I’ve written about the topic of lab grown meat here, here, and here. But some new reporting really nails down important points about the scam that is afoot. It’s a long article, but worth reading over at The Counter if you can spare some time.
I think the article does an outstanding job unpacking such a complex topic. My only gripe is that I wish the author would have taken a moment to consider grass fed beef instead of painting all beef with the ecological problems associated with grain fed beef. But many people share that big blindspot when it comes to beef. I’m not surprised to encounter that mistake.
What follows is my synthesis of the article and some thoughts on the situation.
Big Shiny Mess
Investors and all their influencers-for-hire have been telling us to look at this big shiny new thing. They’ll save this world with lab grown meat. It’s coming. Soon. It’s right around the corner. Wait for it. Any minute now…
But they can’t make it work at any kind of realistic scale. The scheme totters on a base of faulty assumptions, fraudulent data, and flights of fancy.
They don’t have solutions for overcoming basic thermodynamics or basic economics. No, they can’t address the supply side of how they’ll feed all these fermentation tanks with inputs, nor can they explain how they’ll adequately deal with all the waste material they produce. There are no designs for large scale system that can keep the meat cultures from infection by bacteria or viruses.
The production facilities will require laboratory-grade factories larger, more complicated, and more expensive than the combined total of all pharmaceutical production in the entire world, and even that would only offset a tiny fraction of the world’s meat. But how will they build pharma-grade factories if they also need to work at food-grade profit margins? And then there’s the problem that nobody has ever designed fermentation and reactor systems that output at anywhere near the scale proposed.
Besides all the well-documented objections in the article, I’d also like to add one not addressed: vulnerabilities. Concentrating food production into these complicated production hubs creates new vulnerabilities. Whether we’re considering outages due to hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, grid shutdowns, hacking, bioterrorism, or global supply chain disruptions for key inputs, shutdowns and production bottlenecks at these food factories will create never-before-seen levels of food uncertainty. Increased complexity and consolidation exacerbates the potential for havoc when critical links fail.
Anywhere we look for the solutions that will enable the large-scale production of lab grown meat, we find unsubstantiated handwaving. Don’t worry, we’ve got an imminent solution for the problem. Trust us. Just keep on investing in the next tranche of capital.
Emperors and Their Clothes
Here are some salient quotes from the article:
- “And it’s a fractal no,” he told me. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”
- “Rather than disrupt the existing paradigm for food production, or help incentivize a pivot to a more dynamic, diversified agriculture, cultured meat fed on soy protein might only further lock us in.”
- “Cultivated meat won’t be economically viable until companies can make cells grow beyond certain widely recognized biological limits.”
- “To me this sounds like the story of the Emperor’s Clothes,” he wrote, in an email. “It’s a fable driven by hope, not science, and when the investors finally realise this the market will collapse.”
- On the problem of maintaining the necessary sterility at the production scale needed: “It’s never been done because you can’t. You’re just going to be producing vats of contaminated meat over and over again.”
- “I’ve got nothing against it, but don’t pretend it’s going to solve world food. That’s the thing I find most offensive.”
- “It is a zero-sum game, to a certain extent,” he said. Money we spend chasing cultured meat is money we can’t use on converting coal plants to biomass, or scaling solar and wind, or modernizing concrete and steel.
Making the Flashy Choice, Missing the Point
Lab grown meat is an unproductive distraction. It is diverting critical investments into a boondoggle and, more importantly, it is diverting our attention from real food and farming solutions.
We should be focusing intensely on cleaning up our methods of producing food and breaking free from the entrenched corporate interests that lock us in to this dysfunctional system. Food production is broken. And this isn’t just about meat. The problems in conventional food production are equally atrocious across the spectrum of farming: vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts all trail devastation in their wake.
Doing the Good Work
Instead of chasing delusions, let’s do the work in front of us. We have good solutions that address fundamental food problems. These solutions are old fashioned and uncomplicated, but they don’t appeal to venture capital investors. They are not patentable. There is no money to be made from their intellectual property rights. The slow work of building soil doesn’t show double digit annual ROI.
Regenerative, organic farming works from the bottom up, from the vision and sweat of people intimately connected with their land, their plants, and their animals. Silicon Valley culture, venture capital investors, synthesized food advocates, entrenched corporations within the food system, and government regulatory bodies all insist on solutions from the top down. They just can’t, or won’t, comprehend what transformative, durable farming is all about.
