The benefits of organic beef

A line in Kenji's prime rib article got me thinking. He wrote:

Very recent legislation mandates that at least 30% of their dry matter intake needs to come from pasture for 120 days out of the year. That's good news.

I happen to disagree (with the good news part, that is). I think it's illustrative of the kind of thinking that many of us put into our food choices. On the one hand: cows crammed into dark, smelly, dirty barns. On the other: clean, happy cows on lush verdant pastures, chewing their cud and leading a carefree existence. Of course mandating that organic cows have to get a certain amount of pasture is good news, duh! So let's buy organic meat!

Wrong. In implementation, anyway, though perhaps not in spirit.

Unequivocally mandating that for a cow (or its milk - I will mention milk a lot because I am from the Northeast and familiar with dairies, not beef operations, but when it comes down to it, cows are basically all cows) to be certified organic, it MUST get 30% of its dry matter intake from pasture for four months out of the year is, for most of the country (I'm thinking maybe an exception in Alaska, maybe??) not going to make for happy cows. Here's why:

Cows are happiest at ambient temperatures between 20 and 70 degrees F; they suffer cold and heat stress at temperatures outside this range. In most of the US, it's often higher than 70 (not taking into account direct sunlight) during the time of year when cows would be grazing on pasture. With heat stress, cows eat less, pant, and sweat, which means that their metabolic maintenance costs increase (by up to 35% in some studies). In other words, for a dairy cow, she will eat less food when it's hot, and a much larger proportion of the energy she gets from that food will go towards trying to keep her cool rather than producing milk (continued...)


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