Published: Monday, 28 September 2009 21:57
Written by Pati Jacobs
There's a dark interior to every silver lined cloud! While the drought was on at least we were spared weeds (even they need water) and the feral pigs (they all migrated to the river). With the rain, we've had an explosion of both. The ranch's biggest problem right now is dove weed - they smell wonderful and the dove love the seeds but they crowd out the grass for the cows. The pigs are a problem because their rooting tears up grass and allows the dove weed to get a foothold. The back pasture that had looked so good last year took a terrible beating from the pigs and is now full of dove weed.
Of course, if we were conventional, we'd just spray! Herbicide would take care of this problem. However, we don't do that. Instead, we're shredding - think really large lawnmower - and once we can see the problem better, we'll smooth out the ruts and re-seed. Right now, we're thinking of re-seeding with some native grasses and re-sprigging with coastal bermuda grass. This presents us with another problem.
The US Department of Agriculture has a grant program to encourage sustainability. They will match funds for re-seeding and fertilizing. I'l like to take advantage of this, but there's a hitch. We can fertilize the native grasses with compost tea and fish emulsion, but the coastal has to be fertilized with conventional chemical fertilizers to qualify for the matching funds.
Even the USDA guy who came out to look at our fields admitted it dade no sense!
As for the pigs - well, we're thinking maybe some lower level, intensive fencing, and some specialty hunting and trapping practices. All we can do is keep their numbers down and deter them from visiting.
Like Herman the Frog use to sing, "It's not easy being green".
Published: Thursday, 17 September 2009 01:17
Written by Pati Jacobs
I listen to too much radio!
This past week I heard two very interesting - and some would say disturbing - segments on National Public Radio. The first segment was on Aregentina and how the country that is so well known for its grass fed, free-range beef is switching over to feed lot beef. The second segment was on the continuing saga of the search for more water in Central Texas to water the growing population anticipated along the I-130 Corridor.
To the first segment: It seems that due to various economic circumstances, it is becoming far cheaper to bring animals into large and growing feed lots around Buenos Aires and feed them out on a corn mixture (like we do here in the US), than it is to keep them in the pastures and let them fatten up naturally. Of course, the Argentinean government is subsidizing both the feed and the feed lots! Wait, am I missing something here?
Now, I just have one observation. As corn becomes too expensive to use in this country to do the massive feeding out of beef, will we start importing cheap grain fed beef from Argentina? Is this possibly a situation that will lead to us importing more of our food from overseas? It's certainly worth watching.
To the second segment: First, let me state that while we have had lots of rain in the past two weeks (the CJ Ranch received over 5 inches!), and everything is greening up, we are still suffering from a deficit of rain. The segment was quite interesting in that it fits in well with articles that have been showing up in the Austin American Statesman about water profiteers and the whole idea of piping water from the Simsboro Aquifer east of Austin (and sitting squarely under Lee and Bastrop Counties). Many people in and around the highland lakes want water taken from the Simsboro instead of having more water pumped out of the lakes.
Now aside from all the colorful characters that inhabit this story and any story about water in Texas (remember; just as all droughts end in floods in Texas, it's also said that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting in Texas), there are some major questions we should be asking about transporting water from one area to another in this state.
Are we just robbing Peter to pay Paul? The Californians piped water in from north of Los Angeles decades ago. The counties above that city were turned into deserts to satisfy LA's thirst. But LA is still short of water - desperately short. Only now they have millions of people to water. Phoenix did this also. Now they have subdivision abandon because of the foreclosure mess and no water.
Maybe instead of trying to figure out where we find more and more water in what is really a fragile ecosystem to supply unsustainable growth and pouplation, we should be asking ourselves, "what is the carrying capacity of the region?"
Carrying capacity - how many people can and should this region really support. I look at how many cows I can reasonably graze on my ranch. Every species has a built in level of capacity number wise for the environment they live in, and when they exceed that capacity usually terrible things happen. Humans seem to be the only species that don't think they are answerable to this environmental law of nature.
But, honestly, I don't think we are exempt. We've managed to put off dealing with this natural law with the invention of the green revolution, and long distance transmission lines, and importing food, and piping in water - but aren't we just putting off the inevitable? Wouldn't it be better to deal with this rule now, while we have the time - before the desire to "figurativley" leap en mass off the cliff kicks in?
I don't want to tell people not to come to Texas to live, work and be productuve, but isn't time to re-think how we lay out our cities, use water, generate energy, feed ourselves and basically live our lives to make things more sustainable for all of us and the generations to come?
Otherwise, we may find ouselves disappearing like the Anastasi - and it won't be real pretty before we go.
