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The side of beef

Consuming red meat incurs a real climate cost; but if you have to eat it, there’s a way to make it benefit the planet.

I’ve spent the past two weeks talking about how not eating farmed red meat can dramatically lower your personal greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a fact. Also a fact: Some people can’t quit red meat, particularly beef. Maybe that describes you. Maybe that describes someone you know. Maybe you suspect it describes someone whose email address you bought off the Dark Web. Well, get ready to send them this newsletter, because, when it comes to environmental impact, there’s beef and there’s beef, and this week we’re going to talk about beef.

There is a less-harmful way to eat it. 

The cow has a hold on us. The cattle industry in the United States is huge and it is unique. As of January 2022, the total U.S. herd is at 91.9 million head, and, according to the most recent forecast, cattle production is expected to comprise “17 percent of the $391 billion in total cash receipts for agricultural commodities.” That’s $66 billion. This is not a fair comparison, but just for a sense of scale, that’s 6 billion more dollars than Apple paid App Store developers in 2021. Beef is not going anywhere; according to the USDA, we Americans are the world’s largest consumers of it.

You’ve probably heard the term “feedlot.” If you live in or have spent time in Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, or Colorado, where 72% of the nation’s feedlots are located, you’ve probably seen the cows: standing close in large muddy-looking pens, face-down, jaw-deep in engineered nutrition. Here’s how the USDA describes it:

A feedlot is the final stage of cattle production. It provides a confined area for feeding steers and heifers on a ration of grain, silage, hay, and/or protein supplement to produce a carcass that will meet the USDA quality grade Select or better for the slaughter market…

Depending on weight at feedlot placement, feeding conditions, and desired grade, the feeding period can be 90 to 300 days. Average gain is from two and a half to four pounds per day on about six pounds of dry-matter feed per pound of gain. 

You may also have heard the term CAFO, which stands for confined animal feeding operation. A feedlot that houses more than 1,000 animals for 45 days a year is a CAFO. (That term can apply to places that grow other animals as well.) The CAFO’s ability to produce inexpensive meat is an important part of America’s food system, which is why roughly 30% of U.S. beef comes from these operations.

They’re also great if you’re into groundwater contamination, air pollution, greenhouse gasses, and flies.

“CAFOs are an ecological abomination,” says Gil Gillespie, a retired Cornell University Senior Research Associate and Lecturer. Gillespie, who currently serves as an associate editor for the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, acknowledges the economic niche that CAFOs occupy. “Given our cheap food system, if you have a small number of animals, all your per-unit production costs tend to be higher,” he says. CAFOs, with their extreme volume, bring those same costs down and make the inexpensive meat on which many people subsist. If our aim is $2.49 cheeseburgers, it’s hard to beat a feedlot. 

If you must eat beef and you can afford to pay more for for it, though, consider shifting your demand elsewhere. “You can make a good argument for raising animals on the land,” says Gillespie, who does just that on a small farm called Harrisdale Homestead that he and his wife operate. “If you’re pasturing animals, if you do it with rotational grazing and you do it well, it adds soil carbon,” he says. “Manure from animals supports things like dung beetles, and it provides nitrogen for further growing.”

Rotational grazing falls roughly under a category of farming that’s known as regenerative agriculture, and you’ve probably picked up where this is going: Try to eat beef raised that way if you are able. Yes, it is more expensive, but the payoff goes beyond the bank. The idea is not just to limit the environmental damage the animals do, but to employ them as partners, renewing the land as they graze it. 

“It’s easy to agree that factory-farmed beef is problematic,” says Sarah Chase, farmer and owner of Chaseholm Farm in Pine Plains, NY. Chaseholm is down the road from me, and I wanted to talk to Sarah because the area in which we live is pretty traditional ag country, with several multi-generation farms. Many of them adhere to practices that are caught somewhere between the feedlot and the farm store: small-scale family operations, but still using antibiotics and feed instead grass and natural practices. That Chaseholm can thrive alongside more conventional outfits is evidence that regenerative practices can be good for business and good for the land.

