Making sense of the Polyface calorie numbers

Last summer, I published a post attempting a crude analysis of the inputs and outputs at Polyface Farm. My rough calculations led me to speculate that Polyface Farm may require more calories in grain and soy than it produces in meat, and Joel Salatin seems to have confirmed this when I asked him last month. This analysis has received a bit of attention in various corners of the internet, so I think it’s worth talking about what these numbers might tell us (or not tell us).

On the one hand, I can’t quite endorse the conclusions of Ginny Messina, who wrote in her review of Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth that the numbers “suggest that there is no such thing as truly sustainable meat production.”

To say that something is sustainable means that it can be continued indefinitely.  Comparing the caloric inputs and outputs of a farm doesn’t really tell us anything about whether that is the case. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that production of plant-based crops requires fossil fuels and fertilizers that are in limited supply, so we don’t have “truly sustainable” vegetable production either.

That’s not to say that the numbers don’t have any relevance to The Vegetarian Myth. Indeed, Lierre Keith cites The Omnivore’s Dilemma extensively, and offers a great example of how one might be misled by Pollan’s work. Keith writes extensively about the environmental damage done by grain agriculture. In her conclusion, she asks,

So here are the questions you should ask, a new form of grace to say over your food. Does this food build or destroy topsoil? Does it use only ambient sun and rainfall, or does it require fossil soil, fossil fuel, fossil water, and drained wetlands, damaged rivers? Could you walk to where it grows, or does it come to you on a path slick with petroleum?

Everything falls into place with those three questions. Those annual monocrops lose on all three counts, unless you live in Nebraska, where it “only” fails the first two.

The reader is to contrast a grain-based diet with one based on pastured animals. Keith writes, “Cattle on pasture in my [New England] climate can easily be sustainable. Joel Salatin is certainly proving that.” We’re to believe that Salatin’s meat passes Keith’s three-question test.

Based on Pollan’s numbers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Keith calculates that ten acres of pasture farmed Polyface style can produce enough calories to feed nine people. That might sound impressive at first, but it’s decidedly less so when you consider that this would require grain that could feed even more people. Bringing that feed grain to Polyface Farm depletes more topsoil and requires more fossil fuels than growing and harvesting grain (in smaller amounts) to feed directly to people. More generally, any bad things one might say about grain production will apply even more strongly to the Polyface meal than to a meal of grains with comparable caloric content, and thus support a conclusion opposite the one that Lierre Keith reaches.

However, it oversimplifies things to simply compare calorie content. A meal of corn, soy, and oats would not be nutritionally equivalent to a Polyface meal of similar caloric content. The former meal would, for example, be higher in carbohydrates, lower in protein, and entirely void of vitamin B12. Thus, one might conceivably be able to argue that Polyface-style farming is our best option for producing protein or vitamin B12. (I have no reason to believe that either of these is actually true, and I would be surprised if either were.)

Of course, it makes little sense to consider nutrients individually. A much more meaningful comparison would look at the environmental impact of two nutritionally adequate meals. (There are those who will argue that a meal containing grains can never be nutritionally acceptable, but that is a strictly nutritional question, to be distinguished from the environmental considerations at hand.)

In spite of these limitations, I would emphasize that I don’t think these numbers are entirely worthless. For one, they suggest that a more careful analysis is necessary before Polyface Farm can reasonably be used to support arguments for meat production on environmental grounds. On a broader level, the numbers should be a warning against false solutions. We should be alarmed to see Polyface compared to “the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (as it is in The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and we should ask questions when we see it presented as an alternative to monocultures (as it is in the movie Fresh and Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth).



  1. I wouldn’t give Lierre Keith’s ideas the time of day, even in the minor way you have on this blog. You can’t find her credentials anywhere on the web and people with credentials in the subjects she writes about state flat out that she doesn’t understand the subjects she writes about.

    I may be doing the same by posting this link, but here is my extended opinion on the merit of her claims

    You are a bright guy, somebody like you should spend his time debating claims of some worth.

  2. Lisa said

    I would disagree that vegetable production *requires* fossil fuels and fertilizers that are in limited supply. True, current industrial nonorganic vegetable production uses vast amounts of water and fossil fuel inputs, but it doesn’t have to be that way and we don’t have to eat the products coming from that system. We can grow our own on a small scale, patronize local organic farms, participate in regional CSAs and food coops, and put pressure on our political system to stop promoting such unsustainable agricultural practices through artificially cheap fossil fuel inputs and subsidies that go to the wrong places (like corn & soy for animal feed).

