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Monday, Nov 04 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT HARGREAVES: Our hills are meant for raising beef, not for growing broccoli

The list is long. Patsy Ouellette ("History shows Kern not really interested in fixing air quality," Oct. 31) claims that animal agriculture -- in particular, cows -- pollutes the environment, consumes grains and soybeans that could be eaten by people, uses land that could be used to grow food for people and misuses antibiotics.

She reports that 12 pounds of grain can be made into 12 loaves of bread, or it can be fed to cattle and produce one pound of beef.

But cows are never fed wheat and little of other grains. Neither are they fed soybeans. Most soybeans go into vegetable oil for human consumption and the protein rich residue is fed to pigs and chickens. Corn makes up no more than 10 percent of the diet of cows, and that's usually only during the last four months of the two years it takes to raise a cow to market.

More grain than this will upset the digestive system of the cow. The primary feed for cows is grass or alfalfa hay; 70 percent of the feed given to cows in this country cannot be digested by people. If the public demanded it, this could be raised to 100 percent.

Cows have a completely different digestive system than do people or chickens. They use microbial fermentation in the rumen to digest their feed.

The primary products of this fermentation are volatile fatty acids. The cows absorb this into the blood and use it as their main source of energy. Very little is released into the atmosphere. The fermentation process also produces all of the protein a cow needs. Cows don't need protein from soybeans or elsewhere.

Overusing antibiotics in cows can kill the microbes responsible for fermentation. Most antibiotics used in animal agriculture are given to pigs and chickens. And most of these antibiotics aren't used in human medicine. Antibiotics aren't all the same. Resistance to one class of antibiotics doesn't transfer to other classes.

Only 10 percent of the land on this planet is suitable for fruits and vegetables. Another 30 percent is unirrigated grassland that can be used for cows and sheep.

Less meat means less food for people, not more. The hills around Bakersfield are prime cattle country. No one will ever grow broccoli there.

As I have written previously, today's dairies have come a long way in controlling pollution. Methane digesters are only one way of preventing the release of methane and ammonia. Most dairies prevent this by regularly placing their manure on crops.

Waste water from the dairies irrigates the crops and washes the manure into the ground. The crop roots take up the manure before it can release methane. The crops then use it to make carbohydrates and proteins.

Yes, Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but we don't have to eat less meat to do it. We would be better off eating less bread and sugar cereals.

Robert C. Hargreaves is a retired veterinarian formerly with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.

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