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.



What do you know?

I finally broke down and joined Twitter about a month ago.  I do a lot more following than tweeting, mostly because I use it to keep up on the grain and livestock market drivers for the day.
Tonight as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I took note of a couple of statements regarding antibiotic use in livestock and GMO (genetically modified organism, in case you live in a cave) crops.  These two hot-button topics are being discussed everywhere it seems.  I'm going to settle the debate once and for all regarding both of these issues.
Do you believe me?  Good grief I hope not.  I must be the only person on the world wide web that is man enough to say "I don't know!"
So, here's my take on things.  For today I'll just tackle antibiotic usage.
Antibiotics are something I use on sick animals.  There are three or four different types that I have on hand.  Some cost more, some last longer, some act quicker, some work on certain diseases but not others.  When an animal is truly sick, I would consider it unethical to not give it something to help it heal.  Most people probably agree with me so far.  It's the same thing we do when the doc prescribes us some amoxicillin for an ear infection.
It seems the rub many people have is with the thought that livestock (even healthy ones) are mass-fed large quantities of antibiotics by greedy cattlemen to increase growth rate.  Let's dissect that idea a little bit.
Yes, cattle (I'm not venturing into other species, I'll stick with what I know) are sometimes mass-treated (meaning everybody gets it) with antibiotics.  I'll give an example.  When we ship a truckload of freshly-weaned 7-month-old calves to a feedlot, they will usually get some antibiotics in their feed for 3-5 days (depends on the formulation) sometime during the first two weeks after arrival.   In this case, antibiotics are used according to the label for "control" of a disease, to keep it from spreading.  The reason is that these calves have undergone a fair amount of stress – leaving mom, riding in a truck for a few hours, arriving at a new place with other calves from other places with other bugs they brought with them, and having a diet change (no more milk).  That's quite a bit to deal with.  The stress they are dealing with in combination with exposure to bacteria and viruses they are not used to can be too much for their immune system.  Sick calves don't eat or drink water much, compounding the problems.  Feeding an antibiotic shortly after arrival helps get the calves through likely the toughest part of their life, so they can remain healthy and enter the food chain eventually.  Nobody wants sick animals entering the food chain.  Except coyotes.  And vultures.  They are definitely anti-antibiotics.
So, what about feeding antibiotics to help them grow faster?  Well, yes that has some truth to it as well.  Don't freak out…just breathe and keep reading.  There is a class of antibiotics called ionophores.  I actually had no idea they were actually an antibiotic until recently – I've always heard them called ionophores, probably because they are used differently and have a very narrow scope compared to the others.  There are two products on the market that are being used – Bovatec (lasalocid sodium) and Rumensin (monesin).  They help cattle with feed efficiency (grow more on the same amount of feed) as well as prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic intestinal disease.   Neither lasalocid sodium or monesin, as far as I can tell, are used in human medicine.  They apparently are very safe to use, because they do not require a vet's prescription.  Many others require it.  Now, before you go tell all your friends that cattle are fed growth-promoting antibiotics, take 10 minutes and research these two drugs.  Don't take my word for it, but what I found out about monesin in particular is that it is produced naturally from the bacteria Strep cinnamonensis, and actually decreases methane emissions from cattle.
So, antibiotics have been shown to provide some really great benefits to people who raise livestock, myself included.  It isn't all roses though.  There are things we can and should be doing to reduce the need for antibiotic usage in livestock.  Reducing stress is the most important thing.  Proper vaccination protocols help, as does proper nutrition.  The thing is, these are all moving targets.  They are different for each ranch or feedlot and can be challenging to get right.  And, some things just can't be avoided.  That said, antibiotics can be an easy out for neglecting other aspects of animal husbandry.
I could go on and on about the things we can do to create healthier, more resilient animals.  And we need to get better at those things.  Some things I'm working on currently are improving my handling abilities and analyzing our mineral program.  By improving my cattle-handling skills, I can get the cattle to do what I need them to without causing them additional stress.  Regarding the mineral program, today I mailed off some hair clippings from a few healthy calves and one sick one to see if there is a mineral deficiency that might have led to the one getting sick.
My opinion about antibiotic resistance is that there is a human element involved at all levels.  Whether it be sick animals or sick people, we use them a lot.  There are some guys who subscribe to the "if a little is good, a lot is better" mentality when it comes to treating sick cattle with injectable antibiotics.  That's not a responsible (or legal) approach to using antibiotics.  The good part about antibiotic use in livestock is that they very seldom refuse to finish their doses.  It is administered through an injection or in their feed.  So, it is up to the caretaker to properly administer the drugs, use them as directed, and only after performing the proper animal husbandry.  The same is true when we use antibiotics on ourselves.  It is up to us to take care of our bodies reasonably in order to lessen the need for antibiotics; and when they are called for, to take them as directed.
 I've had to take antibiotics twice in the past year, and it was a challenge to remember to take them on schedule.  If I didn't care, and didn't know better, I would have quit before the regimen was over.  I was feeling better – why keep taking them?  It is my opinion that using antibiotics according to the label in livestock has a much smaller role in creating resistant bacteria than instances of people not finishing their oral antibiotic prescribed by their doctor.
Maybe you've got some strong feelings one way or another about this subject.  That's fine.  I encourage you to make sure you are justified in your opinion.  Do your own research.  You might find that sometimes things aren't as black-and-white as we'd like to think.
I'd be happy to answer any question you might have about how we use – or avoid using – antibiotics on our ranch.
It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.
– Will Rogers

Nothing of any particular importance

I'll be up-front, there is nothing really very important in this blog post.  Just a smattering of thoughts on a Monday night.

Kelly, our intern, finished up here about three weeks ago.  She was a good hand – willing and capable to try something new, self-motivated to get done what needed to be done, and asked questions when she needed to.  She's going places, people.  Especially if the rest of her generation is stuck watching the VMA's and using their student loan funds to buy the iPhone 5S.  I'd wish her good luck, but she makes her own luck.  Thanks for the help, Kelly.

It has been a dry summer.  We had below-normal temps so it sort of muted the effect of the lack of rain.  When it finally heated up in late August, it took about 12 hours for the crops to start showing stress.  We have had about 1.5" of rain the past two days, which was very welcome.  It would have been even more welcome about two weeks ago, but the row crops (corn and soybeans) should still do OK.  The wheat crop was excellent.  I had one field of spring wheat that yielded 75 bushels per acre.  I can take no credit, for it was God and the Hubers that did the work.

I'm on Twitter now.  More into "following" than being "followed" though.  I did it to get more up-to-the-minute information on the commodity markets.  I follow several market analysts, news outlets, and fellow farmers and ranchers.  I actually like it quite a bit better than Facebook…it feels more business-like.  Facebook seems to lean more towards the "social" in social network, demonstrated by the absolute dominance of stay-at-home-moms who participate in it.  I don't want to take anything away from that aspect…the right tool for the right job, that's all.  Twitter appears to be more flexible regarding what sort of information your feed contains.  If you want to see who I follow (I don't really tweet anything, so don't follow me for that) my handle is @rockhillsranch.  Our website is still the best place to stay up-to-date on ranch happenings.

We gave the fall vaccinations to the calves last week.  It went very smoothly.  The calves are doing great – healthy and gaining weight.  I'm more excited about this calf crop than in past years, because I am getting to see the results of some specific breeding choices I made last year.  Some calves were sired by more maternal sires, and others by more terminal sires.  The maternal ones will be sorted and some kept for breeding stock; the terminal cattle will all be destined for the food chain.  We're planning to own some of each all the way to slaughter in order to compare and contrast these breeding decisions.  Genetic progress through selection is excruciatingly slow. It takes years to truly evaluate genetic direction, particularly in the maternal realm.  And that is where I am most interested in making improvements.

The pheasant population is down this year.  I'm not a game biologist but I would guess the late spring didn't help much.  Statewide, I think the counts are down something like 64%.  The past ten years have been excellent, so I guess it was time for a correction (for all you technical market analyst types, I'm hoping this level of support holds.  This market is way oversold.  Looking for a restest of the previous high next year.)  So it will be a little bit tougher to fill limits come October.  I also had my ego crippled by the utter chaos that is the food plots.  I tried something new and the weeds won.  Pheasants like weeds, thankfully.  It just isn't the crop I was hoping to raise.  I have seen a lot of songbirds enjoying the sunflowers that were part of the mix, so that's a good sign I guess.

I'm always trying to think of interesting things to write about here.  If you have any questions about how or what we do on the ranch, I'd be happy to answer them in a post.  Or maybe you'd like our "official company policy" (aka my opinion) on some hot environmental, animal welfare, property rights, land use, or food saftey topic.  Drop me an email at and I'll come up with something.