    In the past, I have had a small garden that used compost (from my own food scraps), rainwater, and vegetable-based fertilizers (cover crops, comfrey, etc.) to grow large quantities of food. That system could have gone on forever, sustainable, with little-to-no external inputs. At the moment, I’m not able to garden, so I get a weekly delivery from Boston Organics. In the long run, if more people start doing the same thing, sustainable veg & fruit agriculture may look like this: more people farming & gardening, closer to home, with less reliance on out-of-season produce (I’ve eaten a lot of turnips this winter!).

    I love your blog and really appreciate your efforts. Just wanted to add this as a reminder that sustainable veg & fruit production is possible.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I would disagree with terming those systems sustainable, though I agree that they are better than most. A system that relies on composting food scraps is only as sustainable as the food that you’re composting. And I think it’s important to understand that those food scraps are an external input to your garden. Moreover, the laws of chemistry dictate that we can’t produce all of our food using only food scraps as compost. When we compost food scraps, we’re returning to the land some of the nutrients that have been removed, but because we’re not returning all of them, we’ll still eventually run out.

      That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t compost. By making use of the nutrients in our foodscraps, composting allows us to better utilize resources. We should absolutely do it to the fullest extent possible, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem.

      Anyway, the point of that is not to depress everybody, but to suggest that we should be careful about the way in which we talk about these issues. Because meat production and vegetable production are in some sense unsustainable, it’s better not to argue against meat eating by suggesting that “truly sustainable” meat production might not be possible. Such an argument requires us to place a threshold for being “truly sustainable” somewhere between grain farming and Polyface-style meat farming, and that seems very arbitrary to me. It strikes me as more honest to simply argue that grain farming has a smaller environmental impact.

      • Ryan said

        So pulling Nitrogen and Carbon out of the atmosphere has nothing to do with it? I think you conveniently left that very huge part. That is an over-simplified version of nutrient cycling that is not correct. Carbon and Nitrogen sequestration can replace what is lost in the ‘humanure’ component. Humanure can be dealt with as well and returned to the landscape. The mineral component can then be recharged through plants like comfrey and dandelion which bring missing minerals up from the subsoil. If these systems build (not destroy) soil and nothing is brought in from elsewhere, it is sustainable period. Even if they DO use fossil fuels but the soil carbon increase is greater than the carbon used, that is also sustainable. Such systems do exist. I am not aware that Joel Salatin uses grain at all but I could be wrong. I will definitely look into it. Grain farming has a tremendous environmental impact as it stands through toxins, erosion, and soil death. It is far less sustainable than the type of grass fed animal husbandry that Joel Salatin is at least claiming to do.

      • Adam Merberg said

        “I am not aware that Joel Salatin uses grain at all but I could be wrong.”

        I was going to write a detailed response to your comment until I got to this sentence, which shows that you have not read the post you are replying to or the ones referred to in it. Salatin uses a substantial amount of grain, enough so that all of your concerns about grain agriculture should have you railing against Polyface Farm.

        As for carbon and nitrogen, one of the key points is that much of the carbon and nitrogen is really coming from the grain. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll trust Simon Fairlie, who writes of Polyface, in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance:

        I wrote to Joel Salatin asking him what his feed inputs were and he was kind enough to reply that the beef were completely fed on grass, the broilers got about 15 per cent of their feed from pasture, the egg-layers a little more and the pigs about 25 per cent, though in a good mast season they can get nearly 100 per cent of their feed from acorns. As one would expect, a sizable propoertion of the feed comes from other farms.

        With these feed imports comes fertility, to compensate for the fertility that goes out with all the meat that is sold. The carbon and the nitrogen in the feed is fed to the chickens who follow behind the cows, and who deposit it on the ground in the form of manure; some of the carbon may be directly absorbed as organic matter, while the nitrogen enhances grass growth and photosynthesis, which also contributes to soil carbon. Of all the carbon added to Salatin’s pastures over the years, some will have come directly from the atmosphere; but a proportion will have come, directly or indirectly, from another farm in the form or soya, corn or whatever feed Salatin buys in.

        However productive Polyface may be, it is in a sense only half a farm, and it doesn’t help to analyse the carbon sequestration on one half, without knowing what is happening on the other.

  3. No. 534 said

    I originally wanted to bring up some Salatin quotes when you had your review of Fresh, but I figured that the focus was on fact-checking Pollan. Now seems like a perfect time to contrast comments Salatin made in the film against how he answered you in that lecture. Granted, it is a documentary, where time is limited and comments can be heavily edited removing nuance, however, Salatin got a decent amount of footage to make his pitch. I’m going to quote Salatin from Fresh as much is as reasonable so that I don’t chance taking him out of context; emphasis in bold is mine.