Chaseholm stands out not only in terms of its process, but its product. The cheese is objectively amazing, ranking on Food and Wine’s top 50, and the beef is outstanding as well. (I long for it.) Chase is a third-generation farmer, and when they took over the family outfit nearly a decade ago, immediately decided to shift to organic and fully pasture-raised cattle. “We believe in the interconnectedness of large ruminant animals and the landscape and their ability to sequester carbon and help enrich and enliven the soil,” says Jordan Schmidt, Chase’s wife. Schmidt also works on the farm as she studies towards her master’s degree in public health and nutrition, and serves as the Food Program Director at the nearby Northeast Community Center. “The animals increase biodiversity and the way the water and mineral cycles work to create a more productive and efficient carbon-trapping soil.” 

While you might think pasture-raising beef is just about turning the animals loose on a wide-open expanse and letting them do their thing, Chase’s system is fully modern and very hands-on. “It’s about how we get the cows across the farm” she says. “We use GPS mapping to break up the property into small paddocks, and all of the animals get moved at least once a day.” 

Groups of 40 cows have access to small chunks of land for between 12 and 24 hours. Chase periodically examines the grass to see how far down the cattle have grazed it, and when they determine that the grass needs a break, they move the cattle elsewhere. “The cows can’t bite the grass down to ground level, because I take them away,” says Chase. “That way it can still photosynthesize and regrow.”

Grass likes to be cut; a cow’s bite encourages the plant to send up new shoots, called tillers, that thicken the pasture. Meanwhile, the animals’ manure redeposits nutrients that fertilize the soil. Again, sounds set-and-forget, but it is not: Chase monitors how much manure the cattle have deposited, and how well they’ve stomped it into the ground. “Cows can’t go back to that particular piece of land until the grass is fully recovered,” says Chase. “That could be 20 days in May, when everything is growing super fast and there’s lots of moisture in the soil; or it could be 50 days or longer in a drier month like August.”

If you drive down Chase Road in the morning, you can often see Sarah, riding up a hillside or through a field on their quad, presumably on the way to check on some animals or inspect some grass. “The skill on the farmer’s side is in learning to read the ecosystem,” says Schmidt. “The grass is almost as important as the cows,” says Chase. 

Over the past two years, Chase has been conducting a deep study of their farm’s soil health, analyzing samples from every part of the 600 acres that their cows graze. “We’re getting full panels, so zinc, manganese, molybdenum—everything is on there,” they say. “But in a normal soil panel you’re not necessarily getting carbon. We are.” Chase is interested in how their farming practices impact the land’s ability to capture emissions—not just from their animals, but also from their equipment. “We’re too early in our process to know that yet,” says Chase. “We’ve taken baseline data,” says Schmidt.

Chaseholm isn’t the only farm that’s only just starting to determine regenerative agriculture’s real impacts. “There is some intriguing data from a number of farms, but we can’t make any general statements about carbon,” says Laura Lengnick, Director of Agriculture at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. Glynwood is a nonprofit organization based in New York’s Hudson Valley that works with farmers to advance local and climate-friendly agriculture. 

And while she agrees that the science is still in-process, she’s seen rotational systems like Chaseholm’s work to produce healthy, organic, pasture-raised cattle in much larger operations. “There’s really not an issue with scaling up regenerative grazing,” says Lengnick, who writes about this method of farming in her book, Resilient Agriculture. Though it may seem impossible that a truly large-scale farm could give the kind of attention to grass health that Sarah Chase does, Lengnick replies to that challenge by listing off massive operations: “30,000 acres in Colorado, 83,000 in New Mexico, 2,500 acres in Texas…”

And while there isn’t enough data on intensely managed rotational grazing to come to a solid verdict on its carbon impact yet, there is encouraging evidence. Lengnick cites a farm in Georgia that enjoys celebrity status among adherents to regenerative agriculture. White Oak Pastures published a study in 2019 showing that its operation is carbon-negative—including its farm machinery and all its operational emissions.

