Pasture-Based Cattle

September 7, 2009

The idyllic vision we may have of cows grazing on open fields under blue skies is not a very realistic picture of cattle production today. While many cattle in the United States do begin their lives on relatively small, family-owned ranches with ample amounts of pastureland, the vast majority of cattle end their lives in large, overcrowded “feedlots.” Here their diet includes grains and other products such as flesh, bones, hooves, and feathers of other animals, chicken or cattle manure, stale pastry, ground cardboard, and “plastic hay.” They are often administered antibiotics to fend off the diseases they would otherwise contract under these conditions. The cattle are often given growth hormones to make them grow bigger faster.

Not all ‘grain-fed’ cattle are subject to the worst feedlot conditions. Some feedlots are less crowded and are managed without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Some facilities feed their cattle only grain and other foodstuffs (a typical diet might include: barley, corn, wheat, soy meal, sugar beet pulp, cane molasses and hay) without all the fillers and questionable by-products. Feedlots producing certified organic dairy products or beef must follow guidelines that include feeding the animals certified organic grain, avoiding antibiotics and hormones, and providing some access to pasture for ‘ruminant’ animals.

‘Ruminant’ animals are “cud-chewing” species such as cows, goats, sheep, and bison. Their specialized digestive system has evolved over many millennia to digest the biodiversity of grasses found on pastureland. When ruminant animals such as cattle are fed a grain-based diet, it can cause them a range of health problems including:

ACIDOSIS: Most feedlot ruminants suffer from a persistent form of acid indigestion.
RUMENITIS: Acidosis can lead to an inflammation of the wall of the rumen. This can eventually become ulcerated.
LIVER ABSCESSES: As the rumen wall becomes ulcerated, bacteria pass through the walls, enter the bloodstream, and make their way to the liver where they cause abscesses.
BLOAT: All ruminants produce gas as a by-product of digestion. When they are on pasture, they belch up the gas without any difficulty. When they are switched to a diet of grain, gas becomes trapped by a dense mat of foam.
ASPHYXIATION: In serious cases of bloat, the rumen becomes so distended with gas that the animal is unable to breathe and dies from asphyxiation.
FEEDLOT POLIO: When the rumen becomes too acidic, an enzyme is produced which destroys thiamin or vitamin B-1. Lack of vitamin B-1 starves the brain of energy, creating paralysis. Cattle with feedlot polio are referred to as “brainers.”

In addition to the effects on animal health, the feedlot system also has some serious environmental impacts. Overcrowding of animals produces excessive amounts of manure that cannot be recycled on site. Runoff from this manure creates an excess of nitrogen in watersheds. Methane gas produced by cattle contributes to global warming. The large-scale industrial production of grain to feed the animals includes high usage of pesticides and herbicides and the widespread use of genetically engineered seed.

The feedlot system also has social consequences. As commodity prices for beef and dairy products are driven down, small family-owned ranches are often driven out of business. Those that do manage to stay afloat generally work on contract with a few large corporations, greatly limiting their autonomy, financial security, and opportunities for growth. The system has been likened to one of ‘indentured servitude.’ Feedlots themselves can be toxic environments for the workers who operate them, and smelly eyesores for the communities that house them. Slaughterhouses can be dangerous for workers when speed and production are considered more important than safety.

Keeping cattle on open rangeland or pasture from birth until death is an alternative to the feedlot system. Because cattle eat the diet that is ‘biologically appropriate’ for them and their digestive systems, the health problems outlined above are eliminated. Grazing cattle on pastureland in a well-managed system can have a positive environmental impact:

BIODIVERSITY: Many studies show that appropriate grazing by ruminant animals on native pastureland increases the biodiversity of species of grasses. When pastureland is left ungrazed, a single species tends to take over, creating a ‘monoculture’ of that particular grass species.
SLOWS GLOBAL WARMING: While grass-fed ruminants also produce methane, research shows that pasturelands themselves reduce the CO2 in the air through a process called “carbon sequestration.” This means that while feedlot systems are having an overall negative impact, pasture-based systems have a neutral or even positive impact on the climate.
SOIL FERTILITY : The United States loses about three billion tons of nutrient-rich topsoil each year. Growing corn and soy for animal feed using conventional methods causes a significant amount of this soil loss. Well-managed grazing returns nutrients to the soil as moderate amounts of manure act as natural fertilizers for the soil.
WATER FLOW AND QUALITY : When manure is recycled into the landscape through good pasture management, the nutrient balance in waterways is maintained. Ranchers who protect riparian areas see improvement in water flow: creeks begin to run sooner and remain wet longer, and the grass season is extended.

Research is showing that there are also significant health advantages to eating dairy products or beef from pasture-raised animals. The types of fats found in grass-fed meat are more healthful than those in grain-fed meat. The following nutrients are present in grass-fed animal products in much higher amounts than in feedlot products: Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamins A, D, and E.

Finally, a movement towards pasture-based cattle ranching can have significant social benefits as well. Grass based systems work best based on a diversified model where many small-scale family-owned ranchers maintain their own herd from birth to death. Free-range ranches contribute to the preservation of greenbelts near our cities and are a beautiful part of rural landscapes.