    SALATIN: “You’ve got to understand that 70% of all the row crops in the United States — and of course the row crops account for most of the genetic engineering, the petroleum use, the tillage, the erosion and all of the negative things in agriculture — that 70% of that is grown for multi-stomached herbivores that aren’t ever supposed to eat that anyway, only 30% goes to people, pigs and poultry. So if we went to a grass-based herbivore agriculture for our cattle, suddenly 70% of that currently assaulted land could return to a mob-stocked herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization program and all the negatives in agriculture would come to a screeching halt.

    Salatin oversells his ideas here because his farm still relies on feed input that is a part of the negatives he is implying has come to a screeching halt through his methodologies.

    SALATIN: “We’re not talking about going back to grandpa’s farm. We’re talking about marrying the best of the technology and the innovation that we have today, marrying that with the indigenous heritage wisdom of the “chicken-ness” of the chicken, the “pig-ness” s of the pig, the “cow-ness” of the cow, the “tomato-ness” of the tomato. We can raise everything we need without any of the industrial food system.

    We can raise everything we need without any of the industrial food system, except not on Polyface Farms that uses industrial sourced animals and substantial grain feed inputs.

    SALATIN: “Where we’re standing got grazed two or three times in the spring, then we made hay on it, course each time it got grazed the egg mobile came in behind them, then we ran a big batch of turkey’s through here, and then we grazed it again, and then we run our broilers on it, and then we’re going to make hay late on it, and then graze it again in wintertime.”

    Making hay isn’t an energy neutral process where animals are collecting their own food and doing the work for you, rotational grazing is supposed to eliminate this issue of gathering livestock feed. The hay needs to be harvested, typically by machines, transported and stored, just like you would harvest anything. Making hay is spending energy to harvest food to feed animals. It is part of the reason as to why keeping cattle in northern climates becomes energy intensive. Even grass fed livestock need to be fed through the winter and significant hay needs to be harvested to see them through.

    SALATIN: “The point being that when you add all of those things up suddenly you’re not only getting the diversity of multi-speciation, and all the different kinds of manures, but you’re getting all these complementary income streams so that instead of like the neighbor who just runs beef cows getting $150 an acre, we’re getting over $3000 and acre per year — it’s incredible the difference — and we haven’t planted a seed or bought an ounce of chemical fertilizer in fifty years.

    Salatin hasn’t planted a seed or used chemical fertilizer, but he off sources his grain feed that may or may have needed chemical fertilizers. He even states, that just grazing cattle on grass doesn’t offer the benefits of the full system, yet, in order to have the poultry and other animals, he requires external feed. He also neglects to mention the calcium supplements he applies on his pastures.

    This isn’t to say the Polyface doesn’t have merits, but Michael Pollan’s description of “the proverbially unattainable free lunch” and his deliberate decision in The Omnivores Dilemma not to mention the grain requirements of Polyface while attributing all the nutrient flow to grass really needs to be pointed out so that we can have an honest discussion on the realities of such animal husbandry techniques.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Great comment, and thanks for the quotes. You characterize the problem very well. It really is misleading to promote a solution that is so heavily dependent on the problem it purports to solve.

      I was very surprised by the results of my calculations. If Polyface were that dependent on grain, I figured, somebody surely would have raised the issue in the first four years after The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out. It just didn’t make sense that something so deeply nonsensical could go unchallenged in a book that was so widely read.

      I’m still open to the idea that some meat production may be an environmental good, but it’s become clear to me that the arguments will require more nuance than we typically hear from pastured meat advocates. As you say, what we need is an honest discussion.

      • No. 534 said

        You’re welcome, and thank you for your work on this blog. The writing, the tone, the scope and focus, the pacing; all excellent. I hope you don’t mind if I add a few more comments to this entry.
        Regarding the comment you made in your last blog post:

        “It strikes me as not entirely fair to attribute the amount of grain required by Polyface Farm to consumer demand for poultry.”

        I have to agree that it’s troublesome for Salatin to cite shortfalls in his farming practices due to consumer demand. He’s not much different in that respect from industrial farmers that use intensive practices yet acknowledge that they do so because it’s the only feasible way they know of that can possibly provide for the market. This is understandable from any farmer that just wants to keep farming and make a living as best they can, but Salatin is very vocal in his libertarian market idealism and when his system is dependent on grain and industrial breeds of poultry, it’s not so easy to let him off the hook here.

        He really shouldn’t dodge a question of whether consumers should consider changing consumption habits (i.e. eat less meat). There is an associated feed-back loop from plate to farm that drives veering off from his farm ideal and generally forces industrial supply of animal products as well.

