The Grass Is Greener, page 2
Benefits of Pasture Farming
Pasturing livestock offers benefits for consumers, producers, animals and the environment.
For many farmers, feeding livestock on pasture is an important part of ensuring that the animals have comfortable, healthy living conditions. Confinement in crowded conditions or cold, damp barns can contribute to respiratory and other health problems for all livestock, including poultry. Pastured animals get more fresh air and exercise, and spend less time crowded together. “If you work on concrete all day, your feet and back hurt,” points out Organic Prairie farmer Ernest Martin. “It’s the same with cows.”
Cattle and Grass
Pasture has benefits for all types of livestock, but it is especially important for ruminant species such as cattle. With their multi-stomach digestive systems, cattle are literally born to eat grass—not high-protein, starchy grains. Unlike humans, they are very efficient at turning fibrous plants like grasses into protein. Grain helps them gain weight, but can also lead to digestive problems, discomfort, and disease. Pasture-fed cattle are healthier than cattle fed in confinement. Fred Pedretti notes, “The herd is so much healthier and cattle do so much better when they can move around. The nutritional value of fresh grass is better than when it’s been stored and heated.”
Many conventionally raised beef cattle start out grazing, but by the last half to one-third of their life, most of them end up crowded and confined in giant feedlots of 1000 cows or more. They’re fed a diet of grain—mainly corn—laced with supplements and medicines to ward off the problems that come with feeding grain to animals whose digestive system is designed for grass.
Pasture-based farming means the cattle are fed primarily outdoors on pasture. They may be fed entirely on pasture when it is in season. Beef cattle, unless they are 100% grass-fed, usually finish on a mix of hay and grain for the last 3 months of a 18 month to 2-year life cycle, in order to provide the choice grade fat and marbling that consumers still associate with good flavor. A key difference from conventional production is that during this time, pasture-based cattle are free to roam on pasture, even in the winter, and are eating as much fresh grass as possible, with grain and cut forage as a small part of their overall diet.
On his farm, Ron Rosmann noticed the difference right away. “These are contented animals. They’ve got all this fresh grass with rotational grazing, and the calves are growing like crazy. They have the slick hair coats. They’re happy.”
Genetic diversity also plays a role in producing healthy animals, as well as meat that is tasty and tender. Before WWII, U.S. farmers sought out breeds that grew well and tasted good on grass. The advent of hybrid corn and increasing industrialization in agriculture resulted in so much surplus corn that it was cheap and plentiful enough to feed to cattle. But the older breeds got too fat, too fast, on corn, and were often less healthy. So farmers shifted to breeds that could eat more corn, and began using antibiotics to manage diseases that resulted from the grain-based diet. Now, farmers and ranchers are once again seeking out the old breeds, and developing natural genetics for cattle that finish well on grass. Many think this will be the key to great-tasting, healthy, ecological meat in the future.
For cattle, pasturing means nutrition, free roaming, and fewer vet visits —happiness.