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written by

Joel Salatin

posted on

March 6, 2024

News media are currently putting a lot of attention on the biggest cattle story since Mad Cow:  the low number of cows in the U.S.  Right now, the number of cows is lower than it was in 1950.  The numbers plummeted 10 percent just in 2023.

Both liberal and conservative news platforms parade a constant stream of ranchers with their whining and dire warnings about the future.  This is being called a national emergency and an indication that cow farmers get no respect.  Most of these ranchers are asking for governmental relief, although I haven’t seen them specify anything.

As farmers leverage the story to beg for subsidies or loan forgiveness, short shrift is paid to the real culprit: drought.  That’s the one part of the story nobody seems to want to talk about, leaving me to realize how easy it is to never let a crisis go to waste.

The bogeymen bandied about for the low cattle numbers and subsequent escalating retail prices are essentially four:

1.  Cheap imports

2.     Climate change agenda.

3.        Fake/cell-cultured meat.

4.        Bug burgers

Okay, let’s take each of these and dissect them because none of these makes any sense.  But these ranchers have big platforms in news agencies to spew these causes to the American public like it’s gospel.   

Here we go.  

If cheap imports were crowding out American farmers, prices would not be rising so rapidly in grocery stores.  Retail beef prices are up 10 percent in the last three months; cheap imports would counter that if foreign beef were replacing domestic supplies.  It’s not cheap imports.

How about John Kerry preaching that farts and burps are going to destroy the planet?  I can assure you no cattle farmer in the nation believes the fart and burp narrative.  Nobody who owns cows goes out to the field, heavy-hearted, and says:  “Oh my, these cows are destroying the planet.  I’d better get rid of 20 percent of them so my grandchildren will have a place to live.” So far, the war on cows is not translating into regulations or other tangible herd-lowering requirements.  Farmers never drop production; they’re always trying to produce more.

If farmers don’t believe the climate change agenda, perhaps consumers believe it and are leaving beef purchases in droves.  That’s clearly not the culprit; if it were, store prices would be crashing rather than increasing.  So no, it’s not the nefarious climate change agenda.

Okay, how about fake meat and cell-cultured proteins?  Maybe they’re taking over the beef counter.  Again, if that were happening, beef prices would be plummeting.  They aren’t.  And have you checked the viability of these fake cell-cultured outfits?  Ten years ago they walked around with a swagger predicting that by 2023 they’d own half the market, beef would be bankrupt, and farmland would be unnecessary.  Billions in venture capital poured into these audacious prophecies.

What’s happened is the opposite.  It turns out that artificially duplicating blood vessels, hearts, livers, kidneys, and intestines is a bit harder than initially thought.  These outfits are having massive toxicity problems because in a bioreactor the only way you can move stuff is with bubbles and the only way you can clean it is with a filter.  Pretty crude.  In reality, the biggest bioreactors these multi-billion dollar outfits have achieved are about the size of a 5-gallon bucket.  So no, fake cell-cultured meat isn’t the culprit; if it were, you’d see a new multi-billion industry and these products would be everywhere.  Even vegans don’t like them.  So no, that’s not the issue.

How about bugs?  With all the Bill Gates love affair over eating crickets and other bugs, those definitely have not taken market share away from beef. And again, if people were eating that enough to drop beef consumption by 10 percent, we’d see crashing beef prices in the supermarket.  It’s not bugs.

So what is it?  As much as the mainstream media wants to pin this on some bogeyman in the aforementioned group, the culprit is drought.  Last fall I was in Mississippi and farmers told me their cows were breaking their legs stepping in the humongous cracks in the soil created by unprecedented drought.  This two-year drought stretches from nearly California to Georgia.  When the rains stop, the grass doesn’t grow, and when the grass doesn’t grow, you can’t feed cows.

The only way to learn something from this unfortunate tragedy is to look squarely at the culprit and figure out how to mitigate its impacts.  Can farmers mitigate drought?  The exciting answer is a resounding “YES.”  It’s a three-ingredient recipe, and the cool part is that Polyface has been deep into all these things for a long, long time.

First, ponds.  Before Europeans came to North America, it produced more food than it does today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  To be sure, it wasn’t all eaten by humans, but there were far more humans here in 1492 than in 1600.  In that century, 90 percent of the indigenous population died from measles, smallpox, whooping cough and other imported diseases.  Imagine that if 9 out of every 10 people you knew were not here over the course of 100 years.  The U.S. would go from 340 million to 34 million.

