Large scale sustainability?
Frederick Kirschenmann writes:
The January/February 1997 Kerr Center Newsletter announced that it was
adding "rural development" to its program. Suddenly, given the Fund for
Rural America, every one is interested in developing us. Ironically the
lead article in the newsletter ("Future of the Beef Industry") points us
in a direction that can not possibly lead to any real rural development.
It suggests that
most of the problems the beef industry is facing could be
solved through vertical integration, much like the swine and poultry
industries. Producers would be paid a salary to raise calves to a
specific weight and receive a bonus for good performance.
The article goes on to say that "raising cattle is a hobby and not a
business" when herds are only a 100 cows or less (50% of the beef cows
in the US are in herds of this size according to a 1995 USDA report).
Well, I would have expected something like this in Beef or the Farm
Journal. I was really surprised to find it in a "sustainable
Apparently Will Lathrop, the author of the article and a "livestock
specialist", is not aware of several facts:
1. That the economic viabiality and environmental benefits of
herds of less than a hundred cows that are fully integrated in
crop/livestock systems, has been well established. Several North Dakota
State University studies on integrated crop livestock systems
*when 60 beef cows were integrated into a cropping
system so that the cows could make use of corn stover and other crop
residues, the return for labor was $22 per hour. Feed costs were
minimal since cows were making use of crop waste, and it also reduced
cropping costs since the cow manure was used to supply nutrients for
the cropping system. Any time a farmer can turn waste into income and
make $22 an hour doing it, he is on the path to economic sustainability.
*when 85 cows were added to a cropping system the
return to the cropping system increased by $24,000 annually in
conventional farming systems and $27,000 annually in conservation
*when crop residues were feed to cows 71% of the
nitrogen consumed by the cows was returned to the field in the form of
Crop/livestock integration, then, is one of the key ways to
improve economic and ecologic sustainability---and herd size can be well
Furthermore, it is precisely such integrated crop/livestock
systems that enable producers to develop ecologically elegant
ystems----surely one of the hallmarks of sustainability.
2. Contrast this with the model Lathrop proposes---the broiler
industry. An October 26, 1992 issue of Time magazine pointed out that
farmers who had contracted with Tyson to produce chicken for them had
become "serfs on their own land". Since Tyson was the only market,
farmers were in no position to bargain or auction for better prices.
They had not received an increase for their labor in 11 years despite
the fact that their costs had increased by 50%. In the processing
plants workers received minimum wages in extremely harsh working
conditions that now make "fowl processing one of the nation's most
hazardous jobs". Furthermore, the manure overload from the massive
concentration of chickens is creating an intolerable waste disposal
problem that has numerous detrimental environmental impacts. Is this
the "sustainable" future that Lathrop sees for beef producers and the
rural communities in which beef is produced?
3. Ours is a 3100 acre grain and livestock farm with 114 beef
brood cows. The beef cattle are fully integrated into the cropping
system. We feed our cattle no cash grain, only forages and crop
residues. We generate, on average, $300,000 gross revenue annually, and
haven't borrowed any operating funds in 20 years. I assure you this is
not a hobby farm. We also get top price for our backgrounded
calves---not because we are part of a vertically integrated
industry-managed quality control system, but because they are healthy,
grass-fed, and ready to perform well when they hit the feed lot. Over
the past 10 years we have always gotten top dollar for our calves each
Lathrop does suggest that producers need to cooperate. I agree. But
they need to cooperate with one another (not some Tyson type
corporation), develop direct markets where possible, and pool their
capital to recapture part of the market sector by building locally owned
processing plants with product produced to meet specific market niches
that the IPB's of the world can't compete with---like high quality grass
and forage fed beef. That way the wealth generated by beef enterprises
will stay in local communities instead of being drained off to distant
investors. That is real rural development.
If you want to respond to Fred you can do so at this E-mail address.