Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Search of Sustainability

This was the title of the presentation given by Jim Lents from Oklahoma during the Spring Forage Conference yesterday in Springfield Missouri.  I was also a guest presenter during the one day conference as well.  Jim Lents and his family have been line breeding hereford cattle since the 1940's.  He and I have many of the same ideas concerning the degradation of our livestock in this country due to our inefficient and non professional system of breeding our cattle.  He made the comment that our problems are an accumulation of poor breeding that began around the middle of the 1800's.

To first state the problem: current day livestock production has not passed the sustainability test which has now resulted in most cattle operations existing more as a hobby to its owners than a genuine profit enterprise.  If anyone should doubt this comment, try and write down a list of people you know in this business that actually make their living from this business.   I contend, as does Jim Lents, that we no longer breed a cow that even has the remote possibility at procreating, living a long life on forage alone, and making her owner a living.  We now have many more people in the supply business to sell us farmers gadgets and gizmos to help nurture these money loosing pet elephants along than we do farmers themselves.  In my lifetime I have witnessed many more farmers exiting business due to business failure than I have seen new ones or existing ones remain. 

One of the primary reasons this has existed is because our cows have been bred for many, many generations to do a lot of things besides consume forages.  Most no longer have the genetic make up to convert forages to meat and milk in a sustainable manner.  And most of these cattle owners I talk to have no idea of these concepts.  They generally assume that a cow is a cow and the method of breeding has little effect on profits.  When in fact, with out this concern, there is little to no chance at all for any profit under sustainable methods. 

The seedstock industry is now based around numbers on paper known as the EDP system.  Under this concept it is purported that you can breed and perpetuate a cattle herd by reading these numbers without ever even looking at the animal.  And with the advent of artificial insemination, this process of perpetuating poor quality animals is sped up to lightning speed. 

One good example of this is in the Holstein dairy industry.  The average holstein cow no longer lives long enough to have her second calf, which is about four years old.   The average age for a black angus cow is about six years old.  There are records from the early 1800's of black angus cattle living 35 years old.  This extremely shortened time period for the life of cattle is a good example of a regression rather than a progression in good attributes.  This not only demonstrates how a single cow no longer has the ability to stay productive in a herd for long periods of time, but it also shows how frail we have made these animals.  This frailty adds a great deal to the cost of production to keep these animals alive so that they may have an opportunity to stay in a herd.  It is this frailty issue that keeps purveyors of products in business selling their wares to the farmer while he digs deeper and deeper into his pockets at the attempt to keep a very poor quality animal productive.

I know of a few breeders that have not followed this protocol of breeding these type of cattle under these conditions and have cows aging 15, 16, 17 years old and older.  Dairy cattle as well as beef cattle.  The average North American cattlemen has no idea how profitable cattle could be if they weren't so frail.  Most have never seen anything other than substandard breeding. 

No one in the industry, and most intelligent people on the periphery, would not question that the big advantage and natural benefits a ruminant animal like a cow has is that she can take average quality forages and turn it into very high quality protein in the form of milk and meat.  Mankind as of yet has not figured out how to do this more sustainably in any other way, and I'm pretty sure he never will.  And therefore we are pretty assured that this system of utilizing large quantities of green forage through the cow, that we would otherwise  have a very hard time surviving on as the main staple in our diet, is absolutely critical to man's survival.  If you have any doubts about this statement take a look at what happened to the American Indian civilization when their grazers, browsers, the bison, were decimated.  When a civilization can no longer feed itself, destruction is not questionable, it is eminent.

What began in the mid to late 19th century was man's road to dependence on industry, mechanization, university research and training methods, and a god like authoritarian position over the farmer as though he did not possess the high level of skill to feed the populace, although he has done this since the beginning of time.  I think it must have been an even worse time to be a real farmer during that period than now.  Quality livestock breeding requires an extremely high level of skill only acquired through generations of practice, learning, and observation.  This ability to select and breed for health, longevity, sustainability, etc., is better known as animal husbandry. 

"I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman's cares." George Washington

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