Regenerative Agriculture -


After pulling up to the pump I slid my credit card in the slot for a quick scan, and after the prompt, picked my poison. Eighty-five octane with E10. Ten percent ethanol.

It’s ubiquitous these days, that pesky ethanol. It comes from corn, ironically now being produced at a greater expense than the petrol it was intended to augment in the name of cost saving. But what does this have to do with the "price of beans in China," or the beef in the grocery store?!

Well, like any manufacturing process, ethanol production has a by-product called distiller's grain. Before the ethanol factory transformed it, distiller's grain used to be corn grown in the corn belt (50% of all that midwestern corn goes into ethanol). After fermentation, they end up with what is also called “spent grains,” and they are almost ubiquitously fed throughout the animal confinement feeding industry. The latest developing tragedy in US production raised beef is that there is a 90% chance that they were fed DDGs (Dried Distiller's Grains). 

It’s because they are cheap. And readily available. I mean really available. Those fuel plants need to move this stuff right now, because in their wet form, they’ll rot in 5 days. And there’s A LOT of it: in the US alone, we produce 90,000 tons a week. That’s over 500 heaping semi loads a day!

These trucks are unloaded to bunks of waiting cows in feedlots after the DDG's are tested to ensure they don't contain lethal levels of sulfur which can cause a brain condition known as PEM (polioencephalomalacia). But what's the big deal? As long as the feed is tested, it's a cheap feed for cattle producers and it's a good use of a waste product, right?

Wrong. First, the animals don’t fare as well on DDGs as they did on the typical feedlot diet of 10 years ago- generally a simply corn and forage diet. And we all know that the diet of a decade ago wasn’t great. But this is worse. Sulfur toxicity and PEM can result in 1% death loss in the feedlot, even with testing and careful monitoring of the feed. DDG feed can also cause acidosis of the animal’s gut, resulting in mortality or chronic poor performance. Rumenitis, or inflammation of the gut, can also be caused by long term feeding DDGs.  Rumenitis often results in ulcers, allowing ruminal bacteria to pass through the rumen wall and into the blood, travel to the liver and cause abscesses. Feeding antibiotics such as tylosin or chlortetracycline has been shown to reduce the incidence of liver abscesses, but mass feeding antibiotics to a herd of 10,000+ cows does not prevent rumenitis and can lead to antibiotic resistant diseases.

Feedlot life is thankfully a terminal condition. Most animals exit to their higher calling at a packing plant within 6 months. It is a race to gain to an economically rewarding weight before the animal dies from the implications of their diet.

(Side note: some “grass fed” cattle are fed DDGs, particularly in the winter. In feedlots. Remember, there is nothing legal behind this claim. Know your rancher or farmer!)

Now, about DDGs and our own wellness.

It is well documented that human serum concentrations of high Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid ratios indicate high levels of inflammation that is a causal mechanism for autoimmune illness and cancer. Omega 6 fatty acids are important for us, mind you. But if concentrations of O6’s are significantly higher than those antioxidant rich (read cancer, or free radical fighting) O3 fatty acids, we are in trouble.

 “Ideal serum ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids in humans should be 1:1. It is believed that our paleolithic ancestors commonly maintained these kinds of ratios due to a diet rich in wild animal fats,” says Sara Keough, MS, CNS, LDN (a very busy) clinical nutritionist practicing in Ellicott City, Maryland. “However, after reviewing hundreds upon hundreds of Omega-6/3 test results on my patients over the years, I have yet to see a single patient with a 1:1 ratio!  I often have patients that come in with a 15:1 ratio of O6:O3 or higher and this is almost always correlated with high inflammation markers and health issues like autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, cardiovascular disease, cognitive dysfunction, obesity, etc.  While “1:1” is optimal, if I can at least get patients down to a ratio of 3:1 or possibly 2:1 then I typically see improvement in inflammation markers and overall health.” 

And therein is why DDGs are so dangerous to humans. They’re a sort of secondhand smoke from an actively dying cow. DDG beef often packs an extremely high O6:O3 ratio. Data indicates that it can be in excess of 50:1. Corn fed beef levels out around 30:1. Legit grass-fed beef weighs in at under 10:1.

DDG beef is simply poor human nutrition. And it’s relatively ubiquitous in our food supply. It’s in restaurant beef, supermarket beef, and even in Whole Foods beef. It’s even in some sketchy grass fed. Do you think we’ve lost our way yet?

Now I get it, from a pure business perspective, this is a rare win-win. Anytime you can take a waste product stream from one process and turn it into a revenue stream for another, you've found the holy grail of efficiency! But there are always unintended consequences when you start deviating from nature's design. It turns out that while feeding animals products they would never have encountered in nature may make sense from a profit margin perspective, it is worse for the animal and it has downstream effects on human health. 

Last night, I had to move my cow herd through a small section of woods (300 yds) to a new paddock. It was right at dusk and it was getting dark under the trees, but I walked down the hill into the woodline and called the cows they way I learned from my grandfather. They trustingly followed me down into the shadow of the trees, hesitantly at first, but slowly picking up speed as they realized where we were going. By the time we neared the other side of the trees, I had to break into a jog to stay ahead of the herd! They broke into the open on the other side and kicked up their heels as they ran out into the fresh grass! They ran an excited lap around their new paddock and then got right to the business of turning all of that grass into high-quality protein. 

That's the way it's supposed to happen. Farmer's managing their animals in concert with God's design creates a fulfilling process for the animals and the farmer. It made me happy that my animals trusted me to lead them to a better place, and it clearly made them happy to get there! This combination of low animal stress, high quality forage and no outside inputs creates a product that is vastly superior for everyone involved; from cow to consumer! 


(Portions of this article were sourced and edited from excerpts of Alderspring Ranch's blog)

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