We asked an Aspiring Sheep Farmer about High-Welfare Meat

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More Than Carrots helps our users discover and recommend restaurants that do vegetarian food well. However, we know that most of you eat meat and care about the quality of it and we want to support you in learning about this topic as well. We aren’t the experts here, so we have partnered with Ben Eagle, an environmental and agricultural writer from Essex who blogs at www.thinkingcountry.com and tweets @benjy_eagle.  He has written for The Guardian, The Countryman and Earth Island Journal, among others. He is a meat eater, an aspiring meat producer, the son of a former conventional dairy farmer (who still farms, but no longer dairy cows), and a conservationist who sees livestock grazing as central to conservation strategy in many parts of the country.

 

Here is what he says about meat:

“This article will hopefully provide you with answers to some fundamental questions about eating and producing meat. As suggested above, I have eaten meat for my entire life and whilst I have watched various friends turn to vegetarianism or veganism over the years I remain a meat eater. I understand that there are complex ethical questions behind it but I see meat production as a fundamental part of overall food production moving into the future, helping to meet the nutritional needs of the human population, and making best agricultural use of areas of land in the UK where it is difficult to grow crops. Livestock farming also makes a lot of conservation work economically viable.

The most important question for me is how we can make the industrial approach to meat production, i.e. vast CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and zero grazing units, a thing of the past. These systems take a significant proportion of grains out of the human food chain. The alternative to industrial meat production is a world where people eat less, but higher quality grass fed meat. This meat should attract a higher value that can be retained by the food producer, enabling greater economic sustainability in relatively poorer rural areas.

However, you may ask whether grass fed is really better and, if so, in what ways and how much better? This article will hopefully give you some answers.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some quick questions that might be on your mind with regards to meat production. The main thing I hope you’ll take away is that, whilst we should be striving for the best standards in food production and aim for producing as much grass fed meat as possible, the amount we can produce is finite. After all, the amount of land we have is also finite.

Why do cattle and sheep eat grass?

Let’s start with the basics. Grazing animals such as cows, sheep, goats, deer and others can convert the cellulose in grasses (which we as humans cannot digest) into an edible format (proteins and fats that humans can digest). That is because, unlike humans, pigs and other monogastric animals, grazing animals are ruminants which possess a rumen (along with a reticulum, omasum and abomasum if you are a cow), a bit like a 45 gallon fermentation tank full of bacteria which break the grasses down.

What happens when a cow eats grain?

The rumen normally generates huge amounts of gas which is normally expelled through the rear end (which isn’t so great from a climate change point of view). However, when a cow eats too much starch and not enough roughage (which is what happens when we feed them grains), rumination slows down and gas becomes trapped, putting pressure on the animal’s lungs. This doesn’t always happen but it’s certainly more likely to happen in cows that are fed grains instead of eating grass.

Eating too much grain can also cause acidosis. A rumen is usually pH neutral and feeding grains can cause it to grow more acidic. This can lead to all sorts of conditions, from diarrhoea to bloat and liver disease. As with all physical stress it also leaves the animal more prone to other diseases such as pneumonia.

How much land does a grass-fed cow need?

To be honest, there is no definite answer to this one. Like with all things, it is very complex and open to many different variables. It depends on weather, forage type and quality, rainfall, grazing system and grazing objectives. You might have conservation objectives when you are grazing as well as food production aims. For sheep, you might have anything between 2 or 3 and 15-20 sheep per hectare. For cows, you might have one or three or four. However, the main thing to remember is that overstocking will have detrimental effects on the pasture itself, on the soil (leads to compaction) and on the health and welfare of the animals (greater stress and less available forage leading to health issues).

How much water does a cow drink every day?

This again depends on a range of different variables, such as the age and weight of the animal, stage of production, temperature, stress and whether it is lactating. Basically, the heavier the animal the more water it requires. It varies between three and thirty gallons per animal and lactating cows will need about double the amount of water compared to a dry cow.

What’s the Difference between ‘grass fed’ and ‘pasture fed’ on UK labels?

You might occasionally see different labels and be confused as to what the difference is between them. In the UK, ‘grass fed’ can be used if an animal has spent part of its life grazing grass, but not necessarily all of it. The rest of the time they will have been fed cereals or other feeds. ‘Pasture for Life’ animals have been raised purely on grass.

Are ‘Pasture for Life’ animals fed anything else?

During the winter, when grass is less plentiful, these animals will be fed conserved grass in the form of hay, haylage or silage (pickled grass), so it is still grass in a form but not directly grazed. When the weather allows, animals might still be grazing outside as well but their diet will be supplemented by conserved grass.

How can you identify high-welfare meat?

It is vital that, as a consumer, you know where your meat comes from. We live in an age of good food stories and traceability, and yet, many consumers do not know, or even think about, the origin of the piece of meat they have just purchased. We rely on distributors, retailers and regulators to ensure our food is safe, but we cannot rely on them being the ‘ethics police’. It’s only by knowing where your meat came from that you can take an informed decision of whether you want to buy it and consume it. When you make your purchase decision you are supporting the system in which that animal lived and which it died for.

Your best option is to purchase directly from a farm, on a farmer’s market or via a butcher. If that’s not possible, you should look out for quality labels. Unfortunately, labelling is overly complex, with numerous quality labels on display. It can be difficult to wade through all of them and understand what they really mean. The Soil Association Organic Standard and RSPCA Assured are probably your best bets if you buy meat in supermarkets. Some other labels, whilst legal, are ethically dubious, marked with the names of fictional farms to make consumers think the product is somehow more ‘wholesome’, ‘local’ or ‘ethical’. 

As a basic rule of thumb: if you don’t know where your meat comes from you probably aren’t getting meat that you would want to be eating.

 

Is better meat more expensive to produce?

Yes, we should be willing to pay more for higher-quality meat to meet the costs faced by the producer who should earn a fair wage for raising a quality animal. Other costs along the value chain, like killing animals in a small-scale abattoir, can also be higher when compared to the industrial approach. It’s only right that this cost is passed on to the consumer, who eventually benefits from this extra care in the process.”