        This is perhaps another topic altogether a little outside the range of this blog, but it seems bizarre that Salatin would decide to supply pork to a franchise like Chipotle that creates such industrial pressures on farming due to the nature of selling select parts of animals. Salatin is acutely aware of the issues involved:

        Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms Provides Pork for Chipotle

        Why bother? His ethos was always about feeding neighboring families and providing to local wholly independent restaurants. He didn’t seem concerned about demand for his products in these markets. The partnership with Chipotle could be to combat the local food elitism charge, but Salatin never accepted that accusation and was adamant that regular folks came out in droves to purchase his food. Why attempt fast food with slow food? Was it a decision solely driven by an added revenue stream? I wouldn’t hold this against a farmer, but Salatin seemed so opposed to this type of market consumption. What added pressures are his farm coping with to meet that supply of Chipotle pork?

        Anyway, on to something less speculative…

        I hope I’m not jumping ahead to a blog post you are in the process of writing since you said you would examine comments from other sources in a future post on Polyface’s system, but I can’t help but quote Simon Farlie from his book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance. He’s generally favorable of Polyface Farm and cites examples of laudable practices a few times, and perhaps rightly so, however (emphasis mine):

        Simon Farlie – Meat: A Benign Extravagance:
        “’These are extraordinary levels of production’ says Harvey, in harmony with Pol|an who comments: ‘This seemed to me a truly astonishing amount of food from 100 acres of grass’.”

        “And so it would be, if it all did come from I00 acres of grass; but as any farmer can tell at a glance, it is not just astonishing, it is impossible. I wrote to ]oel Salatin asking him what his feed inputs were and he was kind enough to reply that the beef were completely fed on grass, the broilers got about 15 per cent of their feed from pasture, the egg-layers a little more and the pigs about 25 per cent, though in a good mast season they can get nearly 100 per cent of their feed from acorns. As one would expect, a sizeable proportion of the feed comes from other farms.”

        “With these feed imports comes fertility, to compensate for the fertility that goes out with all the meat that is sold. The carbon and the nitrogen in the feed is fed to the chickens who follow behind the cows, and who deposit it on the ground in the form of manure; some of the carbon may be directly absorbed as organic matter, while the nitrogen enhances grass growth and photosynthesis, which also contributes to soil carbon. Of all the carbon added to Salatin’s pastures over the years, some will have come directly from the atmosphere; but a proportion will have come, directly or indirectly, from another farm in the form of soya, corn or whatever feed Salatin buys in.”

        However productive Polyface may be, it is in a sense only half a farm, and it doesn’t help to analyse the carbon sequestration on one half, without knowing what is happening on the other.

  4. Eric B. said

    Thanks, Adam, for what you said. You said it very well: “It really is misleading to promote a solution that is so heavily dependent on the problem it purports to solve.”

    Thanks, 534, for the great quotes. I think you make a couple really good points and overstate a couple others. I think the strongest point you make is that when Salatin uses chemical fertilizers and herbicides and other pesticides on other farms by proxy, there’s really no value in that. Then again, you make a really strong point, too, with the “we can raise everything we need with any of the industrial food system.”

    I think Salatin didn’t so much his stick his foot in his mouth with the 70% on grass comment, though. I believe all of Salatin’s ruminants (cattle) are 100% grass-fed. His whole farm system may be dependent on the manure fertilizing his grass that he gets from his grain-fed chickens and other animals, but it wouldn’t have to be. Ruminants can be raised on all grass without any grain-fed poultry manure entering the equation, so I think Salatin’s point is valid. Even if he’s chosen to raise chickens with very little sustainable or organic integrity, his point about cattle is still valid.

    As for your point about hay, all types of farming in America today are normally dependent on machines. People use fossil fuel powered machines for all kinds of farming because fossil fuel makes everything cheap. I really can’t see trying to use that fact to make a particular argument against haymaking. Sure, it takes some work to keep cattle, but there’s potentially a lot of return to be had, and a few months of hay can make possible the “process where animals are collecting their own food and doing the work for you” like you talked about. I’ll add something I wrote elsewhere to expand on that point:

    With nothing but pasture and hay for feed I can easily get 500 gallons (if not well over 1000 — commercial grass-fed dairies get more like 2000) of milk per cow per year and raise a bull calf for beef. The daily labor of rotating and watering and milking (and washing rags and filters and jars, etc.) would be 1-2 hours for a cow and calf on tethers. If I were to make all the hay I’d need for the cow by hand (and butcher the calf for meat before I got to the point of needing to feed him hay, too), I’d have another week or so of labor in putting up hay. Is that not an awfully cheap price to pay for all those calories, and especially for all that protein and cooking fat? Even with a tractor, I doubt I could obtain a comparable amount of cooking fat from the same investment of labor in growing sunflowers and home processing of oil (or any other crop if it were more efficient than sunflowers) — and all that skimmed milk and buttermilk and meat would be no small bonus.

