2012 - %3, July

Should You Buy Beef to Help US Ranchers Survive the Drought?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Meet the Vintons, a ranching family in the Sandhills region of northeast Nebraska. Last week I spoke to Sherry, the smart, friendly matriarch of the family (in red). She began ranching 30 years ago, shortly after marrying her husband Chris (in brown), whose family has worked this land for five generations. Today, Sherry and Chris run the operation with help from their two grown children and their spouses. Their youngest daughter (front and center) is in college. Photo appears courtesy of the Vinton familyPhoto appears courtesy of the Vinton family

So far this year, the Vintons' ranch has received less than two inches of rain. In a typical year, it would have gotten eight or nine by now. When I asked Sherry to describe the difference between a typical year and this drought year, she sent me a set of photos taken by one of her daughters. Here's a view of her pasture from August 2007:

Photo by Jessica Vinton TaylorPhoto by Jessica Vinton TaylorAnd this photo of the same pasture was taken this summer:
Photo by Jessica Vinton TaylorPhoto by Jessica Vinton Taylor

The Vintons' ranch is a cow-calf operation, which means that they keep a herd of mother cows who give birth to beef calves. All told, the Vintons have about 1,500 head of cattle, though the number varies. In a good year, most of the mother cows will give birth to calves in the spring. The Vintons will keep the young calves around till the following September, by which time they'll have gained enough weight to fetch a good price; a good slaughter weight is about 1,200 pounds. 

But in order to gain that weight, the young calves need to eat a lot, either on pasture or in feed composed of hay, corn, and other grain. In a drought year, pasture is scarce, and grain is expensive. In drought years, keeping the calves around until they reach market weight isn't cost effective, since it costs so much to feed them. It's also important to keep enough grass for the mother cows so that they'll continue to be healthy and productive in the long term.

So all winter and spring, it's a guessing game: Will the drought end in time for the rancher to be able to afford to keep the mother cows healthy and the babies growing? Or will they have to sell some so that the remaining animals have enough to eat? And if they do keep them around, will they be able to afford feed once the pasture is gone?

This year for the Vintons, unfortunately the answer was pretty clear. "This drought is so widespread that it is going to be difficult to find feed," Sherry told me. "And feed is very expensive." Already the Vintons have sold three truckloads of cattle to ranchers in Texas who haven't been hit as hard by the drought. Some of the animals they sold were pregnant cows—a tough decision, says Sherry, since they lose money both on the cow and the calf it would have given birth to. As for the yearling calves, by selling them now instead of in September, they'll lose about $350 per animal. Sherry estimates that before the drought is over, they'll have to reduce their herd size by 43 percent. "And it could be worse than that," she says. "We have a pretty good sense that this is going to extend through October. There is no relief in sight."

There's a lot of guesswork that goes into making these decisions. But weather forecasts and news about the droughts in other regions help a lot. In earlier years, Vinton told me, she and her husband relied on predictions in monthly farming publications. Now they use this web-based map from the US government that allows them to see conditions all across the United States (an interactive version is here):

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.The US Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

Sherry has been through other tough years: '88, '95, and '02 were all very dry. But nothing as long-lasting or widespread as this. "This drought has become very severe very fast," she says. "That's one of the things that’s different about it."

David Anderson, a livestock economist with Texas A&M University's ag extension, agrees: This year is drier and hotter than anything he can remember. "As this drought gets worse, where can those cows go?" says Anderson. "There is no place for them to go but to slaughter." Anderson notes that slaughtering decisions can have long-term consequences. Conception rates among mother cows are typically lower in the year following a drought. What's more, ranchers spend a lot of time and resources perfecting the genetics of their herd—ensuring that the mother cows are bred to be productive and the steers to yield high quantities of valuable meat. If ranchers have to send a large portion of their herd to slaughter, they lose valuable breeding resources. 

Of course, all this affects the price of beef. Last week, the Climate Desk's James West reported that many foods—milk, eggs, chicken, and bread—will become more expensive in the coming months because of the drought. Interestingly, says Anderson, beef prices will actually take a nosedive in the short term—say, through September. Since so many ranchers are being forced to sell their cows right now, the market will be flooded with beef. But after that, there will be a scarcity, so the prices will rise again.

