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November 2009 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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A Vegan or a Pothead?

Nov 30, 2009

By Steve Cornett

At least two members of the cultural elite seem to be noticing some of the same things I’ve noticed about the anti-meat crowd. The no-meat message is going stale.

It’s rare enough to see ANY celebrity throwing thorns rather than roses at the animal rights movement that it seems worthy of mention.

The very popular singer-songwriter Norah Jones’ latest album includes a ditty in which she purrs that she would rather hang out with her dog than “a vegan or a pothead” partially because the dog eats meat.

You can hear the song on YouTube.

What a fresh approach in a world in which so many entertainers—most with far less talent than Ms. Jones—like to proselytize their meatless ways. They do it for the same reason they pierce and tattoo their body parts. It’s trendy. Or at least it has been. Could some of the trend setters be tiring of the shrillness?

Not to suggest any sea change in attitudes among the cultural elite, but none is more elite, culturally, than Ms. Jones. You can’t follow your wife into a nice department store without hearing her (Ms. Jones, not your wife)on the PA system.

And there was also last week—click here to read—the bemused tone of New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s take on Jonathan Safran Foer’s recently-published “Eating Animals.” Ms. Kakutani calls his effort “an earnest if clumsy chronicle of the author’s own evolving thinking about animals and vegetarianism.

“This uneven volume,” she says, “meanders all over the place, mixing reportage and research with stream-of-consciousness musings and asides.”

That is not exactly what an author hopes the Times review will say.

“Anticipating reader objections,” opines Ms. Kakutani somewhat uncharitably, “Mr. Foer writes that people might say ‘social-justice movements’ have ‘nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,’ that ‘human oppression is not animal abuse.’ But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez ‘too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm’…

“It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.”

Goodness! Common sense rears it uncommon head.

Thanks, ladies. It helps us remember that not all the people in New York have lost their sense of proportion.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


A Reply to the Replies About COOL

Nov 24, 2009

By Steve Cornett

You may have seen, earlier this week, the blog about my red Chinese boots and mandatory country of origin labeling--Boots, Beef and Buying American. Note from the responses that I stand accused, again, of being an anti-American corporate lackey.

Among the responses was a note from Dr. Max Thornsberry, president of R-Calf USA. We’ve reprinted it. And so here’s my response to his response.

Hi Max.

Your assumption that those ornery retailers are using Angus as a ploy to convince consumers they’re buying a U.S. product is sooo—that a four-o sooo—wrong. There are plenty of Angus in Mexico and Canada. Marketers filched the Angus name long, long ago, not because it connotes US origin, but high quality.

If “made in the USA” had the same panache, the ad men would be touting that instead.

Not to be too obvious, but if the marketers thought consumers cared about origin, they now have access to plenty of U.S. labeled beef they could promote that way. They wouldn’t have to borrow the Angus name.

The problem is, not enough consumers care about the country of origin. People aren’t going to beat a path to your door for a commodity mouse trap.

But you’re right. COOL is the law of the land. So, why aren't those of you with platforms and memberships and protectionist bents not working on a program to sell U.S. beef? You birds are so busy trying to get the government to constrain the packing and retail businesses that you don't have time to sell your own product.

Various states are putting together state checkoff programs. Why don't I see your name on any of those efforts? State programs can be designed to be able to promote U.S. product in competition with foreign beef AND fowl meat. The federal checkoff is hamstrung along those lines. It’s the law of the land.

It seems to me that those of you who forced COOL on the rest of us should take the lead in helping sell the public on the value. You seem to think simple xenophobia will give the label value. Darn it, Max, there just aren't enough xenophobes nowadays who care, and that's why the retailers are so cold on COOL. Not everybody in America thinks like you.

Why don't you guys put together a new national Beef Industry Council kind of organization to explain those labels to consumers and create some demand-pull for the product? The retailers say there is none. The packers have no incentive to create it. The only entity out there with a vested interest in selling COOL beef is US cow-calf producers.

As a feeder and/or stocker operator, you can buy and feed Mexican cattle. JBS can buy and sell Canadian cattle. Retailers can buy and sell Mexican cattle. Consumers are showing us they don’t care. So, nobody but cow and calf guys realizes any value from COOL
It's all cost and no reward and that impacts demand and hurts everybody in the chain. 

You say:
The U.S., with all its government mandates, will never be the low cost producer of beef.  I believe that within 10 years, if something is not done to level out trade differences in production costs, that U.S. beef production will be largely reduced to corporate ownership, just like occurred with the U.S. swine production system.  The U.S. beef production system is right where the U.S. pork production system was in 1985.  I give us about 10 years.

Do we have to be the "low cost" producer to compete? Does Lexus have to be the low cost producer? Do black-hided cattle have to be cheaper to have a market?