    I think prices clearly bear out the truth of these supply-driven arguments for integrating livestock into diversified farms (supplying diverse omnivorous diets). For producing the protein and fat that people need, compare the current dollar cost of an ounce of protein/fat in the form of grass-fed, organic skim milk/butter (or beef) from real family-scale, local farms to the dollar cost of the same protein/fat in the form of organic (not necessarily certified) dry beans/oil from real family-scale, local farms. Supplying those needs in a strictly vegan fashion is so costly (i.e. inefficient, especially without the heavy industrialization and accompanying evils required by the scale necessitated by combines) that vegan options are largely unavailable, but where they can be found aren’t they 2-5 times as expensive per ounce of protein/fat?

    • No. 534 said

      I wasn’t really commenting on Salatin’s 70% ratios in any numerical sense. I think you may be reading into something I’m not getting at. I just quoted his whole block of speech to insure that the context of his concluding sentences was kept. The point of the quote was to demonstrate that he claims that growing grain for livestock in a general sense is a poor use of resources, yet his system is still dependent on such inputs and not in a trivial sense. I’m not claiming that his cattle aren’t grass-fed, but his cattle do require indirect grain inputs for his farming system to run. The negatives are reduced of course, but grain dependence coming to “a screeching halt” is hyperbole.

      Sure, Salatin could raise cattle without the grain based poultry manure, but, he doesn’t, and we’re talking about his farm since it’s heralded as an ideal model by advocates like Pollan. Also, Salatin clearly stated that such a system of only grazing cattle is an inefficient economic use of land. He is essentially saying that only grazing cattle, at least on prime farm land, is wasteful. (Perhaps an argument could still be made for the practice of grazing exclusively on “marginal” land.)

      On haymaking, it’s a minor point that isn’t all that relevant to Salatin other than to demonstrate that crop harvesting of some sort occurs, because the impression is that it doesn’t in the rotational grazing farm. I don’t feel that I was overstating the point, but I think you were picking up that it was a side note amidst the stronger contention examining Salatin’s wording.

      The criticism of haymaking wasn’t that important regarding Polyface Farm, merely a note. Nor was I suggesting that Salatin is required to forgo machinery, although fuel usage here and there does add up and I have seen it argued that grass-feeding cattle requires no machinery whatsoever and that’s supposedly an inherent advantage over harvesting food crops. Perhaps another question for Salatin might be whether all of his hay is from his farm.

      More importantly, Adam did cite an advocate who thought that Salatin’s farming style was ready to transplant to more northern climates along with the idea that so long as cattle are fed grass their feed holds no costs. But further north, the longer the winter, the less pasture year round, and more hay needs to be collected off farm. Harvesting hay is big business and a great deal of energy is already going into the endeavor. It’s a crop. Growers even utilize fertilizers. Even Monsanto has jumped into hay business. This adds to the land and energy requirements that tend to get overlooked since those hay-producing fields are out of sight when looking at cattle on pasture. Sure, a grass-fed advocate will insist that they mean “fed on pasture,” but this isn’t always the practice now, and consumers looking to purchase grass-fed meat and dairy for health aren’t going to pass up on those products just because the hay was trucked in. Likely, they won’t know, or is the case with Polayface’s grain inputs, it gets glossed over.

      Even in your response you made the leap from what happens in a small farm situation to what happens on a large scale dairy with the notion that grass produces all this milk for free, even more in a commercial dairy, but, “nothing but pasture and hay” is not necessarily “nothing” and the larger the dairy, the more hay will need to be imported. It requires land. It requires harvesting. It requires transportation.

      Official reports on the environmental tolls of cattle are often criticized by grass-fed advocates because they feel that if grain-feeding was omitted from the study, the picture would look much better. But those studies do look as grass-feeding practices since all cattle are grass-fed before they reach a feed-lot, and pasture-raising and grass-feeding still contributes, among other things, significantly to the large environmental footprint save for very specific situations. Could pastured cattle be low in impact? Probably, but not everywhere and not with demand for beef and milk as high as it is and growing.

      As for some of the subjects you touched on in your last paragraph.

      • Rationality of food market prices.
      • Ultimate vegan agriculture versus ultimate animal husbandry agriculture.
      • Scalability of such food systems.
      • Efficiency comparison of growing plants versus raising animals.
      • The role of locality in food production and environmental efficiency.
      • Small family farms versus industrial farms.
      • Dietary protein and fat requirements.

      While topical, your conversation directions are tertiary to the focus of original blog post that is more of a reality check on certain claims being made regarding a specific farming system. The scope of your inquires are worthwhile, but you’re just biting off more than I’m willing to chew right now, but thank you for your input on my comment.

      • Eric B. said

        534, thanks for the response. I think you continue to make a lot of good, valid points, although, like you said, there’s a whole lot more “to chew” before those points come to broader applications. I very much agree that Salatin offers a very poor model for sustainability, even by very realistic, present-day standards.