So should you buy beef to support the ranchers through the drought? It's a really tough question. From a purely environmental standpoint, the answer is probably no. In terms of energy use, emissions, and waste production, beef—especially the conventionally raised kind—has a bigger footprint than almost any other meat. Hardline environmentalists recommend against eating any beef at all.

But I think it's more complicated than that. As I wrote in this column a few years back, grazing animals, if managed correctly, can actually enhance the land. Unfortunately, the way the beef industry is structured now, most ranchers can't afford to keep their animals on pasture for their entire lives. It's simply too expensive. That said, ranchers like the Vintons put an enormous amount of time and effort into caring for the land—they have to, in order to ensure that their ranch is profitable in years to come. Without grass, there would be no cows.

The truth is that if droughts like this continue in the years to come, it's going to be harder and harder for families like the Vintons to care for the land. Since pasture will become even more scarce, they'll have to feed grain—which is much worse for the environment than grass. The evidence that recent droughts and heat waves are linked to climate change is piling up. As my colleague Kate Sheppard wrote recently, one study placed the odds of this year's extreme heat happening without climate change at 1 in 1.6 million.

So to help ensure that droughts like this don't become the new norm, the best thing you can probably do for America's ranchers is to help curb climate change. Aside from that, you can buy American beef rather than the cheap imports from South America, which tend to drive prices down.

In the meantime, Sherry and her family will be closely monitoring the drought map and hoping that this year's dry weather finally gives way to rain, she says. "I'd be lying if I didn't say this made me nervous about providing for our family."

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Folk Singer Chris Smither's "Basic Simplicity"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Chris Smither performs at New York's Highline Ballroom on Thursday, July 12.

Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room. 

"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.

Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.

Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.

"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.

Is the Natural Gas Industry Buying Academics?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would reexamine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which can be traced to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job creator.

One coauthor of the study, Robert Chase, is prominent enough within the state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chairman called Chase "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry" and questioned his potential conflicts of interest. As landowners in natural-gas-rich states like Texas and Ohio struggle to decipher conflicting reports about the safety of fracking, Chase is a piece in what environmental and academic watchdogs call a growing puzzle of industry-funded fracking research with poor disclosure and dubious objectivity.

"It's hard to find someone who's truly independent and doesn't have at least one iron in the fire," said Ohio oil and gas lease attorney Mark F. Okey. "It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own." 

"It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own."

Chase got his petroleum engineering Ph.D. from Penn State University. In 2009, long after Chase left the university, it came under fire for a fracking report, widely cited by state politicians as evidence for opening up the fracking market, which an in-house investigator said "crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy." Early in his career, Chase worked as a consultant for many of the nation's biggest oil and gas developers, including Halliburton, Cabot, and EQT. In 1978 he began teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College, the small Ohio liberal arts school where he remains on faculty today. In 2008, Ohio's then-Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him to the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission, an independent judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state's Division of Mineral Resources Management. And last year, he founded his own consultancy, Chaseland LLC, that helps connect landowners with gas companies seeking drilling rights, for which Chase collects a commission.

Global Warming: "Humans Are Almost Entirely the Cause"

| Sun Jul. 29, 2012 2:10 PM EDT

Climate skeptic Richard Muller, who started up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature in 2010 in order to get at the real truth of climate change, last year published preliminary results showing that the climate establishment was right after all. Global temperatures really have been going up dramatically over the past century. Today he says more:

I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

....The historic temperature pattern we observed has abrupt dips that match the emissions of known explosive volcanic eruptions; the particulates from such events reflect sunlight, make for beautiful sunsets and cool the earth’s surface for a few years. There are small, rapid variations attributable to El Niño and other ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream; because of such oscillations, the “flattening” of the recent temperature rise that some people claim is not, in our view, statistically significant. What has caused the gradual but systematic rise of two and a half degrees? We tried fitting the shape to simple math functions (exponentials, polynomials), to solar activity and even to rising functions like world population. By far the best match was to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice.