Published: Thursday, 20 August 2009 16:29
Written by Pati Jacobs
In my last enewsletter, I wrote about the trends in the beef market - mainly, the liquidation of large numbers of mature cows due to the drop in the price of milk (leading to the slaughter of dairy cattle to drive the price back up), the drought in the southwest, including Texas (leading to ranchers having to get rid of their herds), and the recession. All of this is leading to temporary drops in the cost of hamburger (since it is the only cut for which these older animals are of use).
Well, it seems that there are some unintended consequences besides lower hamburger prices. On August 6th, Cargill did a recall on almost one million pounds of ground. It was for a plant out of California and none of the meat ended up in Texas, but it does warrant closer notice - and here is why.
The meat was apparently contaminated with salmonella. In and of itself, this is actually not a reason to do a recall (a discussion for another newsletter!). Salmonella can be dangerous - it can make you very sick and in some extreme cases it can kill you. However, with proper cooking, salmonella can be killed. That's why there are all those warning labels plastered all over packets of hamburger and chicken! Just broil the little bacteria and there's nothing to worry about. You don't want bacteria on meat, but the USDA does not ask for recalls because of bacteria alone (unless it's the really nasty e-coli stuff!).
In this case, after several people became seriously ill from this batch of meat in Colorado, it was determined that the outbreak was causes by an antibiotic-resistant strain called Salmonella Newport. Note the two key words here "antibiotic-resistant". The main method of treating salmonella poisoning is antibiotics -- so dealing with an antibiotic resistant strain is a whole other ballgame.
Dairy cattle often receive continual low-level does of antibiotics over the course of their lives. It is basically used for the same reasons that feedlot cattle receive them, to ward off infections and illness that can come from tight conditions of living. Feedlot cattle receive these antibiotics over maybe a three to five month period. Dairy cattle can receive them for years. Many of the antibiotics - ceftiofur, florfenical, penicillin, and tetracycline - happen to be the same varieties of antibiotics to which the Newport strain is resistant. HUM!
Did you know that seventy percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used on animals?
Here's another little fact that I noticed.
I always thought that when you went to the grocery store and paid the higher price for the ground that is 90 - 10 (90 percent meat, 10 percent fat) you were getting the "better" meat. Well, do you know how they get that high a percentage? It seems that feedlot cattle as raised in this country have so much fat that there is no way you can get a high percentage of meat to fat, so to "fix" the situation, you take grass-fed beef from Argentina and grind it in with the meat from the US cattle. Presto! 90/10.
This also happens to be the prime reason that the big meat processors don't want to label their meat for country of origin (which is actually the law, but has yet to be enforced!). They have multiple animals from multiple country going into every pound of hamburger.
So here's my recommendation! If you want to know what's in your beef, buy from us! Or Betsey Ross, or Coyote Creek, or Richardson Farms, or Burgandy. There are numerous grass-fed producers here in Central Texas. All of us produce great beef and know exactly where it comes from, what it ate and how it was processed. And on top of all of that -- it just tastes better!
Published: Thursday, 30 July 2009 15:05
Written by Pati Jacobs
Cattle are disappearing!
Well, that's a bit dramatic, but basically its true. Between the drought in Texas and the southern states, an overproduction of milk in California, and the overall downturn in the economy throughout the country, dairy and beef herds are being sold off at record rates. I listened to a story on NPR where a man whose family had been in the milk business for almost one hundred years wasl selling off his entire herd. This was in California. Due to milk dropping so much in price, the National Milk Producers Federation has instituted a program that will ultimately remove well over 100,000 dairy cows out of the California market alone.
Meanwhile, ranchers in most of Texas are liquidating their herds because they just don't have the grass to feed them. Texas is into the second year of a two year drought. Parts of California never came out of a seven year drought, and all over the south, they are only barely recovering from droughts last year and before. Because of the extensiveness of the droughts, many ranchers both here in Texas and in California are now selling off their prime breeding animals. It's not unusual to visit one of the local auctions and see hundreds of cows being sold in one day. Multiply that by hundreds of auctions all over the two states and realize its happening every week, and you get a picture of how many cattle are being lost.
What does this mean for consumers?
Well, right now it means that hamburger is really cheap! Dairy and beef cow meat has to go somewhere and where it goes is into ground. So prices are dropping at the grocery stores really fast. The price of milk is really low; though probably not as low as back in 1978 - those are the prices that the dairymena are being paid for their milk - and why they're selling out.
What you won't see is a drop in the price for the higher cuts of beef - calf prices have stabilized. The main reason is that the size of herds was already shrinking at the end of last year. Rancers were having fewer calves because they were only holding onto their best cows. Those cows gave birth to this year's calf crop. However, now even those cows are being sold, so by next year the calf crop will be even smaller.
