Raising Sustainable, Grass-Fed Beef? There Is, of Course, Even an App for That
PastureMap hopes to reduce the costs and uncertainties associated with raising cows on open fields, rather than on a feedlot.
There are two ways to raise cattle. One is to cram cows into a feedlot, pump them full of food, hormones, and antibiotics, and slaughter at 12 to 14 months. The other is to send cows to pasture and wait two years while the animals chew grass and fatten naturally.
It's obvious which option tastes better and is more humane--but also which is more expensive. There are reasons why there's still relatively little grass-fed cattle across the country. It takes more time, it's more risky, and farmers have to manage open land rather than a controlled environment. They need to ensure grass is always available and that the soil isn't degrading under hoof or because of the weather.
Raising cattle was more of an art than a science.
PastureMap is a mobile app from two Stanford University graduates. It aims to help more farmers take the sustainable option by making pasture management more straightforward. For example, ranchers can trace their paddocks by running a finger over a Google satellite map. Or, they can geotag photos of grassland to make quick notes about its quality. Or, they can make predictions about how long to graze animals based on their observations and soil and weather data pulled in from the USDA.
"The typical way that ranchers would make stocking decisions [of where to put cattle] is through experience and how their father and grandfather did it. It was more of an art than a science," says Christine Su, who's developing the app with her friend Jennifer Tsau.
"In a drought like the one in California, if they're off in their estimates, it means they either have to cull their herd or supplement it with a lot of hay, which is expensive."
The app, which is currently being tested in private beta with 15 ranchers, establishes a baseline of the amount of grass a paddock should be producing, then lets farmers rate its real condition on a scale of one to 10. That way, they can compare potential with reality, and make a decision about whether to continue to graze, or take livestock to a new area.
The app recently won first prize at the CommonBond Social Impact Award, which is given to MBA students developing socially useful ideas. Su and Tsau, who've formed a company called Summer Technologies, plan to release a public version in November.
CommonBond is itself an interesting company. Part of a new wave of financial start-ups, it collects cash from individual investors, then loans it to MBA graduates who are willing to consolidate their debt and make automatic repayments. The Brooklyn-based outfit claims to offer lower rates than banks and to have a "strong social mission." For every degree it funds in the U.S., it sponsors another in the developing world, following the one-for-one model developed by Tom's Shoes. It was founded by David Klein, Michael Taormina and Jessup Shean, who met at Wharton Business School.
Klein says the stereotype of avaricious MBA graduates only interested in their own advancement is no longer accurate. The 600 applications CommonBond received for its award proves it, as does plenty of other evidence. "The stereotype about MBAs is more the exception than the rule now. Millennials are very interested in using business as a driver for social good. Our award is a reflection of that."