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A can of worms

December 10, 2009

Earthworm casting, north side Coyote field, 11-30-09

Something has been bothering me for quite some time and usually I just let these types of things roll off, and consider the source.  But, lately I hear more and more about how bad cattle are for the earth, red meat causes cancer, cattle eat food meant for humans… and so on and so forth.  But this past weekend the Sunday paper had a huge article about water, and water pollution.  So of course, I bit, even though lately the only paper in town that I can get my hands on has mainly been high on my list for fire starting.  What caught my eye was the figure that it takes 1800 + gallons of water to produce a pound a beef!  I hear this argument all the time, and sometimes the figures are even larger up to 2500 – 3000 gallon range.  

So I sat down and figured out how much water it takes to produce a pound of our beef.  Because you know, I conserve water all the time – even going so far as to support garden writers who advocate low or no irrigation for vegetable gardens!  That pretty much puts me on the unpopular side of gardening pundits.  Easy they say for me, I live in the wet Pacific Northwest, but they forget (or don’t know) in their pundificating, that it doesn’t rain here during the summer 🙂  

But, I digress.  I was curious to see how much water we used to get a pound of grassfed beef to someone’s table or freezer.  

Stockpiled forage, Coyote field, 11-30-09

 I cannot speak about feedlot beef, since that is not what we do.  But it is too much of a generalization to say ALL beef is ruining the planet.  We practice Holistic Planned Grazing, our cattle do not eat grain.  (Confession – my milk cow does eat 2.5 pounds of grain per day)  We do not irrigate, but manage our pastures for growth, by moving the cows daily during the grazing season.  We do feed hay during the winter, that is made from our pastures and a neighbors hay-field.  We do not buy fertilizers, except  straw (carbon) for our manure composting.  We do buy minerals though.  But, all in all, I believe our cattle raising is pretty earth and farmer friendly.  



Most of the year the cows place the fertilizer for us, right where it is needed – on the pastures where they graze. 

Earthworm castings, south side Coyote field, 11-30-09


The earthworms are also plugging away, from the bottom up.  By using no synthetic fertilizers or chemicals they have a safe place to do their important work. 

I may be all wet on this, but I don’t see too many hidden costs in raising cattle this way.  So I resent having to defend my cattle raising and beef eating ways.  I am not trying to convert anyone from being a vegetarian, I am just asking that when you hear these wild figures bandied about (concerning any topic) do some analytical thinking.  And question the numbers.  I did, and here is what I came up with for our farm and our beef. 

Now you know I won’t be able to resist being a smartarse about this, so you will see no calculations on how much water is took to build our pickup, stock trailer, tractor, baler etc., or how much water the steer’s mom or dad drank before he was conceived.  Or how much my parents drank ( I was a surprise) either, before I was conceived so I could walk this land and graze said steer. 

If you buy beef from me this is how much water is actually takes:  17.5 gallons of water per pound of beef.  I arrived at this figure based on what I know about cows, and how I raise our cows.  We butcher our beef at 2 years of age.  Because we graze our cattle they drink less water than cattle that are on dry feed all the time, be it beef or dairy.  Most estimates say a cow needs 30 gallons of water a day to do her job.  Her job is to make milk, for humans or her calf, and be pregnant at the same time.  Big  job we ask of them.  But here is where it gets sticky – a calf is not a cow, and a yearling steer is not a cow.  Our calves are drinking milk from their mothers for 8 – 10 months before they are weaned.  They drink a little water at this time but not 30 gallons a day like a full grown cow might need to.  I used a 10 gallon a day figure as an average for the 2 year life (730 days) of the beef steer.  Double it if you want, but it is still much, much lower than figures I see tossed around. 

730 days x 10 gallons of water =  7300 gallons of water.    In that two years that calf will grow from 6o pound calf into a 1200 pound steer, all on his mother’s milk, grass and hay. As a rule of thumb, when you butcher a steer, you lose 50% of the live weight to guts, head, hide, hooves etc.   1200 pounds ÷ 2 = 600 pounds hanging weight. 
Next general rule, (unless you are a Weston Price follower and keep the bones and tallow) you can expect to lose 30% more of that hanging weight for shrinkage, boning, etc.  600 pounds – 180 pounds = 420 pounds of beef.
7300 gallons of water÷ 420 pounds of beef = 17.5 gallons per pound of beef.  So where is my hidden water usage concerning our beef?  We do not irrigate, the farmer we buy straw from does not irrigate.  We put up our own hay.  Our beef is processed at a small USDA facility that maybe does 20 beef, one day per week.  The steer walks around our farm for the entire two years depositing his microbially enhanced manure to help replace what he has taken, and to give the worms a treat.  So what am I not seeing?  My vehicle?  If I don’t farm, I have to work, I would still need a vehicle.  My clothes, same thing.  Our well managed grass sequesters carbon, since we do not have any bare land except our vegetable gardens.  So maybe grass fed beef is actually OK if not better than a vegetable based diet, in some areas.  I can’t argue with someone who is actually growing all their vegetables, since it is easier to kill a rutabaga and wash it and eat it compared to a large steer.  But if you are buying your veggies and grain at the store you are part of the problem too.  And I don’t believe the calorie comparison either.  A teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories and is not sustaining nor life-giving, but 16 calories of good butter would fuel my brain for a little bit or at least not make it sluggish. 

I think one of my sticking points in the whole food and actually the way everyone lives conundrum, boils down to one point.  We all need to quit living like each other – and really allow ourselves to be different.  My unfair advantage is that grass grows well here, and cows are the easiest to manage.  I should be eating beef and occasionally wild salmon.  People in Maine should be eating lobster, and making Balsam fir wreaths.  It’s like we are stuck in our teen years, yearning to be different but doing everything in our power to be exactly the same.  Green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, strawberries at every Christmas party, tomatoes in January, every grocery store in America looks exactly the same.  I don’t know about you, but I am sick of broccoli this time of year, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of broccoli in the grocery store or peoples shopping carts this time of year.  My broccoli is toast, destined to be chicken food, not to be eaten every week of the year.  

Just because I sell beef doesn’t mean I think everyone should eat beef, or that there should be a steak on every plate.  For heaven’s sake, we eat steak on special occasions  because there are only so many steaks in one steer.  And we eat the whole steer before we go out and kill another one.  So those are my thoughts on the matter – shoot holes in my theories, but don’t compare my farm and my cattle to feedlot cattle.  All is not the same in this world.  

Pickup seat warmer/fence helper

This post is my submission for Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday series for December 18th.  Always amazing viewpoints and recipes there – truly food for thought!

47 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2009 9:29 am

    Good post! One thing I never see discussed either – the fact that certain land, while great for grazing, is NOT great for cropping. I lived in Saskatchewan (and worked in Ag. research) for over 10 years – there is a lot of land there that is fantastic cropland – grains, legumes, specialty crops like canary seed and some spices, etc. But there is some land, especially in the south-west, that is not great cropland, and what is there generally has to be irrigated. But it makes fantastic range land. But I still see the whole “you can feed more people per acre on a vegetarian diet vs. meat” comment, with NO discussion on which particular acre is being discussed.

    • December 11, 2009 6:18 am

      K.B. So true, our farm is the same – we live in Cascade foothills, too short of growing season to compete with vegetable farmers in the Willamette Valley. Great for growing grass though, and large predator pressure make cattle a good choice.

      The plow is not as kind as hooves…

  2. Meadowlark permalink
    December 10, 2009 9:44 am

    I really enjoyed this… I’ll admit I have never thought about the water cost in a pound of beef, but this was quite enlightening.

    Yes, you’re lucky to be on the “other side of the mountain” water-wise, but I say make good use of the gifts you’ve been given.

    Have a wonderful holiday season, from your dry-side (and 8 below zero) friend.

  3. December 10, 2009 10:15 am

    For goodness sake, PLEASE send this off to the newspaper, and any other farming, environmental, and vegan mag you can to be published!



  4. Rich permalink
    December 10, 2009 10:15 am

    What about the water content in the manure and urine that the cattle produce?

    Accounting for that fact should drop the water usage number a significant amount.

    • December 11, 2009 6:25 am

      Rich, so true, although I have seen that fact argued because the manure and urine is considered a pollutant in some circles. I have yet to see cow manure as a pollutant though, at least on our farm.

  5. December 10, 2009 10:18 am

    I just love how math tells the true story – excellent post!

  6. December 10, 2009 10:31 am

    Well worked out and well said. People spout a lot of hot air about things they frequently know very little about, or massage the figures so as to make their theory “work”. What really got my goat recently was someone in the UK saying that farmers should cull every third cow or sheep because they are producing so much methane from their digestive tract that it was causing global warming, or words to that effect. This idea was going down a dream until “someone” realized that DEFRA (the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food I believe) had not been consulted. Result: idea blown out of the water . . . And these idiots are in CHARGE of our country? Apparently . . . and the banks . . .

    • December 10, 2009 10:58 am

      The scary thing is when people shout and nobody challenges them, it is not long before their shouts are taken as cultural gospel! Thanks again Nita for challenging this assumption.


    • December 11, 2009 6:27 am

      Jennie, that is terrible, every third animal! Our neighbors who like to travel frequently with no thought to the fossil fuel they are using up, like to tell us our cattle are major polluters. So sad.

  7. December 10, 2009 10:35 am

    I love this post as well.

    Boy those people living in Arizona and Nevada without natural water and local food would be screwed. Drives me batty. Think of all the resources that are being wasted right now by making uninhabitable landscapes habitable – food, drinking water, lawns, golf courses, air conditioning.

    Make the most of what you have and don’t waste resources trying to turn it into something it’s not.

    I can’t believe how much money we have saved this year by only eating locally in season.


    • December 11, 2009 6:30 am

      SE, I know what you mean – have you seen Cadillac Desert? Makes you wonder what they would do without the water. Yet most people think it is too rainy here – yet they want the green.

      Seasonal eating is the only way to go 🙂

  8. December 10, 2009 10:36 am

    Thanks for this post. I entirely agree – it isn’t beef per se that is so destructive, it’s conventionally raised, feedlot beef that is. And to be honest, the amount of beef that Americans eat probably isn’t sustainable long term no matter how the cattle are raised. But I see nothing wrong and a lot right with how you do it at your place. I buy a side of beef per year from my neighbor across the street who has a very similar operation. I find that half a steer is enough beef for our family (3 adults, two children) for an entire year. We also go through one pig, one or two goat kids, and a mess of chickens. Three hoofed animals and score or so of birds. That’s not so bad, really.

    • December 11, 2009 6:39 am

      Aimee, as long as people want convenience, there will be fast food and feedlots. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, unfortunately. We didn’t raise any pigs this year – still have some pork left from the last pig, and the grain prices are so high it wasn’t worth it. Beef and dairy is our least cost to produce. They grow and prosper on what we grow right here.

      The other thing too is waste – of all food. This week one of my husbands co-workers brought a turkey carcass to work to throw away in the dumpster. They only ate the breasts, and kept the carcass in fridge since Thanksgiving. This from a man who eats fast food 3 meals a day in addition to meals at home, he complains about being broke, and how much it costs to feed his large dogs! Hmmmm, I can see many things wrong with that picture! Plus he lives in the country, he could have thrown that carcass out and let the ravens pick it clean. Sadly, he isn’t considered abnormal at all! If people were more careful with their meat products there would not be the demand and less resources could be used… .

    • Doris permalink
      December 12, 2009 8:52 am

      Aimee, I would like to challenge you to read this article by Dan Dagget.

      Just so you can hear a bit of the other side of the story not told by the globalist owned mass media.


  9. December 10, 2009 11:15 am

    Additional Food For Thought:

    1. the industry in the tar sands (oil extraction in Alberta) uses as much water every years as a city of 2 million people.
    2. each barrel of Bitumen (one of the world’s most water intensive oil products). Every day, Canada exports 1 million barrels of Bitumen to the USA and 3 million virtual barrels of water.

    I think a lot of this bru-ha-ha over cows water consumption is a diversion of bigger issues. As Nita so effectively points out, it all depends on how they are raised!


  10. Paula permalink
    December 10, 2009 11:23 am

    Actually, it’s funny that you should write this today because my husband and I were just yesterday trying to figure out just how much of a beef we should order (we think a hind quarter- it’s just the two of us) and also where to get it….there are lots of local butchers down our way around the Oregon City area, but we want what we eat to be humanely raised. Through what is your beef marketed?

    • December 11, 2009 7:30 am

      Paula, we probably are sold out for the next year because we have cut our herd down – but Eatwild has a great list of producers. Try River Run Ranch they are in Clatskanie but come to Portland.

  11. December 10, 2009 1:34 pm

    Another thing about feedlot beef – the water they’re using is usually coming out of rivers, lakes, wells, town supplies, etc, causing problems to those systems.

    When you farm properly, a lot of your water comes from rain falling on your land, captured in dams.

    So it’s not just a matter of how much water you use, it’s also important to understand where it’s coming from and what effect that has.

    • December 11, 2009 7:39 am

      Darren, so true. Another big water user around here is the big Google server “farm.” They are able to keep that quiet though – it takes lots of energy and water to keep that puppy humming away… A different kind of feedlot!

  12. Linda permalink
    December 10, 2009 1:45 pm

    Yes, we need more info like this out there. And yes, no one challenges these stories. I cringe when I see people running excess water down the drain when a little would do…In a few years water will be the issue. Human Society of the United States (HSUS) is out to turn everyone into vegans! Their PR must be stopped.

    • December 11, 2009 7:40 am

      Linda, I agree, water is a huge issue, even here where there is abundant rainfall.

      It can’t hurt to get the word out.

  13. December 10, 2009 2:17 pm

    In Texas, we are in a continued drought condition. I try to do my part by not planting things not indigenous to this area. I don’t need flower beds full of azaleas, just what the birds bring us for flowers.

    Nita, this is a wonderful post. While I do not raise cows, I have seen those nasty feed lots and slaughter houses. I appreciate your kindness and care for your animals and farm. This one of the things that makes you so very unique.

    • December 11, 2009 7:41 am

      Pam, thanks for your kind comment. Planting natives is big around here too, and rightly so. They do so much better.

  14. December 10, 2009 8:16 pm

    Excellent post. Any chance of getting that published?
    Start with Wise Traditions at .
    They would love to see an article like that!

  15. December 11, 2009 6:07 am

    Bravo! That’s all I have to say, bravo!

    • December 11, 2009 7:43 am

      Jena, thank you – you know exactly what I am talking about. Farmers in general get such bad press, wild numbers like this are a prime example.

  16. December 11, 2009 7:05 am

    Good news, my end of the state is starting to warm up. It is only down to 25 this morning and the NOAA satellite shows a southwestern airflow coming my way.

    The coastal towns are in the high 30’s already.

    I hope it continues north to you folks.

    Have a great day.

    • December 11, 2009 7:44 am

      AWM, Good news – it has warmed up to 12, but since we are so close to the river I am guessing ice first – time to put on the chains!

  17. December 11, 2009 12:30 pm

    Very well said! Please do send it off. We are not feedlot beef growers, either. Our cows are free range.


  18. December 11, 2009 7:05 pm

    Nita, let me join the chorus and thank you for figuring out the numbers and writing it up! I get in arguments about how *polluting* and non-green beef is all of the time: not because I farm beef but because the stupidity and reductionism of the argument makes me crazy.

    The other one that drives me crazy is the notion that it is kinder not to eat animals. The folks offering that argument up (usually in a strident way) will not respond to my simple question: is a short, comfortable life, living naturally, worse than no life at all? Without honoring the age old give and take partnership between humans and domesticated critters, there simply wouldn’t be any critters raised. I fail to understand how extinction has “the best interest of the critters” at heart.

    Well done, Nita, and thanks again!

  19. Doris permalink
    December 12, 2009 8:31 am

    Great post and conversation.
    How come no one remembers the millions of animals that roamed the plains and also Africa before the Europeans came along and slaughtered them by the millions. Why was there not a global warming issue back then? Truth is, it’s all a bunch of hooey, and the purpose is to put us all under one world government. Hitler said if you tell a big enough lie and tell it enough times, people will believe it. Too many folks from the cities are too disconnected from where their food comes from and do not know the truth of how it is produced.
    As far as cow excrement being a pollutant, that is another lie. Years ago I read in Mother Earth News that somehow there is a natural barrier about 18 inches down in the soil that the urine will not go below. However there is no such barrier for artificial fertilizer. So it is the artificial fertilizer (nitrogen) that is guilty of polluting our ground water, rivers, lakes and streams. The manure from cattle only becomes a problem when they are densely packed together as in a feed lot. When animals are raised the way The Creator designed and intended, it is good for them, the environment, and really, so very good for us!!

    Aimee said: “And to be honest, the amount of beef that Americans eat probably isn’t sustainable long term no matter how the cattle are raised.”
    I would have to say that I disagree with that statement. Do you have any idea how many acres the government is paying for farmers to keep idle?
    Check out the pictures here
    and then tell me if it makes more sense to keep the cattle on the land or off the land?
    We all need a better education, and you are certainly doing your part, Nita, Thank you!!

  20. Doris permalink
    December 12, 2009 9:35 am

    oh, yeah, the water, what’s with the concern over how much water it takes to produce a lb of beef? OK sure, I’m from the desert, and I get it about conserving water when one is in an area where there are limited inputs. Imo, the PNW doesn’t qualify. Water is recyclable, Nature is constantly recycling it. Really, why one anyone ever buy into that we will ever run out of water? 2/3ds of the earth is covered in water. As long as the sun shines and evaporates it and the wind blows and pushes it back over the land, we will have water. I agree we do need to be reasonable in our use of water and please don’t poison it. But can we all please just put our brain cells together and not act like lemmings?
    I’ve recently read the the real purpose of the public school system is to teach us to trust the ‘experts’, so when the experts tell us this type of balderdash, we ‘trust’ they are right and don’t bother to look into what their motivation might be.

  21. December 12, 2009 6:11 pm

    Excellent post, thanks for writing it. This is one of those things that I’ve heard several times and has bothered me. Its like people saying you should be vegan or vegetarian because all meat and all animals are treated badly. Totally valid to want to be vegan/vegetarian but the blanket statement that all farm animals are treated badly is just not true. Honestly, I think it just makes a good soundbite so people keep repeating it.

  22. Joyce permalink
    December 13, 2009 5:02 am

    Thanks for the great blog. It seems that folk who don’t raise their own food only see one side of the story. It would be impossible to raise a crop on our hillsides, but beef thrive and with proper management so does the grass.

  23. December 13, 2009 8:09 am

    Lots of good points Nita. Funny how they always seem to summarize big agriculture with small time farms. Two completely different worlds!

  24. December 13, 2009 9:59 am

    Excellent article. I’ll join the chorus — definitely, you should send this out, far and wide.

  25. December 13, 2009 11:41 pm


  26. December 15, 2009 1:49 am

    I’m so glad you rolled this post out…I am SO SO sick of the radio news and elsewhere bashing the raising of cattle, as if the only option in raising cattle is the Big Ag way. It’s weird, I feel sort of pulled in half because folks should be gagging at the reality of the conditions, treatment, and contamination of a system glutting itself on fastest and highest production vs. holistic and regionally suited/concientiously managed.

    And thank you for mentioning that sometimes the One True Way folks and and intent copycats sometimes are just returning to the ol’ high school popularity contest mentality instead of really engaging in the best their own micro system has to offer. I still eat highly dependent on a supermarket with off season produce, but that’s not forever. Even when I can provide more of what’s on my table from my own square of land, it will never be the same as what you’re growing. but vive le difference, I say! I LOVE seeing what you’re doing and growing because it’s like a vacation for me…no snow down here, nor icicles and no hilling root crops just now. Just as each season has its wonderful qualities, so does each region…and isn’t that diversity the spice of life? 🙂

  27. December 15, 2009 1:53 am


  28. December 15, 2009 2:19 pm

    Thank you, thank you for doing the math on this! I’ve long suspected the Evils Of Beef argument was based on feedlot beef (fed on irrigated corn) but didn’t have the data to debunk it myself.

  29. December 17, 2009 7:50 pm

    Very well-written and engaging essay on this subject. I wholeheartedly agree with your observation that we need to quit living like each other, and expecting life to be exactly like what’s advertised on TV – every grocery store in America should NOT look the same, for pete”s sake!

    Speaking truth to power, you are. Great post.

  30. February 25, 2010 11:06 am

    I found your post informative.

    Learn more about organic, grass-fed beef here:

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