....The careful analysis by our team is laid out in five scientific papers now online at BerkeleyEarth.org. That site also shows our chart of temperature from 1753 to the present, with its clear fingerprint of volcanoes and carbon dioxide, but containing no component that matches solar activity. Four of our papers have undergone extensive scrutiny by the scientific community, and the newest, a paper with the analysis of the human component, is now posted, along with the data and computer programs used.

Actually, Muller's new paper doesn't appear to be online yet. It's going up tomorrow. When it does, I'll take a look at it and post their charts for you.

However, as near as I can tell, climate skeptics, including those who said they'd trust Muller's results no matter what they showed, haven't budged an inch since he published his initial papers last year. I doubt his new paper will change their minds either. That's no surprise, since this has long since ceased being a scientific controversy. Climate skeptics are skeptics because they don't like the idea of global warming, not because there's truly any evidence that it doesn't exist. It's politically inconvenient, economically inconvenient, and personally inconvenient, so they don't want to hear about it.

I wish I knew what more we could do about this. It's pretty plainly the biggest problem facing the human race at the moment. By comparison, everything else is about like arguing over whether the deck chairs on the Titanic will help keep people afloat when the ship sinks: obviously they won't, but the debate acts as a nice distraction. But if people don't want to believe for reasons of personal/political/economic self-interest, how do you convince them? What kind of self-interest can we fight back with? Because at this point, it's pretty obvious that neither science nor the future of our grandchildren is enough.

Romneyshambles Continues in Israel

| Sun Jul. 29, 2012 10:28 AM EDT

This has got to be a joke. After the Romneyshambles debacle of his trip to Britain, surely Mitt could at least visit Israel without sticking his foot in his mouth? Apparently not:

An adviser's vague remark to reporters here left the press scrambling for nearly three hours this morning to determine whether Romney had promised to commit American forces or other support to a hypothetical Israel strike on Iran....Romney foreign policy advisor Dan Senor briefed the press on Sunday morning, saying, “if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision."

The headline that hit news outlets across the globe by the Associated Press was: "Adviser: Romney would back strike against Iran," implying, perhaps, that the U.S. could contribute forces to such a strike. Reuters ran with: "Romney backs Israel if needs to strike Iran: aide says." Bloomberg's headline: "Romney Says He'd Back Unilateral Israeli Strike on Iran."

....The Romney campaign, meanwhile, went dark, with much of his top staff asleep in Boston or in meetings with Israeli leaders, as an international firestorm built over how Senor's comments were being interpreted.

About three hours later, however, aides distributed a comment by Senor clarifying his remarks.

How could the Romney campaign possibly be this underprepared for its first big international outing? Dan Senor has been involved with foreign policy for two decades, and the Romney campaign is jam-packed with people who know the contours of Middle East policy inside out and know exactly which words you can use and which ones you can't. What's going on?

R.I.P. Inkblot

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 10:09 PM EDT

I hate to write this post, but all of you have been part of Inkblot's life for so long that I can hardly not do it. One of our neighbors saw the flyers we posted around the neighborhood and called a few minutes ago to tell us that she had seen the body of a cat nearby. We went out to look, and it was Inkblot. There wasn't much question about the ID.

From the evidence, it looks like he got killed by a coyote. And he hadn't wandered very far after all. The remains were only a couple hundred feet from our house.

This is sad, sad news. But I want to thank everyone who sent kind thoughts our way, either via comments or email. He will be remembered.

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YouTube Technical Bleg

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 3:25 PM EDT

Here's a puzzler: my browser no longer plays YouTube videos. On Thursday they suddenly stopped working on both Firefox and Opera. IE still worked, though. Today, Firefox started working again, but Opera still doesn't. I just get a big black rectangle with no controls.

Anyone know what this could be? Ad blocking doesn't seem to be the problem. My laptop still works fine using the same browser version I have on the desktop. I rebooted, of course. I don't recall installing or updating anything on Thursday. Other video sites still work fine. Only YouTube doesn't work.

And here's something else weird. When I embed YouTube videos in the blog, the normal embed codes don't work. I just get the black rectangle. But the old YouTube embed code displays fine:

  • Doesn't work: <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/watch/xxx">
  • Doesn't work: <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/xxx"> 
  • Works!          <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/v/xxx">

I've racked my brain and I can't think of what else to try. What did I do to anger the YouTube gods?

