Last week, we reported that a resource covering 12 per cent of our continent – the pastoral estate of Western Australia called the Southern Rangelands – has had its vegetation degraded to the point it cannot support the cattle on it.
Also last week, we reported the state’s biggest beef producers, Harvey Beef, will have heard its application to build WA’s largest ever cattle grain-feedlot – its solution to deal with this problem.
The company says it will build and operate the feedlot to be higher-welfare than those it currently uses, but is “better” the same as “good”?
And without clear labelling, how can customers make informed decisions?
To sort the wheat from the chaff, we have found out more from Harvey Beef parent company Harvest Road (part of mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Group) and interviewed one of Australia’s leading experts on food animal welfare and sustainability.
Grass fed, grain fed: what’s the difference?
Fattening a cow to reach an acceptable weight for slaughter is called “finishing” and can be done with grass or grain.
Grass fed means the cow has only ever eaten grass and was fattened on premium pasture at the end of its life.
Grain fed means the cow grazed for most of its life and then transitioned to grain for the final part. There are a couple of categories within this:
Grain Fed Finished, meaning the cow was fed grain for at least 35 days, with 60-70 days standard practice for domestic cattle.
Grain Fed, meaning the cow was fed grain in a feedlot for at least 100 days, with 100-400 considered standard for export cattle.
What Harvey Beef is doing…
Harvey Beef has applied to build a $51 million intensive cattle feedlot in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt: the largest cattle feedlot in the state, more than double the size of the current largest.
It would be at Yathroo, two hours’ drive north of Perth, and would take in cattle raised on grass, and fatten them on grain to reach an acceptable weight for slaughter.
A typical cow will enter weighing 450 kilograms and be fed almost 11 kilograms of grain per day to put on almost 200 kilograms in 100 days, producing grain-fed beef.
The feedlot would accommodate 40,000 head at a stocking rate of 18 square metres per cow.
The other half of the Koojan Downs property will produce grass fed and finished cows, with more than 60 per cent of Harvey Beef expected to remain grass fed and finished.
The proposal, recommended for approval by the shire, will be assessed on Monday.
… and why
The state has warmed over the past 50 years, rainfall along the west coast has declined 20 per cent, and hot spells are getting hotter, longer and more frequent, the company’s planning application states.
It says the impact was really felt in 2019, with the cows it bought getting thinner thanks to dry conditions and a lack of suitable pasture.
It says its feedlot will provide more drought resilience by reducing dependence on pasture.
What Harvey Beef didn’t discuss were the other reasons the Southern Rangelands are in this state; as reported last week, the resource has been mismanaged and stocked beyond capacity for more than a century; the land never given opportunities to recover from periods of drought.
Government enforcement of stocking limits has been essentially nonexistent, and over the past decade, the government has essentially stopped monitoring the rangelands’ condition altogether.
The 285 cattle stations are mostly family-run businesses and few have attempted long-term sustainability or destocking programs, the government not having provided either financial assistance or regulatory compulsion.
One notable exception, profiled last week by WAtoday, has risked financial ruin by destocking for periods to try to bring his pastures back to productivity.
Andrew Forrest’s stations are another exception.
“When the Forrest family purchased Minderoo Station they made the decision to completely destock the station and give the land a chance to recover from the previous operator’s activities,” Harvest Road Group chief executive Greg Harvey says.
“This practice has since been extended to several of our other pastoral stations and has successfully protected and sustained the land.”
But Harvest Road is a huge operation, one of Australia’s largest beef producers, and has only grown since joining Minderoo Group in 2014, with international demand growing for Australia’s high-quality beef.
It supplies about 35 countries as well as the domestic market and the Forrest family’s stations only supply about 5 per cent of the beef the company now sells.
The rest it sources from WA’s other stations and takes to WA feedlots to get the weight up “when required”.
Developing Koojan, it says, will allow it to instead manage its own facility to its own operational, environmental and animal welfare standards.
Animal welfare at the Koojan feedlot
Most cattle feedlots give cows bovine growth hormone, but Harvey Beef has confirmed that its beef is currently 100 per cent hormone-free and the Koojan feedlot will be, too.
National accreditation schemes and codes of practice states that feedlots should provide 9-25 square metres of space per cow. Koojan will provide 18 square metres per cow.
“Our mandate was to ensure it reflected industry best practice,” Harvey says.
“Innovative cattle husbandry practices, as advised by leading world expert Professor Temple Grandin, will deliver a significant improvement in animal welfare when compared to traditional feedlots.”
The facility will have the capacity for familiar herds to move through the supply chain together as opposed to being constantly transferred to new surroundings and grouped with different cattle, which will “avoid undue stress”.
Does “better” welfare mean “good”?
Making a system better doesn’t make it good, says food sustainability expert and committed carnivore Matthew Evans.
“Higher welfare compared to what?” he says.
“Compared to an animal used to grazing and foraging and socialising where it wants? Doing what it is designed to do, which is walk around and find food?
“Any time they come up with a better system it’s only good compared to the worst case scenario.”
Plants make sugar out of thin air, CO2 and water using the energy of the sun, Evans says.