We already know what we should be doing to produce our food in a way that builds up our soils, sequesters our carbon, enhances our plant and animal diversity, recycles our water, cleans our air, and nourishes our bodies. We can do this in a way that involves more people in the process so more of us share a stake in the outcomes. We know how to do this. It is hard work, but the work works.
Some of us are at this task right now. Let’s all get on with it!
I first heard about grass fed beef while I was in high school. In the context of the discussion, someone was talking about grass fed as something different than corn fed beef. I wasn’t convinced.
From gardening experience, I had a little knowledge about corn, at least as far as growing sweet corn. I had no qualifications or knowledge about cattle. But that didn’t inhibit my rush to pass judgement. I had an adolescent’s firm confidence in the supremacy of a slam-bang-pow argument. I learned how to do linear proofs in geometry class. Why not do the same thing here? So I strung things out to their logical conclusion thusly:
- Cows eat grass.
- Corn is a grass.
- Therefore, corn fed cows are grass fed cows. QED.
As stated, my logic was valid but my conclusion was false. I was unaware that I had proven a semantic point without understanding the pragmatic meaning of anything.
If you had asked me at the time if a tomato was a vegetable, I likely would have been quick to correct you that a tomato was technically a fruit. It took me a while to appreciate that facts and truth are related phenomena, but they are not interchangeable. In same way, corn is a grass, but corn fed is a world apart from grass fed.
Why Corn Fed Cows Are Not Grass Fed Cows
What I didn’t know back then was the practical difference between the words “grass” and “corn” as they applied to the practices of raising and feeding cattle.
So, yes, corn is a member of the grass family, as are other grains commonly encountered in farming: barley, millet, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. Among the grains, corn wins in the contest of yield per acre. And it grows better in a wider variety of places. Giving credit where it is due, corn is an amazing plant. In the the United States corn dominates as the standard cattle feed.
The important distinction is in the grain itself, the corn seed. Over millenia farmers bred a plant capable of depositing high levels of starchy carbohydrates inside the seed kernels. These kernels, with all those carbs to provide energy, allow cattle to grow quickly, far faster than they would grow when simply grazing a grass pasture.
Three Problems with Feeding Corn to Cattle
But feeding corn has three major downsides not found in grass feeding. The first is internal to the cow, the second is environmental, and the third is social. Each of these issues would probably warrant some individual exposition as full length articles, but for the purpose of this discussion I’ll summarize them as follows.
Corn Fed: Problems for Cattle
The first problem with feeding corn to cattle is that their digestive systems are poorly suited to the starches in grain. Cattle are ruminants, animals that have a multiple-stomach arrangement that allows them to ferment and slowly extra nutrition from large quantities of long-fiber plant forages (grasses and leaves). Feeding corn causes their rumen and its carefully balanced microbial community to shift toward an acidic state. Unlike a pig or a chicken, animals that have a strongly acidic stomachs, cow’s rumens cannot tolerate high levels of acidity. Corn feeding, especially in the concentrations used for beef cattle, creates acidosis. These cattle suffer from debilitating problems, somewhat comparable to stomach ulcers in humans. This leads to cascading immune responses, liver failure, and eventual death. Overuse of antibiotics and ionophores stems from this choice to feed cattle an inappropriate diet. Bottom line: grass and green leaves suit cattle, but high starch diets do not.
Corn Fed: Problems for Environment
The second problem related to corn feeding manifests at the environmental level. Cultivating any crop, whether we’re talking about corn or tomatoes or lettuce, is hard on soil. Tillage, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, all tend to harm soil health. Cropland creates negative externalities for insect and wildlife populations. This is counterintuitive to many people, because we have a long cultural history of viewing field work as a positive thing. But cropping, especially in the context of the chemical warfare model that prevails, is environmentally costly. So growing corn to feed to animals that shouldn’t be eating corn in the first place? This is absurd. All those acres could be growing grass for cattle, and that would improve the soil, reduce our runoff problems, restore habitats, and continue to create plenty of food for us.
Corn Fed: Problems for Society
The third problem is social. Corn feeding is what enables and fuels the incredible consolidation and concentration we see in our food system. Government subsidized corn creates an artificial incentive for agribusinesses to feed corn to cattle at prices below the true cost of production. This abundant corn goes to giant feedlots, capable of holding tens of thousands of cattle at a time. Just a few transnational companies process all this feedlot beef, resulting in the most concentrated, anticompetitive food system imaginable.