        I suppose it’s Pollan who’s to blame for trying to bring Salatin’s farm model into discussions about vegetarianism. I think it would be foolish of us, however, to perpetuate the value of Salatin’s farm as a model of sustainability, by the standards of livestock farming or any other standards. Should we really expect any of the eating habits of consumers living at the extremes of industrialized society (i.e. Pollan) to lead us to sustainability? (Pollan’s own humanure could largely substitute for grain-fed chicken manure for maintaining the productivity of pastured livestock, but Pollan isn’t going to live in a way so as to make that happen.) My point is that Pollan’s way of life is obviously dependent on the evils of industrialized agriculture. His lifestyle isn’t compatible with an honest pursuit of sustainability. That’s true regardless of any questions about livestock or vegetarianism. So insofar as we’re concerned with an honest pursuit of sustainability, I think we have to get beyond the models of Pollan’s world. We won’t find answers there.

        A technical point about haymaking: haymaking doesn’t generally require extra land and extra “crops” in the way you seem to indicate. In a normal pastured livestock model (and I would guess that even Salatin’s farm falls into this broad category) a given acreage can support a given number of livestock for most of the year. There are, like you say, times when the pasture can’t directly support that number of livestock, but there are also times of year when grass growth tends to exceed the needs of that number of livestock, and that surplus generally covers the deficits. Hay is, of course, a very bulky feed, so it’s very costly to transport, which is the reason most hay-feeding farmers aren’t “trucking in” much hay at all, but instead harvesting it from the same pastures that they graze much of the rest of the year.

        I would note, too, insofar as you’re concerned about the costs of hay production, that less modern breeds of cattle (e.g. traditional longhorn cattle) and less modern species of livestock (e.g. sheep), can often be kept with little or no hay at all. The sheep I’ve kept and the goats I keep would easily survive (and go on to produce offspring, milk and meat, etc.) in my climate (near the Appalachian foothills of NC) without any of the tiny amount of hay I’ve fed. Sure, these efficiencies don’t “make the leap,” as you say, to large scale operations, but small scale beans don’t either, so the failure to “make the leap” really says nothing particularly about livestock.

        Looking at locations further north, as you suggest, it’s even more the case that harvesting efficiency is the big bottleneck, because food/feed for 12 months of living has to all be harvested in the shorter warmer months (unless you herd the cattle south, which isn’t so practical in our world of automobiles, but is still worth consideration in big picture discussions.) So I think the opposite of what you suggest is really true, and if you look at traditional peoples in Scandinavia, Siberia, and Mongolia, etc., I think you’ll see that livestock (with the important exception of wild game) are even more important in the diets of the people than in areas where winters don’t so drastically affect the time that can be spent actually farming.

        Yet another point along those lines: perennial grasses are especially well suited to northern climates. Grass generally grows exceedingly well in cooler climates where soil moisture remains higher through the summer and the decomposition of organic matter is slowed by cold. These kinds of areas generally stay too wet to work the ground for food crops until very late in the spring, but perennial grasses can greatly extend the ability of low impact/traditional farming systems to make use of the short season. The only real substitute is heavily industrialized grain and oilseed farming to deal with the high labor demands of short growing seasons. Obviously, fossil fuels make it possible to push lots of things to extremes (including northern limits of farming), but I think relative advantages do seem to favor livestock (and hay), contrary to what you suggest.

    • Gary said

      These huge milk yields come from intensive breeding to force cows to produce far more milk than normal, which causes chronic discomfort and increases the risk of mastitis. They also come from keeping the cows pregnant and lactating most of their abbreviated adult lives, which is not the case with wild cattle. The high yields from chickens comes from breeding them too grow too big too fast, which strains their organs and skeletons. And so on. If we were to let farmed animals have somewhat normal weights, physiology, and milk and egg production, the yield figures would be considerably lower.

      • Eric B. said

        Gary, the same could be said for corn and soybeans and wheat and on and on… What’s your point? If you’re referring to my example, I’m talking about *very* old-fashioned yields.

  5. […] more recent follow-up post makes the excellent point that I cannot disagree […]

  6. No. 534 said

    Advanced apologies for the delay of my reply, and for some reason I can’t seem to reply directly to Eric. B’s last response (no “Reply” link.)

