Written by Mickey Goodman
Before heading out to do a myriad of chores, first generation farmer Fred Gretsch of Gretsch Brothers Angus strolls among his cattle herd on his bucolic farm in Crawford, Ga., talking softly to his favorites who come to greet him. “I want to make sure my cattle have the three essentials necessary to lead a happy, healthy life: food, water and plenty of shade from the intense Georgia sun,” he says.
Until 2005, he raised chicken, hogs and cows but the family fell in love with cattle and decided to make raising cattle their focus. With that change, Gretsch joined the ranks of 90% of the 800,000 cattle ranches in the U.S. that are family-owned and negated the misconception that American beef comes from “factory farms”. Far from it, in fact. With an average herd size of only 40,(1) American cattle farmers produce nearly 17% of the world’s beef with just 6% of the world’s cattle and have become known as world leaders in sustainable beef production.(2)
“On our farm, it all begins with genetics,” Gretsch says. “My goal is to build a reputation for raising cattle in an ethical and humane way to produce beef that is well marbled, juicy, tender and full of flavor to be served in homes and restaurants like my G Brand BBQ in Crawford. It’s good for the animal, good for the environment and good for the consumer.” This is the mindset of cattle producers throughout the U.S. who share a commitment to treating their land and animals with the utmost care.
Cattle have a unique digestive system that allow them to upcycle plants that humans can’t eat and turn them into high-quality beef that generates more protein for the food supply than would exist without them.(3,4) After cattle eat, they add manure to the soil, which increases the organic matter, contributing to soil health and helping native plants and animals flourish. These grazing practices employed by the Gretsch family allows the land to flourish and leaves it healthier than when they found it.
According to Gretsch, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the cattle and the land. “As cattle graze, they clip grass like a lawnmower and break down roots which regenerate, making the land more porous,” he says. “That aids in water retention and prevents runoff that creates storm water problems.” For example, Gretsch fenced off ponds to prevent the cattle from kicking up dust or leaving waste in or near the water, avoiding pollution. “Within a short time after the cleanup, the pond attracted wildlife like waterfowl, deer and muskrats, and we have a healthy fish population,” he says. The land used for cattle farming is home to hundreds of animal species throughout the country, allowing wildlife and cattle to share a habitat.
The environmental techniques Gretsch uses on the farm translate to good practices at G Brand BBQ where he serves his own beef and locally sourced chicken and pork prepared on two large smokers stoked with hickory wood from the farm. “Our headliner is brisket and since we strive for zero waste, we grind the leftovers into brisket hamburger for stew at the end of a shift,” he says. “It’s become so popular with customers that we make 65 gallons every weekend.”
Like Gretsch’s farm, G Brand BBQ is a good steward of the environment. Aside from reducing food waste, customers are provided with compostable paper plates, cups and bowls instead of Styrofoam, despite the added expense to the restaurant. Gretsch highlights that the decision was easy because it keeps waste out of landfills and conserves water by reducing dishwashing.
But to Gretsch, one of the best parts of owning both the farm and the restaurant is sharing the story of where beef comes from with customers. “I want people to feel good about the food choices they make,” he says. “We like to answer questions and dispel myths.”
One question that keeps popping up is the myth that cattle are a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In reality, they only account for 2%.(5) In contrast, transportation accounts for 29% of GHG emissions and electricity accounts for nearly 25%.
The scientific techniques used today are cutting edge, but hundreds of thousands of family-owned beef cattle ranchers like Fred Gretsch have been at the forefront of sustainability for decades. That success is due to the dedication of cattle producers and decades of research and innovation that resulted in enhanced land management, improved cattle genetics and more precise animal nutrition.
Consumers today can enjoy a steak, burger or brisket with the confidence that the product on their plates was brought to market with a keen focus on environmental, economic and social sustainability from families just like Gretsch’s.
1. USDA-NASS. 2017. Census of Agriculture. Farm Typology
2. UN FAO. 2021. FAOSTAT Database- Data
3. Baber, J.R. et al., 2018. Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution, and enteric methane production from beef production in the United States. Trans. Anim. Sci. 2(4): 439-450.
4. Broocks et. al. 2017. Corn as Cattle Feed vs. Human Food. Oklahoma State University
5. EPA. 2021. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2019. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. Barry, Sheila. 2021.
6. Beef Cattle Grazing More Help than Harm for Endangered Plants and Animals.
What’s the beef with beef?
Myth: Cattle are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Fact: The EPA reports that cattle responsible for only 2% of emissions. Instead, they perform important ecosystem services like preserving open spaces for humans to enjoy, providing wildlife habitats and improving water quality.
Myth: Cattle compete with people for food.
Fact: Approximately 90% of what cattle eat is forage and plant leftovers that people can’t eat, but they can use their unique digestive system to turn it into high-quality protein for humans – Beef!(5)
Myth: Cattle degrade land.
Fact: Cattle provide important ecosystem services, such as preserving open spaces and providing habitat for wildlife. (6)