Don’t Have a Cow

» February 7th, 2013

Management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a big deal these days, especially with so called sustainable farmers trying to capture emerging “conscientious carnivore” markets. Those who write about the art of rotating small herds of animals (usually cows) from one pasture to another portray the practice as an ecologically beneficial and more natural alternative to the cold input/output logic of industrial farming. But here’s what I’m learning: those who practice the art of moving small herds of cows from one pasture to another portray it to each other as an endeavor that can be worthwhile economically but, in reality, is beset with problems that the rhetorical champions of rotational grazing always fail to mention.  This difference is worth exploring a bit.

Inspired as I so often am by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I’ve been seeking to expose the flaws of my target (in this case MIRGers) with evidence generated by the target itself. Singer perfected this technique when it came to exposing factory farms. I want to do it with small farms. This approach strikes me as much better than relying on, say, research done by HSUS (which, don’t get me wrong, is accurate and often done in tremendous depth), Humane Myth (ditto), or any organization with a clear (and noble) interest in promoting a skeptical view of animal agriculture. It just seems that one’s argument is made more powerful when evidence comes from the targeted party itself. Of course, this cannot be done in all cases, but we should turn the industry’s words back on itself whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It was in this spirit that I began, many months ago, trolling several “homesteader” websites (this research is for my book The Modern Savage). After digesting several hundred entries from rotational grazers themselves, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have to say about MIRG is in fact a carefully sanitized version of a much messier reality.

Perhaps what stands out the most is how small farmers, just like factory farmers, view their operation, and their animals, as existing first and foremost for profit. This point, I realize, may seem obvious. So often, though, MIRG is presented as an altruistic endeavor designed to show love for animals and the environment we share with them. One farmer, for example, explained to another:   “I am confident that I can net more profit from the large tract with the large herd than you are now realizing with the 3 herds. We can cull and get the “right size” cows. We can get the pastures in top condition and carry more cows than you are carrying in the largest herd.” (emphasis added)  Another agreed, adding, “We’re open to culling out some of our bigger breeds to head in the rotational direction.”

In addition to culling (read:killing) cows when they aren’t the “right” size for achieving maximum stocking density on available pasture, farmers who know that consumers are demanding exclusively grass-fed cows are keeping animals on grass to their detriment. One wrote, “Some of the animals are passing loose manure due to the richness of the forage even this late into the non growing season. Breeding stock of both sexes that are accustomed to grain feed will not hold the bloom exhibited when placed on grass alone nor will heavy milkers.”  Moderate milk production is what MIRG people seek in their cattle. One wrote of the ideal cow,  ”You do not want her to give a lot of milk. She only needs to give enough milk to provide for the calf adequately until it can start grazing.” And in case you think these farmers are any less vigilant than factory farmers about controlling reproduction, note this:  ”The brood cow needs to maintain her condition so that she will breed back within 60 days of giving birth. We want heifers that will heat cycle early and produce a calf on her 2nd birthday.” Is this instrumental take on cows any different that that of a factory farmer?

Finally, and in many ways, most surprising to me, farmers are generally grazing their cattle on grass called fescue. Fescue, it turns out, isn’t so great for cows. But it grows easily and prevalently and it’s good for quick fattening and thus the bottom line. The reason for this is that most fescue is infected with a fungus called endophyte. Endophyte infested fescue is fine for the grass but not for the cow. Here is what one team of agronomists has to say about endophyte infected fescue, the most popular grass that MIRG cows munch:

Studies with animals consuming endophyte-infected fescue have shown the following responses in comparison to animals grazing non-infected fescue: (1) lower feed intake; (2) lower weight gains; (3) lower milk production; (4) higher respiration rates; (5) higher body temperatures; (6) rough hair coats; (7) more time spent in water; (8) more time spent in the shade; (9) less time spent grazing; (10) excessive salvation; (11) reduced blood serum prolactin levels; and (12) reduced reproductive performance. Some or all of these responses have been observed in numerous studies in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and sheep consuming endophyte-infected pasture, green chop, hay and/or seed.

Scientists recommend that MIRGers switch over to fescue free of endophytes. According my farmers, though, this would be a terrible idea. One explained,  ”To date, the fescues that I know of that are endophyte free are not hardy.” My sense is that the endophyte infected fescue is like junk food for cows. They eat it eagerly, gobble it up, and then suffer the detrimental consequences listed above. All of which leaves me to wonder: how does any of this reality jibe with all the MIRG rhetoric about cows thriving on grass, reveling in their cowness, and regenerating tired ecosystems? I don’t get it. Why not just not have a cow?




