“The confinement industry’s common response to criticism right now is to say ‘we have to feed the world’ and that doesn’t work if there are viable (alternative) models out there.”
– TODD CHURCHILL
If Todd Churchill is right, he’s come up with a grass-fed beef production model that could pull the rug out from under confinement grain-fed livestock feeding systems.
“In my opinion, confinement livestock is about to be thrown virtually off the bus,” Churchill said told a Manitoba Cattle Enhancement Council strategic planning session Nov. 30. “In 10 years, I think we will see virtually no feedlots in the U.S.”
And for one simple reason.
“We believe we produce just as many pounds of beef as confinement livestock does,” he said.
Churchill is the founder and co-owner of the Minnesota-based Thousand Hills Cattle Company, which contracts with about 50 family farms and ranches in the northern U.S. to produce 100 per cent grass-fed cattle. Those cattle are processed through a small plant in Minneapolis and made into branded meat products for distribution through restaurants and retail outlets.
The 37-year-old farm kid who left his career in accounting to take up ranching and meat marketing said his grass-fed system delivers a high-quality product to consumers who are willing to pay up to double commodity beef prices. It also pays the producer prices that are an average premium of 15 per cent over commodity prices and provides an opportunity to independent distributors, retailers, and restaurants to build their brand by marketing his.
Finding an alternative production model that deliver the same pounds per acre as confinement systems, but without the environmental and ethical baggage, gives society the rationale it’s looking for to move away from intensive livestock systems, he said.
Intensive grain-fed systems are already under scrutiny on numerous fronts, ranging from waste management issues, animal welfare to economic unsustainability due to rising costs of production.
“The confinement industry’s common response to criticism right now is to say ‘we have to feed the world’ and that doesn’t work if there are viable (alternative) models out there,” he said.
The problem facing conventional systems is their operating environment has changed substantially from the premise that led to their creation.
Intensive confinement systems evolved as a result of U.S. farm policy, which created huge surpluses of grains for which there were no markets. “The reason for livestock confinement was to add value to excess grain. That reason doesn’t exist any more,” Churchill said.
Not only has cheap feed and cheap energy become a thing of the past, but so has the political will to prop up the system. On the contrary, these systems have become a political liability because of the load they place on the environment.
“Politically speaking, there is no one who is going to fight for them. And on top of that you have this growing consumer frustration or anger, over the fact that cattle pigs and poultry are not exactly from the 1950s-style farm we we’ve been told about,” Churchill said.
“I think you couple that together and there is going to be a lot of political pressure that is going to brought to bear against them. We are going to start counting the costs, the real costs, of confinement livestock operations.”
Churchill said the grass-fed production model that feeds his supply chain is able to match the productivity of confinement systems because it is based on highly productive land that would otherwise be sown to crops such as corn and soybeans. Typically, cattle are grazed on marginal lands not suitable for annual crop production.
The high-quality forages are harvested by the cattle through rotational grazing.
The model increases the productive capacity of the land while leaving a negative carbon footprint. “By taking it out of corn and soybean rotations and growing very high-quality forages with it, I am actually producing more beef per acre than if I had harvested the corn and the soybeans and brought them to a feedlot.”
As well, it is producing a healthier product for consumers than conventionally raised beef because grass-fed beef is leaner, and contains more heart-healthy conjugated linoleic acids (CLA). His customers believe it is tastier too.
Churchill said similar models are emerging for poultry and pork.
Churchill said his company’s success depends on access to processing. It also requires highly skilled labour and a dedicated distribution chain in which the players all benefit through marketing a differentiated product.
It also has to be a product that consumers want, “instead of telling the consumers they are stupid because they want what they want.”
“The problem is that agriculture is mired in mediocrity. Confinement feeding is just very average. The only thing it does for you is it gets you quantity of production that you can manage with low-skilled labour,” he said.
Churchill said the core competency of farming right now is access to capital.
“If you have access to enough capital you can buy enough machinery that you don’t need very many people and you don’t need to have highly skilled people.”
In his view, the greatest problem facing agriculture in the future is the absence of the human capital capital necessary to adapt to the changing marketing environment.
A pasture-based model needs more people with higher husbandry skills than the conventional approach. “But the net income is far greater because we don’t have any machinery,” he said. “And in my opinion as an entrepreneur, investments in human capital always produce a better return than investments in machinery.”