February 5, 2012

Beef farmers thinking green

PETER HAGAR, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — I recently attended a couple of regional conferences focused on livestock and grazing. With increasing interest in local foods and more sustainable agricultural practices, our region's livestock producers are in a good position to make the changes that will help them grow.

The two main topics that I found most interesting were the value of improved animal-welfare practices and the environmental benefits of improved grazing methods.

At the Vermont Grazing Conference, keynote speaker Dr. Temple Grandin talked about livestock behavior and how we as an industry need to do a better job of implementing animal-welfare practices. While larger operations out west have implemented many of Dr. Grandin's animal-handling recommendations, smaller farms in our region can still make improvements. Livestock that are happy, calm and comfortable in their environment will grow faster and are easier to work with. Because cattle and other grazing livestock see the world differently than we do, we need to consider what they see and feel when they are moved from place to place.

With an increase in consumer concern for animal welfare, third-party animal-welfare organizations have started to enroll farms in programs that audit their animal husbandry, handling and processing procedures. Large fast-food corporations have actually been leading the way with strict guidelines for the way animals are handled and processed for meat.

For local direct-marketing farms, an animal-welfare auditing organization can help to ensure customers that proper animal husbandry, housing and feeding guidelines have been followed.

At the Winter Green-Up Grass Fed Beef conference in Latham, the focus was on grazing and the benefit to the environment.

For the cows, eating grass and other forages is a more natural and healthier diet. Cows on pasture rarely have the illnesses that cows in feedlots may suffer. With fewer sick cows, the need for antibiotics is reduced dramatically. In many grass-fed beef programs, antibiotics, growth hormones and other supplements are totally eliminated.

It also appears that grass-fed beef is healthier for people, too. Compared to conventionally fed beef, grass-fed beef is higher in the heart-healthy amino acid Omega 3 and is lower in saturated fat. And because pasture-raised beef are usually cleaner and less crowded than feedlot cattle, there is a reduced chance of E. coli contamination.

The big change in this way of raising beef is the elimination of all grain products from the final fattening process. In order to finish an animal at the right condition, improved pasture management and excellent forage is a necessity.

The environmental benefits are also multifaceted. Obviously, when a cow is on pasture, it is harvesting and fertilizing at the same time. With proper management, even in our area, cows can be pastured from April to December with very little supplemental feeding.

One of the more interesting ideas coming from this conference is the use of ultra-high stock density grazing, a more holistic pasture-management approach.

While managed rotational grazing can be very successful, some have likened it to mining our soils of their nutrients in an unsustainable way. By using ultra-high stock density, the cows are moved into small paddocks frequently to graze and also trample excess forage back into the soil.

Practitioners have noticed an increase in plant diversity and biological activity in the soil. By increasing soil health and life, they are able to increase production of forage and increase the stocking rate.

Many of the farmers I spoke with seemed interested in trying some of these new ideas. The whole point of attending conferences and workshops is to learn to look outside the box of management tools we are currently using and trying new techniques.

If you are interested in learning more about raising beef cattle, Cornell Cooperative Extension is holding a Beef Basics workshop in Malone on Saturday, Feb. 11. If you would like to attend this free workshop, you can contact me at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Plattsburgh at 561-7450 or email me at by Friday, Feb. 10.

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450