White Oak’s accomplishments are amazing, but their practice goes way beyond regenerative grazing. “Their butchering facility recycles waste animal fats into energy used on the farm, and they have lots of solar,” says Lengnick. “This energy infrastructure contributes significantly to the overall footprint of the operation,” she says. Still, White Oak is a powerful example.

Lengnick, however, cautions against focusing too much on carbon. “Chaseholm may or may not prove to be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative,” she says. “But we know their practices enhance environmental quality—and not just on the farm.” It’s easy to think about the environment and be consumed by the imminent threat of atmospheric-carbon-fueled global warming; Lengnick would have us (me) take off the carbon blinders. “Yes, we have to think about slowing down emissions and capturing carbon,” she says. “But we have 30 years or more of change that’s already baked into the climate system. We have to think about other changes as well.”

Soil that’s been over-grazed or not tended in a regenerative fashion can be weak. It can erode, allowing trees to topple more easily in the stronger storms that are the now-common result of our warming planet. The falling trees can clip power lines, block roads, and damage buildings. The poorer soil doesn’t hold as much moisture, so it won’t soak up or slow flood waters that rush over it.

Chase may not have data on carbon sequestration, but they remember the first time they realized their grass management was working. “It was a drier year, and I was talking to someone who mentioned how badly we needed rain. I hadn’t realized it been like three weeks since it rained,” they say. “It occurred to me then that the reason I hadn’t noticed is because I had plenty of grass in front of me.” Their soil was healthy enough to withstand tough conditions, and that’s going to be increasingly important for all farms as extreme weather becomes the norm. 

“There’s a big need and an urgent problem, and as a collective, we’re trying to figure out what direction to go,” says Schmidt. “But as far as science is concerned, what I feel like we have right now are a lot of really good questions.” 

That may sound like an academic cliffhanger, but it’s not. It’s the central reason that, if you’re going to eat red meat, and you have the means, you should get it from an operation that is actively trying to mitigate its impact. Large factory farms aren’t going to lower their yields in favor of sustainability experiments, but small farmers, who can charge more for their premium meat, will.

I can’t stand here on this righteous, recycled soapbox and say that only people who have the money to buy organic, pasture-raised meat should eat beef. Many people could not live or live as well without the inexpensive meat that our American food system produces. But some of us can, and if we choose to eat beef, we can subsidize the experiments that will hopefully get us to a place where ethical and ecological concerns won’t keep us from power-pawing a cheeseburger.

“Innovation in agriculture often occurs at the leading edges,” says Lengnick, “by small, nimble organizations that have the freedom and the creativity to try something new.” If we shift our dollars to these farms, they’ll have more freedom to try the next experiment, because maybe there’s something even better than rotational grazing that nobody’s tried yet. 

“We have some really good lines of inquiry, and animal-involved agriculture is one of those good leads,” says Schmidt. “And there’s a lot of value in supporting people who are working on this, because it’s going to yield some important information.”

So how do you make sure you’re supporting a farm that’s part of this distributed experiment? “Unfortunately, consumers need to get a little educated,” says Lengnick. If your butcher counter identifies where your steak comes from, pause a beat before jabbing your meathook at that tasty ribeye. “Take the time to look up the product; look up the farm,” she says. “Look for terms like regenerative and pasture-raised.”

You can also go to a farm that you know practices this style of agriculture. Take the commuter rail on the weekend and go for a hike; come back with a steak. Ask questions at your local farmers market. This product is available, and if you’re able to pay more for a good steak, why not amend your definition of good to include the on-the-literal-ground research it supports. The delicious news is that it tastes way better than the feedlot stuff.

Take care of yourselves—and each other

Joe

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