Flavor is a consideration that may get short shrift when we talk about food. But I think we err when we overlook it.
Comparing corn fed beef to grass fed beef, it becomes immediately apparent that corn fed beef is bland. Yes, it may have the appropriate color and texture, and it may sizzle equally well. But after eating grass fed beef, I find the transition to corn fed beef jarring. Corn is one of the mildest grains. It contains very few flavor compounds that transfer into the beef. Grass fed beef by contrast actually reflects the seasonal abundance of the pastures the cattle have been grazing. Flavonoids from grasses deposit in the fat and create terroir specific to a unique place and time.
In discussing food, it seems our cultural preference in America is to rank quantity over quality. But I believe we can’t have truly good food unless it is both nutritious and tasty. Don’t forget flavor.
Grass Fed Simplicity
We advocate for grass fed beef because we know that cattle are ideally suited for their role as grazers of grasses and leafy greens. They fit this ecological niche perfectly. They can graze these plants year after year without the need for tillage, sprays, fertilizers, irrigation, or publicly subsidized grain. As they graze on our farm, they improve the plant diversity, the soil health, and the water cycle. They take an endlessly renewable natural resource (grass) and convert it into wonderfully nutritious proteins and fats.
When cattle are eating a natural diet, unsurprisingly they are healthier. On our farm we aren’t fighting against disease, propping cattle up with antibiotics. They thrive in our pastures because they have all the nutrition they require. When I consider the kinds of food I want to be eating, the vibrant health of a grass fed steer seems much more appealing to me than choosing a corn fed steer suffering from months of digestive system dysfunction.
Grass fed is a system that works on its own. It doesn’t allow much room for manipulation and its inherently distributed nature prevents extreme market concentration. That is why honestly-produced grass fed beef is so hard to find in the United States. The fertilizer companies, pesticide companies, farm equipment companies, pharma companies, and genetically-modified seed companies can’t make money off it. And the big meat packers can’t control it.
Grass, Not Corn
So while corn belongs in the grass family, when we talk about grass fed beef we never include feeding corn or any other grain to the cattle. Grain feeding takes things into troubling territory and misses out on all the benefits of straightforward grass feeding.
Choose grass, not corn. It’s just better every which way.
I just learned that someone included our farm in a short audio essay titled “On the Naming of Farms”, broadcast on KQED, the San Francisco public radio station.
Here’s the quote that I noticed:
Quirky names, like Blue Dragon Farm, Flying Pig Farm, Fluffy Butt Farms or Wrong Direction Farm, are the ones I like best. These names dare you to imagine how they came to be selected, and wonder about the stories behind the scenes.Peggy Hansen
I don’t know Peggy, but I appreciate her insight into our choice of a farm name.
Sometimes when I used to go to farmers markets and people would ask about the farm name, I’d flip the question and ask what the questioner thought the name could mean. It was always fascinating to hear their thoughts. For us, the name has meant different things. It originally came from the concluding lines of Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, in which he praises being unpredictable and off-center. Here are the concluding lines of the poem:
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Sometimes farming in the Wrong Direction is about the intentional choice to do things differently than the norm. That’s what it means when we’re feeling bold. At other times Wrong Direction has been a statement of humility to acknowledge that we’re often spinning out in various wrong directions as we try to settle on right courses. But regardless of which way we manifest Wrong Direction as an ethos and a practice, the poem’s final idea of a continuous exercise in resurrection is always close by. In farming we’re connected to cycles of living, dying, and new birth. Having the possibility of making a series of personal resurrections throughout our farming career is an encouraging concept.
Here’s the link to the original audio clip and transcript.
If you’ve ever tried to move a flock of poultry, you’ve probably noticed that chickens don’t respond as well to herding as ducks or turkeys. While chickens do move with and identify with their flock, they just don’t stick together in a tight unit. It seems that chickens have the individualism dial turned up just a bit higher than other farm birds. So when we need to walk our pasture raised chickens to fresh grass, we’ve found a little tool that helps.
My first idea was to purchase some cheerleading pom poms. Although they were effective, the ones I found were very poorly made and fell apart within days. So I started thinking about how I could make an eye-catching herding tool from materials we had on hand.
We’ve been using these chicken herding flags for about four years now. Each one is made from strips of a garbage bag (the thick 50 gallon contractor-grade bags). The strips are attached to one end of a 24″ pieces of 3/4″ PVC conduit, and secured with zip ties through a 1/4″ hole drilled in the pipe.