    Eric. B, your knowledge on haymaking is appreciated, and again it feels like a conversation of ideal versus what’s really going on, because it’s difficult to square best haymaking practice with actual macro numbers.
    US EPA – Major Crops Grown in the United States

    72.7 million acres, $15.1 billion in sales
    ~70% to livestock (“only” ~10% to cattle)

    72.7 million acres, $12.5 billion in sales
    ~80% to livestock

    59.9 million acres, $3.4 billion in sales
    ~99% ruminant food
    (No breakdown given, but grass biofeul didn’t really gained any traction so I’m going to assume it’s not significant, if even a factor)

    53.0 million acres, $5.5 billion in sales
    ~22% to livestock

    Cotton – Textiles

    ~88% to livestock

    Sure, these numbers are large and fuzzy, but we can analyze them reasonably. The top three crops in the US goes towards feeding livestock, and the third largest is grown for the purpose of feeding ruminants. Again, our third largest harvested crop using arable land is for the purpose of growing food for cattle. The next largest crops still have a high percentage going towards livestock.

    Hay is being grown and sold, just like any other crop. Perhaps many ranchers do make their own hay but that’s not the acreage being counted; it’s not a figure of ranchers making hay on their own property and selling it to themselves.

    When Michael Pollan performed his analysis of his McDonald’s meal in The Omnivore Dilemma and visualizes the amounts of corn spilling on the ground, for the cheeseburger he ate he should have imagined a few bales of hay outside of the amount of grass that the beef and dairy cattle consumed on pasture.

    Until the amount of hay harvested for ruminates in the United States is zero, it’s very difficult to contend that grass-feeding cattle exclusively, without very strict definitions on what that entails, is some sort of inherent environmental solution. When Pollan, or anyone else, insists that cattle should exclusively be grass-fed, this would merely drive land demand for cattle and hay production further.

    Joel Salatin was asked whether people should consume less meat, not whether everyone should be vegan. His answer did not need to be some ideological existential examination of life and death, it required a simple response to the real world data.

  7. What grain does Polyface use? Do you have data on that?

    • Jered Morgan said

      Sorry, on exactly how much grain…

    • Adam Merberg said

      There’s data on grain fed to broiler hens but not layer hens, turkeys, or pigs in this post.

    • Melissa said

      We don’t raise many animals that eat grains, but we definitely don’t feed them grains that humans would eat otherwise. Not all the grain crop is fit for human consumption and the levels of mold and other defects allowed in feed is higher. There are also some grains that are very productive, but that humans generally won’t eat like millet.

  8. Tiff said

    What are you talking about “bringing feed grain to polyface”? The whole point is grass fed… this blog post is not making sense to me.

    • Adam Merberg said

      The whole point is that the commonly-held belief that Polyface produces copious amounts of food only from grass is incorrect. Polyface is heavily dependent on grain which feeds the chickens and becomes fertilizer for the pasture. You can find details at the post containing my analysis (which was linked in the first sentence of this post).

  9. Eric B. said

    534, the growing season has been busy, and I just now checked back and found your last comment. Thanks again for the discussion.

    I’m not clear what point you’re trying to make with your most recent comments. You say hay is a crop just like any other crop, but there are some major differences. A very significant percentage of hay is made and fed on the same farm, and I don’t think that could be said of any other crop.

    For a second major difference, even the cheapest commodity grain crops (even before grain prices jumped so much in the last year or two) were costing at least 3-4 times the price per pound of hay (and now it’s a significantly bigger difference.) On a volume basis (price per bushel instead of price per pound), that difference could probably be doubled or tripled again. The result is that even in our era of cheap fossil fuels hay can’t really be shipped very efficiently, and except at the margins it rarely is shipped very far. If hay is sold off the farm at all, it’s mostly sold within the local community.

    Thirdly, there is no such thing as commodity hay. Hay isn’t traded on the Chicago Board of Trade.

    Fourthly, the conventional US hay crop is less than 1% GMO. The top two conventional grain crops are almost entirely GMO.

    So even comparing unsustainable industrialized modern grass/hay farming to unsustainable industrialized modern grain/bean/oilseed farming there are some big differences. And those are reasons not to say that hay is a crop just like any other crop.

    But moving beyond our present unsustainable agriculture and trying to see our way to a more sustainable model, there are even more differences of note between grass+hay farming and grain farming. Most notably, land that is too sloping or too rocky to allow for sustainable grain farming can be grazed and cut for hay. Surely much of the land that is currently in grass would not lend itself to modern (or traditional) grain farming methods. Moreover, much of the land that is currently in annual grain crop production is being farmed at a terrible cost of soil erosion, a cost that perennial grass/hay farming (modern or traditional) could effectively “bring to a screeching halt.”