Don't we have some sizzle and value that we can merchandise? Don’t we believe we have the “safest, highest-quality beef in the world?” Why don’t those of you with followings and a knack for organizing tell that story?

We might find, as a lot of folks do when they begin serious marketing programs, that we don’t offer a lot of value people can’t get elsewhere; that there are things we could do in our production systems to create more value and increase demand for our product. Things, I would argue, like traceability and quality controls aimed at providing a more satisfactory product.

A lot of the folks who rag on me at least have grass fed and natural products--attributes that some consumers want--to sell. There is some demand-pull for their product. They back it up with marketing programs. 

What's COOL got? Just you guys writing mean, scared-of-competition, letters to editors, politicians and each other, near as I can tell.

Why do you think U.S. beef is more valuable than Canadian beef or Mexican beef? Why would a consumer prefer one over the other?
And, most importantly, WHO is telling them that?

The national checkoff sells generic beef. That message should remain “buy beef not fowl.” That is a big enough job for a paltry $1-per-head program.  Fowl meat has, in the last three decades, taken a lot more market share from U.S. beef than imports ever will.

Now you need a separate--additive--program that says “buy US, not Brazilian, beef.”

You guys in the R-Calf/USCA crowd keep trying to "save independent producers" by hiding behind the government’s skirts, trying to get others to pay your bills. That isn't going to work. Cattle producers need to come out and speak for themselves, not just lie in the bottom of the chute and bawl at the sky about Brazil and Canada.

Cattle feeders, packers and retailers have no reason NOT to buy and sell U.S. It’s just that, without demand-pull, they also have no incentive. That’s the job of US cattle producers and organizations--and you’re not doing it.

So don’t blame me or the retailers for stating the obvious.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


Boots, Beef and Buying American

Nov 16, 2009

By Steve Cornett

That picture is my buckaroo boots. I bought them because they had the highest top of any boots on the boot shelf at the local West Texas Western Wear. Well, that and they’ve got those pretty red tops.

I like high top boots with my pants tucked into them for two reasons. Laws of physics say the higher the boot top, the less chance of getting snakebit. And our place raises a remarkable number of grass burrs. If you don’t have your pants stuck into your boots, and with some high tops, your pants gather those grass burrs through the day. Then they wind up in the laundry. Then they wind up in somebody’s underpants, and then there’s trouble I don’t need.

So the point is the reason I bought the boots were the high tops. The fact that they’re red was only secondary. And the fact that they are popular with the hands on the big ranches hereabouts, the boys with the taco hats on their heads and the cute blondes on their arms, was of even less consequence. But let me just note that these boots are 100% cowboy.

Imagine my surprise, then, that one day recently while checking for scorpions and the like before I donned my red boots, I noticed on the inside it says, “Made in China.” These are cowboy boots, now. Riding heels. High, red tops. As Western as Western boots can get. On the outside, at least.

Do I care? Should I care? I don’t know. I have nothing against the Justin and Luchesse and Tony Lama brands I’ve always worn. They serve the purpose just fine, and they’re made in the U.S., or at least were the last time I checked. But the tops weren’t as high.

These Chinese boots fit fine. They’re comfortable enough. They seem to wear like a pair of elephant hides I had once. The only thing wrong with them is they were made in China. And let me be frank: I would buy them again, over a domestically-made boot, because they have an attribute I want. They’ve got high tops. 

I’m a boot consumer, you see. Like your customers are meat consumers.

Now, if somebody were to have surveyed me before I saw the Chinese label, and asked me if I prefer domestic over Chinese-made boots, I would have said “yes.” Would I pay more? Yes, again.

But here I am in Chinese boots, which is just about what’s happening with beef consumers and country of origin labeled beef. At the Texas Cattle Feeders Association convention, two different members of a retail panel said they had received next to zero interest in the labels from consumers. Cathy East, from Safeway said she had received one call.

She described the costs as “tremendous;” however, in the form of labor, in the form of record keeping, in the form of the time it takes to spend with an auditor in your store.

The retailers said that, so far, the program has been all cost and no reward. They said the costs were considerable, especially for the stores where the meat is cut in-store.

Nobody has done the math, but both the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute—folks who probably know more than you and I and COOL supporters about what the labels are costing them—think the USDA estimate of $1.5 billion for beef in the first year may be low.

I don’t know if that’s true. But even if it’s half that, and you divvy it out across 30 million cattle a year, you’re looking at $25 a head. Dave Weaber with Food Lion, told the TCFA group he’s seen no indication of interest from consumers. "I don't think our consumers are willing to pay for it (COOL), and I don't think they do pay for it,” he said.

“I think it trickles back down through the system clear to the cow-calf level through margins."

I don’t know who’s absorbing the cost—it might be included in the farm to retail spread which some people are so concerned about. Or it might just be coming out of cattle sellers’ pockets. It’s coming from somewhere. 

