Demand for beef remains on a steady decline. There are many reasons for this, some rational (convenience, price, consistency, cheaper alternatives) and some not. In the nonsensical column fall the "philosophical" reasons that make some consumers feel it is "wrong" to eat beef.

Probably the silliest is that eating beef "destroys the rain forest." This idea stems from the fact that South American rain forest is often cleared to create pasture (or it becomes pasture after the fragile rainforest soil has been exhausted by cropping).

Actually, only about 1% of the U.S. beef supply comes from South America. Due to Hoof And Mouth disease restrictions, this beef must be cooked and canned. (Argentina was recently declared to have Hoof And Mouth-free areas, but Argentina has no rain forest.)

It Makes Environmental Sense The reality is that if you eat fresh beef, you are not contributing to deforestation. However, you might be helping ease landfill problems.

In the feedlot sector I have essentially evolved as a by-product specialist, and philosophically feel very good about it. I do a great deal of work for feedlots near major metropolitan areas where fibrous foods and industrial by-products would create major disposal problems.

Instead, we've taken such items as whey, coffee grounds, candy, cardboard, onions, beet tops, chili powder, peanut hulls, potato waste, various fruit pomace products, as well as the usual brewery and bakery waste ingredients, and incorporated them into useful cattle rations.

Of course, not all cattle are fed by-products. Most are fed grain. With many well-meaning people, this is another bone of contention. Many urbanites genuinely believe this takes grain away from starving people in Third World countries.

Once again, this is not consistent with reality. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman recently requested that 20% of our cropland be put into the Conservation Reserve Program; in other words, taken out of production. The current domestic farm crisis stems from the fact that the world is awash in grain.

Earlier this year, I did some work in China. Years ago, China had food shortages. Today, through the privatization of agriculture, China has surpluses.

During my China visit, the wheat harvest was so large they didn't know what to do with it. Storage was inadequate to keep it for domestic use, and transportation was inadequate for export. Cattle feeding was being considered as an option.

But not all cattle in China are fed grain. As in the U.S., by-products come into play. China has an enormous cow herd that is maintained to dispose of billions of tons of rice and wheat straw. This material would otherwise have to be burned, thus creating an environmental problem.

Once again, teaching the Chinese how to treat the straw (with ammonia) made me feel good to be part of the cattle industry. The fact is that cattle, when managed properly, can have a positive impact on the environment.

Misunderstanding Within Our Ranks Many folks within our own industry do not truly understand why we feed grain to feedlot cattle. Many cattlemen believe grain is fed to enhance the flavor of beef. Not true. Grain is fed to decrease the cost of gain. Grain contains much more energy than forages.

As a crude example, feed conversions on grain run about 7.5:1. At a current cost of about $80/ton, the feed cost of gain would be about 30 cents/lb. (this excludes interest, vet expense, etc.). If we fed hay, the conversion would be more on the order of about 20:1. At $60/ton, the cost of gain on paper would be twice as much (about 60 cents/lb.). In reality, it would be even higher than that.

The reason is the cattle on grain would gain roughly 3 lbs./day. The cattle on hay, no more than 1 lb./day. In essence, it would take three times as long, and thus we would have three times as much interest and yardage expense (as well as more exposure for death loss).

This brings us to the fallacy that some people tell us we should "grass fatten" our cattle. On good quality grass, cattle can gain from 1.25 to 1.75 lbs./day - but only for about five months out of the year (during the growing season). During winter in most areas, those cattle would stand still or even lose weight. Instead of 150 days in the feedlot on a grain diet, grass fattening would take two to three years.

It also means we would have to cut down on the cow herd, to make room for the slaughter cattle that are usually hauled off as calves or yearlings. The bottom line is that if we went to "grass fattening" we would only be able to produce 30 to 40% as much beef as we do today.

The fact is that grain feeding is not an extravagant practice of an affluent nation. It is a practical, efficient method of production that increases the supply of beef, while decreasing the cost.

ITEM: On page 27 of the December issue, Dr. David Steffen responds to my October column on "polio." He states that the lack of response to oral thiamine may be due to sulfate toxicity. He further states the symptoms and pathology are similar.

This is incorrect. The symptoms are substantially different. Only the pathology is similar. Dietary thiamine is not prophylactic for true polioencephalomalacia, and can occur on well balanced rations. Sulfate toxicity requires contamination or formulation error.