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Issue Date: December 15, 2008 | Issue 51 | Volume 80

Truck still has to haul the cows (commentary)

By TRENT LOOS*

*Trent Loos is a rancher, host of the “Loos Tales” radio show, public speaker and founder of Faces of Agriculture, which puts the human element back into food production. Find out more at www.FacesOfAg.com, or e-mail trent@loostales.com.

THERE has been yet another attack on cows, and this time, it was in a front-page article in The New York Times titled, “As more eat meat, a bid to cut emissions.”

The premise of the article was nothing new, which was basically that of how meat consumption is contributing more to global warming than transportation.

When I heard about the article, I was out on the road driving my 2004 one-ton pickup with plans to check the oil at the next fuel-up. Upon seeing all the junk under the hood of a vehicle these days, I determined that a little research was in order.

The first pickup I owned was a 1982 GMC half-ton that I bought new. It got 12 miles to the gallon, about the same as my 2004 pickup does.

I called my dad to ask what the first vehicle he purchased was, and he told me it was a new Chevrolet Malibu in 1964, for which he paid $2,650. He remembers it getting close to 20 mpg.

A recent advertisement said the 2008 Chevy Malibu starts at $19,995, and if you have the midsized motor, you can expect 19 mpg in city driving.

So, tell me, what do all of those wires and computer sensors actually accomplish for us under the hood of these new vehicles? Why, in the past 44 years, have the science and technology invested in the automobile industry not accomplished one darn thing for me or the planet, with the exception of electric windows and more cup holders? More importantly, why does it cost eight times as much to buy a vehicle today than it did 44 years ago?

On the other side of the equation, look at what we have been able to accomplish with the beef cow thanks to science and technology.

In 2004, Dr. Thomas Elam and Dr. Rodney Preston released a report showing that through a combination of research, technology and innovation, the U.S. beef cattle industry has increased beef production per head of cattle by more than 80%.

The two beef industry scientists, who recently wrote a white paper on 50 years of beef technology, said total beef production has doubled — from 13.2 billion to about 27 billion pounds — with a national cattle herd that’s about the same size today as it was in 1955.

In laymen’s terms, that means that we generate the same amount of total beef with 90 million head of cattle that would have required 180 million head just 50 years ago. Fewer resources are now used to provide food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals for an ever-increasing population.

What about the dairy industry? Even greater results have occurred in that arena.

Alvaro Garcia, dairy nutritionist with South Dakota State University, and Jim Linn of the University of Minnesota released a report indicating that today’s dairy herd emits 30% less methane yet produces twice as much total milk as the dairy herd did in 1924. The production of each gallon of milk today results in one-third of the methane that it took to produce a gallon of milk 80 years ago.

Dr. Dale Bauman and colleagues at Cornell University have looked at greenhouse gas emissions and found that 63% less carbon per unit of food produced is emitted today than in 1945.

A complete history of the cost of living for an average citizen of Morris County, N.J., which can be found online, shows that in 1964 — the year my dad’s car cost $2,650, incidentally — ground chuck cost 69 cents/lb. Today, ground chuck costs residents there $3.59/lb. What about milk? In 1964, the average cost of milk was 95 cents/gal., and in 2008, the cost is about $3.50/gal.

So, the bottom line is that meat costs five times more and milk only three-and-a-half times more than in 1964, while the car is eight times more expensive. Meanwhile, cows are using only half of the resources they did in 1964, but cars are still guzzling about the same amount of gas.

I hate to point out the obvious, but one of the above-mentioned industries is showing up regularly at our nation’s capitol with their hands out asking for a bailout.

Meanwhile, the U.S. livestock industry continues to find new ways of staying alive in an economic climate in which no other industry would even try to survive.

It all makes me wonder: If the automobile industry had made the same improvement in fuel efficiency that U.S. agriculture did with the cow, maybe it would not be in this predicament. The greatest irony is that I am now forced to use my inefficient vehicle to haul my efficient cows around the country.

Larry Delver 
VM Agriculture Consulting Ltd. 
Box 11, Site 20, RR9, Calgary, 
Alberta, Canada  T2J 5G5     
      Telephone: (403) 873-
      Cellphone: (403) 605-