While I move the shelter with the tractor, AJ comes behind and flaps the flags at the back of the coop. All the fluttering and motion works well to scoot the chickens along. After a few pasture rotations to new grass, the chickens seem to figure out where they are supposed to go. Most of them get excited and start crowding forward without much need to wave the flags. But there are always a few stragglers who insist on running the wrong way, and the flags help sort them out.
As far as durability goes, our oldest flags are four years old and just starting to wear out. I’m surprised the poly has lasted this long in the sun and wind. But for only a few cents of materials and a few minutes of time we can make replacements, so they don’t owe me anything.
I made this explainer video to show how we move all our chickens on pasture. Pasture raised chickens, if they are legit, are chickens that are always on the move to fresh grass. So having good mobility is important for all our infrastructure.
Here’s the transcript:
Hi, I’m Dave your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm.
Today I’d like to show you how we move our chickens on their pastures. Now we always talk about “pasture raised“, but how do we actually keep the chickens on fresh grass? That’s an important question.
If the chickens were to stay in one spot for too long – well, you can kind of see what’s happening here. See the ground around their feeders; it’s getting a little bit beat up. So you know chickens, they love to chase bugs and while they’re doing that, they like to scratch up at the ground. They eat the plants that are growing on the ground and of course they poop all over it. Before long the ground is just a muddy mess. So we don’t want the ground to stay muddy for too long. The chickens would destroy the plant life in that case. What we want to do is provide a good opportunity to just disturb the soil a little bit, let the plants rest. The chickens won’t be back on this patch of ground for another year. That allows some time for the manure to soak into the soil and the whole system is able to regenerate and come back stronger next year.
So yeah, let’s get this move started and I’ll show you what we do.
We use a tractor. You don’t need a very big tractor; a modest sized one will work. We’ve also moved them with pickup trucks. The only problem with the pickup truck is you have a little less visibility to the rear. With the tractor I can turn around in the seat and see exactly what’s happening behind me.
AJ works inside the coop with me. He’s been doing this job for many years so he’s got a good sense of when the chickens are moving and when they’re a little bit stuck. You can see him in there waving those flags. Those flags are just made out of old trash bags that we’ve sliced up and put on the end of sticks. And there’s my signal to stop.
I never expected finding a reliable, effective feeder for our pasture raised chickens would be such a challenge. Over the past twelve years I have built countless feeders. And I’ve tried at least ten different commercial feeders trying to find something that really worked.
Along the way I came up with a pretty good homemade design for laying hens, but for broiler chickens I keep coming back to the Kuhl 50 lb hanging feeder as the best option. I like that it has a feed tray with a large lip, preventing the chickens from scraping the feed out with their beaks and wasting it on the ground. The solid tray dividers prevent side-to-side swipes that can also lead to spilled feed. Plus, the round design means that the chickens can access the feeders from all directions.
Providing feed to pasture raised chickens is always a challenge, and feeders need to be tough. In any situations chickens are constantly bumping the feeders, but in a pasture environment there are additional shock loads. We move our chickens to fresh grass, so the chicken shelters travel thousands of feet each season. All that movement is great for the grass and for the chickens, but it puts strain on the components of hanging feeders.
We discovered that the Kuhl hanging feeders have a fatal design flaw. They might work perfectly fine in barns, but with all our pasture rotations, they always break. The problem is that they are held together by a steel bolt threaded into a light aluminum shaft. Eventually that bolt strips out and the feed tray falls out the bottom. I have tried all sorts of things to fix it, including using both blue and red formulations of Loctite and even epoxy. None of these are durable solutions. I’ve also tried drilling out and re-tapping the aluminum, but that only buys a little time. The aluminum is just too brittle, and I have a feeling that the corrosion between dissimilar metals, especially in a wet, grassy environment may be hastening its demise.
Rather than giving up on the feeders, I decided to repair them. But this time I’m going with all steel construction. No more aluminum. I am cutting 1/2″ steel threaded rod into 19.5″ pieces and welding on a lock washer at one end as a hanger. The other end just gets the threads cleaned up so I can thread nuts back on.
The inside of the feeder has a small raised bump and the original aluminum rod’s washer is notched around that bump. I just use an angle grinder to make similar notches in 1/2″ washers. Note in the picture below that I’m using a regular 1/2″ nut next to the notched washer, and then a nylon lock nut on the bottom. I have also applied blue Loctite on the non-locking nut, but I’m not sure if this is necessary.
