“If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson
Friday, February 26, 2010
The Great Grain Debate
There is a great debate raging now between farmers and homesteaders. It truly is an emotional topic and I have seen threads concerning this topic on forums degenerate into very ugly messes. This debate concerns whether or not goats and cows, ruminants in general, should be fed grain. Much of the debate stems from research concerning human nutrition that suggests that grass fed beef and dairy are much higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) found to be higher in the butterfat content of grass fed dairy animals and higher in the muscle of meat animals. CLA, according to human nutrition studies, is a strong enzyme that has the ability to ward off cancer. The debate issues come from the fact that many people misunderstand much of what is being talked about the situations involved in the animals care and management. The research is comparing confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to the traditional homestead or old time farm operation. So first, lets describe the setting of the two situations. In a CAFO setting an animal is primarily grained and supplemented with hay or silage, no pasture/grazing is made available. In a traditional farm/homestead setting an animal is primarily pastured and supplemented with grain as needed. I agree that ruminants should not be fed an exclusively grain diet. It creates too much acid in the rumen and is generally not healthy for the animal because this acidosis lowers the immune system response in the animal. Acidosis is also thought to be responsible for the more frequent occurence of exceptionally virulent strains of E. coli. CAFOs also much artificially supplement vitamins and minerals which are not as well utilized by the animal as natural sources would be. So meat from a CAFO would have less nutrition available for human use than meat from a grass fed animal. Now, there are several problems occuring with all of this. It seems as if some homesteaders are taking this to the extremes and actually potentially putting their animal's health in jeopardy. First is the lack of understanding of good forage and second is the lack of understanding of the nutritional needs of their livestock. Let's address forage first. It has been my experience that many times people think that they have good pastures simply because there is something out there for the animals to eat. This simply is not true. A good pasture must provide a huge amount of nutrition, especially protein. Many pastures are lacking in protein and many soils around the country are depleted of vital minerals that the animals need in order to grow and produce properly. While it may be possible to sustain the animal on these poor pastures they will not be able to produce very well, whether it be milk or meat. A good pasture undergoes regular soil testing, fertilization (preferably organic), maintenance, and revitalization in the form of overseeding and resting. It simply is not enough to seed a pasture once or twice, turn the animals out on it and forget it as long as there is something green out there. They will simply strip it bare, leaving the minerals to leach out of the soil. It is not enough to have one or two types of forage either. Most people plant grasses alone in their pasture, which leads to nitrogen depletion in the soil. Then even the grasses won't grow and the weeds take over.Grasses also are low in protein so growing and milking animals will not have enough protein in their diet to grow steadily or produce milk. Typically a good nutritious pasture will contain grasses, legumes, herbs and other forbs such as turnips,beets, etc. Each grows as a different rate so there is something always growing along with each different plant contributing to the soil health along with the nutrition requirements of the animal. For a grazing operation to be successful there must be pasture rotation for the pasture to recover from the grazing of the stock. Care must also be taken to properly stock a pasture and not over stock it. Stocking rates will depend on the type of pasture, where you are in the country, and what you can grow. Another consideration is what do you do when the pasture is dormant and nothing is growing? Many parts of the country find their pastures under several feet of snow for many months of the year. Others, like us in the southeast don't have to battle snow so much but the pastures do go through a dormant period in which they don't grow. Many say that the answer is hay. While grass hay is good an necessary for these periods of the season they still cannot supply the nutrition that the animal needs. Legume hay is better for adding more protein. Still, however a producing animal that is revving up its metabolism to stay warm many times cannot get enough calories from hay alone to sustain themselves and still produce or grow. This is where the nutritional requirement of the animals comes in. A homesteader/farmer absolutely must get some knowledge of the nutritional requirements of their livestock if they plan to have a successful operation. A lactating cow has different nutritional needs than a dry cow. A growing beef steer has different nutritional needs than a full grown bull. For instance, my bucks get very little grain. Just enough to bring them into the barn at night and so they don't feel too left out. They do very well on just pasture in the spring, summer, and fall then mostly hay with some browse during the winter. They maintain their condition quite well and show no signs of suffering from the cold. My dry does are the same. However, they are pregnant right now and toward the end of their pregnancy will get slightly more grain along with good pasture and forage. Coffee, my doe in milk gets more grain than the others because she is not only working to maintain her body heat but she is working to produce milk also. She gets grain twice a day on the milk stand and only what she can clean up during milking. This gives her the energy that her body needs to maintain her condition and stay healthy. It is all about feeding according to the needs of the individual animal. Too many homesteaders simply think that feeding applies the same to the whole herd and that simply is not true. Each animals feed requirements must be evaluated. Another example of this is my horses. I have an elderly stallion, an 11 year old gelding and a 5 year old mare. My stallion has a much harder time keeping weight on in the winter. Since horses are grazers, they are designed to take in nutrition in small amounts and not large quantities all at once. He needs more calories than the other two otherwise the simple act of staying warm (higher metabolic rate) causes him to lose condition. We added corn to his winter feed and he does much better at keeping condition because it is such a concentrated source of calories. The other two don't get corn simply because they don't need it. By adding a higher concentrate grain to his diet then we don't have to feed him bucket loads of lower concentrate grains, thus keeping his diet more in line with what is natural for the species. Understanding nutrition requirements is absolutely key in designing your feeding system on a homestead. Problems arise when homesteaders don't understand what their animal's nutritional needs are and simply "follow the crowd" or latest trend. Following the crowd is what led to CAFOs to begin with. The bottom line is to evaluate the individual needs of each animal on your farm, design a feed system to meet those needs, and healthy animals will produce the right nutrition for human consumption. I agree with the research that a diet consisting mainly of grain is not healthy for ruminants. I don't agree that all ruminants can survive on grass alone. I think that in some instances supplementing with grain is necessary for the health of the animal which must come first to the homesteader/farmer. Now, I know that there are folks out there who want to know what my credentials are. I have spent 20 years of my life studying animal nutrition. My minor in college was equine management. I have participated and assisted in equine nutrition studies. My grandfather started as a dairyman and then moved into beef production. I went with him to every forage and feed conference that he went to. His beef operation was entirely grassfed.....his pastures were awesome. His dairy cows got grained in lactation even though his pastures were awesome. They simply needed the extra nutrition and calories or they lost condition. None of his stock were confined...ever. His beef cows went straight from his pastures to the processors. His dairy cows only came into the barn to be milked twice a day. I am also willing to learn from those who have been doing what they have been doing for years. When I started thinking about goats I found both meat and dairy goat farms to visit. Not only did I visit I picked the brains of those farmers for every bit of knowledge I could gain about the requirements of the animals. I learned what I needed about goat nutrition from those who knew and had been doing it. I read all the studies I could find on goat nutrition and health. I still do. One thing that I have found is that experience is the best teacher, whether it is my own or another farmer's. Homesteaders very often tend to opt out of the experience arena and jump right into the "latest and greatest" research and forget to take a good hard critical look at their particular situation. Joel Salatin might exclusively grassfeed his cows, but he has 100s of acres to do so with. I have 10 acres. My situation is different. Take a look at your situation and provide the best nutrition you can the best way you can for your animals. God bless.