But I digress.  North America at that time had at least 100 million bison.  Some 2 million wolves needed 20 pounds of meat a day.  The Lewis and Clark expedition recorded that every single mile they encountered a bear.  Bears eat a lot.  Some 200 million beavers ate more plant material than all the humans in North America today.  And passenger pigeons in flocks large enough to block out the sun for 3 days ate a lot of food.              

At that time, North America was 8 percent water; today it’s less than 4 percent, even with all the big manmade lakes and dams.  All this water maintained what’s called “base flow” which is what percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, keeping springs and wet spots seeping.  The modern ecology idea of permaculture promotes a simple principle:  all raindrops should stay as close to where they drop for as long as possible.  By holding back surface runoff, we protect downstream neighbors from floods and offer hydration when the rains stop.  By definition, surface runoff means the cup of the commons is full, so trapping that does not steal from anyone.

At Polyface, we’ve built more than 20 pounds over the years, but we’re still woefully short, at perhaps 1.5-2 percent water.  We have a long way to go.  But even with the ponds we’ve built, we can now irrigate strategically in a dry July to make the grass think it’s May again.  P.A. Yeomans, the iconic Australian who invented the Keyline System and wrote Water for Every Farm in about 1950, challenged every farmer to commit to two things:  never let surface runoff leave your place and never end a drought with a full pond.  Polyface is on a trajectory to do that eventually.

Second, organic matter (OM).  One pound of organic matter holds 4 pounds of water.  Every 1 percent increase in OM holds 20,000 gallons of water per acre.  Organic matter is spongey and soft:  it’s any decaying vegetation.  Destroying OM is easy:  tillage is the quickest (John Deere’s moldboard plow invented in 1837 was probably the single most destructive device ever invented by humans), but a close second is chemical fertilizers (the soil biology cannibalizes itself trying to stay alive) and third, overgrazing.

When you visit Polyface, you’ll notice cows dotting the countryside on your way to our farm.  They are in the same field year-round and as the season progresses, they eat the forage too short.  That reduces the vegetative mulch that cools the soil and reduces soil moisture evaporation. Kind of like mowing your lawn too short.

At Polyface, we practice mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization (if that floats your boat, you can get a T-shirt with that phrase prominently emblazoned—wearing it makes you an ecology cool kid).  This strategy mimics the choreography of nature by clumping the cows and moving them from paddock to paddock.  That creates a mosaic of various sized forages that holds future dinners on the plant stalk and protects the soil from drying out.                                    

We practice large-scale composting for fertility rather than chemical fertilizers.  And in half a century, we’ve moved our OM from 1 percent in 1961 to a bit more than 8 percent today.  That’s 7 percentages, multiplied by 20,000 gallons per each, which means we can hold 140,000 gallons per acre more than we could when we started.  Now are you excited?

Third, vegetation.  Yes, just vegetation.  The Polyface land base is probably not big enough to affect local weather, but a friend in Chihuahua, Mexico owns 30,000 acres and has been doing what we’re doing for 15 years.  In that 9-inch high desert, scientists have now documented that his increased vegetation is affecting precipitation.  Walter Jenne, the most articulate scientific voice challenging the Green House Gas (GHG) theory, points out that for water vapor to condense, it needs to coalesce around a particle.

The particles are microbial exudates from plants.  As they waft into the atmosphere, they offer condensation nodes, which turn into clouds, which turn into rains.  The foggy mist settling over his fields in early mornings rehydrates dry plants and stimulates a better hydrologic cycle.  Monocrops and fallow break nature’s pattern for vegetation to build healthy water cycles.

At Polyface, we move the herd daily to a new paddock of long grass.  Rather than leaving the animals in one field to chomp it down day after day, much of our land sports long grasses recuperating for the next pruning (grazing) cycle.  This also means lots of plants are in bloom, always, which multiplies pollinators and grassland birds.

Anyone desiring to purchase meat from a drought-resistant farm needs to verify these three principles are foundational in the farm’s protocols.  At Polyface, we don’t like droughts any more than anyone else, but in our 60-plus years here, we’ve seen a drought 4 years out of 5.  That’s pretty dependable.  The correct response is not to blame someone else; the answer is to put on our work jeans and participate as loving stewards of God’s creation.  By patronizing our beef, you are directly funding a drought-mitigating strategy, and for that we and the greater world thank you.

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