If consumers cared, that would be one thing. But they don’t. Beef demand has continued to slide because the main attributes people want in their beef are affordability and taste. They might tell surveys they care whether it comes from the U.S., but that’s before they see the red tops.

We’ve started this trade dispute with Canada and Mexico for nothing, really. I’m a big fan of traceability. I think the day will come when true traceability will pay big rewards for everybody up and down the beef chain. I want to be able to trace a nasty bacteria all the way back to the home farm in Canada or Mexico or Iowa. But that program will, I hope, be voluntary and it will pay for itself because consumers will be willing to pay for it.

But country of origin doesn’t add traceability. It just adds cost. 

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


Avery’s Take on Grain Feeding

Nov 06, 2009

By Steve Cornett

Earlier this week, we took a look at the public perception plight of cattle feeders. Now Alex Avery, co-author of a significant study on the importance of modern agricultural prctices, offers this clarification on the role of methane production in fed cattle.

He has a valid point, of course. Different feedstuffs digest differently and if we were to produce the same poundage of beef on grass as we do on grain, cattle would produce much more gas. Alas, that is not the real goal of the anti-beef lobby. They want less beef, period. Getting rid of feedyards is jus their idea of step one.

That said, Alex makes his point far better than I can:


I hope you’ll take another look at our report from 2007 on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of grain-fed versus grass-finished beef. The numbers show grain-finishing results in 40% fewer CO2-equivalent GHG emissions per pound of beef than grass-finished. Niman was simply wrong in proclaiming grass-finished better in terms of “climate change” emissions.

I’ve written to the NY Times (including the public editor) and showed them my and two other analyses, and haven’t heard a word back.

Background: My report used;

  1. third party beef production data (from Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture) and
  2. UN IPCC greenhouse gas emissions (emissions factors for grain-fed versus grass-fed animals).

      -     including emissions from fertilizer production for feed corn, (no fertilizer for grass)
      -     but not including feed transport (which can very significantly), but is often no more than 5-6%.

The UN report – Livestock’s Long Shadow – that says 18% of human emissions are from livestock (1/3 of which is from Amazon destruction for cattle feed) even says that the answer is to increase the digestability of feed (i.e. grain is better as far as greenhouse gas emissions). Less methane from grain, half as much as when feeding on grass.

Last year’s AAAS meeting had a presentation from a grad student at Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) that noted about 50% fewer GHG emissions per pound in grain finishing versus grass. Also, a German group reported 40% less from grain finished beef.

Here’s what I sent the NYT.


Sent: Monday, November 02, 2009 5:54 PM
To: ''
Subject: Niman Ranch op-ed false claims


On Saturday, Nicolette Niman self-servingly claimed that meat raised outdoors on pasture have “scant connection” to the carbon dioxide emissions and wrongly claimed the methane emissions aren’t a problem on “traditional farms.” The obvious, and wrong conclusion from these statements is that beef finished on grain-based diets in feedlots are the real greenhouse gas emission problem with meat consumption.

Several independent and comprehensive studies, including my own (see:, have shown repeatedly that beef finished in feedlots on corn-based diets have 40% to 50% less CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef produced. Thus, the more “climate-friendly” beef option is the grain-finished beef so out of fashion. Why is this so? Because cattle fed on grass produce roughly twice as much methane as cattle fed on grass (eluded to in Niman’s own op-ed), and according to the UN IPCC, methane is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Thus, while grain-finished cattle are responsible for higher CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions, this is more than offset by the higher methane emissions.

Why the New York Times refuses to acknowledge this now well established fact, one that was in fact discussed on the NYT own environmental blog, is curious for a paper that claims to be so concerned with accuracy on such important matters.

But please don’t take my word for it, simply ask Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University, who presented this reality at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February of this year, as reported in Science News:

Excerpt from Science News article: Many environmentalists have argued that finishing up the fattening of beef cattle on corn is worse for the environment than cattle that are raised solely on pasture grass. Pelletier says his team’s analysis finds that at least from a climate perspective, the opposite is true. “We do see significant differences in the GHG intensities [of grass vs grain finishing]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.”

When an audience member questioned whether he had heard that right, that grass-fed cattle have a higher carbon footprint, Pelletier reiterated, “higher. Yes.” The reason: “It’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions.” He added that most pastures were highly managed, and subject to “periodic renovations and also fertilization.” Finally, with grass-fed cattle “there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that [GHG] difference,” Pelletier said.

Or ask the German Institute for Ecological Economy Research, from an article in Der Speigel:

The report from IEER (IOeW in German) is available here:

Excerpt: The production of one kilo of grass-fed beef causes the same amount of emissions as driving 113.4 kilometers (70.4 miles) in a compact car. Because of more intensive production methods, producing one kilo of conventional beef is the equivalent of driving only 70.6 kilometers (43.9 miles).


