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John Robbins is a Nut Case

Recently a first-page Google search for “grass fed beef” provided a listing for a John Robbins blog.  Obviously, a lot of folks are reading his blog and for sure it directly impacts us.  One might assume his comments would be a good thing for grass-fed beef, ranchers and farmers, and the American consumer.  But, hold on there partner, that is not the case.  John’s commentary slides around between facts, myths, religious beliefs, and outright distortions.  So, unless one really knows something about nutrition, ranching, grass-fed meat, the conventional food industry, and such, they would be inclined to think John Robbins’ blog is good information.  Since that is not the case, I have responded.

Some weeks ago I tried to leave a response on the John Robbins blog, but I cannot find its posting.  So, since I have my own forum (one of the good things about the Internet) I am going to post one of my typical straight-talk essays right here where he can’t edit me out of the picture (assuming he did).

My response may offend many who want to believe the worst about American agriculture and the American food industry.  But those folks are beyond being idiotic because all they do is sit around and complain through their mouthful of food.  And they are so lazy they want to blame American agriculture and the American food industry for their chronic diseases instead of taking measures into their own hands by educating themselves and changing the foods they eat.  Anyone wanting to do just that, can do it.  Therefore I’ll address both parties: the nut case John Robins and the misguided members of the American mob.

I will provide quotes from the John Robbins blog in bold italics followed by my response.

Feeding grain to cattle has got to be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.

No, dumber ideas include grain farming and the feeding of grain to people.  See references: 

  1. The Atomic Bomb of the American Food System
  2. Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Chronic Disease

You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

This is partially true.  Based on 100% grass, it may take 550 to 900 days, depending on the quality of the grass, for a calf to reach 1,200 pounds.  On the other hand, cattle breeders routinely raise registered bull calves to 1,100 to 1,200 pounds in 12 months.  At first the calves are at their mother’s side on pasture for 205 days without any supplements whatsoever.  Then they are put on test where they are fed a grain-based ration while on pasture and/or being fed a high quality hay for 160 days.  Absolutely no antibiotics, other drugs, or growth hormones are administered.

For the feedlot industry as a whole, the average stay ranges from 160 to 172 days.  And if you look around you can find feedlots that do not use antibiotics, other drugs, or growth hormones.  Their meat is sold under the “natural” label.  The average age of a finished feedlot steer ranges from 415 to 470 days.  The average quantity of feed (80% grain, 20% roughage) for the feedlot period is 4,000 pounds, or about 24 pounds per day for a weight gain of 3.4 pounds per day.  On pasture, the rule of thumb for grass consumption is 3% of body weight.  If you do the math one discovers that the quantity of corn consumed in a feedlot is substantially less than what the same weight would be in forage (roughage) consumed in a pasture.  See references:

  1. Feedlot and Carcass Performance from the OK Steer Feedout Program
  2. The Tail That Wags the Dog

Switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animal’s digestive system that it can kill the animal if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics. These animals are designed to forage, but we make them eat grain, primarily corn, in order to make them as fat as possible as fast as possible.

Yes, switching a ruminant’s feed from forage to grain has to happen gradually.  But cattle to not require antibiotics to do that.  The reason the switch must take up to four weeks is that the bacteria in the rumen has to change with the feed.  The bacteria that works best with forage does a poor job with grains.  Since the bacteria is crucial to the digestive process, it has to change before the “nutrients” from the corn can be utilized.  I repeat, this process does not require antibiotics.

John complains that ranchers "make them eat grain, primarily corn, in order to make them as fat as possible."  Then on the other hand he recommends that people eat whole grains for health?!?!  He is so out of touch that he doesn't understand that the feeding of grain to people causes obesity in people just like it does cattle.

Many of us think of "corn-fed" beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn't.  A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can't be trimmed off.  Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat.  A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer.  In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.

Grain-fed beef fat has not been considered nutritionally superior since the 1950s when it was linked with increasing incidences of heart disease.  When it comes to grades; "Prime" is the top, "Choice" is next,"Select" is next, and "Standard" is lowest.  Most consumers would rate flavor, juiciness, and tenderness in that same order though some favor the less marbled cuts which are also lower in fat content.  Not all grain-fed, feedlot cattle finish highly marbled.  About 2% grade Prime, 60% Choice, 33% Select, with the rest being Standard.  Those of us who raise grass-fed meats actually want more fat in our critters because in terms of nutrition grass-fed fats are good for us to eat.  Therefore, just like the USDA grading system, we view more fat as better.  Promoting "lean" is a grain-fed marketing game.  See reference:

  1. Cattle Grading Percentages, Weekly

Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats.  These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass.  . . .  This is certainly an advantage for grassfed beef, but it comes with a cost.  The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition contributes to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that most people find undesirable.  Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”

This is true, false, and also misleading.  Yes, Omega-3 fats are higher in grass-fed meats but walnuts and soybeans are horrible sources of omega-3 fatty acids because they are much larger sources of Omega-6 fatty acids.  When it comes to grass-fed meats lean is not a goal, it is the proper balance of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) that is so important to health.  That's the goal

To say having Omega-3 in meat is a disadvantage because of how it impacts the flavor is misleading.  When people look at a steak, they assume a certain flavor which is the typical bland, flavorless, greasy flavor that all grain-fed meats have.  If the flavor differs from their visual clues, it can make them think the taste if "off."  That is only natural.  But if people eat something about ten times, 90% of them begin to believe the new taste is normal.  And if someone is focused on eating for their health, usually they are motivated to eat what is correct, not that which tastes "traditional" or is "real tasty."

Folks who approach nutrition with the idea that all flavors must be the same will never change.  That's because the chemical composition of nutritionally inferior foods differ significantly from the superior foods.  If they didn't differ, then the foods would be the same.  Consequently, everyone who switches from the grain-fed beef they were used to will have to learn to accept the different flavors.  It may not happen on the first bite, sometimes it takes many bites.  But always, in time and with enough repetition, they will end up preferring the new flavor.  See reference:

  1. Food Analysis:  GI, GL, Fat Ratio, and Inflammation

Author and small-scale cattleman Michael Pollan

This statement is half right.  Michael Pollen wrote the popular book Omnivores Dilemma.  About ten years ago he wrote an article for the New York Times Sunday Supplement titled Power Steer.  In that article he said he bought one steer, that someone else raised, to “experience first hand” what it was like.  He is no more a cattleman than President Obama.

In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting.  The animals' wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops.  In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals' wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.

I am not aware of any feedlot or confined critter feeding enterprise that does not realize their animal waste is not a valuable resource which they can sell as a fertilizer or utilize in their own crop or pasture enterprises.  This statement assumes that everyone involved in livestock production (America's farmers and ranchers) are dumber than stumps and that they are burying their operations under mountains of manure.  That is rather insulting.  See reference:

  1. What's Feedlot Manure Worth as Fertilizer?

The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don't have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond.

Statements like this are designed to inflame the ignorant masses.  I would rather keep animals in their natural environment.  But in actual fact, animals in confinement are like people on welfare.  Everything is provided, they love the feed, they are protected from the cruel world, and they get to visit with their buddies.  Compare feedlots to cities where people live in high densities such as New York City with it's 26,403 people per square mile (41.25 people per acre and an acre is only 208 feet by 208 feet).

Furthermore, the idea that people who depend on the animals they raise for their livelihood routinely mistreat their charges is idiotic nonsense.  Yes, you will always be able to find stupid people doing stupid things (like John promoting a vegetarian existence) but that doesn't mean the idiots are the norm.

Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides.

Synthetic fertilizers are chemical compounds.  The chemicals are those that plants require in order to thrive.  For instance, nitrogen is one "chemical" often found in fertilizers.  It is one of the cornerstones of life.  Nitrogen is an element – a single atom.  Now tell me, what is the difference between nitrogen in ammonium nitrate made by man or the nitrogen in ammonium nitrate made by organisms as they consume organic matter?  Right, they are the same thing.

The idea that ranchers douse their pastures with herbicides is another ridiculous misleading, fear mongering accusation.  Yes, some ranchers will use herbicides for weed control – especially noxious weeds.  And like all agricultural chemical applications they are applied conservatively and wisely.  First of all, applicators must be licensed.  Secondly, all applications are very, very expensive.  Unlike people in cities who can easily afford to put heavy applications of chemicals on their yards, ranchers and farmers have to be conservative if they want to have a chance to make a profit.  And, unlike many organic toxins, agricultural chemical applications are designed for the food production industry and they break down easily within the environment.

A final point, the greatest toxic load in our foods is 100% organic mycotoxins from fungi and molds and they will not breakdown even with high heat.  See reference:

  1. Mycotoxins and Food Supply

Grass-fed beef is typically more expensive, but I'm not at all sure that's a bad thing.  We shouldn't be eating nearly as much meat as we do.  While there are surely many advantages to grassfed beef over feedlot beef, this is still not a food that I, for one, am able to recommend.

Good show John, you just told everyone to avoid the most perfect food man can eat for optimizing his health.  Grass-fed meat is the only food group one can eat and still end up with optimal health.  As for cost, it is readily available nationwide today at a cost that is comparable to grain-fed natural beef and the wild ocean fish you like.  See reference:

  1. It All Began in the Sea . . .

Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America's 100 million head of cattle.  There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger.  Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population.  But in the world as it is today, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.