The only required modification to the rest of the feeder is that the base needs to be drilled out to receive a 1/2″ rod since the original aluminum shaft was 12 mm. The holes in the upper parts of the feeder are big enough to accomodate the threaded rod without any alterations. One bonus to note here is that the hopper height adjustment screw works better on the rough surface of the threaded rod than the smooth aluminum. We used to always find that the aluminum shaft allowed the hopper to creep downward over time.
We’ve been using several of these repaired feeders this summer and so far, they’ve been working well. I hesitate to call anything a permanent fix, but I’m confident that these new steel shafts will do a better job and allow us to continue feeding pasture raised chickens for many more years.
When we talk about grass fed, grass finished beef, obviously the word “grass” gets a lot of prominence. So grass and grass only, right? The answer isn’t so clean cut. As with a lot of things, the name of the practice is perhaps not the best choice. It isn’t deliberately misleading, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Instead of grass, maybe we should be talking about Leaf Fed/Leaf Finished. Or Grass+ Fed. That’s because this isn’t about being limited by the exclusivity of the grass category. This is more about providing cattle the best possible diet, one that consists of all kinds of leaves that fit within our pasture ecosystem.
Leaf Fed Beef
When I look at our pastures, I count about seven main types of grasses. Bluegrass, brome grass, fescue, orchard grass, reed canarygrass, perennial ryegrass, timothy.
But I can think of a far greater array of plants that also grow in our fields, and none of them are technically grasses. Some are legumes (red, white, and sweet clover, alfalfa, vetch, birdsfoot trefoil), some are deep rooted biennials (burdock, parsnip, wild carrot), some are perennial shrubs (elderberry, shrub willow, wild black raspberry). And then we can look at the trees with edible leaves (apple, poplar, sumac, willow) and the wild grape vines tangled through them. I started making a list of plants the cattle graze here, and after forty entries I realized I was only part way there.
For the cattle in our pastures, yes, it is true that grasses make up the greatest portion of their intake. But talking only about grasses misses leaves out some of the best parts of the story we can be telling. Our leaf fed cattle experience an abundant, varied, and complex diet. Having all these food options gives them an optimally balanced diet as different plants change their nutritional profiles throughout the year. Some plants are medicinal (like the echinacea and broadleaf plantain growing in the fields), some help with parasites (willow), some contain essential minerals drawn by deep tap roots (tree leaves). Each plant fits into an important place in the nutritional puzzle.
What’s the Big Deal About Eating Leaves?
The big deal is that cattle can graze an abundant, indefinitely renewable, and locally available resource. Here in Upstate New York we can produce a lot of greenery. Our growing seasons are consistently wet and our summer days are long. We grow more than enough to feed cattle all through the green season. And we still have plenty of extra grass to bale up during the summer to feed the cattle during the winter.
So when we talk about grass fed beef, or leaf fed beef if you will, we’re talking about one of the most responsible ways to produce high quality food per acre. We can grow top quality cattle forage on land like our farm, land that isn’t suitable for crops. I’m always amazed standing in the field with my cattle, thinking about the transformation going on every day all around me.
So What Can’t Grass Fed Cattle Eat?
The only hard line here is about saying no to grain and grain byproducts. Even though grains come from plants within the larger grass family, their grain seeds are something cattle would never have encountered in nature. Feeding cattle grain upsets their gut microbiome, since metabolizing grain starches tilts their rumen pH toward acidity. Animals like chickens and pigs naturally have acidic stomachs, so they can thrive on grains. But cattle have a very different digestive system, one that is optimized for the digestion of huge quantities of coarse, high-fiber plant roughage. Grain feeding, especially in the concentrations used in commercial farming, leads to acidosis. Once the cattle are in ill health, they require more frequent interventions with pharmaceuticals like antibiotics and ionophores. The whole system of grain feeding slides the cattle toward compromised health in order to quickly add pounds.
Grass Fed isn’t about Exclusion. It’s about Abundance.
But even in making the statement that our grass fed cattle are never fed grain, I’d like to point out a more fundamental idea. Our focus as farmers should be to maximize abundance. Contemporary conventional agriculture orients farmers toward focusing on negatives: fighting weeds, killing pests, medicating disease, fixing machines, and tolerating low prices.
