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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Grazing in the Grass

Air Date: Week of

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A small number of ranchers are rejecting the feedlot system and raising their cows on grass. Guy Hand follows one cattleman as he tries to make a go of ranching the old-fashioned way and selling direct to a new group of consumers.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

We'd like to think that that juicy steak we toss on the summer grill comes from the kind of pastoral landscape it did a hundred years ago. But few do. Most beef cattle in America are fattened up in feedlots, on a complex diet of grain, antibiotics, and agricultural byproducts. The beef industry says that's what consumers want, but critics argue it’s a system that pits biology and health against the bottom line. Producer Guy Hand visits one of a small band of cattle ranchers who've abandoned the feedlot for pasture. They’re trying to raise their herds from start to finish the old fashioned way, on grass.


ELZINGA: Come on guys, get down there, come on guys.


HAND: On the Idaho - Montana border, where Lewis and Clark once walked, rancher Glenn Elzinga is weening his calves. Weening isn't a pleasant time for calf or cowboy.

ELZINGA: I just wonder if they know it's this time of year, and they get that sinking feeling that this is the day, this is the day we must part ways.

HAND: Cows bellow in protest as Elzinga shuts a gate, separating mothers from calves for the first time. [GATE CREAKS] Cowpoke lean, his stetson cocked over a bushy, wild bill mustache, Elzinga is all but apologetic as he ushers a few more calves through the gate to new pasture.

(Photo: Guy Hand)

ELZINGA: Sometimes we call it Glenn and Caryl's Counciling Center for Wayward Cows .

HAND: If Elzinga and his wife Caryl were traditional ranchers, their soft treatment would be short lived. They'd send these calves to faraway feedlots where they'd eat an unfamiliar diet of corn and antibiotics, fattened up quickly and efficiently for slaughter. Instead, Elzinga's calves will spend their lives on the pastures where many of them were born.


ELZINGA: Really, I'm a grass farmer, because this grass is the foundation of my entire operation.

HAND: Elzinga and two of his five young daughters walk through green pastures. He used to send cattle to the feedlots, but was discouraged by the bleak economics of modern beef production. And he just didn't like the industrialization of something as ancient, as simple as cowboys, cattle, and grass.

ELZINGA: I think that wherever you get farther detached from the original way things were – like cattle originally ate grass. Grass! You know, and fish swam in the ocean and now we're farming fish. The more and more we remove these animals from the original things that they were meant to eat, the more and more concerns we're going to see as we eat them.

HAND: Writer Michael Pollan agrees. In a scathing critique of the beef industry he wrote for the Sunday New York Times, he lamented the broken connection between cattle and grass.

POLLAN: There's a wonderful co-evolutionary relationship between cattle and grass. These are animals who have evolved to be able to digest grass, which is a marvelous trick that we don't have. We cannot digest grass at all.

HAND: Pollan calls it a solar-powered food supply.

POLLAN: The sunlight feeds the grass and the grass feeds the ruminants and along we come and we eat the ruminants. So it's an indirect way for us to get our food energy from the sun.

HAND: He says it's an ecologically elegant system, but one beef producers began to abandon in the 1950's.

POLLAN: The logic of economics or industry are very different than the logic of biology. And in economics time is money, and people discovered that if you put cattle on corn they got fat quicker. So that when corn got cheap – and there are a lot of reasons for that, having to do with subsidies and technology – it made sense. It was very efficient to take cattle off of grass and put them in feedlots where they would get heavy very, very quickly.

HAND: Corn-fed cattle reach slaughter weight in 14 months, at least twice as fast as pastured cattle. For the consumer that means more beef at less cost. But Pollan says there's a big problem.

POLLAN: When you hear the expression "corn-fed steaks" just like "corn-fed midwesterner" it has the ring of all-American wholesomeness about it. But in fact cows are not designed to eat corn. And what happens is the corn acidifies the digestive system of the cow in ways that lead to all sorts of problems. As soon as you put your cow on corn at six months you've got to start giving it antibiotics and the reason is the corn is going to make them sick.

HAND: But Gary Weber, animal scientist with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association disagrees with Pollan.

WEBER: Cattle would prefer to eat grain rather than grass. It's just easier for them to chew. It must taste good to them, and that's why we have to actually keep cattle away from grain. Because they'll eat so much if left to their own devises, maybe like kids in candy perhaps. But they do enjoy it and it's not something that is against their nature to eat grain.

HAND: While Pollan looks at the feedlot and sees sick cattle wallowing in their own feces, Weber sees something entirely different.

WEBER: It's not uncommon on a cool day in the summer in the morning to see cattle kicking up their heels, their tails up in the air and hooves kicking around, having fun with each other in those feedlot settings. And they have fresh food, water available at all times. They've got their buddies with them. It seems like a very pleasant place to be, looking at it from the outside.

HAND: Weber says the practice of feeding corn to cattle isn't the product of cold economics, but came from the extra care pioneers gave the steer they raised for their own families.

WEBER: They'd feed grain to that steer and fatten him up, as it were, and they learned that that beef was tastier, more tender, more heavily marbled for their own family's uses. And the word started to spread around and that lead to opportunities for people to raise these animals in more of a commercial way, and the reason being its that consumers really like the taste, the juiciness of grain fed beef.

HAND: But writer Michael Pollan finds the feedlot diet a good deal less appetizing.

POLLAN: There's not just corn in there. We feed cattle in feedlots a lot of horrible things. We feed them chicken manure in places. We feed them brewery waste. We basically look at cows as repositories for all sorts of junk. And to think that what we feed animals, we're not feeding ourselves, is really to kid ourselves. You often hear you are what you eat, but we are also what what we eat eats, if you can follow that [LAUGHTER].