20 Responses to Don’t Have a Cow

  1. Dylan says:

    Looking forward to reading your book.

  2. Karen Orr says:

    In response to a 2010 Time Magazine story titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet,” George Wuerthner wrote “Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Save the Planet” for New West.

    I found the Wuerthner piece quite interesting.

    Here’s an open listserv for cattle ranchers that might sometimes provide useful information:

    Optimum Maternal Cow Weight in the Fescue Belt

  3. Jamie Berger says:

    Somewhat unrelated, but this may be useful for your book:

    “If people are only interested in lower prices, then they have to accept the use of farrowing crates to restrict the sow’s freedom for a few days so as to push survival rates per litter up from 10 per litter to upwards of 12.

    If people are horrified by images of crushed, squashed and splattered piglets, then they have to accept that’s the cost of the sow being free to roam around. I have accept the reality. So do they.”

    More evidence from the targeted party.

    • James says:

      Thank you. Yes, I recently interviewed a pig farmer who stopped contracting with Niman because he was “tired of picking up dead piggies.”

      • Rebecca Stucki says:

        James, were those dead piglets from litters that were given free outdoor range, or were the sows housed inside with only slightly more room than the farrowing crates? It is my understanding that when sows have more than simply “adequate” room for themselves and their piglets, mortality rates are lower than even with farrowing crates. Of course, profit goes down, because the farmer is able to house fewer sows.

        • James says:

          Niman requires free range. This farmer would vehemently disagree with your suggestion. I have no data, and would guess there is none on this question.

          • John T. Maher says:

            There must be data, perhaps not aggregate data. Farmers watch every penny and will know the expected piglet mortality rates from different fattening methods based upon experience and that farmers would do so for the purpose of calculating their financial projections. Some places throw the dead piglets in a “dead pit” and cover with lyme. I suppose it would be possible to back into a calculation of mortality rates by counting the numbers in each pit and correlating to the number of litters in a particular time period.

            Saw a talk by Jan Dutkiewicz at the NYU Minding Animals Symposium last month and he notes that the word “meat” disappears in industry reports and message boards in 2005 and now hog companies raise “protein” in response to activist messages of compassion and concern. Did you know you were fighting against the raising of protein? Reading the piece provided an illustration of Dutkiewicz’s point about the use of jargon, euphemism and omission in order to normalize animal exploitation, a notion you JMCsum up as a “carefully sanitized version of a much messier reality”.

  4. Mountain says:

    Your main criticism of rotational grazing is that the ranchers who use it exist, first and foremost, as for-profit entities? I am stupefied.

    Do you donate 50% (or more) of your income to animal sanctuaries? If not, I believe that your teaching and speaking activities are, first and foremost, for profit. You could, after all, give away most of your income & choose to sleep on various friends’ couches. You could call it rotational dozing.

    In all seriousness, it’s an empty and meaningless criticism, and I don’t understand why people throw it around so promiscuously. On our farm, we want the chickens to have the best lives possible– better and longer and more free than even the chickens at animal sanctuaries– and we want the farm to be as profitable as possible. Primarily, this is so the farm can acquire more land, which will allow us to raise more chickens & trees. But we will never have access to all the farmland in the country (world?), so a secondary reason we want to be highly profitable is to show other farmers that it is in their best interest to farm the way we do, not in the harmful ways they have in the past.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Although I smiled at “rotational dozing” Mountain clearly does not understand the meaning of “profit” or the inherent exploitation of animals and humans under capitalism. When our James gets paid for writing or speaking he is not exploiting others and obtain a profit or surplus over cost (called value by old school Marxists) — he is getting exploited by his publisher who earns a profit and paid the full value of his speaking efforts if he books them without an agency. In contrast, you live off the efforts of the animals you raise and exploit and your profit is the amount over cost it takes you to raise and kill and sell them. This is what I object to — the parasitic living off the labour of others. You just want an profitable niche market for Happy Meat but it is still a forced labour camp where everyone ends up on the hook or in the grinder. Challenge your assumptions dude

      • Mountain says:

        Challenge your assumptions, dude.

        As has been clearly stated, had you bothered to look, we don’t exploit or kill or sell ANY of the animals on our farm. There is no forced labor, nor do ANY of the animals end up on the hook or in the grinder.

