Organic Beef Showing Extra Benefits Among COVID-19 Concerns

By Kathleen Delate, Iowa State University, and Brad Heins, WCROC Dairy Scientist

May 2020

Amidst the headlines on COVID-19 cases growing at large-scale meat processing plants, organic beef producers, like the Rosmanns of Harlan, Iowa, are seeing a surge in organic meat sales, among other organic purchases. “Whether it’s due to consumers knowing the source of their food in these uncertain times, or lower availability of conventional meat at grocery stores, people are showing far more interest in local and organic meat,” Maria Rosmann noted on one of the first spring days outside her on-farm store, Farm Sweet Farm. While grateful for the increased sales, Maria and other organic sellers worry about supply keeping up with demand. According to the Organic Produce Network and Category Partners, fresh organic produce sales were up 22% in March, as most of the U.S. began to “shelter-in-place” and purchase larger than ordinary food volumes.

The Rosmanns represent a type of organic farm, common in the Midwestern U.S., where livestock and crops co-exist throughout the year. “The cattle are the backbone of our operation,” says Ron, “providing a healthy protein food source, and manure for fertilizing our organic crops.” Integrating organic cropping systems with livestock production can provide additional benefits, including improving soil carbon sequestration to help mitigate climate change challenges (Hillmire et al., 2011) and providing an additional revenue stream (Hayden et al., 2018).

Cover crops are commonly used as a “green manure” crop, or harvested for grain and straw; however, they could potentially be grazed by livestock in the early spring and summer. Grazing is a low-input method to feed livestock, which could improve soil health by adding fresh manure to the field or pastures. Farmers who want to improve soil health and utilize a low-input grazing system may benefit from integrating crops and livestock in their system. An experiment in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, supported by the USDA-NIFA, examined the effect of grazing cover crops of wheat and rye on beef cattle health benefits and food safety of meat products deriving from this system. The grass-based system was found to support a more balanced omega-6/3 fatty acid ratio, which can accrue in cattle and beef (Phillips et al., 2017).

The integrated crop-livestock system in this study demonstrated a high probability of meeting food safety goals for limiting E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp. contamination in the forage, feed, feces, hide and meat, according to the published study by Nazareth et al., 2019, in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

The systems in this study included two cropping sequences: pasture-winter wheat-soybean-pasture and pasture-winter rye/hairy vetch-corn-pasture. The cover crops of winter wheat and winter rye provided an early start to the grazing season, averaging three weeks earlier than other perennial pastures on the farm. Corn and soybeans were planted on the same acres the following year before the land was returned to grazing pasture, and grain yields were equivalent to non-integrated systems. While this system utilized wheat and rye, other grazing cover crops observed in Iowa this week included hybrid rye, which can also be used in hog or cattle feed.

Brad Heins, Associate Professor of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota who conducts organic livestock research, explains: “If we can come up with a small grain crop that serves as both a grazing crop and one that provides adequate grain for feed after the grazing period, more farmers will be willing to try this system.” In the integrated crop-livestock system in this study, wheat and rye grain yields were reduced by 30 to 50% after they were grazed for six weeks. This loss was offset, however, by cattle weight gain during the spring grazing period, a period normally spent inside, eating purchased feed.

The integration of livestock in organic cropping systems should be considered a prerequisite for long-term agricultural stability. And the stability of agriculture in uncertain times may very well be connected to how short the supply chain is.