Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World:
How Regenerative Grazing Can Restore Soils and Stabilize the Climate
Written by Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledge
Reviewed by Jason Detzel
The book is split into three parts. The first and largest section, “Impacts of Regenerative Grazing,” outlines the proven regenerative methods and advantages that can exist for both growers and consumers. These chapters consist of broad explanations and examples of how regenerative agriculture is currently integrated (or not integrated) into our existing food system. The chapter goes on to demonstrate how regenerative methods can continue to gain ground, and most extensively and importantly, it outlines how the typical domestic consumer is currently being sold a product that likely is not what it says, did not come from where they think it does, doesn’t meet the indicated nutritional and environmental criteria espoused by the label, and is a net loss for the animal, the consumer, and the grower. Shinn and Pledger are spot on with this analysis and this is an excellent starting point for those who would like to learn more about how most beef gets to the kitchen table.
The first half of this section is in line with the title of the book, and I feel that Shinn and Pledger achieve their presumed goal of providing a 30,000-foot understanding of the production and consumer issues in regenerative grazing. This book is very good at introducing the talking points necessary to understand this issue from a consumer standpoint. I can agree with most things in this book, and it is refreshing that they provide many footnotes to back up the claims in the chapters. The authors provide science-based evidence for the benefits of regenerative agriculture. In other words, if you (as I do) feel that meat is an integral part of existing as a human being, the authors systematically outline why you should choose animals raised in this manner, counteract the misinformation surrounding current ruminant production on earth, and offer a roadmap to understand the applied methods of regenerative grazing.
The second half of the section is dedicated to the health benefits of eating grass-fed animals and the unique animal welfare issues inherent in growing animals for food. There is no doubt that there are both environmental and health benefits to eating regeneratively produced food, but I found myself skipping through the chapter to wonder what happened to the outrage and inspiration that peppered the first half of the book. I thought, what does healthy eating have to do with the post-pandemic world or with building a secure food system? It is all too easy to judge someone based on what they eat, and you are what you eat is more than a saying, it is a limitation since what you eat is more often a function of what you can afford and have access to than what is healthy. I don’t judge anyone for eating twinkies or conventional beef, but I fear that this type of fact-bombing about the benefits of a product that is largely out of reach for most of the population can devolve into discrimination.
I felt the same way about the animal welfare section. This is well-worn territory and as a grower and consumer with a keen interest in grass-fed beef and politics, I found this section to be preaching the same info to the same choir. Animal welfare, ruminant sense, and the cognitive function of animals are vital to understanding our agricultural system; but I am not sure I understand the function of this particular topic here in the book. Just because you claim a ranch is regenerative does not mean the animal was raised humanely or that the product will deliver any health benefits.
I fear that the authors may be selling the word regenerative as a solution to the world's bad beef in this section. The footnotes and commitment to citing sources and providing additional materials are a great addition, but the source material is a bit outdated and redundant. There are all kinds of global growers providing input and experimenting with low-stress livestock handling and regenerative practices. I feel like a focus on these new ideas and techniques (e.g. fence line weaning) would go a long way in helping the reader understand that grazing is not a static topic.
The second section, “Keys to Success” provides basic best practice procedures for those who take the plunge into ranching. Farming is a demanding and difficult business enterprise as the farmer is charged with both production and marketing of the products. Add breakdowns, payment processing issues, and the cattle getting out at three am on a Sunday night (I assure you, as I do with all farmers and ranchers, that it will happen) and you have a perfect recipe for burnout. The authors provide some applied tips from both the production and marketing sides of grazing.
The chapters include a general discussion on profitability, winter feeding, finishing cattle on perennial plants, as well as fencing, and pasture management. This section serves as a primer for those who are interested in learning some of the salient husbandry issues necessary to raise livestock. It serves the reader in that it illuminates many issues that farmers must deal with, but these topics are vast and varied. Moreso, they are unique to every single different piece of property and grazing personality.
When I taught our comprehensive grazing courses at Cornell, these topics would take hours to cover. Here, Shinn and Pledger complete the topic in one paragraph. This is just enough to signal to the reader that this is a vital applied aspect of the grazing program but not enough to initiate the personalized decision-making process that every farm must face. This book is not built upon a functional backbone because it was never meant to cover all that information. This book covers the big picture and the authors have done their best to condense this expansive topic. I appreciate the theme and presentation that the authors have provided, but I worry that someone who is in that dreaming of farming phase will pick up this book looking for answers.
The final section of the book is labeled “Remaining Challenges." This was my favorite chapter of the book. Here lies a blueprint for a call to action for those who wish to eat better for the better. Shinn and Pledger do excellent work in this breakdown and analysis of the current issues that are holding regenerative grazing in the niche. This is also the area where the pandemic finally makes a palpable impact. Many routine procedures such as the timely processing and delivery of animals were severely impacted by the pandemic. Most of our State and Federal systems were stressed to the point of ineffectiveness (many would argue this problem began decades ago). Despite the lag in regulatory information for farmers, folks still need to eat and consumers were forced to seek food from outside their typical channels farmer’s markets and on-farm stores were ready and able to step up and fill the gap. Sounds easy right?
From the 30,000-foot view, it seems that the cards are stacked against the small grower. The authors do a great job of explaining the many roadblocks and issues that stymy farmers and ranchers. Lab-grown meat, Country of Origin labels, processing bottlenecks, and a pacified and busy public all contribute to the demise of the small farmer and rancher. This section shines and the authors hit their stride by presenting the big-picture view of our failed agricultural state and offering some solutions. Shinn and Pledger are at home here in the muck but work in tandem to counteract the seemingly hopeless situation run by politics and big business to move the reader a step in the right direction.
This is an excellent book If you are seeking a global understanding of regenerative grazing and how this recent pandemic exacerbated our system which is built on efficiencies rather than qualities and consequences. The authors touch on the fact that not all grass-fed meat is alike and that big business has already latched onto and adjusted many of these ag buzzwords to drive up profits. Ultimately, I agree with the authors in their sentiment that we can all improve this world and those who live in it.