Will Winter and Todd Churchill have a plan. It's simple, it's workable, and if enough people do it, it will shrink our carbon footprint, expand biodiversity and wildlife habitat, promote human health, humanize farming, control rampant flooding, radically decrease the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and-for those of us who still eat the stuff-produce a first-class, guilt-free steak. Their plan: let cows eat grass.
The two men share a background in conventional farming. Winter came of age in the heart of the Midwest, starting his veterinary practice in the 1970s when industrial-strength livestock operations were gaining a full head of steam. "I had a syringe of antibiotics in this hand and a syringe of steroids in the other hand and I thought I was going to go cure the world," he says. "But I left conventional farming practice because it was so crude and so cruel. The cruelty drove me nuts." In the feedlots where cattle are stuffed with corn to produce almost all the beef Americans eat, he explains,"we were weaning [the calves], hot-iron branding them, vaccinating them, castrating them, dehorning them, and shipping them in one day. These are vets doing this, shooting them with 10-way vaccines, giving them 10 different diseases in one day."
For Churchill the epiphany was less dramatic, but no less wound up in the realities of industrial-scale farming. He grew up on a large, efficient corn-and-soybean farm near Moline, Illinois. "I spent all my summers as a child ripping out the fences, and we'd bulldoze all the trees and make one big cornfield. And then I thought: where do the birds live? The birds' job is to eat the aphids, but since we don't have trees anymore, we don't have birds, so we have to spray the aphids. Does that really make sense in the long run?"
Winter left his veterinary practice and became a foodie, promoting and distributing raw milk products in Minnesota and working as a consultant for graziers. He is the sort of fellow to have several irons in the fire at all times, and he offered up some free-range pork, his latest venture, when I met him at his Minneapolis home for breakfast.
Churchill became an accountant, also in southeast Minnesota. He had heard the heretical claims of a few contrarian farmers finishing beef on grass pastures instead of feedlots. It seemed an anachronism, defying the conventional wisdom that only the feedlot system can yield the economic efficiencies that leave Americans amply supplied with cheap beef and milk. But criticism of that system has escalated exponentially and for a host of different reasons: rapidly rising energy prices, concerns about global warming, and feed costs that leave poor people begging for the grain that Americans use to fatten livestock.
After sampling some grass-fed beef-some of it excellent, some inedible-Churchill decided to go into the business himself. He started the Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, in 2003. A year later he met Winter, and the boots-and-jeans cattleman wannabe invited the jovial, generation-older vet-foodie to join him. Thousand Hills is now a substantial business, buying, slaughtering, and selling about 1,000 grass-fed cows a year to whole food stores, co-ops, restaurants, and three colleges in the Twin Cities area. Churchill buys his cattle from a small network of regional farmers able to meet his standards for quality.
Thousand Hills is part of an evolving nationwide web. The Denver-based American Grassfed Association was founded by just eight members in 2003, but now claims 380. Carrie Balkcom, the group's executive director, says companies like Thousand Hills have sprung up throughout the country. At one end of the spectrum are large operations like White Oak Pastures in Georgia, which sells to the Whole Foods Market chain throughout the Southeast and Publix Supermarkets in the Atlanta area. At the other end are hundreds of small farms that sell directly to consumers, says Balkcom. Theo Weening, global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, says grass-fed beef is available in virtually all of his company's stores, and demand is growing.
Grass-fed beef, in other words, is poised to move out of the niche market and into the mainstream-as long as farmers can make it profitable.
Winter points out that for agriculture to be "sustainable," it must have a sustainable business model. "Todd says you have to earn the right to be here next year," he says. This was hard at first for operations like Thousand Springs, but the grass-fed system has matured to the point where significant chunks of the nation's corn-ravaged landscape can be converted into far more sustainable permanent pastures -- without a loss in production.At the heart of this shift lies a humble leap in technology, a fencing material called polywire, which you are sure to notice when you walk into a field with Churchill. A polywire fence is short and flimsy, composed of a single strand that resembles yellow-braided fishing line. This makes cheap, easily movable, and effective electric fences, and it is the key to the whole operation.
Modern grass farmers almost universally rely on something called managed intensive rotational grazing. Polywire fences confine a herd of maybe 60 cows to an area the size of a suburban front lawn, typically for 12 hours. Then the grazier moves the fence, to cycle through a series of such paddocks every month or so. This reflects a basic ecological principle. Left to their own devices in a diverse ecosystem, cows will eat just a few species, grazing again and again on the same plants. As with teenagers at a buffet, cows that eat this way are not acting in their own best nutritional interests. Rotational grazing, which forces them to eat the two-thirds of available forage that they would normally leave untouched, produces much more beef or milk per acre than does laissez-faire grazing.
Quality, of course, is just as important as quantity. I watch Churchill hop a strand of fence to enter a pasture. He whips out a kitchen garlic press to smush a sample of grass, then spreads it on a slide and sticks this into what looks like a miniature telescope. The gadget is a refractometer, and he is testing the grass for sugar content; this varies widely according to a range of conditions, not the least of which is the skill of the grazier. Sugar content is key to quality beef, and it is affected by the mix of grass species, the matching of species to local climate and soil, the proper selection of complementary forbs (such as clovers), and proper rotation time.
"When we started with grass-fed the quality wasn't that great," says Theo Weening of Whole Foods. "It has improved a lot in the last 12 months." And as the quality improves, so does the potential to scale up grass-fed farming, with all its environmental benefits.