sumerians 5000 years ago and to the Roman North Africans 2000 years ago remain desert wastelands today. The most enlightened farmers are now publicly recognizing the agronomic need for grass breaks [grazing?] in row crop land, to break noxious herbicide-resistant weed cycles and restore elements of soil life.
The article in its entirety can be found online—or if you wish a copy, let us know.
Cattlemen are at risk if we passively allow distortions of our value to the environment and to agriculture.
The value of animal protein is well documented in nutrition circles, and the demand for animal protein is growing fastest in what used to be called “third world” (now the “emerging”) economies. Why are we having so much trouble getting our points across in the consumer activist discussions? [PETA??]
Bill Gates, Richard Brand, Leonard DiCaprio – joining their fortunes to the “green planet” crowd to replace animal protein with veggie meats.
If you have not seen the press releases and the feature articles, you will be surprised to know that “green” vendors like Whole Foods (division of Amazon) are now promoting a vegetable-based “meat replacement” designed by plant chemists to imitate beef and pork products. The company behind these products has received heavy investment from the famous billionaires and Hollywood celebrities named above, all of whom (despite large personal “carbon footprints”) wish you to believe as they do that vegetarian lifestyles are necessary (by the rest of us) to insure the future of the planet.
Learning from the dairy experience
Look in the “dairy” case and you see soymilk, almondmilk, all sorts of “milk” labels that are not biologically “milk” (cow, goat, sheep, water buffalo). The dairy industry back in the day when everything was rolling ignored these as fad drinks for vegans; now they are seeing market share lost to these products that carry the soothing “milk” term by name.
Milk still has the mystique of being the original “baby food” (what could be purer than a mother’s milk?) but has been behind the eight ball on producing drinks that adults would continue to use. Thus less bottled milk is sold, but more yogurt and cheese is eaten. To the developers of legume and nut beverages the term “milk” still carries a positive cachet in the market, so they co-opted the term and dairy now suffers.
The Missouri legislature (serendipitously following a move by the French parliament; more beef is raised and meat eaten in France than any other western country) is currently debating a bill to prevent synthesized vegetable protein products from being labeled as “meat”. The sponsors of this legislation have their eyes open—if the vegan promoters do not want you to eat meat, why call their product “meat”?? It is (like has been true in dairy) an attempt to mislead trusting consumers into substitutions that can be produced in laboratories and factories rather than down on the farm.
Opportunities remain for the beef industry
The current market standard is USDA “prime” and “choice” beef carrying a grain-based “feedlot” finish.
Growing alongside this USA beef tradition is the more worldwide-accepted grassfed beef, which also is an advantage to many of what we consider “heritage” breeds.
Certified Angus Beef is the most successful of any breed or commodity promotion, beef or dairy, 70% of commercial beef cows are now “black” with some (if not all) Angus genes in their DNA. This was an example of how you can capture the attention of consumers to create some premium income niches.
How many directions are there to go?
For the majority of those reading this newsletter, club calf beef is the focus. Is that a true “beef” focus (as in do show steers in 4H sales sell at a premium because the eating experience will also be premium?) – or is our genetic focus, as one observer says, more on how much hair they grow so they can be sculptured into a show mannequin??
The clubby business, as we know, is an amalgam of Maine Anjou (France) and Chianina (Italy) bloodlines, with all the domesticated breeds mixed in from foundation cows. The sort of trait selection that is paramount in most domestic (“commercial”) breeds had its impact earlier in the breed development, but most of clubby sire selection is driven by “type” and color. To the advantage of club-calf, both Maine Anjou and Chianina have positive reputations for taste and texture – so fairs continue to draw premium buyers.
In recent seasons we have seen one sire source and only a couple sire lines come into a dominant position for the marketing of semen. As these high profile sires age or die, the price of their semen is doubling or tripling. In any other breed, this is a clue to a failure of “breeders” to look to the next generations and develop new sire lines. In today’s club calf world, a handful of sires define a premium price calf at stock auction sales.
Might it be time for those breeding quality club calves to think about what qualities and traits the “next” premier club calf sire should possess? -And then proceed to identify the cows and matings that could produce him; and surmount the challenge of marketing him
By comparison to mainstream breeds (let alone the heritage breeds that are the focus for most of the grassfed movement) the weaknesses in clubby breeding revolve around cow fertility and easier heifer calving. Can these selection traits be compatible with today’s preferred show type? Based on experience in dairy breeds, YES is the answer.
Should Black always be the dominant color?
I think too many people like red for this to remain true forever. However, genetically, Black color is a dominant gene, whereas Red color is recessive. Only takes one parent to get a Black calf, but takes two parents to get a red calf.
Which brings us to the challenges of selective breeding and compensatory mating. Some things can change in one generation; other things may require a concerted effort over two or more generations. The rewards ultimately go to those who make the concerted extra efforts. Breeding improved cattle is a lifetime’s profession.