In telling the story of grass fed, leaf fed beef, I don’t want to spend much time arguing against grain feeding. Focusing on the negative (“we don’t feed grain”) tells part of the story, but it doesn’t adequately highlight the goodness of the positive (“cattle eat a wide variety of green leaves that provide them everything they need”). Grass fed is good because it is a system based on recycling leaves and plants. These are abundant, renewable feed resources, and these animals are uniquely well suited for consuming them.
When we talk about both animal nutrition and human nutrition, it seems easier to lapse into obsession over the evils and dangers, and thus to miss out on all the great options we have available before us. And all the marketing bombarding us works diligently to keep us in a state of worry, primed for the next sales pitch for something to help us battle a problem.
Accentuate the Positive
I want to farm for abundance. I can’t ignore weeds, pests, and the rest, but I want to focus on promoting the sources of excellence on our farm. What practices make the most grasses and forage plants grow on our farm? Let’s find them and outcompete the weeds. Which plants make our cattle the healthiest? Let’s feed those and avoid the need to medicate. That’s the idea.
Grass fed beef really shines when we look at food production from a positive, abundance orientation. We can look for what is good and use that to anchor everything we’re accomplishing here. Our cattle are grazing a completely renewable resource that we can’t eat ourselves. They convert it into high quality nutrition using only the resources that come from the farm. Over time, because of their synergistic relationship with these plants they improve the soil and the quality of the plants, leading to yet more abundance. This is an amazing system!
Our goal as farmers, especially those of us on the organic/regenerative side of farming, is to be abundance-workers. How can we take the sunshine, water, soil, plant, and animal resources and use them to create more abundance? Surely this is a better use of our time, and a more satisfying way of living, than just focusing on all the thing we aren’t doing.
If you are reading this not as a farmer but as a consumer, I’d challenge you to find ways to be an abundance-consumer. If you have the privilege of choosing what you buy and what you eat, can you find food that comes from a place of abundance? The mainstream market focuses on negatives, like cost-cutting and competition-squashing. Surely we can all do better than that. Let’s all support those who are doing the work of creating something better.
So are our cattle grass fed and grass finished? Yes, we meet the grazing standards of every organization that has ever tried to standardize the definition. But we’d rather be known for abundant leaf fed cattle.
On the steep bank just behind our house we had an old smokehouse. The roof must have been leaking a long time ago, because even though it was re-roofed with tin about 20 years ago, the rafters and floor were full of rot. This year we noticed that as the wood foundation beams decomposed, the whole thing was in the process of slouching down the hill. It was time for it to go.
We never used the smokehouse for its intended purpose, or really any purpose, because it was already in sorry shape when we moved here ten years ago.
Demolition was pretty easy. I stripped as much of the weathered siding as I could. I’ll try to reuse it for some decorative woodworking. Then the boys and I gave a mighty shove and it toppled over.
I’m always interested to see how old buildings were fitted together. This was framed in the timber framing style with pegged joints. Since some of the fasteners were machine-made round nails, it can’t be as old as the rest of the house. But talking about the age of farm structures is a study of the Ship of Theseus paradox. Even though the smokehouse itself may have been built in the 1900-1930 period, the framing timbers were of different sizes and several had unused mortices in them. Like most of the other timber framing in our house, the lumber was likely recycled from an even older building.
I wonder how many hams and bacons were smoked in this building over the years. I also wonder which, if any, of the things I build now might cause someone in a hundred year to think about the work I’m doing here. Will that future person look back and feel some sort of connection, the way I feel with that farm family who built this smokehouse and smoked their pork in it.
For anyone new to Wrong Direction Farm, I made this intro video. And yes, all that buzzing in the background is our late summer accompaniment of crickets and cicadas.
Welcome to Wrong Direction Farm. I’m Dave, your farmer, and I’d like to tell you about our farm and why this is such a special place.
We began farming because we wanted to be confident in the food that we were eating. We started, really just feeding our own family and a few friends, and along the way people who were looking for pasture raised and grass fed meat found their way to us.
The name… Everyone wants to know, “Where did you get that name Wrong Direction Farm?” Well, you know, it’s about choosing a different path. So much of agriculture focuses on bigger and blander. But we would rather focus on what is good. Let’s look at what’s truly good. So let’s look at: What’s good for the people here? What’s good for the animals, the farm animals, the wild animals? What’s good for the land? Now some would say this is the wrong direction, but we don’t think so.
