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Extension Agent: Agriculture doing more with less

By Victoria Advocate
June 21, 2010 at 1:21 a.m.
Updated June 22, 2010 at 1:22 a.m.

Joe Janak

By Joe Janak

We've all seen dramatic and sweeping changes in agriculture over the years. For example, we went from two- and four-row planters when I was a kid, to 24- and 32-row planters today. These are easy-to-see changes. But other changes are many times harder to see. According to Jose G. Pena, professor and Extension economist-manager in Uvalde, during the past 60 years, U.S. agriculture has dramatically increased production efficiency.

The U.S. livestock inventory has seen significant changes over the last 40 years. Livestock numbers have been steadily declining, while meat and milk production have increased, indicating a substantial improvement in U.S. livestock production efficiency. For example, according to USDA's Jan. 29 cattle report, the U.S. cattle inventory decreased for the third year in a row. At 93.7 million head, the size of the U.S. cattle herd is down 38.33 million head from its inventory high of 132 million head in 1975 and 1.2 million head lower than 1954. Yet U.S. beef production in 2009 of 26.1 billion pounds was almost double the amount produced in 1954.

Likewise, milk cows in 2009 total 9.2 million head - less than half compared to more than 21 million head in 1954. Yet milk production is at an all-time high, with each cow producing more than 20,500 pounds of milk per year compared to only 5,657 pounds in 1954.

While numbers of swine are up by 29 percent for the same time period, its industry also is very efficient as it now produces nearly 71 percent more pork than in 1954.

Since 1954, agricultural production efficiency has increased 46 percent for beef cows, 264 percent for milk cows and 32 percent for hogs and pigs.

Corn, the No. 1 crop produced in the United States, is consumed in most food products, from livestock, to beverage sweeteners, to pet food. During the last 55 years, U.S. corn production efficiency has increased close to 400 percent. The combination of increased crop production and feed supplies, advances in nutritional science and genetics, and other research-derived food and livestock production system improvements has made it possible for U.S. agriculture to provide the least-expensive, highest-quality and safest food supply in the world.

But the agricultural sector has been under criticism for so-called "factory farms" that produce unsafe and low-quality food where animals are mistreated, and the production system destroys the environment and other accusations. Consumer advocates of grass-fed beef, for example, contend that the common practice of fattening livestock with feed consisting largely of corn before slaughter is unnatural for the animal and leads to fatty, less healthful meat. They claim that feedlot-raised cattle have far more saturated fat and substantially reduced levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids than that of grass-fed cattle.

Despite the accusations and contentions, a recent Texas AgriLife Research study comparing beef from pasture-fed and grain-finished cattle came to a different conclusion. The study looked at the effects of ground beef from both production systems on the blood lipids in a group of volunteers. The study found that ground beef from grain-fed cattle, which is high in monounsaturated fats, increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), increased LDL particle diameters (the particle diameters of the bad cholesterol), and decreased insulin - all positive benefits. Grass-finished beef did not provide the same beneficial effects in this study.

Some consumers prefer grass-finished beef based on its flavor or their perceptions of health, environmental or animal-welfare benefits. U.S. agriculture fully supports grass-fed beef production, organic farming and any other alternative production system to satisfy consumer preferences. But a major change to alternative production systems would significantly reduce agriculture's ability to supply the quantity of food we have today. A shift to produce more grass-fed beef would require a substantial increase in the use of input resources and likely reduce meat supplies.

As I mentioned, U.S. beef, dairy and pork production systems are producing abundant supplies of the safest, healthiest and least-expensive foods in the world. This streamlined production efficiency has reduced the need for larger livestock inventories and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Joe Janak is a Victoria County extension agent.

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