And the very definition of a grazing animal is it walks around and eats these things.
“Not all animals on earth can do that,” he says. “It is beautiful, it is magical.”
And if managed right, sustainable.
In contrast, there are health implications for cattle eating a diet they are not built for, Evans says.
Many farmers need to use supplementary feeding in lean times, he says, but the difference with a feedlot is the animal only getting that feed.
“We know they suffer problems with the rumen, the largest of the fore-stomachs that does a lot of the fermenting,” he says.
“It sort of half shuts down. They suffer ill effects, without it translating into true observable illness – unless it is acidosis, which is a problem they are getting.”
What’s the difference between grassfed and grainfed meat?
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are both essential for human nutrition, but it’s thought the Western diet is generally too low in Omega-3s and too high in Omega-6.
Healthy omega-3 fatty acids are higher in meat that’s been fed leafy greens, Evans says.
But Omega-6 is higher in grain-fed meat.
Omega-3s also carry more flavour, Evans says, with blind taste tests revealing a truer and more intense flavour.
The texture also changes with the feed: idle muscles are more tender and the meat is fattier.
“The lack of ‘beefiness’ is made up for by the fat flavour,” Evans says.
‘Eventually we lose’: Why cattle grazing is part of Australia’s circle of life
Much of WA and indeed Australia is marginal land only suited to grazing, and poorly suited to raising crops, Evans says, and just eating plants doesn’t make sense.
He says if we want to produce as much food as possible from the available landscape, grazing animals on marginal country is a great way to produce high quality protein.
And this is why managing the land sustainably is vital, he says, but we have been mismanaging it for more than 100 years.
Evans says feedlots show how ingenious humans are at solving problems of their own making.
“It’s curious how what will fix the problem just happens to match what’s helpful for the farmer and not for the environment or the animal,” he says.
“The solutions are suited to the outcomes we want, which is cheap meat for minimal effort.
“Rearing the same number of animals in worse climate conditions, but not decreasing market share.
“The industry needs to take a good long hard look at itself and say … how much have we extracted from the land that gifts us life and how can we ensure it continues to gift us life in 500 years or 5000?”
It might mean longer periods of rest, fewer animals or being more flexible about moving animals, he says.
And he thinks it’s fair enough to feed up hungry cattle for 30-40 days to get condition on them so people will eat them and not waste them.
“But there is a point at which we become reliant on a system that goes against nature,” he says.
“And every time we fight nature we lose. It will take a long time maybe, but eventually we humans lose.”
So how to be an informed, ethical carnivore?
“I’m interested in flavour, welfare and farming in a way that means we can do it forever,” Evans says.
“When I choose meat I don’t have a problem with eating beef if I believe it comes from a place that meets those criteria. So I choose local grass fed and finished beef.”
While there are loopholes around the finishing on labelling, he says, a producer proud of what they do will put it on their labelling, and a good butcher should be able to tell you.
If it doesn’t say anything on the label, assume it’s finished on grain, he says, and this goes for about 80 per cent of supermarket meat.
But farmers only grow food because we buy it and they will grow what we want if we support them, Evans says.
As an example, Harvey Beef introduced a grass fed product into the domestic market two years ago “to meet customer demand” and says it is also “actively working on other grass-fed opportunities”.
And while labelling of its grain-finished beef currently states only that its products have no added hormones, WAtoday understands it is continuing to consider consumer feedback and will review its labelling strategy as the market develops.
So you could possibly do worse than drop your preferred meat brand (or restaurant) a line, inquire about the way the meat was raised, and let them know you care.
Feel the power – three times a day!
“The beautiful thing is that buying food isn’t like buying a couch or a desk, something you might only do occasionally,” Evans says.
“Food we think about three times a day. We are constantly making those purchasing decisions and every time you pull out your wallet, you have the power.”
Yes, buying grass-fed meat at a butcher or farmer’s market costs more, Evans says.
But the research for his latest book showed in terms of developed countries, Australians were spending almost the least per person on food (Americans spend even less).
Australians are also spending less on food now that they ever have, in historical terms.
And he is not speaking of those experiencing poverty and struggling to put food on the table, but for those with the capacity to choose.
Those people have found money for Netflix subscriptions and monthly mobile phone bills they never imagined 10 or 20 years ago, Evans says.
“And when we don’t spend enough, we are essentially destroying some of our natural assets,” he says.
“We can harm the animals that are in our care.”
Feeling guilty about the meat you eat? Don’t…
You’re at a wedding. You get handed a plate of chicken. You feel sure it came from a terrible factory farm.
But you are there, Evans says. You have no choice. You are constrained by location, time and occasion.
“Food is about humans coming together and sharing. Stories, building culture, cementing families, falling in love,” Evans says.
“If you are feeling guilty about your food choices you lose.”
Sometimes your best choice is just accepting that you have no choice, he says. Sometimes it’s not buying the beef at all that day, but waiting until next week when you have the opportunity, the stars align, you are in the right place and you can buy the best quality.
“Make your good decisions when you have the opportunity,” he says.
“Don’t beat yourself up for the times you don’t.”