Sane Cows, or BSE isn’t the worst of it
At the Wye plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the department of agriculture of the University of Maryland raises beautiful Black Angus cattle with all the latest equipment and best techniques. It produces bullocks and breeding heifers, but serves as a model for Maryland’s ‘cow-calf operations’ that produce beef for the table rather than milk. Corrals, chutes, catch-pens all seem brand new because they are so perfectly maintained, with everything neat, clean and freshly painted. The results are impressive: 90 per cent of the Wye cows produce a calf each year, and steers are ready for sale by their 18th month, at impressive weights. I went there to find out how my family’s primitive Bolivian ranch might be improved – only 60 per cent of our cows give birth in any one year, and our steers grow so slowly that we must keep them for 30 months to achieve worthwhile weights for the market. Cattle are capital, and were indeed its very first embodiment, yielding their offspring as interest. The higher the birth rate, the higher the rate of return, if costs are equal. And time is money with cattle as with any other form of capital: a steer sold at 30 months earns less net revenue than one sold after 18 months at equal weights, prices and costs – just how much less depends on the interest cost of waiting, which exceeds 12 per cent per annum in Bolivia. All in all, the Maryland numbers showed that there was much to be improved on our ranch.
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Vol. 23 No. 5 · 8 March 2001
Not too much I'd recognise from this corner of East Anglia in Edward Luttwak's rather sweeping description of Northern Hemisphere beef production (LRB, 8 February). No antibiotics, vermifuges, vaccinations, sonograms and so on. We do have to feed our cattle in the winter, it's true, but at least the bull calves, which stay entire, don't have to worry about Luttwak descending on them in manly fashion at irregular intervals to remove their testicles. Or the anacondas.
It is certainly true that antibiotics are seriously overused to treat cattle, but in the UK this is more a problem in conventionally managed dairy herds. Your average beef farmer will avoid the use of antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. In an organic herd such as ours antibiotics are hardly ever used. Over the last year, for example, we used an antibiotic only once, when one heifer had a serious case of foul in the foot, a potentially fatal condition. I find Luttwak’s statement that ‘nearly all beef cattle in Europe and North America are permanently unhealthy, and only survive in a chronic state of low-level sickness with large doses of antibiotics’ rather insulting. We pride ourselves on the health of our herd, which is closed: we use offspring as future breeders and thus avoid importing health problems. The cattle have a diet consisting of 99.5 per cent forage – in spring, summer and autumn grass, and in winter species-rich hay – and 0.5 per cent protein feed (sugar beet pellets). The fattening stock are finished extensively on grass between 26 and 30 months. The only barley we use is for steers: it is fed to them during the winter months, as part of the 0.5 per cent non-forage ration.
Unlike Luttwak, we do not need to use wormers or vaccinations because our herd management system is carefully planned in an organic arable rotation with leys and mixed grazing on permanent species-rich pasture rotated with sheep. Nor do we need to carry out distressing practices such as castration of young animals. We check the cattle every day and can immediately sort out health or calving problems. I dread to think of the slow deaths some of his cattle must go through with no one to help them.
I would be ashamed of Luttwak’s fertility figures of 60 per cent. Last year we had a 100 per cent fertility record, and the year before 95 per cent. We leave the bulls with the cows for three months and just let things happen. The use of the same bull pedigree makes calving relatively easy even for first-time heifers. European cattle farming has had a disastrous decade, but if you want quality food and a working countryside, buy locally produced organic beef.
As a beef-cattle producer for many years until BSE made it unprofitable and unpleasurable, I found Edward Luttwak’s piece of special interest. I have, however, failed to find a butcher who can supply me with a Bolivian steak. Given its rarity, may I put in a word for Scottish beef which – notwithstanding Luttwak’s contention that ‘nearly all beef cattle in Europe and North America are permanently unhealthy’ – I used to rear without the aid of antibiotics, protein supplements or a resident vet and many of my neighbours still do.
Vol. 23 No. 6 · 22 March 2001
Because I know so little of current British cattle-raising practices, I found the letters of Messrs Scott, O’Leary and Urquhart (Letters, 8 March) very interesting indeed. David Scott worries for my bull calves and their testicles, implying that castration is unnecessary as well as cruel (though we use supposedly painless plastic clips). We find that, unless castrated, the males fight each other – and older bulls, with sometimes disastrous results – instead of putting on weight. I wonder if what makes the difference is our ‘wild’ Nelor breed, or is it just a matter of control? Our cattle of all sexes and none range freely within two fenced pastures of roughly twelve thousand acres each; we cannot possibly practise one-on-one animal husbandry to keep the animals separate. As for vermifuges, we use a Brazilian-made ‘ball’ that we try to feed to each animal twice a year. Perhaps our voracious tropical worms are unknown in Britain. I am puzzled by the non-use of vaccination against foot and mouth disease; even on our jungle-river border with Brazil, with neither passport control nor customs, there are animal inspectors paid by Brazilian ranchers, and we cannot sell our cattle unless they’ve been vaccinated. Yet I understand from Mike O’Leary as well that vaccination is not compulsory in the UK. I wonder why. Will that perhaps change now?
While acknowledging that ‘antibiotics are seriously overused’ by others, Mr O’Leary explained his own commendably organic methods, which I gather are very different from normal cattle-raising practices in the UK. Unfortunately I did not understand his ‘herd management system’, and would be most thankful for an explanation (gratefully received at email@example.com or via the LRB).
As for my abysmal numbers compared to his 100 per cent fertility record, congratulations are certainly due to Mr O’Leary, and his bulls as well. But I had misrepresented our results, poor as they are: 60 per cent was a minimum, we usually achieve 70 per cent, and it is not that we have 60 or 70 live births per 100 cows, but rather that we obtain 60-70 per cent herd growth each year, net of predation. We do not even know how many live births actually occur because newborns are of course especially vulnerable to maned wolves as well as to jaguars, both locally abundant. It was our choice to stop all hunting, and we accept the consequences. I was impressed by Mr Urquhart’s encomium for Scottish beef. Is it really raised without grain or other proteinic feeds? If so, none of my strictures would apply, because then the use of antibiotics need not be habitual. But I wonder therefore why with very high fertility rates, and no ‘antibiotics, vermifuges, vaccinations, sonograms etc’ to pay for, beef production in the UK is not a highly profitable activity. Can winter hay be that expensive?
Chevy Chase, MD
San Joaquin, Beni, Bolivia