Cattle are grazed in all 50 states.  Only 20.2 million cattle are raised west of the 103 degree west longitude line.  That puts 77.8 million head east of that line.  In most cases cattle are kept on the least productive lands while more productive soils are used for grain and vegetable production.

There are three acres of farmland for every U.S. citizen and 8.4 acres for every New Zealander.  About 46.3% of U.S. farmland is devoted to crops.  In New Zealand 74.67% of the land is devoted to grasslands and pastures.  Consequently that country exports grass-fed livestock products worldwide.  In addition their grass-fed meats (as well as the grass-fed meats from Argentina, Brazil, and many other countries) are less expensive than America's grain-fed meats.  The idea that grass-fed meats are only for the elites like John Robbins is ridiculous.

Unbeknownst to John it is estimated that the original buffalo herd numbered up to as high as 70 million head.  They ranged from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from West Texas into Canada.  In that same area today there are about 60.35 million head of cattle.  In total area the buffalo range was comparable to about one-third of the continental United States.  If most of the land used for grain (the seed of a grass plant) production here in the United States was instead grazed for its forage, the nation's cattle herd could probably be doubled or tripled or more.  See reference:

  1. Cattle and Calves--Number, Production, and Value, by State

We do not yet have studies that tell us what percentage of the health problems associated with eating beef would be reduced or eliminated by the eating of grassfed beef. . . . While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have many advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it's important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster.  Almost anything would be better.

Yes, there are numerous studies that prove that people are far healthier if their EFAs are balanced properly – which would replicate the EFAs for all grass-fed critters.  BUT, one cannot just eat grass-fed beef and expect that alone to overcome the deficiencies caused by continuing to eat whole grains, beans, soybeans, seeds, nuts, and other horrible foods which John recommends everyone to do.  Grass-fed meats are only a part, but a critical part, of the diet which is required to eat like a caveman.  Eating like a caveman means we are eating the same foods man ate for all of time prior to the invention of grain farming.

When food is processed by a system that is modeled after a factory that has absolutely no bearing on its nutritional characteristics.  I would estimate that more than 95% of all the food consumed in the United States has been in an assembly line type of system of one form or another – including our grass-fed meats!  Henry Ford proved it to everyone in 1908 with the development of the assembly line when he showed how it increased the efficiency of manufacture, decreased its cost, and improved the wages of the workers.  For a fact the whole grains, beans, soybeans, seeds, nuts, and other horrible foods John eats are all harvested and processed by mechanical means.  See reference:

  1. The Real Diet of Man is Very Simple

But I wouldn't get too carried away and think that as long as it's grassfed then it's fine and dandy.  Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients.  They take less toll on the environment, but the land on which the animals graze still must often be irrigated, thus using up dwindling water resources, and it may be fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers.

The foundation food for all animal life is the green leaf, it is not fiber.  Since the bottom of the food chain for a grass-fed critter is a green leaf (just like wild fish) grass-fed meats are the world's most perfect food for man.  That's because they will have all the nutrients required for optimal body function in perfect balance.  People who eat mostly grass-fed meats will have perfect blood lipid profiles.  People who eat grain and nuts will have horrible blood lipid profiles.

In addition, all forms of "fertilizer" are chemical or they wouldn't work.  To say petroleum-based fertilizers are a bad thing is ludicrous and baseless nonsense.  (Petroleum was originally a plant and/or an animal.)  When farmers and ranchers apply fertilizers they sample their soils and apply the chemicals (plants look at them as nutrients) that the soils are missing for optimal plant production.

The American West is currently used for grazing livestock.  More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland.  Just about the only land that isn't grazed is in places that for one reason or another can't be used by livestock—inaccessible areas, dense forests and brushlands, the driest deserts, sand dunes, extremely rocky areas, cliffs and mountaintops, cities and towns, roads and parking lots, airports, and golf courses.  In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed.  The results aren't pretty.  As one environmental author put it, "Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use."

This is so ridiculous it's hard to imagine that anyone would believe it.  But just in case someone does, here I go again.  John left out Oregon, Washington, and California from his list.  Maybe that's because those states have a smaller percentage of government land and they raise many crops other than cattle.  There are 12.27 million head of cattle in the eight states John listed.  That is 12.5% of the national cow herd.

Government land is land the early settlers did not claim.  They claimed all the land they could make a living on though.  Of the land that is privately owned in the states in John's list above, a significant portion of it is used to grow crops other than cattle.  That part he left off.  In fact, for our country as a whole, 46.3% of all farmland is used for crop production.  Only 5.9% of all farmland is irrigated.

