Clean Meat vs. The Real Thing: It’s not really a fair fight

I’ve been following the buzz around “clean meat” for a few months.  If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, “clean meat” refers to meat grown in a lab from actual muscle cells taken from a cow (or chicken or pig or wallaby or whatever).  I’ll refer to it as cellular agriculture (or cell ag for short) hereafter, because I don’t believe the meat we produce is dirty in the first place.  After hearing where cell ag is at now, and thinking through the possibilities of what could be, I truly believe it has the potential to cause major disruptions in the ag sector – beginning with those of us in the livestock business, but also impacting crop growers as well.

Ten years ago, the iPhone had been out for less than a year.  Most of us thought they sounded cool, but we’d never need one.  They were expensive, at least compared to my flip phone, and (at that time) didn’t have nearly as many useful functions as now.  Siri wasn’t a thing.  Ten years later, we can’t do without them.  They have allowed third-world nations to leapfrog over more primitive forms of technology.  They are cheap (well, maybe not iPhones, but smartphones in general), easy to use, are everywhere and connect to everything.  In less than 10 years.

I mention this only to remind you of how quickly technology improves and becomes indispensable and cheap.

I think cell ag has three huge advantages over natural meat production: consistency, modularity, and a short generation turnover.

Consistency.  With cell ag, they have infinitely more control over the environment those cells grow in than I do on the ranch.  I’m dealing with a diverse ecosystem, complete with interactions from a variety of plants, other animals, and the always-unpredictable South Dakota weather.  They have a lab.  Additionally, cell ag can basically replicate the same cells over and over again.  They have control on the cellular level, being able to pick the specific genes they want to propagate.  I, on the other hand, have to deal with an entire animal.  Whose genes might not match up with its’ mate the same way every time.  Even if my cattle are extremely inbred (which is not economically or biologically feasible) they would still have more variation than lab-grown meat.

Modularity.  I have to grow an entire 1400 lb critter to make a steak.  That means there’s probably 1350 lbs of “not steak” as well.  Cell ag could potentially make exactly the amount of steak, or roasts, or tongues, or whatever, that the market is asking for.  There’s no having to “get rid” of certain unusable or unwanted parts of the animal.  Also, since a single product is being created with cell ag, there is no multi-trait selection to mess with.  When I’m selecting genetics, I need to consider far more than just the eating experience; I’m needing maternal traits, docility, good mobility, proper skeletal structure, hair coat, the list goes on.  The more traits selected for, the slower progress becomes in any one category.   Cell ag doesn’t have that burden.

Along with this, with cell ag they can potentially create the exact quality in demand as well.  All it takes is one cell to start with, and they could crank out 100% USDA Prime beef every time.  Or, if lean beef is in demand, they could do that next time.  Want to add a certain flavor?  That could be baked in as well.  The possibilities are only limited by the consumers’ imagination.

Short generation turnover.   The 1400 lb finished steer we got those steaks from a couple paragraphs earlier didn’t happen overnight.  He was conceived almost 25 months ago.   The data points I collect from him and his siblings will inform breeding decisions for next year, but those progeny won’t be harvested until at least 30 months from now.  It’s a terribly long process.  I don’t know exactly how long it takes to grow these cells in a lab, but I am quite sure it is not measured in years.  If something needs changing, they can adapt so much faster than I can with live animals.

 

I’ve got more thoughts on this topic, but I’ll save them for another post.  So much is unknown at this point, but when “clean meat” hits the market (supposedly in late 2018) we’ll likely know more about how the consumer reacts.  I believe they will accept it, especially as it improves in quality, choices, and value.

If you’d like to hear an actual intelligent conversation about cellular agriculture from some guys who are involved in the cattle business, check out the Working Cows Podcast Episode 42.

It’s not a level playing field.  But that’s the nature of disruptive technology.  We best start preparing for that very possible outcome.

 

 

Treating problems, not symptoms

I read an advertisement recently for a herbicide for controlling weeds in a pasture.  It touted the increased grass production to be gained by using the herbicide on your pastures, and presented the data to back it up.

I don’t doubt their findings, but I disagree with the conclusion.

