OP/ED
Intelligent husbandry of primary heritage breeds could be our key to more-sustainable farming and food
Instead, the perversions of industrial Big Food thinking are consigning priceless agricultural knowledge to be lost with the generations.

By Gearld Fry
Posted January 17, 2008

Pie Town, New Mexico, June 1940.
USDA Photo by: Russell Lee

The years come and the years go. Men age and boys grow. The cattle herds of yesteryear, their lineage and the propensity they represented, are now barely a memory. Old books describe truly functional family cows and warn of impending danger and tragedy if the rate of natural resource exploitation of the time is continued.

A new generation returns to the farm or ranch, ushered in with an abundance of packaged knowledge regarding the latest animal science and research, and funded by profit-driven, greed-riddled corporations. Our sons and daughters earn their college education and are eager to take things over and push the herd to supposed new heights with their book knowledge and learning. Dad is old-fashioned now and his knowledge and wisdom couldn’t possibly fit the picture any longer.

Twenty-five years later, reality sets in when the over-vaccinated cows keep getting sick, and the TMR ration can’t keep weight on them or their milk production consistent. Healthy calves seem to die for no reason, and mastitis has taken another quarter. “Why didn’t dad and grandpa have these troubles?” they ask. The struggling, college-educated rancher begins to look back in an attempt to understand the knowledge that passed before him.

By this time the boy has become a man, grandfather is gone, and the dad is too old to be active. The next generation has again left for the universities, so the man is left to fend for himself.

It becomes increasingly difficult for him to glean the necessary information to manage a sustainable cattle operation. The cycle repeats itself as the concept of working with nature and wisdom of years gone by is buried with those old books and old men. And now, the grip of science-guided, supplier-bound agriculture gets tighter and tighter with barely enough room to breathe. What is truly sad about this scenario is that we have now experienced three, even four generations of what I consider a regressive and detrimental approach to food production.

Can we ever recover?

Bad thinking for a long time

Trends, breed popularities, fabricated numbers, misguided information, hybridized breeding and crop subsidies have heavily influenced the American cattle industry for the past 75 years.

We have completely lost the notion of what we were producing; food that would feed and nourish our babies, grow strong and lean teenagers, fuel busy adults, and restore good health to the sick.

As it is, cattle—animals that in their natural state could normally stay fat and healthy on green grass and good hay, and nourish families with wholesome and healthy meat and milk as God intended —have been steadily transformed into what has become a starch-dependent, mongrelized production machine that produces food that tastes like cardboard and causes heart disease and numerous other health problems. We have completely lost the notion of what we were producing; food that would feed and nourish our babies, grow strong and lean teenagers, fuel busy adults, and restore good health to the sick. It seems as though we have lost sight of the cycle of life beneath the ground, the magic of minerals and photosynthesis, of cattle spending their entire life doing what comes naturally–grazing.

Today’s cattle producers are equipped with an arsenal of unnaturals to ward off diseases and treat what have become common, everyday ailments to the animals God gave us. Breeding for sick-free cattle is nearly non-existent. I have spoken with a handful of older cattlemen friends who talk about the pre-1960s and claim they never had to doctor a calf for sickness while it was still nursing from its mother. Today it is common practice and even required that our animals be shot full of vaccines. What have we done?

Parasites prey on the sick, weak and diseased. Therefore, in addition to all the vaccines, it is considered “normal” to put chemicals in or on our cattle twice a year to combat these ravenous scavengers. “Why are they there in the first place?” one should ask. This protocol for “chemical rescue” animal health management is what is being taught to our aspiring young men and women. Instead of books and “head knowledge,” they should be taught true animal husbandry skills of working with nature to create conditions that promote health, beginning with the soil. I know for myself, I would rather not eat meat from any animal that was ever sick during its lifespan. In today’s meat market, this would rule out the vast majority of the animals that are put in the grocery store coolers for human consumption.

My friends, this should not be.

Quality, resiliency genes hijacked for volume

Our forefathers left us with 8 to 10 breeds of cattle that were adapted to various environments across America. Unfortunately, we now pay little attention to the positive effects of breeding, good herd management, husbandry and feeding practices. We seem to have moved on from the time when we had common quality standards of healthy eating and nutritional value in the meat and milk being produced.

With today’s science and technology, man still hasn’t been able to formulate a ration that can sustain a cow for very long without her natural diet of grass and sunshine.

In the name of progress, the Jersey, once cherished for her high (5-to-6 percent) butterfat milk, was turned into a 20,000 pound-milking machine but with only 3-to-3.5 percent butterfat. The Holstein, now a freak that wouldn’t survive on her own, pushes out upwards towards 30,000 pounds a milk in a year and then burns out before she reaches her fifth birthday. The Guernsey cow hasn’t readily molded to fit in with the “milk check” economy, so she’s lost favor and today is almost nonexistent.

