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Ghost cattle in the blue sky

Column by Hal Walter

Ranching – April 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

“We have to go back to Mother Nature’s way of doing things, and until we do that we’re going to continue to go down in every way possible. In farming, if it’s not sustainable, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

— Willie Nelson

“To Frank’s father every animal had a dollar meter on its back and the needle was always in motion. Sometimes it was going down. If you ran a thousand head, you had a thousand meters and you had to keep those needles going up”

— Thomas McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies

LATELY I’VE FELT a bit like a character in a bizarre New West novel in which an experienced journalist ends up in the thick of a livestock business he knows nothing about.

You see, I’ve been shopping for cattle. And the beef market right now, in case you’re not aware, is truly a bull market. In fact, one rancher I know was so desperate to fill meat orders that he recently ground his bull into hamburger.

Initially my interest in cattle came through my interest in food and health. It had occurred to me that eating something that had spent the last few months of its life standing in its own excrement is somewhat less than choice, not to mention the karmic implications. Plus, through research into the subject, I learned that grass-fed beef have a healthier nutritional profile.

Cattle are naturally suited to eating grass and other forage. Studies published in the Journal of Animal Science indicate the types of feeds on which the beef are raised reflect in the fat profiles of the meat they produce Animals fed only grass have been found to contain lower levels of saturated fat and higher ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Beef from grass-fed cattle also demonstrated better overall color, lipid-oxidation qualities, and vitamin E levels than beef from corn-fed cattle.

Locating and purchasing grass-fed beef directly from local and regional growers proved to be fairly easy. My first grass-fed beef came from Elin Rusher of Westcliffe. Then, almost by accident, I met Avondale farmer/rancher Doug Wiley, who has spent eight years studying how to raise tasty beef on grass and other forages. He’s also the guy who just ground the aforementioned bull. Through Wiley I was invited to the Colorado Branch for Holistic Management seminar in 2004, and there I became acquainted with Jo Robinson, author of Pasture Perfect, and co-author of The Omega Diet.

Though I knew that beef raised strictly on forage had a better nutritional profile, Robinson’s research convinced me that there were other good reasons to avoid feedlot beef. (Robinson maintains an excellent website on this subject at It was Robinson who tipped me off that cattle in feedlots sometimes aren’t fed just corn, but also other unappetizing feeds, including chicken manure, stale chewing gum and candy (still in the wrappers), sawdust, used plastic pot scrubbers, municipal garbage, de-inked paper, and poultry feathers. Since these practices are not monitored, it’s impossible to know how often it occurs. Unfortunately it’s all done in the name of inexpensive meat.

“Shoppers shop by cost because they feel they can do it safely. They think ‘all meats are the same so let’s get it cheap,'” says Robinson. “We need to back up and realize that when we shop by cost alone we risk not only our own health but also abuse to these animals.”

My friend Wiley takes grass-fed beef to yet another level. His program is not just based on finishing beef on grass and other forage, but on improving the quality of the soil in which these plants grow. He maintains that this attention to the soil yields beef with a better balance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. He’s built a large enough base of customers that this spring, after grinding his bull, he sold out of beef except for soup bones and liver.

I HAD BEEN CONTENT to help Doug with his marketing and to buy an occasional ice chest of beef from him until I took a care-taking job, and ranch owners Ross and Jan Wilkins expressed a desire to get into cattle. They have the summer pasture and also the wherewithal to help finance such a project, and were excited about supporting the natural beef philosophy. I suggested a meeting with Farmer Doug, and the next thing I knew we were all talking excitedly about raising grass-fed cattle, holistic range management, herd numbers and dollar figures. This is exciting stuff for someone who has possibly worked with words for too long. Soon I was calling ranchers I know and asking about buying cattle.

Most of them just laughed, I’m sure partly because they know the hardships of the cattle business. Also, while I may know how to raise and train a World Champion pack-burro, and have also cared for large herds of horses, it’s clear I know very little about cattle. Wiley schooled me on some vernacular — I’d be asking about “five weight steers,” “culls,” and “heifers that have slipped a calf.” We were looking for cattle that would fit into a natural or organic program, meaning no growth hormones, antibiotics or other medications. Angus and black baldies were OK, as were Herefords. But we didn’t want any Simmental or Charolais, or “high-headed” cattle of any breed.

In the end I had called a half-dozen ranchers and none of them had anything like this that they wanted to sell. I did find two Highland steers from Leadville that may have fit our program, but they were priced too high for us to turn a profit on them.

Meanwhile I read everything I could on the subject. It wasn’t tough to find timely information because beef cattle have been very much in the news. The ongoing Mad Cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) issue has made recent front-page headlines, right along with rising fuel prices, something that is very much interconnected with the cattle business.