First, no mention was made of any other management changes.  The question needs to be asked, “why were there weeds to begin with?”  Perhaps the management that resulted in the weed invasion ought to be changed first.  Perhaps the product being advertised could be of some temporary assistance, but in the long run a change of management is the only cure.

Second, what are weeds anyway?  Did anyone tell the livestock they are weeds?  Might there be some lemonade potential in them there lemons?  This is something that goes through my mind frequently when I see “less desirable” plants.   Goats and sheep are well-known for having a different diet than cattle – perhaps adding a different type of livestock could turn the weed into an asset.  If that doesn’t sound appealing, Kathy Voth has a training program for teaching your cattle to eat all sorts of stuff.   We’ve given it a try with some success.

We’re not completely against using herbicides around our place.  In fact, we have used the actual product in the advertisement, in specific places and for specific reasons.  However, we understand quite well there are other tools we can use to reduce or eliminate the need to reach for the jug.

Now, if I could just find someone to run a goat enterprise for me….

Grass vs Grain: Does it have to be either/or?

If you eat beef, you no doubt are aware of the growing popularity of grassfed beef in the marketplace.  Some claim it as healthier, more environmentally friendly, etc.  Others say grainfed beef tastes better and uses fewer resources.  I’m not going to debate any of those things.  One-size-fits-all is seldom the answer to anything, I’ll leave it at that.

What I’d like to explain is something I don’t hear much about, that being what a cow was “meant” to eat.  Some say cows were made to eat grass – others say corn is a grass, and the grain is just the seeds.  So what does it all mean?  Why would some say grain is bad for cattle?

Cattle are ruminants.  This means they have a four-chambered stomach, one chamber being the rumen.  The rumen is made to digest fiber – more specifically, the rumen microbes are made to digest fiber.  When the microbes die, they provide energy for the cow to use.   Lots of microbes means lots of energy.  Forages are full of fiber.  With adequate protein, the microbes get busy breaking down the fiber and propagating, keeping the cow supplied with energy.

What about grain then?  It is a seed of grass, this is true.  What makes seeds different from leaves and stems is starch content.  Cattle eat seeds all the time.  I’ve often watched as they wrap their tongues around brome grass in June and strip all the seeds off, moving on to one stem after another, eating as much as they can.  It’s not unnatural – they are selecting the part of the plant that has the most energy.  Starch has a higher energy density than fiber.  See, cattle are really good at figuring out where the best feed is.  It’s like their life depends on it…oh wait, it does.

So what makes grain (starch) different as far as feed goes?  Cattle can handle a certain amount of starch, but beyond a certain point, the pH in the rumen becomes too acidic for the microbes to survive.  The starch in prairie grass seeds is not enough to reach that stage.   We normally supplement our calves during the winter with a small amount of grain to help meet their energy needs.  They might get 2.5 – 3 lb of corn in addition to 15-18 lbs of hay.  This isn’t enough starch to change rumen pH.

What happens once the rumen becomes too acidic and the microbes are gone?  The starch content of their diet must be great enough to make up for the missing microbes.  If it isn’t, the animal will lose weight.

Finishing rations contain a much higher percent of starch than is required to simply maintain weight.  Up to 80% of the diet might be grain.  This provides an abundance of energy to add not just muscle, but also fat – making the meat more flavorful and juicy.  The downside to diets so high in starch is that they can’t be sustained indefinitely.

Abundant energy can be obtained from high-quality forages.  The tricky part with relying on only forages for the finishing phase is they are not available year-around, and they are not as consistent in nutritional value as grains are.  A higher degree of skill and management is needed to properly finish cattle on forages as opposed to grain-based rations.

So, were cows made to eat just grass?  Not really.  They are best at digesting fiber, and can handle certain amounts of starch without any problem whatsoever.  But they are an amazing animal that can adapt to different diets, which makes them a wonderful complement to farming operations.  We can grow many different crops, and with rare exception, the cattle can eat just about all of them – seeds, stems, leaves, even roots sometimes.

Clear as mud?  If you have any other questions about grass or grain-fed beef, let us know and we’d be glad to help answer them.  We are equal-opportunity beef eaters around here, regardless of the critter’s diet!