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A story about farting……

November 26, 2012

Who me?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this week who lives in regional south-east QLD. We were talking about the pros & cons of grass-fed beef over grain fed beef and it was very enlightening to hear her perspective living locally in a beef growing area. We all know that grass-fed beef is much better for you, nutritionally, than grain fed beef. It has almost double the amount of beta-carotene, and almost three times the amount of Vitamin E, a  fat-soluble vitamin with powerful antioxidant activity. Antioxidants protect cells against the effects of free radicals, which are potentially damaging byproducts of the body’s metabolism that may contribute to chronic health problems such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Grass fed beef contains more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio than grain fed beef. A cattle’s diet significantly alters the fatty acid composition of their meat. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent heart disease and arthritis. Omega-6 promotes inflammation, blood clotting and tumor growth. The essential fatty acids are also highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be particularly important for cognitive and behavioural function. Grass fed beef is also higher in Vitamin K, and trace minerals like magnesium, calcium, and selenium.Sue and her family live on a mixed grain and cattle farm which is about 2000 acres and is bordered by three beef feedlots. Two feedlots to the south have 3000 and 5000 SCU (standard cattle unit), respectively, and one to the north-east has 8800 SCU.  That’s alot of cows! As the north-east winds blow, they are impacted frequently with offensive odour and dust.

Which brings me to the topic of farting! Let’s take a closer look at a cows digestive system. Cows are ruminants,  they have four chambers in their stomach. Cows have the ability to convert grasses, which humans cannot, into food that they can digest. They digest plant based food by softening it in their first stomach, the rumen – then they regurgitate the semi-digested food, chew it again and break it down further. They are able to do this because their rumen is likened to a big fermentation tank where resident bacteria converts cellulose into protein and fats.

The food moves slowly from one chamber to the next until it has completely digested. These animals were created to forage.

So let’s now discuss the grain fed beef industry. The beef feedlot industry feed the cattle a diet of grains, rumen ‘modifiers’ (selective biocides that favour maximum growth), urea (toxic at high levels) and a chemical ‘premix’. Hay or straw is often less than 10% of their diet. It doesn’t sound right that they are now being made to eat copious amounts of grain, in order to make them as fat as possible as fast as possible. Just as humans can have digestive health problems when changing diets, so too can cattle. Grain is not their natural diet and the move from grass to grain foods on cattle can and does cause the following:

• Bloating. This occurs when excess gas builds up inside the rumen which, if not expelled, (FARTED) can compress the lungs and suffocate the cow.

• Acidosis. This occurs when fermenting starch in the rumen produces excess levels of bacteria, this in turn causes a dramatic increase of acidity which can be fatal for the animal. Stock that are unable to make the change to being fed grain rations are removed from the programme, sometimes with their rumen barely functioning.

• Rumen ulcers. This happens when acidity levels are high and the stomach lining is not protected by mucous, then ulcers form on the rumen wall.

• Liver abscesses. If a beast develops rumen ulcers, the animal can develop abscesses on the liver – another fatal condition.

• Lameness. Inflammation of the beast’s rumen wall allows proteins to be passed into the blood stream, causing inflammation to the hooves.

• Death. Mortality rates in Australian feedlots are commonly around 2%, so in a 8000SCU feedlot, where cattle may be on grain for 100 days, this equates to around 480 deaths.

So, how are you feeling about the grain fed beef industry thus far?

We hear a lot in the media and advertising that grain fed beef is better. But is it really? The cattle feedlot industry has formed its own organisation called the Lot Feeders Association. This organisation receives funding from a variety of sources including memberships and research and development grants. In Sue’s opinion, most research that is undertaken by the Lot Feeders Association is aimed at areas of study that put the grain fed beef industry in the best possible light.

Many people believe grain fed beef to be better – better quality and better flavour. How is this achieved? – well cattle enter a feedlot at an approx weight of 350kgs. A beast is confined to a pen with around 80 others with an approx floor space of around two small suburban house blocks. For the most part, there are no trees and no shade structures, it is not a condition that shade be supplied. The floor surface is dirt with compacted manure on top. There are often mounds of manure in the middle of the pens.