An Olympic Tribute to the NHS? Really?

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 11:02 AM EDT

I'm a lifelong liberal. I think it would be great if the United States adopted some kind of genuine national healthcare program. It's probably my single biggest domestic policy obsession, and I assume many of my readers feel the same way.

Even so, I've got to ask: am I the only one who was a bit gobsmacked at the lengthy tribute to the NHS during the opening ceremonies at the Olympics last night? The NHS? Seriously?

Also: I heard a lot of complaining on Twitter about the NBC commentary during the first hour or so of the show. But I have to tell you, if it weren't for that commentary I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. That was Glastonbury Tor? Really? And when the tree rose out of the ground and all those grimy folks came marching out, would I have figured out that this marked the transition from agrarian England to the Industrial Age? No siree. (As for the dancing plutocrats, I'm at a loss for words.) Nor would I have figured out that the Frankie and June segment was supposed to represent yet another transition, this time into the digital age. (And was it really supposed to also represent a transition from nightmares of one kind to a "parent's nightmare" of a different kind? Was that actually Danny Boyle's intent, or did the NBC guys just make that up?)

I dunno. I wasn't a fan of the Beijing opening ceremonies, which frankly struck me as a message that the synchronized hordes of the Middle Kingdom would destroy the decadent West before long. So I was happy to see the decadent West strike back with something a bit more chaotic and free form. The opening lines from Shakespeare were a nice, understated rebuttal to Beijing. But I'd still opt for a show that you could mostly understand without it being explained in real time.

Bibi Tosses Mitt Under the Bus

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 9:42 AM EDT

From a profile of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the current issue of Vanity Fair:

“Israel’s current prime minister is not just a friend, he’s an old friend,” Mitt Romney, with whom Netanyahu worked at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, told AIPAC in March. (Romney, Netanyahu suggests, may have overstated the tie. “I remember him for sure, but I don’t think we had any particular connections,” he tells me. “I knew him and he knew me, I suppose.”)

Netanyahu’s encounters with President Obama have been marked by slights, misunderstandings, mutual suspicion, and downright distaste. One Obama aide says they keep hearing Netanyahu has evolved but have yet to see any signs of it. At home, Netanyahu scores points with his every slight of Obama, to whom the Israelis have never warmed. But Netanyahu insists his relationship with Obama is friendlier than it has been portrayed. They are, he tells me, “two people who appreciate the savviness and strength of the other.”

What's interesting here isn't that Romney appears to have exaggerated his relationship with Netanyahu. That's a political misdemeanor. What's interesting is that Netanyahu seems to be thoroughly uninterested in backing up Romney even a little bit. Mitt Romney? Yeah, I guess I'd recognize him if we passed on the street. He's the one with the good hair, right?

At the same time, he insists that his relationship with Obama is better than we think. This is probably just normal politics — why diss the American president in public, after all? — but it's still an interesting juxtaposition. The interview took place in March, when Romney hadn't quite locked up the Republican nomination, but even then he was the pretty obvious frontrunner. And Netanyahu is too savvy a politician to say this kind of thing by accident, even given the famous Israeli reputation for bluntness. So why throw him under the bus like that? Is it because Netanyahu has decided Romney has no chance of winning, so there's no point in sucking up to him? Or what?

"Step Up Revolution": Batman Turned Upside Down

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 3:27 PM EDT

Step Up Revolution
Lionsgate
100 minutes

For an hour and forty minutes, this movie wages a jihad on the human capacity for patience. It's the aggravating cinematic equivalent of playing Dance Dance Revolution with far too many middle-schoolers, all of whom are tripping balls on Gorilla Glue. It's a paper-thin, stodgily choreographed, criminally acted exercise in how many people from season six of So You Think You Can Dance you can legally fit into one movie.

It's also a sap-sodden love letter to the working class (in 3D): Coursing through the veins of Step Up's cookie-cutter plot is the moral message of impoverished masses rescuing society from excesses of the mega-wealthy. Politically, it is the exact inverse of The Dark Knight Rises. [Mild spoilers to follow.]