Prices for beef and milk to the consumer will start to rise at the end of this year and the beginning of 2010.
What does this mean for the dairy and beef business?
Many of the dairymen and ranchers liquidating their herds now, will not be able to get back into the business. The sad truth is that cattle are like the sotck market - when times are bad, people sell out low, then when the market turns around, to get back in they have to pay high. Prime breeders and milkers will be fetching top price by next spring - that's if the drought breaks in Texas, and if people go back to drinking milk.
Additionally, many of the people who either hold on or can come back are now looking at alternaitve methods to sell their product. Some of the family dairymen in California are now talking about going organic, and ranchers in Texas and other states are seriously looking for more direct ways to sell their beef (like Bastrop Cattle Company) to the consumer market.
Truth is, the dairymen and ranchers who have already made this move are in the best position to come out ahead when this current market situation starts to turn around.
What does it mean for the big agro-industrial operations?
Only the very largest will survive. For dairy herds, expect the big to get bigger. They absorbed the losses in milk and dairy products this year and will continue. They will also take advantage of the rise in prices when the current glut evaporates (no pun intended!)
The beef industry is a little different. The feed lots have to have numbers. If production goes down in the US, then the big lots will be forced to import from South America and Australia. When corn prices spiked two years ago, many of the smaller feed lots (consider 100,000 cattle in one place a small operation) went under. The really big lots, pushed prices down on the ranchers and imported. In the commodity beef business volume is everything -- buy 'em cheap, feed 'em fast, kill 'em in numbers. It's the only way to make money when you're selling beef to Walmart!
So what does this mean for Bastrop Cattle Company?
Well, our ranchers kept all their prime animals last year. Bastrop Cattle Company doesn't pay commodity prices and our ranchers don't raise commodity beef. Our fixed cost are higher than the large producers, but we also sell a higher quality beef.
We're making it because of you. Our ranchers have run their ranches for quality and not quantity. Our beef is really good. Our sales are steady and growing, and we've made a commitment to hold our prices - even lowering them where we can. Still, it's your commitment to buy a quality beef that has kept us going.
Thank you. With your help, I think we can all make it through.
Pati Jacobs, Bastrop Cattle Co.
Published: Wednesday, 08 July 2009 15:23
Written by Pati Jacobs
Over the years I have watched otherwise sane adults come to near blows over what constitutes grass, whether or not feeding range cubes is a disqualifier for "grass fed", and if a grass heads out into seed can you let your cows eat it and still say they are "grass fed"! I have vowed to stay out of these fights. But it seems that "Never say never" even applies to me.
Two weeks ago, we started running into the "organic" issue with our meat. First, someone wanted to talk about using our meat in a fairly big hamburger operation. However, they wanted USDA Organic. I explained that we adhere to organic standards, but are not certified organic. This particular group is doing what they do because they care about their customers' health. So I submitted a sample of our hamburger, sent all the prices and explained that I would be happy for them to come out to any of the ranches and see our practices on the ground.
A few days later I heard back that they thought our meat tasted "grassy". OK, well yeah, it's grass fed. I asked them about their current "organic meat" supplier and whether or not the meat was grass fed. Well, some is, some isn't, but it's all "USDA Organic". And, pray tell, where is it from? (I'm not going to name the state here, because then you'd know the supplier and that would just be tacky on my part!). Suffice it to say it is from another state and not next door to Texas.
Now, this kind of leads me to ask some questions.
Is organic really organic if you are feeding the cattle corn? Well, according to the USDA it is "organic" as long as there are no hormones, antibiotics or chemicals used on the animals or in their feed.
But isn't the whole idea behind grass-fed, free-range - healthier animals with higher level of omega 3 fatty acids, more vitamins and more minerals lost if you put the animals on corn? The USDA says it's "Organic" as long as you feed them "Organic" feed - no chemicals, no non-organic fertilizers, no herbicides used on the corn while it is growing.
But to feed cattle corn, you kind of need to put them in a feed lot. SO?
Well what about the carbon footprint? Texas raises more beef than any other state in the USA. It seems kind of strange to buy organic beef from another state. Here's the kicker. Apparently, there are no USDA Organically Certified operations large enough to supply these people in the whole state of Texas!
OK, I'm not organic - and have very little desire to go out for the USDA kiss of "Organic", unless someone wants to give me the money, time and energy to go through a three year process to pass the requirements.
So, let's just stick to natural, grass-fed, free-range (all intents and purposes "organic" because we don't use any chemicals herbicides, or other nasty stuff on or in our animals or pastures) beef.
Well, wait a minute. It seems that there is a certification for that as well!