Because settlers claimed the good land, what was left has became primarily the government's grazing lands.  Obviously, they are not very productive.  Some of that land is absolutely unproductive.  But cattlemen do lease government grazing land and graze cattle on it.  Now if you visit an Animal Science school at any of the good universities anywhere, their range management specialists will show you example after example where good range management has greatly improved the open range.  Since universities give Doctorates in range management, don't expect me to explain how it works in this essay.  Just take my word for it, today modern range management works for the environment, for cattle, for wildlife, for cattleman, and for the American consumer.

Just the same though, if the nation's cattle herd is increased significantly because of more demand for grass-fed beef, the number of cattle placed on the government's rangeland will not increase except on the margin.  Most of the expansion will take place on more productive land, land that is now used to grow the horrible grains John thinks we should all eat.  Grain production comes mainly from the most productive rangelands because all grains are a product of a grass plant.  All domestic livestock (including chickens, ducks, pigs, rabbits, etc.) eat grass.

To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.

Cattlemen will not use the aired rangelands as a primary grazing system for finishing cattle.  They do not do it now and they will not do it in the future.  Yes, in some rare years where forage growth is exceptional, or in certain some small favorable ecosystems, finishing cattle on rangeland is possible.  But in no way is the arid rangeland of the western states as effective as are the pasture lands east of the 103 degree west longitude line or in grain growing areas west of that line.  Remember, grain is the seed of a grass plant, so all of the land used for grain production is actually superior pasture land.

What "Wildlife Services" actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. . . . . The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate.  Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.

I'll quote the NASD Wildlife website here.  "The mission of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.  WS conducts program delivery, research, and other activities through its Regional and State Offices, the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) and its Field Stations, as well as through its National Programs."

Their policies range from protecting crops, livestock, people, and mass transit systems (airports, railroads, etc).  Yes, they will even kill rogue bears in Yellowstone Park.  All of the normal people in agriculture are respectful of wildlife.  They love to coexist.  But there are limits involving economics and safety.  A direct beneficiary of controlling predators is the consumer.  If preventable losses were to go unchecked food prices would be much higher.  See reference:

  1. Wildlife Damage Management

Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.'  Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague.

John, you are a complete nitwit.  All ranching and farming enterprises are focused on economic and environmentally sustainability.  Unlike you and your self destructive food choices, America's ranchers and farmers are very concerned about their business enterprises that require huge investments in property and livestock.  That's just the way they are motivated.  For decades I have traveled extensively throughout all the western states and I have yet see what you describe as being commonplace.  (Yes, in the desert country of Arizona the country is burnt.  Not from grazing, but from no rain and extensive exposure to the sun.  Yuma comes to mind.)

While grassfed beef certainly has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat.  If as a society we did this, then the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use.  Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities.

Now you may think that large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities are environmental niceties, but you are in a minority.  Then on the other hand, just like the petroleum industry has always been able to coexist with the cattle industry, so can your favorite industries.  So why not have two industries (renewable energy and renewable food) instead of one?

Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God's Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse. . . . . The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel.  If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide.

In the old days the Indians used to stampede buffalo herds off cliffs.  Then those waiting at the bottom of the cliff would process the severely injured animals.  What you just described as a process in today's slaughter houses is in actual fact something that was done by Indians hundreds of years ago.  I know you don't understand this, but today slaughter houses operate to far higher standards, and what you described only resides in your fertile imagination or in that of a demented person.

Modern kill floors are the most humane killing machines ever.  They are clean, kills are instantaneous, and no animal is processed alive.  Yes, the kill is so quick that often the dead carcases are still twitching as the skinning process starts.  But trust me, nobody in their right mind would want to put a knife to an animal that was still alive.  Cattle are fully capable of killing people in a flash.

I can assure you that Temple Grandin, one of the most respected and most famous people in agriculture, could set you straight.  She is an authority on the kill and her cattle handling facilities are in most large plants.  In addition, most large meat packers, and even their biggest customers, hire her to assure that both the plants and the USDA inspectors get it done right.  So the level of sophistication in the modern kill is beyond reproach.  If you don't believe that, contact Temple Grandin and ask her to give you a tour of a kill facility.  She would be happy to oblige.

Of course, then you would know that your diatribe is scare mongering at its worst.  See references:

  1. Plains Indians and the Bison
  2. Bison Hunting
  3. Livestock Behavior, Design of Facilities and Humane Slaughter
  4. Temple is listed as one of twenty-five "Heroes" of 2010

Ted Slanker

October 10, 2010