Things stay busy on our farm with all our poultry. We have pasture raised, certified organic chickens and turkeys. Our chickens and turkeys live on pasture. This is much more than just being outside. We constantly move them to fresh pasture so that they’re always on the best grass. They have open air, sunshine, bugs to chase. The certified organic piece refers to the way the birds are fed and cared for. All their feed is free from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, GMOs, antibiotics, and hormones. Of course, birds that live this way are healthier, and you’ll know it when you taste our chicken and turkey.
We also have a herd of grass fed beef cattle on our farm. Grass fed simply means that our cattle only eat the grasses and plants that grow on our pastures. Every day we move them to fresh pasture. Our cattle are never fed grain or grain byproducts. Grass fed cattle contribute to ecological regeneration, sequestering carbon in the soil, and promoting and increase in the diversity of plant and animal species on our farm. And of course, cattle that are raised this way produce superior beef.
We view the farm as a complicated ecosystem, not just a narrow food-producing machine. So we pay attention to the insect life, to our important pollinators. When we look at the wild fruit trees growing in the hedgerows, or the clean water for the fish in the pond, we realize that all of these things are connected within the life of the farm. It’s not just about producing one single thing. It’s about the entirety of the farm. It has to fit together.
You know, farming creates a purpose for every day. We have meaningful work. And sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s fun. Like everything, there’s a range of experiences. But there’s an underlying goodness to it. We love this life.
Thank you for taking some time to get to know us. We would be glad to be your farmers.
So everyone knows that cows eat grass. We all learned that in our preschool coloring books or nursery rhymes. And for most of us, that’s probably about as far as we’ve thought about it.
But do you know how cows eat grass? I mean, how it actually goes from a leafy stalk in the pasture and ends up in their mouths? Probably not.
I captured some slow motion video of our farm’s cattle grazing grass. At normal speeds they eat so quickly it is nearly impossible to see what’s actually going on. Let’s slow it down and take a look.
But first let’s make sure we know something about the mouth of a cow.
Grass Fed Dentistry
Here’s an important thing to know first about cows and many other grazing mammals: they don’t have upper front teeth. This is true for cows, sheep, goats, camels, and most of the other herbivore grazers. Horses and rabbits are a few of the notable exceptions. But the majority of large grazing animals only have lower front incisors, with a bald gum line across the top.
Without those teeth, cattle aren’t really nibblers. They can’t easily graze a plant by cleanly snipping off bits. Instead they have a different eating strategy. When grazing fresh, high moisture grasses, cattle can easily eat over a hundred pounds of it each day, so obviously they manage quite well without all those teeth.
It’s All About the Tongue
While cows can graze by clamping leaves between their lower incisors and their upper gum and then tearing with a twist of the neck, that’s not their preferred method and they aren’t especially efficient at eating that way. When given a pasture with a strong stand of grass, cows actually do most of their grazing with their tongues. Their tongues are their primary grazing tool.
Look at this outtake video (full video at the end of this post) to see how this steer is using his tongue to hook around the grass and drag it into his mouth. Watch carefully; even filmed in slow motion it is hard to catch:
As cattle graze their way across a field, you’ll notice their tongues shooting out in a scything motion and hauling grass back in. Most often they alternate directions, alternately swiping the tongue left and right. The tongue is so strong and nimble that it wraps around a clump of grass, tears it off and conveys it into the mouth.
Looking closely at the tongue, we see the rough surface. Cow tongues have an extremely grippy texture, almost like those sandpaper treads installed on slippery stairways. The tongue is covered in papillae, the bumps and ridges that do all the gripping. Unlike human tongues where the papillae are soft and more involved in taste reception, for cattle many of their papillae are hardened by being keratinized. That is, they are armored in keratin, the same protein that makes up their horns and hooves.
Considering all the work a cow’s tongue is doing, reaching out and tearing off a hundred or more pounds of plants every day, it makes sense that their tongues would need some keratin armoring. This is especially the case because some grasses have sharp blades (maybe you’ve experienced getting a cut from tall grass). And at certain times of the year when the plants are high in nutrients, they’ll voluntarily graze their way through spiny and thorny plants such as thistles.
And if we were to try to lick our way across a pasture? We’d have swollen, bleeding tongues within a few minutes. But it suits a cow’s tongue just fine.
Grass Fed Amazing
The next time you see a cow grazing in deep grass, or the next time you braise a beef tongue (tacos de lengua, can’t beat them), consider what an amazing organ this is. There’s always room for amazement!