    And adaptability to smaller scale, more local methods of production is another huge advantage to grass farming. Sure, all modern farming (grass farming included) uses fossil fuels, heavy machinery, etc., but the question should be one of *relative dependence.* Soybeans, for instance, didn’t really exist as a feed crop at all before industrialization. Soybeans are relatively extremely dependent. On the other hand, I could keep a couple milk goats (and eat most of the male offspring) without any need of a tractor or any other fossil-fuel powered equipment. Without any grain supplements or synthetic fertilizers from those 2 nannies I could still expect an average of at least half a gallon per day over the course of the year plus 15 lbs of meat. I might spend an average of half an hour per day keeping those goats, including what little hay I’d make completely by hand — in most parts of the U.S. goats could really get by well enough with leftover fall grass growth and browse, i.e. without any hay at all. Now, an hour might seem like a lot to pay for one gallon of milk, but where’s the comparable vegan model? Who has ever made comparable amounts of tofu from hand-harvested soybeans? So, back to my original point: grass farming would be relatively even more efficient if we were looking at things from a sustainable perspective.

    As for asking Salatin whether people should eat less meat, I’d say that our present unsustainable agriculture makes combine-harvested crops (grain, beans, oilseeds) artificially cheaper than anything else. They are our most industrialized foods/feeds and the things becoming more sustainable will require us to most get away from. Relative to those things, a more sustainable agriculture would make grass-fed meat *relatively* more affordable. More important, I would say, though, is that it would make grass-fed dairy more efficient.

  10. skip said

    Ok let me ask about your comment that polyface farms only creating enough calories to feed 9 people… Even with old numbers this means that each of these nine people must consume 55 eggs 3 chickens and 24 pounds of beef a day… Each of them .. Every day… All year long… Every year. And no theis doesn’t include the turkeys pork and rabbit they will get a share of… So I don’t think they will have room for desert. And polyface does not use grains to rais cows… They use grain to feed chickens and eggs and their waste is used to fertilize land in a very efficient method.. Sooner than later the earth will say enough and without innovators like salatin we will find ourselves without food at all because the current methods are the least sustainable method imaginable.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Reread the post; I didn’t say that Polyface only produces enough calories to feed 9 people. My point was that another author claimed that a 10-acre Polyface-style farm could feed 9 people. Now, even this happens to be a bit low in my opinion (the aforementioned author makes numerous computational errors), but even a more generous estimate shows a substantial caloric loss.

  11. skip said

    Ok I get you now… I have 12 pasture acres that I would love to turn into an income generating lot… Polyface method seems to be my best bet… Rented for crop yields me about 2500 per year…and destroys the land. I have also done hay and made about 3 grand with a boatload of work. (Handling bales a minimum of 4 times) and with a polyface system I could quite possibly earn 35-50k a year and leave my bus driver job to someone who needs it more. I don’t know if its an evolution or revolution of the ag industry but I like that it creates opportunities in a world that is opportunity poor and promotes healthy living, lifestyles, relationships and improved land. I got turned on to the polyface method by the film “food inc”. Its far from perfect but represents a vast improvement toward a sustaining
    Agriculture model… Its a journey after all not a destination. I can see that this is not for everyone. Its requires a diferent kind of farmer. The skill set is a blend of farming marketing and sales. It required that the customer gets to know his farmer and has a deeper relatinship with their food. Ultamatley I see where it will challenge the humanity of the current ag model more and more and the farmers that don’t get on board may find themselves in the minority and maybe even regulated out of business. Even companies like tyson are not immune to this sort of pressure. Mcdonalds folded to the documentary and bagan offering fruits or vegetable alternatives to fries. Japan hasn’t bought our poor quality pork for years now and china just said no more to our beef. Guess there is not a global market for shit in your beef. How long before the industry is forced to evolve. Commercial grain production will be next. Innovation is just a documentary away.

    • Eric B. said

      Skip, as a farmer (that raises poultry and livestock and also grows much of the grain part of my animals’ feed) I’d say the Polyface model may be your best bet if you don’t care about the things that Salatin says we should care about. In other words, as Adam has shown here, Salatin is green-washing conventional grain. Sure, taking cheap, conventional grain and converting it into something that you can sell as a really special, “beyond organic” product is an excellent money-maker, if you can sucker the customers (and there’s a good chance you can.) If you don’t want to build your livelihood on modern American grain farming, though, Salatin hasn’t got much to offer.

  12. punknightsophist said

    “…Polyface Farm may require more calories in grain and soy than it produces in meat…”

    Of course it does. The point of omnivorism is that it makes available calories which otherwise would not be. We can’t eat the grasses that Joel’s cattle eat. Do we extinguish the entire cattle industry and the grasslands that feed them in order to grow plants we CAN eat? Is that responsible, either?

    • Adam Merberg said

      That would all make sense if not for the quite substantial amounts of grain that Salatin’s farm requires. However, if it uses more calories in grain and soy (this does not include those grass calories you’re talking about!) than the farm produces in meat, then his farm actually requires us to farm more land than a system which simply grows plants we can eat. So your comment about extinguishing grasslands to grow plants we can eat makes no sense given the context.

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