Cattle are kept in these pens for an unbroken period of anywhere between 60 to 300 days (that’s almost a year). They are fed high energy grain feed to fatten them up. The reason this is done is to produce marbled meat. This means that instead of all the fat being deposited on the outside of the meat, fine threads of fat develop throughout the meat muscle, which keep it moist, juicy and flavoursome.

According to the Australian Lot Feeders Association, beef feedlot production is more efficient than grass fed. Less land is used, fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced, market weights are more quickly realised, manure is used as a fertilizer, and liquid effluent collection ponds are emptied to irrigate crops, which in turn are fed back to the cattle.

Around the mid 1980’s the feedlot industry started to expand. Over the last two decades the beef feedlot industry has grown by a whopping 60% and to date Australia has a capacity of over 1.3 million head of cattle in feedlots. Most beef sold in domestic supermarkets is either grain fed or has been finished on grain.

Around 65% of Australian grain fed beef is exported annually. It should be noted that all grain fed beef intended for export markets has to come from accredited feedlots. Conversely, around 35% of the grain fed beef produced is for the domestic market – dominated by the supermarkets. This is the largest single market for the cattle feedlot industry and Queensland has more cattle in feedlots than any other state in Australia.

Feedlotting growing very rapidly in Australia because it is faster and more profitable. Around 75 years ago, cattle were slaughtered when they reached 4 or 5 years old. These days, they are only 14 or 16 months old when slaughtered. It is not possible to take a beef calf from a birth weight of 36kg to a weight of 544kg in just over a year on grass. Feedlot cattle are also given protein supplements, enormous quantities of grain, antibiotics, urea and growth hormone promotants. So obviously, grain feeding cattle does appear to be an efficient way to feed those that can afford it, at the same time ensuring the quality of meat, while making a profit along the way, but what about the welfare of the animals?

Let’s move back on to grass fed beef. A grass feeding programme takes longer to produce the same quantities of beef. However, there are numerous benefits in terms of the nutritional value of the product and its production impacts on the environment.

Grass pastures have the capacity to store carbon in the soil long term. Turning the soil (ploughing) as occurs in grain production, causes carbon in the soil to return to the atmosphere as a gas. Now bear in mind that a third of all arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Grass fed cattle eat sweet grasses, weeds, clovers, and other vegetation and keep the level of vegetation down. In a tall grass plant where the top has been chewed off, it no longer needs its deep roots, so they die off, leaving their carbon in the subsoil.

So, grass fed cattle recycle carbon, where grain fed beef uses much higher levels of fossil fuels in production. In a recent Australian Weekend Magazine, an article by journalist Mark Whittaker stated that it takes 5-10 calories of fossil fuels to grow 1 calories worth of grain or vegetables. Grass fed beef uses half a calorie of fossil fuels to create 1 calorie of beef, conversely grain fed beef uses a massive 35 calories of fossil fuels to create the same amount of beef.

Have you ever thought about how much water beef cattle drink? According to Primary Industries & Resources SA, each beast needs anywhere between 35-80 litres of water a day. Lot fed cattle will require the same volume of water as grass fed, however, grass fed cattle obtain some of their water through pasture – grain fed don’t have this option. In the grain fed beef industry further water is needed for cleaning, construction, dilution of ponds and dust suppression. Furthermore, much of the feed used in feedlots is grown under irrigation.

I would never had considered these things had I not had a conversation with Sue. Apart from all of the above, Sue’s daily battle with living in the smell, dealing with the constant manure dust in her home are things you and I would never have chosen or imagined. When they bought their farm the SCU/acre ratio was a fraction of what it is today.

When next shopping for beef, bear in mind that most large supermarkets stock almost only grain fed beef. I would find a reputable local butcher who will know exactly where the beef hanging up in his shop has come from, and who will be more than happy to discuss your dietary requirements.

Not only will you benefit from eating grass fed beef, so will the environment!


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