A beef lovin’ journalist from ranch country tries an “alternative.”
I love beef. I’ve been known to devour a 32-ounce porterhouse or ribeye in one sitting. As a child in the 1970s, I grew up amid the ranches of southeast Arizona, around rodeos, cowboys and judging slabs of beef on weekends as a Future Farmers of America member. The beef we bought came straight from the range. It became a staple in my diet.
But times have changed. Now I find myself scrolling through images of beautifully marbled ribeyes, ordering beef online as a way to get meat that is produced close to nature, unlike most of what is available in grocery stores today.
The problem — and one reason I once spent a decade as a vegetarian — is that around 77% of the U.S. cattle raised for beef consumption are fattened, or “finished,” with corn or soy in feedlots. This system, the commodification of meat production, has wreaked havoc on our health and our environment by generating massive greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
Chemically engineering a new kind of “beef” in a lab won’t regenerate the soil or increase the biodiversity of grasslands as in the same way controlled grazing does.
The conventional solution has been to replace feedlot-finished beef with the processed, oilseed-based products which, while aggressively marketed as a “plant-based” alternative to beef, Beyond Beef or Impossible Burger are bursting with heart-clogging saturated fat, sodium, sugar and cornstarch – all primary ingredients for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. And they are not without environmental concerns considering how their typical ingredients like soybean and pea protein rely on monocropping, fertilizers and herbicides that degrade the soil. It’s further concerning that most of the available research on their environmental impact is funded by the companies that produce these alternatives. Chemically engineering a new kind of “beef” in a lab won’t regenerate the soil or increase the biodiversity of grasslands as in the same way controlled grazing does.
There is a nature-based alternative. Eliminate the feedlot.
Meet Russ Conser, a former Shell engineer, turned “conservation rancher.” He is part of a new generation of beef-loving ranchers who have discovered the missing link to produce sustainable beef: a nature-based alternative to carbon-emitting feedlots. Actually, eliminating a link.
The best way to move away from modern industrial dependent ranching is to never move them at all. Instead they use sophisticated, grazing techniques involving constantly moving so-called grass “finisher” lots that dot ranches, helping to regenerate the land and protect the rapidly diminishing prairie bird habitats.
Back to beef basics is the new ‘Beyond Beef’
Conser is now CEO of Blue Nest Beef, an online retailer that sells 100% grass-fed beef raised exclusively by increasingly popular “bird-friendly” conservation ranches certified by The National Audubon Society. Conser’s Blue Nest Beef and a coalition of Audubon certified ranches are repairing a broken food system by using cattle as their tools and birds as their guides. “What we’re really talking about here is kind of flipping the entire script on industrial civilization,” he says.
“The genius of this natural system,” says Conser, “is Mother Nature’s ability to manage land in a way that makes that land better.
“Raising beef naturally, or to modern ‘ag talk,’ ‘regenerative grazing practices’ consistently produces the highest quality 100% grass-fed beef while restoring natural ecosystem biodiversity and wildlife habitat.”
Free range feeding to protect birds
Unlike conventional ranching in which cows roam and mow down all the acres at once, Audubon-certified ranchers keep the cattle in smaller parcels and never let the cattle graze the grasses to the ground in a practice known as stock grazing. This more environmentally-friendly free-range feeding keeps the grass taller so that birds can nest undisturbed, hidden from predators.
This more environmentally-friendly free-range feeding keeps the grass taller so that birds can nest undisturbed, hidden from predators.
“There is no better sensor to whether any ecosystem on earth is healthy or not than a bird,” Conser says. “If you just think about it, you know, if you go into the forest and hear all the birds, you’ll realize this forest is vibrant and healthy. Go down to any of those little farms down in the valley with irrigation spraying a lot of chemicals and good luck finding many birds.”
According to Audubon, in the last 50 years we’ve lost more than 50% of grassland birds which Conser said is, “not because we let a bunch of cats loose out on the prairies but because we plowed up their habitat and sprayed it all with poison.”
The white hot world of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture is not new; it’s been around since the beginning of agriculture. But it is a white hot topic in this age of high-tech solutions and industrial, monoculture, fertilizer-dependent production — a system that has degraded soil, and caused innumerable other harms.
While helping restore biodiversity, regenerative farming of beef cattle gets away from the heavy dependence on groundwater while producing far less water pollution than concentrated factory farms.
Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and leaves it better than it was found.
Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and leaves it better than it was found. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “It’s about farming and ranching in a style that nourishes people and the earth, with specific practices varying from grower to grower and from region to region.”
Putting carbon back into the earth with cattle
Conser — who worked 30 years in the oil industry — likes to tell people that, at this phase of his career, instead of going around the world finding gas and sucking it out of the ground, he and his team are now putting carbon back into the earth with regenerative pasturing.
Hundreds of millions of years of R&D
To put it in a tech perspective, it’s a way of growing things that considers how all aspects of agriculture are part of a weblike system. As Conser said, “It’s got hundreds of millions of years of R&D behind it.”
Working with the Audubon Conservation Ranching program, ranchers are certified when they are grazing in a way that protects bird habitat. It also empowers consumers to choose beef that is part of improving the environment.
All great, but how does it taste?
All this talk of better beef for the planet is all well and good, but to a beef-lover like me, the key question is: how does it taste?
We usually get our beef from Whole Foods. But I wanted to see if Blue Nest Beef was up to snuff, so I ordered a box. My husband did the grilling — precisely as he always does — with a little salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder.
The verdict: damn good! As good as our usual beef!
Blue Nest currently sources from ranchers with 5,000 acres and Conser doesn’t think the supply side will be a problem. He says the bigger question is: are there enough consumers that care? Or willing to pay a premium for climate friendly beef.
Instead of trying to conquer environmental problems with more technology, give Mother Nature a shot at what she does best — regenerate and preserve.
It will also take a new approach to investing that is not so technology focused. Instead of trying to conquer environmental problems with more technology, give Mother Nature a shot at what she does best — regenerate and preserve.
“My favorite example is the people at MIT who can invent a robotic bumble bee to pollinate plants since the bees are gone,” he says. “And I’m just like, goddammit, stop killing the bees.”
He adds: “Over the last several decades, we’ve been churning out food faster, degrading soil quality with chemicals and pumping out greenhouse gas emissions around the world. But the regenerative world is working with nature and that’s what we should be investing in.”
It’s an idea as old as the biblical sheep herder, and one this old-school, carnivore, girl rancher and climate journalist can get behind.
Featured image: Mike Fernandez/Audubon