We are members (both our ranch and Bastrop Cattle Co.) of the American Grassfed Association. And a very nice little annual fee that costs. But if I want to be "Certified" grass-fed, I need to shell over more money ($150 annually) and let the AGA come on down and inspect my ranch, my rancher's ranches, my operation, and the processing plant we use. Oh, and did I mention that once I get the certification, I owe them a $1.00 on every calf we process through a licensing agreement I must sign so I can use the official logo.
There is also an association that will certify us for "natural", and I bet if I look hard enough, I can find one that will certify "free-range". Hum, I wonder if that means you have to have so many acres between fences?
I could spend a lot of money, time and energy and go get all these certifications. However, somewhere, somehow, I have to make enough money to ultimately pay for this -- let's see, I think that means I would have to raise my prices.
And in the end, where does this all lead? My head is spinning. Here is another question.
What about local and sustainable?
This past week, I went to a dinner at Cipollina. Every first Wednesday of the month, they do a Farm to Table dinner. Cipollina prides itself on buying "local". They highlight their suppliers and offer very interesting, tasty and seasonal meals to their customers. This particular night they were using our beef.
Afterwards, several of us were standing around talking about the growing "local, sustainable" movement in Central Texas. It seems that one of the frustrations for restaurants and eateries is how to get the word out that they use foods from local producers and ranchers. And, how does the customers know who is using local, and who is just saying they use local.
For places like Cipollina and Wink, the proof is on the menu. Still, it can be irritating to see all the "certifications" popping up at various competitors - with very little in the way of proof to stand behind the sign.
I just want to raise, process and sell good grass-fed, free-range, local beef. There must be some easier way to get the word out!
Published: Wednesday, 10 June 2009 14:30
Written by Pati Jacobs
In last month's blog, I talked about how the "green revolution" has turned out to be a delusion for many of the countries that embraced it. There was a piece on National Public Radio specifically telling how the Punjab in India has seen dire long-term results from increasing use of chemical fertilizers and increased water usage to bring about the "high" yields that the green revolution promised. The situation has become so bad that the area is on the verge of an ecological collapse.
Well, for some good news. A follow up piece on NPR this past week told how many of the farmers in India are now reverting back to organic and natural methods of farming. They are using crop rotation, sowing more traditional crops and using organic fertilizers. This is allowing the soil to heal. The results have been good, but yields are not as high as with the chemical fertilizers. However, farmers expect yields to go up as the soil gains more if its nourishment back. Additionally, the organic and natural methods are also substantially cheaper than the previous methods - a major issue for many of the farmers who were going broke buying more and more fertilizer and having to dig their wells deeper every year to access the retreating aquifer. Many in the government are skeptical about whether this course change can feed the country, but so far over 300,000 farmers have changed back to organic and natural methods.
This movement represents the edge of a wrenching change - especially for countries that are not as developed as India. For over thirty years, large multinationals have promoted cheap fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides th achieve higher yields, all with the promise (and threat) that this is the only way to feed the growing world population. Now, the chemical fertilizers, the herbicides and the pesticides are no longer cheap, and the unintended consequences (massive required use of water) are changing the definitiion of what will work.
Naturally, the large companies (with their vested interests in the next generation of answers - genetically modified seeds and animals!) say that organic and natural methods have no way of feeding the populations.
They are wrong. There are plenty of ways to use organic and natural methods that can feed more people while reducing the human footprint on the planet. We will all have to re-think on what scale we farm and ranch, and we will have to re-think the globalization of our food, but it is doable.
We, as producers, need to explore and implement such methods as combination planting, densification of crop plantings, rotation usage, and growing crops appropriate to their environement. We, as consumers, need to re-consider eating within season, re-prioritizing where we fit food in our schedules and budgets, and where our food comes from and how it is grown.
Both groups need to re-think the sourcing and use of water and fertilizer. Most of us don't like the idea, but vast amounts of water being discarded by cities and farms could be captured and re-used. We should stop using potable water for lawns, non-consumption plants, and anything that is not within two-steps of consumption. We should all be harvesting water off of our roofs for personal use, and separating our household wastewater by degrees for use in our own yards.
Food from restaurants and anything that is organic, should be separated out and compsted for use on agricultural land; never landfilled! Industrial animal waste should be heavily regulated and the waste itself should be used to generate electricity, but never end up in runoff. New methedologies for use of any fertilizers (chemical or organic) should be developed and enforces to prevent non-point source runoff.
I readily admit that going back to organic and natural methods, as well as implementing new methods to deal with the unintended consequences of our current system is not going to be easy. We're all become to comfortable with the current food system, but that system is on a self-destruct course.
We have two clear choices. We can find a new (old) path or we can let the big companies try to re-(genetically)engineer us out of the problem They didn't get it right the first time. What makes us think they'll get it right this time?