        And I understand the term “profit” perfectly, in all its meanings. The relatively uncommon meaning you refer to could more usefully be described as “rent,” as in “rent-seeking behavior.”

        That’s all for now. I’m busy laboring on behalf of the farm. I will attempt a more thorough response when the sun goes down and all the animals are safely in for the night.

      • Mountain says:

        “This is what I object to — the parasitic living off the labour of others.”

        Says the lawyer! Hilarious!,_OH_WOW.jpg/500px-HA_HA_HA,_OH_WOW.jpg

        I got out of law because I wanted to make an honest living, not a “parasitic living.” If I wanted the “profitable nice market” you claim I do, I’d have just continued practicing law.

      • Mountain says:

        In all seriousness, our farm provides for a life that is better & more free even than the animal sanctuaries that are lauded & revered on this website. Rather than being lauded & revered, though, we are compared to slave owners, Nazis, and parasites. Is there any explanation for this other than tribalism (I’m not considered part of the vegan tribe)?

    • James says:

      My point in bringing up the profit issue, Mountain, has just been confirmed by your response. Not “empty and meaningless” at all.

      You write: “On our farm, we want the chickens to have the best lives possible– better and longer and more free than even the chickens at animal sanctuaries– and we want the farm to be as profitable as possible.”

      Give that idea a truly honest assessment. Your comment–which is also thrown around rather promiscuously– suggests that the quality of the chickens’ lives are equally (if not more?) important than the profit motive. Fact is, when a human owns an animal for the purposes of profiting from that animal, it is not possible to give the animal’s welfare equal consideration. I know this opinion cuts close to the bone, as it were, but you seem to have no problem making sweeping judgments about my own pursuit of “profit.” (I’m a public employee, and my salary in Texas is publicly available. Check it out. You may rethink your claim.)

      I also think the world would be a lot better off if we all did a little more rotational dozing. Can I start on your couch?

      • Mountain says:

        Promiscuous? My comment? My defense of profit-making activity is mighty rare in these parts. Judging people harshly for making a profit? That happens all the time on this blog, in your posts and in the comments.

        Here’s an honest assessment: the dichotomy that you think exists– between the quality of the chickens’ lives and the profit motive– doesn’t. All I’ve done is recognize the value in a chicken to which most animal farmers (and vegans) have been blind. The natural behavior of chickens is highly valuable, not just to chickens but to humans. But in order to benefit from this, humans must allow chickens to live their lives freely. If you lock a chicken in a cage & force it to live life as some sort of egg or meat machine (as industry does), you lose out on much of the value chickens provide.

        I’ve made no sweeping (nor mopping) judgments about your pursuit of profit, and how large or small your income is makes no difference. You are profiting from your activities, and there is nothing wrong with that. You are profiting from your activities, just as rotational grazers are profiting from theirs, and just as conventional cattle ranchers are profiting from theirs.

        What matters isn’t the profit, but the activity itself. If MIRG is a better system for cows (and all the available evidence suggests that it is, whatever its flaws), then we want conventional ranchers switching over to it, even if the only reason they are doing so it to increase their profit. If you want more people to switch over to veganic farming, then you want it to be a profitable as possible.

      • Mountain says:

        Okay, so I checked out your salary, and it isn’t much different from what I expected. Maybe slightly lower, but Texas doesn’t have a state income tax, so the difference pretty much comes out in the wash. If our farm could reliably bring in an income equal to your salary + the value of your benefits (typically 50-100% of salary), my wife & I could give up our off-farm jobs, and concentrate all our our time & energy to the farm.

        So, to my point about profits. Imagine a world in which your next book is a huge success, you’re given tenure at your current university (or hired by a better-endowed university), and there’s high demand for speaking engagements by you. In this world, you’re a much more effective vegan/AR advocate, if for no other reason than that more people hear your message. Also in this world, your income is probably double, triple (or more) what it is now. Does your increased profitability interfere in any way with your effectiveness as a vegan advocate? I don’t think it would.

        Likewise, I don’t think the profitability of our farm conflicts in any way with the quality of life for the animals on the farm. It just makes it possible to provide that quality of life for many more animals (and trees, and other plants, and workers).

  5. Lori says:

    Thought you might be interested in this new report about pastured beef. Of course it’s a pro position.

    • Lori says:

      BTW, completely disturbed by the misinformation in the report and the obvious advocacy of grass fed beef by an “animal welfare” organization.

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