Most of us have no idea what system of food farming was used to produce the food on our table, especially when it comes to meat.
Even though we consume food from farms daily, most of us put little to no thought into the practices used to harvest the fruits, vegetables, and meat we eat.
There are five primary systems of food farming :
- Conventional Farming
- Industrial Feedlot Farming
- Regenerative Farming
- Organic Farming
- Regenerative Organic Farming
We will provide an in-depth description of each system of farming below and look through each system through the prism of livestock farming and specifically Beef in today's article.
Hopefully, you can make more well-informed decisions about where and how you source your food by the time you finish reading this blog post.
System of Farming 1: Industrial Feedlot Farming
Image Credit: rnz.co.nz Industrial Feedlot
Industrial feedlot farming aka Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is a common yet environmentally harmful system.
Agricultural-heavy states like Texas and Oklahoma are home to millions of grain-fed cattle that are later turned into the beef we consume.
Feedlots, also known as feed yards, are still the most widespread and intensive system of livestock farming in the USA today. Grains and supplemental feeds are used to fatten the animals at a rapid rate.
The goal is to cause the animals to gain weight as quickly as possible before slaughter. Many dairy farms also employ these practices since they want to ensure their cows produce ample amounts of milk.
In addition, most of these farms simultaneously utilize antibiotics and growth hormones to speed up this process further.
As a result, the meat produced from grain-fed beef cattle is often higher in fat and may contain unwanted toxins plus seapage of antibiotics and hormones from feedlots into the watertable and into drinking water is a well documented and growing problem.
Finally, these animals usually have a lower quality of life than grass-finished cattle, who spend their final days grazing on pastures.
Industrial farmers prioritize efficiency and profits over the animal’s well-being. Sadly, this farming system will likely not change anytime soon as factory farms continue to provide a hefty chunk of the nation’s beef supply.
Image: corn byproduct from ethanol Industry is a common food for cattle in feedlot farming system.
System of Farming 2: Conventional Farming
Conventional farming practices rely on chemical intervention to increase grass growth and the use of groth promoting hormones and antibiotics to raise livestock.
Thus, the food produced from these types of farms was likely exposed to harsh substances like herbicides, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Furthermore, many conventional farms place synthetic herbicides like Glyphosate and artificial fertilizers in the soil to stimulate plant growth. Fertilizers are typically created using man made compounds like nitrogen and phosphate.
These substances seep into the ground, changing the soil’s natural ecosystem balance, deplete the soil of naturally occurring nitrogen which in trun creates a reliance on the man made versions year after year. Soil conservation and protecting the water table and eco system from harmful chemicals are not a priority in this system of livestock farming.
The heavy chemical inputs used for conventional farming directly impact the quality of the produce and livestock we eat regularly and have a direct impact on farm workers health and wellbeing.
Animals are routinely subjected to consuming growth hormones to speed up growth rates for slaughter faster.
So, if the cattle consumed antibiotics or hormones throughout its life, traces of those substances may be found in your beef.
System of Farming 3: Regenerative Farming
Regenerative system of farming enriches and restores topsoil more than other food farming systems. It is important to point outthe Regenerative system is not new and follows key tennants good livestock farmers have discovered and followed for several thousand years.
It is a 'old but new' system in the US however as the main principles were followed by farms across the US until the birth of the industrial feedlot / intensive farming system.
Soil is managed and kept healthy through proven techniques like:
- Manure spreading
- Cover crops
- Livestock rotation
- Concentrated mob grazing
- Carbon sequestration
- Adds plant diversity and diverse root systems
- Increase population of pollinators
- Reduce Erosion
- Increase earthworm populations
- Build aggregates and recycle nutrient
In addition, livestock are not fed grains through feedlots.
Although, much like conventional farming, there is no regulation, no accountability and no restrictions in place to prevent to use of harmful chemicals like pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
The only way to truly know what goes on behind farm gates is to visit the farm yourself or look for farms that are accountable to independent third party certification inspections to ensure no chemicals , gmo’s are used and the operation is not just regenerative in name only / for marketing purposes only.
Currently, the USDA does not have a legal definition for Regenerative Farming nor does the USDA carry out any verification inspections.
Regenerative farming has tremendous potential for adoption right across the American beef industry however, more must be dont to ensure it is given a clear set of measure standards and a system of accountability to ensure consumers are not taken for yet another marketing ride much like the 'Grass-Fed' Label fiasco that exists today.
Regenenerative farming principles also overlap with the key principles of permaculture farming.
System of Farming 4: Organic Farming
Much like its name suggests, this food farming system embraces organic practices. It prohibits the use of GMOs, pesticides, and herbicides that negatively affects livestock, soil, and ultimately, our food.
Instead of employing chemicals or growth hormones, organic farms rely heavily on all-natural techniques like composting and biological pest control.
100% Grass based Organic farm operations are credited with producing much of our nation’s top-quality grass-fed and grass-finished beef or lamb. These animals are pasture-raised 24/7, meaning that they feed on only grass and forage until harvest.
When buying produce or meat from a Certified Organic Farm, you are assured the operation is audited/inspected and held accountable to a comprehensive set of standards to ensure no chemical inputs,no hormones, no antibiotics or gmo’s are used on the farm.
This differs greatly from a ‘self certified regenerative’ farm system which may or may not in fact be genuine as there is no outside inspection, no verification and no clear set of standards.
System of Farming 5: Regenerative Organic Farming
Regenerative organic farming is the gold standard food farming system. It consists of prioritizing importance of soil health, meaningful animal welfare standards and farm worker welfare with organic farming principles firmly at the foundation of all on farm activities and standards.
The term “regenerative organic farming” was first coined in the 1980s by agricultural expert Robert Rodale of Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute. Since then, the organization has continued to educate fellow farmers and consumers about the benefits of this farming system’s natural truly approach.
Regenerative organic farms are genuinely the ideal combination of Organic and Regenerative in one powerful and holistic system that works with Mother Nature with strict protocols and rules for the avoidance of any chemicals, hormones and antibiotics.
Consumers can also buy from Regenerative Organic source with confidence as there is a high level of accountability as this farming system is fully audited and inspected along with soil samples taken to measure outcomes.
This system of farming manages soil through natural methods ( strictly no chemicals) like manure spreading, composting crop and livestock rotational grazing.
Without any chemicals, the goal is to build soil organic matter, raise soil water retention, sequester carbon which occurs when carbon dioxide is drawn down from the atmosphere through plant roots and into the soil via photsynthesis. Regenerative organic farms omit using any form of chemicals like pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Beef and fresh produce cultivated from regenerative organic farms are significantly healthier than those from conventional or industrial farming methods.
Therefore, we highly suggest sourcing meat and produce from this system of farming as you are not just buying into a way of farming but also a set of clearly defined standards and on farm accountability.
- Most of us have no idea what system of food farming was used to produce the meat on our table.
- A wide variation in methods and misleading marketing has confused consumers.
- There are 5 primary systems of food farming for beef i.e. Conventional Farming, Industrial Feedlot Farming ,Regenerative Farming , Organic Farming and Regenerative Organic Farming System.
- The Feedlot farming system is the most intensive.
- Regenerative Organic food farming system is the gold standard for its clear and high standards, its foundation in organic principles and building soil health.