THE UPROAR OVER BSE stems from infected Canadian cattle, and the resulting ban on importing animals from that country. Recently, the feedlot industry, hungry for cheap cattle and backed by the administration’s USDA, has supported resuming trade with Canada. Meanwhile, U.S. cattle growers, enjoying bullish prices on their cattle and arguing for ensuring public safety and consumer confidence, wish to keep the border closed. In the thick of all this, Japan has banned U.S. beef, and, ironically, some of those who want to reopen the Canadian beef trade also want Japan to resume buying beef from the United States.

As it stands now, the administration’s plan to reopen trade with Canada has been challenged by a recent U.S. Senate vote to keep the border closed. Colorado’s senators split their votes along party lines. However, if this bill is vetoed, the Canadian border will likely reopen, making for an interesting political atmosphere among Western cattle producers who traditionally vote Republican.

AND THEN THERE’S the rising price of fuel. The gas pump is also running at the meat counter, especially when buying beef finished in a feedlot. According to Robinson, it takes a half gallon of gasoline or equivalent petroleum fuel to produce each pound of beef from a feedlot. As Robinson explains, there is a great deal of fossil fuel involved in shipping cattle to feedlots, and planting, growing, harvesting and shipping corn and other grains to feedlots. At the feedlot, internal combustion machines are employed to feed grain to the cattle, which ultimately must be shipped again to a processor.

“From the viewpoint of someone who is not an animal scientist and not a rancher, everything about this (feedlot) system is broken down and is causing problems,” says Robinson. She says pasture-based meat production addresses these energy issues as well as many other environmental concerns.

Robinson says pasture-based agriculture is literally “powered” by the sun. The grass is fertilized and harvested by the animals’ own power. Fuel usage in raising pastured animals is much lower, mainly involving shipping cattle to the processor.

There are several ways to make — or lose — money in the cattle business. Longtime ranchers do business the sure and steady way, by simply breeding their own cattle and selling them. Then there are speculators who buy young cattle cheap, hoping to fatten them on grass or surplus hay and sell them when the market is right — a great way to get stung in the current market since prices are already high and could drop substantially if the Canadian border suddenly reopens to cattle trade. A few operations raise cattle specifically as breeding stock, usually dealing in a specific breed. Still, most of this business is oriented toward the feedlot industry.

Our grass-fed operation is unconventional in many ways. Since Wiley has a captive market of direct consumers, we are looking at a higher dollar return on a smaller number of animals. Still, it’s not all clear profit. For example, USDA slaughtering and butchering can eat up about a third of the gross income. There’s the uncertainty of rising transportation costs. And I need to be paid to tend the cattle.

We came up with a plan to buy some larger animals that Doug could finish on grass and then butcher to catch up on his expanding and back-ordered natural beef business. Then we’d look for some other animals to carry into fall and over the winter. Our plan is to pasture them here in the summer and move them to Avondale for the winter. But we also have a long-term vision to start our own small herd of heritage breed cattle. One breed that appears promising is the Devon. The Devon is one of the oldest breeds of domesticated cattle and is known for its ability to produce excellent beef on forage alone.

The most immediate hitch was basic lack of available animals to put on the grass when it springs up this summer. I finally talked to Randy Rusk, longtime Wet Mountain Valley rancher and a lecturer for Colorado State University. Randy is passionate about agriculture, and especially the need for U.S. farmers to protect their interests when it comes to dealing with Canada. Parenthetically, he’s probably the best fly-fisherman I’ve ever seen in action on a trout stream.

“It’s a political deal,” he says, noting that reopening trade with Canada could put both American producers and consumers at risk. “I don’t see anything positive about it. I hope we never bring anything out of Canada.”

RANDY, WHOSE CATTLE HERD numbers in the hundreds, also was frank enough to explain that while the Canada BSE issue posed a price challenge for our small grass-fed operation, our biggest problem was that we simply were shopping for animals at the exact wrong time of the year. He said most ranchers sell off cattle in the fall and around the first of the year. Anyone who had fed an animal all winter generally was not looking to sell it with green grass just a few weeks away.

Given the small number of cattle we were seeking, Randy said our best bet was to buy cows that didn’t produce calves this spring. We might be able to obtain a small number of larger animals for our operation that way. In fact his cows were due to start calving April 6th. If we put our names on the waiting list, he just might be able to help us out.

Suddenly the late-winter sky seemed blue, and I could see future green fields of grass full of cattle. You have to start somewhere.

Hal Walter writes from the wind-scoured swells of the Wet Mountains, where he has 35 acres, some burros, and a family.