The dairy sector has been turned into a feedlot system whereby commodity-subsidized grain is funneled through the bovine and sold back to the consumer in the form of a white liquid they label “milk.” With today’s science and technology, man still hasn’t been able to formulate a ration that can sustain a cow for very long without her natural diet of grass and sunshine. The meat and milk that comes from animals managed in a confinement system isn’t fit for human consumption. One reason is the imbalance of the omega 3 to omega 6 essential fatty acids ratios—the consequence of a high-starch diet.

High-butterfat milk with the correct nutritional components is critical for optimal health in the developing and growing calf. Fat in the milk coats the lining of the calf’s esophagus and gut, which prevents bacteria and other disease-causing organisms from entering the blood stream. Fat is important for the proper development of the nervous system which is the circuitry for the digestive system, endocrine (gland) system and immune function, etc. Mother’s milk keeps the calf healthy and vigorous while his system develops the ability to ruminate and utilize grass. It can take up to 10 months from the time a calf is born for it to realize all the benefits of a fully functioning rumen.

Take this natural fat out of a calf’s diet and see what happens. Compare dairy calves that have access to full-fat milk from their mothers (as nature designed it) to those that are fed a rationed diet made from powdered milk replacer. The differences are tremendous, noticeable to even the most novice of observers.

Misplaced genetic priorities

Through this quest for high milk production, we have actually changed the physiology of the cow to where she will sacrifice her own body condition (lose fat cells and muscle mass) before she stops producing milk. Increased production has resulted in lowered butterfat, but the genetic requirement for optimum nutrition has not changed. It is the young that suffer the most with malnutrition, sickness, disease and even death.

Look back a few generations—the beef cow then was bred to produce a minimum of 4 percent butterfat. Whether they realized butterfat or not, those farmers knew what cows gave the best milk for good calves that made good food for the table.

The dairy calf at two days old is taken from its mother and put on a milk replacer (dehydrated whey) for two months. The bone and frame structure of the calf is deprived of adequate nutrition as well as its muscle development. The foundation for creating fat cells happens for a limited period of time at this stage in a young animal’s life, and that potential reservoir of available energy is what gets an adult animal through the tough times. When there is no extra energy for a growing calf to build those fat cells, that animal is and will remain a high-maintenance animal for the rest of its life.

The butterfat of the average beef cow is 2-to-2.5 percent (some even less) and her milk production is in the 4,000-pound range. That, my friend, is not enough energy to grow a calf and have it build the necessary fat cells for the type of production that utilizes grass. Not only that, it’s the low-butterfat cows (less then 3.5 percent) whose calves get sick with E. coli scours, pink eye or pneumonia. It’s those low-butterfat cows that are difficult to breed back.

Look back a few generations—the beef cow then was bred to produce a minimum of 4 percent butterfat. Whether they realized it was because of the butterfat or not, those farmers knew what cows gave the best milk for good calves that made good food for the table. It takes that amount of butterfat in the cow’s milk to start that fat-cell production during that critical period in a calf’s development. It takes that amount to garnish a carcass with quality, tender, fine-textured meat.

Unfortunately we don’t get paid in today’s marketplace for quality. Therefore, it’s no wonder we do not look at our animals as a gene pool worth improving or protecting. How did we get into this condition? Consider that:

  • The commodity grain, feedlot and food-processing industry has so deceptively and cleverly influenced and guided the farmer into producing an overabundance of corn and soybeans so that their raw materials stay cheap and profit margins high. The government farm-subsidy program fits right into that plan.
  • Rising costs of production and dwindling profit margins for the grower keeps him or her increasingly dependent on those subsidy payments. For farmers to stay in business, they must increase those subsidy checks, which mean increase production (pounds, bushels, and tons). In turn, those that do not direct market (which is the vast majority) are driven to produce the animals that will consume all the grain. In turn, the results are an undetected transformation away from grass-based genetics and nutritionally balanced food.

If our goal becomes quality and we band together to market our products more locally, then and only then will we fairly compensated.
  • The industry monarchy decides what prices are paid to the grower/farmer, which is not based on cost of production, and keeps them at a rate just high enough to keep him producing. The gruesome reality and unfortunate truth of the matter is that most, if not all, of the food produced by this model is not what God intended for our bodies. It is tax dollars, both yours and mine, that keep this ill-fated cycle going.

We cannot put the burden of turning things around solely on our young boys and girls coming through the university system. The problems began before our sons and daughters were put in the driver seats.

What we must do is stop focusing on working for the almighty dollar.

If our goal becomes quality and we band together to market our products more locally, then and only then will we fairly compensated. We must be “debt free” to leverage every opportunity. Experience is the best classroom. History is the best teacher. Without health there is little chance for happiness.

Let us look back at what experience and our forefathers have taught us and move forward with what we know is “the right thing to do.”

We are our brother’s keeper, and the health and prosperity of our nation depends on it.