Friday, August 1, 2008

Different cows, different impact

I noticed an article in E--The Environmental Magazine last month called "Meat of the Matter", focusing on the global-warming impacts of the livestock industry. Oddly, while the article brought out a lot of numbers it did not include a single photograph of any disturbing meat-animal production facilities (like the feedlot above). Rather, "E" chose to include several pictures of cute Holstein dairy calves. The magazine may be trying to keep the visual material light, or it might be kicking off a broad campaign against all farmers with cattle, or perhaps obtaining stock photos was easiest for Holsteins. Whatever the reason, I need to respond to the implication that dairy cows (and their care) are no different than the beef cow industry.

It is a fact that Americans eat vast quantities of meat, and this leads to the butchering of about 30-35 million cows a year; more red meat slaughter data than you'll ever need is found here. About three-quarters of these cows were raised for the sole purpose of becoming meat, and those in the beef business use breeds like Herefords, Angus, or Limousin. Beef cattle often spend the first part of their lives on grass, but almost all of them stand in feedlots for their final few months. Feedlots push grain through their cattle and move them on to the slaughterhouse when they are 15-20 months old. Once again, about 75% of our beef comes from cows raised with the specific goal of turning them into steaks.

Dairy cows, in contrast, make up a tiny fraction of our hamburger supply--about seven percent. Holsteins are raised with the goal of producing milk for many years; some of them don't produce very effectively and are eventually sold for meat, but every dairy cow at least gets a chance to have a calf and live to a minimum age of three. The average Holstein lives about five years, and they do so far more naturally than beef cows.

One of the accusations leveled at the livestock industry is that it feeds vast quantities of grain that could be better used to feed people. While this may be justified for beef producers, dairy cows eat diets consisting mostly of forage--various grasses, chopped green corn, and hay. This diet matches up much better with their digestive systems than grain, and forages also require much less work to grow. Since dairy cows need to chew their cud in order to convert all that forage into energy, farmers make sure that they are comfortable enough to spend at least a third of their time lying down and "ruminating". Beef cattle that eat mostly grain don't chew much cud, and thus their comfort becomes much less of a bottom-line issue for the meat industry--witness the feedlots of the southern plains.

One final question: if we admit that some animal protein belongs in our diets, is dairy any more efficient at supplying it than beef? To start, meat averages about one-quarter protein by weight, while milk is a bit more than 3%. Slaughtering a beef cow yields about 800 pounds of meat, while milking a dairy cow for three years produces at least 60,000 pounds of milk. So dedicated beef production results in 200 pounds of protein per animal, while dairy production results in almost ten times as much.

So, don't blame the iconic black-and-white dairy breed for the hundred million other cows that exist solely to feed America's hunger for beef. Don't blame dairy farmers for the inefficient use of grain to get beef cows to slaughter weight quickly. And finally, don't blame dairy farms for methane emissions from manure--they have been leading the way in adopting anaerobic manure digesters, and the farms of Skagit County will soon be among them!

No comments: