Grassfed beef is nutritionally superior to grain-fed beef, specifically in omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid profiles which are now linked to the vast inflammatory diseases that were wrongly attributed to cholesterol and fat intake for decades. Providing 100% of cattle nutrition from the pasture seems pretty straightforward until considerations are made for the winter months when pasture plants are inactive and supplemental feed is required. In majority of the agricultural world where grasses are dormant for the winter, a farm has to stockpile its grasses during growing season limiting the amount of cattle it can sustain with negative economic impacts. More likely this supplemental feed is acquired off the farm resulting in a moral hazard.
Sourcing hay from off the farm removes the entire season’s production of biomass from the source of the hay. If the manure from that hay is not mixed with carbon, composted and returned to that farm, the carbon in the biomass of the hay and its nutrients are forever lost from the source. Ethically impure points can be made that the farmer is selling hay thus the biomass and nutrients that come with it. While it would improve the soils locally on the farm on which the hay is fed, it is unsustainable on the larger regional scale.
Enter grains. The nutrient and calorie dense seeds of cereal grasses can be exported without removing such a significant amount of biomass from the source. Straw and other wastes from the crop can be reincorporated into the soils after the harvest limiting the exportation of biomass. Crop stubble also provides valuable habitat for soil microbes, animals and ground-nesting birds. However feeding grains to ruminants comes at the price of less nutritionally sound meat.
So which is more sustainable? This debate is the very moral hazard that is the subject of the post.
On my farm I plan to harvest a significant portion of the animals before winter to lessen the need for winter hay. Much of the grasses in my pasture persist in the winter. While not nutritionally dense as they are in active growth, a rotational grazing can still be carried out during the dormant winter months if the animals are given larger paddocks. I would expect my supplemental mineral feeds to greatly increase during this time. Beyond this, looks like I have an ethical dilemma in sustainable farming to contemplate.