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This article was published 8/1/2010 (4559 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"In my opinion, confinement livestock is about to be thrown virtually off the bus," Churchill told a Manitoba Cattle Enhancement Council strategic planning session Nov. 30. "In 10 years, I think we will see virtually no feedlots in the U.S."
If that sounds a little cocky coming from a 37-year-old farm kid who left a successful career in accounting to take up ranching and meat marketing, well, it is. Those are fighting words in the deepening scientific mud-fest over whether grass-fed beef production systems are better for the planet than intensively raised livestock.
Churchill is the founder and co-owner of the Minnesota-based Thousand Hills Cattle Co., which contracts with about 50 family farms and ranches in the northern United States to produce 100 per cent grass-fed cattle. Those cattle are processed through a small-scale plant in Minneapolis and made into branded meat products for distribution through restaurants and retail outlets.
His production chain delivers a high-quality product to consumers who are willing to pay up to double commodity beef prices. It also pays farmers prices that are an average premium of 15 per cent.
He's passionate about the relative merits of grass-finished beef from an economic, social as well as environmental viewpoint. It's beef with a story and in his view, a lighter carbon footprint.
That's where it gets controversial.
With greenhouse gas emissions increasingly on the policy radar, researchers and meat-industry critics have been zeroing in on livestock. Depending on how you look at it, roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions due to human diets come from meat, even though beef, pork and chicken together account for only about 14 per cent of what people eat, according to an article posted last year by Science News.
Once you factor in the bovine's methane-spewing ruminant digestive system, the costs of producing and transporting feed, manure management, transportation, processing and distributing the refrigerated or frozen product -- beef is seen as the major culprit.
Grass-fed systems may be more natural and socially appealing, but many researchers say they don't hold up to scrutiny, primarily due to their lower productivity. While confinement systems have resulted in higher greenhouse gas emissions per animal, the system overall produces significantly more meat with fewer animals.
By comparison, traditional grazing takes more time to finish an animal and it creates relatively more methane gas because forages are harder to digest.
This is where Churchill believes he holds the trump card. What if the forage-finished systems were as productive as the feedlots?
"The confinement industry's common response to criticism right now is to say 'we have to feed the world' and that doesn't work if there are viable (alternative) models out there," he said.
Churchill said the grass-fed production model that feeds his supply chain is able to match the productivity of confinement systems because it uses highly productive land that would otherwise be sown to crops like corn and soybeans. The high-quality forages produced are harvested through rotational grazing. Typically, cattle are grazed on marginal lands not suitable for annual crop production.
Churchill says his approach increases the productive capacity of the land while reducing its carbon footprint. "By taking it out of corn and soybean rotations and growing very high-quality forages with it, I am actually producing more beef per acre than if I had harvested the corn and the soybeans and brought them to a feedlot."
Churchill also points out the economics of intensive livestock production systems are predicated on cheap energy and mountains of cheap feed grain -- neither of which are likely to exist in the future. If he is correct, the political will to continue propping these systems up will evaporate as equally productive alternatives develop.
Still others say there is no debate; we should all just stop eating meat and obtain our protein from pulse crops like peas, beans and lentils. Nutritionally speaking, the latest research says we'd all be healthier with less meat and more legumes in our diets.
However, much of our farmland is highly erodible and can't support annual crops over the long term -- especially pulse crops that leave little by way of crop residue behind. Ruminants such as cattle are uniquely equipped to convert the sun's energy into consumable protein, while at the same time playing a valuable role in nutrient-recycling and soil-building.
In all likelihood, meat will continue to be on the menu, but there might be less of it and it will probably cost more.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: email@example.com
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.