Grass-Fed Cows: Green Or Not?

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   I have read a few articles recently that say that grass-fed beef, even though healthier to eat, may not be healthy for the atmosphere.  Now being a bit conspiracy minded at times, one thing that comes to mind is to wonder the true source of these articles.  Might the conventional cattle industry be behind the stories?  In reality, I doubt it.  I think the grass-fed beef business is nothing but a fly on the back or the conventional beef industry.  The huge difference in price between the two products keeps them from being real competitors.  Plus one of the articles I read was in Discover magazine, which I have always felt is a pretty good source of accurate information.

The issue is as follows.  Cattle are supposedly responsible for over 20% of methane emissions and methane contributes to global warming at a rate 20 times greater than CO2.  Because of a hard to digest plant substance called lignin in grass, cattle raised on a grass diet have a large number of beneficial gut micro-organisms to digest the grass.  The main unfortunate byproduct of this digestion is methane which is then burped up by the cows.

An Australian company has come up with a solution to this cow burp problem by developing a strain of grass that contains almost no lignin and is easy for cows to digest.  Less burps equals less methane equals a greener cow, right?  Well not so fast.  The grass in question is genetically modified.  Why do issues like this rarely have a simple clean solution?

The reality is that grass fed beef, because of its minute market share is probably not a big contributor to greenhouse gasses.  I vote for deep-sixing the GMO grass and just letting the cows burp.  What do you think?

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Will Sig
1 Health Guru

Correct me if I am wrong…the methane issue comes from cows burping chemical filled grass s they decided to give chemicals to the cows to prevent their methane burping instead of just feed then regular grass?

Sorry, I got a bit confused.

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2 JD Thomas

There is also another major consideration when it comes to grass fed cattle raised on a large scale. Most parts of the US where cattle was once raised that way are not ecologically suited to grazing livestock. There are exceptions like the Polyface Farms deal in Virginia but the US West is a lot more desert than it was 200 years ago as a result of livestock overgrazing.

When you have a system that evolved over thousands of years with migratory grazers like bison the system will break down when you put the same sort of feeders in place but don’t allow them to migrate following the seasons and fertilizing the soil with their droppings.

Techfuns last blog post..Mark Morford: Undecided? Really?

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3 Swubird

Will:

I’m all for bypassing the middle guy and avoiding beef altogether. There! Now that should just about take care of the methane emissions issue. By the way, beef also emit huge quantities of ammonia. And, supposedly, we definitely don’t need more ammonia in the atmosphere.

Happy trails.

Swubirds last blog post..APOLLO!

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4 Anna

Hey Will, you can never win! BTW how about rice fields in China, they are also great contributors of the green house gases…. Anna 🙂

Annas last blog post..What’s on the Far Side of the Moon?

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5 Will

Hi JD: You are right about that. Cattle grazing on public lands is a big issue here in Oregon. Ranchers have traditionally been able to let their livestock graze for almost free and the damage that is done to the ecosystem is tremendous. There is a big public outcry to buy out these grazing rights and free the land from the cattle.

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6 Steve

hi Will,
I wouldn’t be surprised if the grass is harder to digest (than corn) and somehow results in higher emissions. Things usually aren’t as simple as they seem, and for every new “solution” there are new problems (though that doesn’t mean the new solution isn’t net good.
What I really wanted comment on was that every time I see a post about cows now, I think of the movie King Corn and see the image of the cow with the “port-hole-window” in its side so that the researcher can see inside of it, and if I remember correctly, open the window and reach inside the stomach to pull out the contents for analysis. That image still gives me the chills.
~ Steve (the Trade Show Guru)

Trade Show Gurus last blog post..Netfix Rocks

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7 Will

There are several of those cows around. In fact 25 years ago when I was in college in the Life Sciences and Agriculture department of The University of New Hampshire, we had a cow with a plexiglass window. It did not open though!

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8 Sigurd Andersen

Another comment re Polyface Farm – they time grazing to grass’ growth cycle, which follows an “S” curve. It grows slowly when cropped short. As it gets some length, it grows faster. After a while, growth slows and the plant gets woody. (I got this explanation from the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) I think lignin increases towards the end of this cycle. At Polyface Farm cows graze towards the end of the fast-growth period, and are moved to other pasture before grazing the grass to stubs. This yields maximum growth of the grass over a season. It seems to me it would also minimize the cow’s intake of lignin, as they are grazing on non-woody grass.

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9 Will

Wow Sigurd, this seems like such a responsible way to graze the cattle. I have heard about the farm before. It even has its own Wikipedia entry now.

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10 Podchef

A further corollary to the s-curve of grass is the types of grass grazed. A study in Britain a few years back (sorry, can’t find the link) shows that a mixed forage of several, preferably native, grasses in one pasture reduces the incidences of methane release and flatulence and burping in general. It is this natural pasture, made up of 7 to 15 different species of forage, which made up the Great Plains once. I am fortunate to have one such natural pasture to graze my animals on. It is what Newman Turner would call an “herbal ley”. Most people think I’m mad letting dandelions, plantains, daisies and other “weeds” grow in my pastures. However, as Turner & many others have shown, it’s these “weeds” or herbs, which give cattle their health, provide nutrition for the pastures and generally keep things humming along nicely.

I don’t stand out in the field measuring cow farts, but I am frequently around them at all times and during milking and I have yet to sense they are overly gassy on such natural forage.

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11 Will

Hey Podchef, thanks for the comment. I checked out and really like your posts.

Interesting about the mixed pasture. That mixture of grasses being native to the great plains would not really bear on modern cows as they are European imports, not native to the plains. But it makes sense that it would make for a healthier digestive system for the cows.

If you want to measure cow farts, you don’t need to stand out in the field. There is a contraption that the cow wears that measures it over a 24 hour period. I have a photo here somewhere, but I could not find the post it is on.

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12 Podchef

Will, thanks for visiting my site and commenting! I have seen the contraption lately too during some footage of a study on cattle diets and whether feeding garlic will stop them farting. Yes, it will, especially in large quantities. Only problem is Dairy cattle, which are fed a tough mixture to digest are the worst farters and cannot be helped by the garlic as it would ruin the milk….

I am pretty sure the forage on the plains would be fine for most modern cattle. It might take a generation or two to sort out the problems, but in the end the could adjust. I have taken commercially raised dairy cattle used to being pushed on a commercial ration and have done fine with them on my mixed “herb”/grass pastures. It’s really the protein vs roughage that matters overall. But I do understand what you are saying.

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13 Brande

Interesting indeed. Well I too think to leave it as it is until we can come up with a better solution. Genetically changed grass may even cause some other side effects that we may not know.

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14 Julia

Interesting post on grass fed beef. I had never read anything about cattle being such a great contributor to methane in the atmosphere. It seems rather ridiculous that this emission is released into the atmosphere when they burp! There are many benefits to choosing grass fed beef over grain fed beef. For one the health benefits are great; there are fewer calories and fat in the grass fed variety.

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15 Will

Yes and the fat is actually a healthy fat! Thanks Julia.

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