As meat and dairy prices rise, questions on the viability of the industry’s dependence on just a few key grains are being asked a little louder—and this time by more than just sustainable food enthusiasts.
In order to understand the full impact of drought on the meat and dairy industry, it is important to understand that our current industrialized food system has made grain a foundation for commercial animal farming. Naturally, cows are supposed eat grasses and forages. However, modern day factory farming relies on grain to fatten animals quickly and remove the need for miles of pastures. This allows factory farms to confine their animals in heavy concentrations.
When the drought decimated grain supplies, causing not just domestic but global prices of key feed grains to inflate, livestock farmers in the US found it increasingly more expensive to feed their cattle. Many of these farmers decided to cull their herds, slaughtering them earlier than usual.
But going into 2013 with smaller herds will greatly affect the availability and price of beef, and it is likely that we will see more of our meats at the store imported from Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
As far as milk production goes, although a study done by the University of Missouri showed that heat stress reduces the amount of milk a cow can produce, and farmers may not be able to feed their cattle as much grain as they usually would, the USDA expects that milk production in 2013 will remain relatively stable.
The quality of beef and dairy is also impacted by a restriction on grain supplies. While some ranchers decided to slaughter their cattle in the face of climbing feed prices, others decided to turn to cheaper alternatives such as candy and processed poultry fecal matter. In conversations I’ve had with artisan cheese makers and 100% pasture-raised dairy producers, I’ve learned that the flavor and quality of milk is greatly influenced by what cattle eat. Artisan cheese company Cowgirl Creamery, for instance, makes seasonal cheeses based on the flavor of the milk as it changes with the grass season.
Drought has also posed a threat to public health by creating the conditions under which aflatoxin, a potent liver carcinogen, can be produced. The FDA has increased the testing of milk for the toxin, as it can be passed on from a cow that has eaten tainted grain into her milk.
Other livestock farmers have turned to importing their feed from abroad. The extra cost of importing food from ever greater distances is one that is passed on to the consumer, and in more ways than just price. Food importation means more greenhouse gasses and pollution.
Beef and dairy: not just a product of grain, but water as well
You might be surprised at the quantity of water that is used to produce the beef and dairy that we consume in abundance. According to the Water Footprint Network:
To produce one gallon (3.8L) of milk it takes…
880 gal (3,331L) water
To produce one pound (.5kg) of beef it takes…
1,800 gal (6,810L) of water
6.6lbs (3kg) of grain, plus the irrigation water used to produce that grain
36.2lbs (16.4kg) of roughage or grasses (plus irrigation)
Drought tolerance in cattle
Of the approximate 50 breeds of cattle used for meat and dairy production in the US, the Black Angus breed is the most commonly raised for beef in North America. The breed was developed from cattle native to the UK and is most sought after for its notable fast growth as well as superb marbling. It is not, however, a breed typically resilient to high temperatures—such as the Senepol, developed on St. Croix Island; or the Romosinuano, from South America; or even the American Brahman.
In a study conducted by the USDA, all three of these breeds were found to be far superior in handling heat stress than the Angus. As temperature extremes are predicted to increase in the decades to come, biodiversity and a selection of breeds that are more adaptable to climate change will play an important role in the survival of our meat supply. This applies similarly to our dairy herds, which are heavily dominated by just two breeds, the Holstein and Jersey.
A step towards resiliency: grass, not grain
The depth to which we have insinuated crops such as wheat, corn and soy into our food system is so pervasive that even conventional grain-fed beef farmers in areas entirely unaffected by the drought were still hit hard as the source of their cattle’s feed in the nation’s bread basket suffered poor yields and prices rose sharply.
That is not to say that grass-fed cattle farmers in drought stricken areas were completely unscathed. After all, every farm relies on water. But grass-fed cattle farmers in areas not as affected by drought were found to be more resilient than their conventional counterparts.
The notion that our primary beef and dairy supplies are dependent on the availability and price of grain is fundamentally nonsensical, as cattle are not meant to eat these grains in the first place. This dependency on just a few crop varieties makes us incredibly vulnerable to fluctuations of any kind, whether they be from climate, the market or society.
Have your read our Sustainable Kitchen Guide for buying humane, healthy and ethical milk, cheese and dairy? Find it here.