By Jeffrey Carter
In last month’s column, I talked about growing interest in small to medium-sized abattoirs and meat-processing facilities.
There has been modest growth in this area in recent months. In addition, Ontario’s feedlot capacity has grown by perhaps 10 per cent, according to Jim Clark, executive director of the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association.
Ontario’s cow-calf industry, however, hasn’t kept pace. Clark puts the annual shortfall at around 300,000 animals, a situation that requires feedlot operators to either look to the dairy industry or outside Eastern Canada to source feeder cattle.
There are roughly 700,000 dairy cows between Ontario and Quebec. With dairy producers now able to determine the sex of offspring, their industry could become a valued source of quality bull calves for beef production, Clark suggests.
As it now stands, however, many of the animals sourced for Ontario feedlots are being shipped north to Ontario from U.S. states east of Mississippi, notably Virginia. Much of the beef produced in Ontario is either consumed domestically or is exported to various points around the world, including Japan, the biggest export market for the Ontario Corn Fed Beef brand.
The dynamics of the system are driven primarily by supply and demand dynamics, although other factors are at play. For people involved in the business of primary agriculture any shift in focus, such as from cropping to an investment cow-calf production, cannot be implemented successfully without with a great deal forethought and expense.
The dynamics of the marketplace are another consideration. Beef production has been profitable in recent months but anyone with historical knowledge of the industry knows there have also been lean times, some lasting for years.
Factoring in as well has been the decline of the North America beef herd, a result of drought but also related to the growing consumer preference for less expensive chicken as a meat protein.
Playing into the situation, too, is the image of cattle and other ruminants being a liability when it comes to things like the environment and climate change. I’d like to challenge that perception.
Simply put, it’s not the cow, it’s the how – a slogan that has gained some traction within regenerative farming circles.
I’ve come to this point in a roundabout fashion but it is important, I think, to have first put the situation in perspective. Bringing about positive change to anything so complex as the food system takes time.
A good beginning, when it comes to ruminant livestock, is the recognition that they can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing carbon emissions or even building soil carbon reserves – despite the simplistic argument behind cow burps.
If I were to be granted three wishes from the blue fairy to change the beef and food industry: I’d ask for an immediate shift to grass-finished production from grain-fed models; that folks in the Global North would moderate their consumption of beef; and that those same people would begin to place more value and respect on what they put into their mouths.
Change, unfortunately, doesn’t come with the wave of a wand.
That said, there is an initiative, supported by the federal government through the Farmers for Climate Solutions organization, to move toward a more sustainable and less energy intensive agricultural system.
Climate Solutions is working three areas, nitrogen management, cover cropping, and advanced grazing systems. Cattle and other ruminants have a role to play in each.
In the area of nitrogen management, ruminants provide an opportunity for nitrogen cycling, reducing or even eliminating the requirement for commercial nitrogen fertilizers which are among agriculture’s most prolific contributors to atmospheric carbon loading.
Cover cropping also has soil-building potential and many cover crops can be used as a source of feed for ruminants and other livestock.
Advanced grazing systems can be divided into two different areas, grazing systems that are a component of a rotational cropping system and perennial grassland systems.
Forages in rotation have the potential to build soil carbon or perhaps maintain an equilibrium. Perennial grasslands are important in two respects for climate change mitigation as outlined by University of Alberta researcher Ed Bork.
Bork said land that has been in grass or pasture for decades represents a long-term storage sink of soil carbon – as long as it is properly managed, not overgrazed. When long-term grasslands are disturbed through cultivation, a large part of the stored carbon is immediately released to the atmosphere. Consequently, perennial grasslands should remain in place, Bork says.
Cropland can also be converted into perennial grassland and with the right technique, a significant amount of carbon can be sequestered over time. Bork talks about adaptive multi-paddock grazing, more commonly known as mob grazing or intensive rotational grazing, as having potential. This involves heavy grazing events conducted in short bursts, interspersed with lengthy rest periods for recovery.
Now back to my blue fairy wishes. My first wish was to eliminate grain-fed beef production in favour of grass-fed production. Another possibility may be to keep grain in beef finishing diets – for arguably superior eating quality – but change the way the grains are grown, eliminating the use of commercial nitrogen fertilizers entirely. ◊