Alex Avery

Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues




Good News but Not Much of It

Nov 04, 2009

When the chads settled this morning, there was good news in Ohio and good news in Texas.

In Ohio, the ag industry’s animal care board “sailed” through, you can read more on it at AgWeb.

And in Texas, we approved a constitutional amendment  aimed at keeping bureaucrats from taking our stuff to give to their friends. You can read that story from the Dallas Morning News.

I would pontificate about how important those votes are and how significant the wide margins of victory are, but then I remembered watching the cable news last night with all those wise people telling us what to think minute by minute and then this morning I saw video from the Onion, which sort of sums up the value punditry gone wild. You can, and should, see it:

Breaking News: Series Of Concentric Circles Emanating From Glowing Red Dot

And I decided to make this blog brief.

Feeders Face Challenges Beyond Cattle Prices

Nov 03, 2009

By Steve Cornett

Here’s the deal facing cattle feeders: They are the bad guys in all that the activists find wrong with beef. They’re the ones with the “factory farms.” They’re the ones who use antibiotics. They “fatten” cattle. They concentrate manure. They buy corn the happyfacers claim would otherwise feed the starving masses in Africa.

Two stories I read last week bring the feeders’ plight to mind. One was billed as “The Carnivore’s dilemma” in the New York Times. The other was in London’s Times Online and suggested people should “give up meat to save the planet.” (Click here to read the latter.). The article suggests that as the population increases, people will have to eat less meat. If you buy into the United Nation.’s overblown concerns about the effects of cattle on global warming, that would be a logical conclusion.

It’s unthinkable to us that the whole world would give up beef—the king of foods—but not long ago it was unthinkable that we would all wear seatbelts and give up smoking and be so good about naming a designated driver before a night on the town. I’m from a day when town milk tasted nasty, so it’s not too hard for me to believe that implausible changes are possible.

The New York Times piece written by “natural” food activist Nicolette Hahn Niman argues that consumers could avoid all that environmental damage by eating grassfed beef. She chose not to argue with the logic of doing away with meats. Rather, people should just eat the stuff she and Niman Farms believe in.

Those two pieces coincidentally coincided with the Texas Cattle Feeders Association annual convention. There aren’t many folks in the world with more at stake—at risk—in this argument than the 500 or 600 people at that meeting.

But I didn’t pick up a lot of worry from those in attendance. Not about the future, anyhow. They’re so swept away by their current problems I can’t imagine how they'd have any worry synapses left to devote to some English lord making vegetarian suggestions to future generations.

Informa calculates that the cattle feeders in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, and TCFA claims almost all of them as members, have shed about $1.85 billion in equity since the downturn began. That’s just from the three states—responsible for a little more than a quarter of all the cattle fed in the U.S.

And, overall, there wasn’t just a lot of happy predictions from the podium.

Things are hardly hunky-dory for anybody in the cattle business. But cattle feeders are roasting in their own level of hell these days, when you think about it. The economy has slashed demand for beef—by 10 to 15% according to Randy Blach of Cattle-Fax. And he warned that so long as the general economy stays so sorry, there’s not much hope for a lot of recovery.
Cow producers can at least take solace in the supply side of the industry’s supply and demand equation—they’ve got the smallest cow herd since 1949 and the best batch of pasture conditions in almost as long. But for cattle feeders, those short numbers are just more bad news. They’ve got feedyards to keep full, and the short supply of calves just makes them compete that much harder with each other and with all that green grass offering an alternate home for weaners.

On top of that, ethanol continues to keep grain prices high, and with oil prices back on the rise and the EPA poised to increase the amount of ethanol allowed in U.S. gasoline, there seems little good news there. 

The press for fed beef has been especially negative the last few months, and few feeders feel like they have a lot of supporters in the current administration. They are scared to death of Carol Browner and Cass Sunstein—the former staunch in her desire to see a “cleaner world” and the latter an “avowed animal rightist,” as one speaker said.

That’s a bunch of problems facing a business, you know? If they were calves in a feedpen, you’d want to pull them I think. Maybe not to doctor, but at least to temp.

Maybe, since I was here before there was a commercial cattle feeding industry, I’m among a minority of active cattle industry members who can imagine a future without one. Ms. Niman is correct in assuming that many ranchers could operate without the year-round market offered, and filled, by feedlots.

But she might find that her niche market was no longer profitable once the well-heeled consumers who buy her product were offered a ton of generic grassfed product.             

I’m personally convinced that the commercial feedyards have been good for everybody in the cattle business. It makes a better tasting product. It allows cost-efficiencies in several ways. It provides a year-round supply of beef and year-round markets for rancher’s calves.

Sometimes I wonder if the commercial feeding industry will survive attacks like these from within and without. I wonder what it would mean to cow-calf producers if regulators and activists finally pushed feeders out of business.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


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