HAND: Studies show that grass-fed beef is lower in fat and higher in beneficial omega three fatty acids than corn-fed beef.


HAND: But rancher Glenn Elzinga has other reasons for growing grass-fed beef.

ELZINGA: It's a place to raise not only these cattle, but my family. And they're just my number one priority. We have fun. We eat together and spend a lot of time with each other so really that's why I'm here. It's for these kids.

HAND: Do you like it here?


HAND: Why?

MELANIE: Because there’s a lot to do. [ABIGAIL IN BACKGROUND: What’d she say?]

HAND: Do you like living here?


HAND: Why?

ABIGAIL: Because it’s pretty.

HAND: Do you like the winter?


HAND: Why?

ABIGAIL: Because you can slide down hills.

HAND: Seven year old Abigail smiles a big, slightly mischievous smile and then yanks a handful of grass and tosses it at her sister Melanie.

ELZINGA: Hey, don’t waste the grass, guys. You’re wasting this grass. Cut it out!

HAND: But life for the Elzinga family isn't all pastoral bliss. Every cattleman in America confronts the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the beef processing business is controlled by four large packing
companies. Those companies have tremendous influence over cattle prices and production methods. So small ranchers, with profits falling and little bargaining power to wield, are finding it harder and harder to stay in business – feedlot or not.

ELZINGA: [SIGHS] You know, I believe that independently operated small farms or small ranches are going to be a thing of the past over the next ten years. The only way that I'm going to maintain profitability at a small scale, say a hundred to a hundred and fifty cows, is by trying to find my own market and eliminating the many steps between my production and the consumer.


HAND: Here, at the Boise farmer's market, Elzinga looks like he took a wrong turn at the corral, frozen steak in hand, surrounded not by pasture but office buildings.


ELZINGA: Want to try some? Absolutely free. No obligation.

HAND: He had little luck finding customers among his rural neighbors back home, so every summer weekend he drives five hours through Idaho mountains to sell his beef to city folk.

ELZINGA: It's a long drive. Yesterday my car died in Fairfield on the way down here and I had to get out and push for a while.

HAND: But at least, he's found people who appreciate the fruits of his labor.

WOMAN: Wow. That is flavor!

ELZINGA: I haven't had one person at this market come back and say they didn't like my beef. And that's a real positive thing, that kind of keeps you going, that kind of puts a little gas on the fire

HAND: Elzinga finds the farmer's market a refreshing for another reason.

ELZINGA: When you're selling cattle on the commercial market, it's a very negative sort of deal. Because you've got a buyer; he's picking through your cattle and he's saying there's something wrong with this one, this one’s got a bad eye, this ones got a bad foot. You know they're coming up with excuses not to buy your product. Here, people come back because they like your product and it makes you feel good. It's a positive thing rather than a negative thing. And I like to build a relationship. I like calling people on a first name, and I like it that they know me, and there's just a lot more meaning to that than shipping my cattle on a truck to a Nebraska feed lot to a guy I've never met in my life.

What have you tried before? (to customer)

WOMAN: I think I tried the London broil and it was very, very, very delicious. Oh, good deal, that's great.

[SOUNDS OF COOKING, KIDS. CARYL: Okay, you set the table….]

HAND: Elzinga's wife and business partner Caryl also likes the personal contact of the farmers’ market, but that close connection doesn't pay the bills. Their meat is comparable in price to premium corn-fed beef, but it can cost several dollars a pound more than supermarket beef. Caryl explains as she fixes dinner.

C. ELZINGA: you can't sell it for the commodity price. We simply can't compete with the way cattle are raised in mass in feedlots on cheap feed. Just can't do it.

HAND: Grass-fed cattle are more costly to raise because it takes longer to bring them to slaughter weight. It's also harder to keep the quality of the meat consistent during the winter months when cattle are eating hay rather than fresh grass.

C. ELZINGA: I don't know if there's a big enough clientelle out there who are interested in what we do to actually make this a big enough market to make this a viable income for us.

HAND: Caryl stares out the kitchen window for a long moment.

C. ELZINGA: About six months ago we said either we're going to do this and go at it whole hog, and do the whole effort that it takes to market this, or we're going to have to re-think everything we're doing and maybe quit what we're doing all together and do something different. I don't think we'd leave the ranch. The kids have already said - do we have to leave and move to town?

GIRL: I found some candy!

C. ELZINGA: You found some candy? Where?

GIRL: Behind my chair.

HAND: Raising five young daughters doesn't give Caryl and Glenn much time to dwell on the future. The kids are hungry now. So, they herd them to the dinner table and set out piles of home-grown vegetables and a juicy grass-fed roast.

GIRL: The corn’s ours, the tomatoes are ours, the cucumbers are ours, and the cauliflower is ours.

GIRL2: And I love the corn!

HAND: Grass-fed beef is part of a growing list of foods that buck America's agricultural trend toward higher technology and greater industrialization. Like organic potatoes, free-range chickens, wild salmon, and heirloom corn, grass-fed beef has become something more than a food choice. It's a symbol for a kind of agriculture that places faith in the small scale, in tradition rather than technology. Critics call that a kind of misplaced nostalgia. Yet farmers and ranchers like the Elzingas see it as a chance to preserve not only a fading kind of agriculture, but themselves.

For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand

ELZINGA: OK, lets pray. Dear Lord, thanks a lot for this food and I pray that you please bless us.

FAMILY: (singing) Evening has come. The corn is cooked. Thanks be to God, who gives us bread. Praise God for bread.

ELZINGA: Ok, dig in!




Glenn and Caryl Elzinga's website

Clearinghouse for pasture raised animals

National Cattlemen's Beef Association


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