Last week, I headed to Texas as a guest of the Beef Checkoff to learn about cattle ranching. I went to witness where our food comes from, to learn about how agriculture is changing, and to banish the fear in my purchasing decisions. Fear and guilt should have no place at the table at meal time. For the same reasons, I’ve been on other farm trips in the past few years and have learned about hog farming, dairy farming, and corn farming.
There are so many choices in the butcher case nowadays that the simple decision of buying a steak becomes overwhelming. Should I buy grass fed? Organic? Local? Conventional? Is Certified Angus better than prime? What about dry aged? It’s almost enough to suck the joy out of a great steak.
We are a family of beef lovers. Dinner at a churrasqueria is our favorite way to celebrate a special occasion. Even my two year old knows how to operate the silver tongues to grab the meat as the costumed vaqueros slice it. At the table, chins dripping with blood, we look like extras on the set of True Blood. We LOVE our beef.
We buy most of our meat from a local farm through a weekly delivery service called Fresh Picks. Most of the meat we consume is ground beef, a large percentage of the meat produced when cattle are slaughtered. We used ground beef for burgers, but also for creamy spaghetti meat sauce and for the kids’ favorite: taco night. Steaks with bearnaise sauce are an indulgence, a feast for celebration. We buy grass fed and organic ground beef and grain finished steaks.
I prepped for the trip, reading articles about cattle farming and readying my questions. Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times article, Power Steer, was especially informative and disturbing. As I boarded my plane to Texas, I was a little nervous that I was about to see things that would prevent me from eating beef with such joy. I came home with greater confidence in the quality of life of cattle in America but also increased concerns about antibiotic usage.
We visited a large commercial feed yard called Cactus Feeders and a large grazing ranch called Matador Ranch during our three days in Texas. We also had a spirited and open discussion with environmental, dietary, and animal care specialists.
Here’s a little of what I learned.
Cowboys Today: Fiercely Independent
While pork and poultry production is increasingly vertically integrated and controlled by a few companies, beef is not. Because of the need for land to graze the cattle, there are over 1 million beef farmers and ranchers throughout the United States. Slaughter and distribution is more centralized. 85% of cattle are slaughtered by Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National.
Nowadays, cattle ranchers typically sell a cow when they hand them off to the next step in their lifecycle.
Grain Finished Cattle Lifecycle
I was surprised to learn that grain finished cattle consume grass for the majority of their lives. I had assumed that only grass fed cattle ate grass. But the main diet difference between the two takes place at the end of their lives, when grain finished cattle are sent to feed yards.
The lifecycle of grain finished cattle varies but generally follows this timeline:
- COW CALF OPERATION: Birth to 6/8 months – Calves remain with their mothers. EATING GRASS and DRINKING MILK.
- GRAZING: 6/8 months to 14 months – Calves are weaned, separated from mothers and moved to grazing operations on huge ranches. EATING GRASS.
- FEED YARD: 14/18 months to 20/24 months. EATING HAY, CORN, DISTILLER’S GRAINS, and more.
Each cow produces about 600 pounds of meat, about 1200 meals. When cattle arrive at the feed yard, they weigh around 800 pounds. At slaughter, their weight has almost doubled, to 1350 or 1400 pounds.
Each cow is fed 35 pounds of feed a day.
The profit made per cow varies greatly, but typically is only about $8 to $10. This is a very low margin business that needs high volumes for profitability.
Feed Yard Stats
I expected to be shocked by the sight of so many cows in one place, but they had plenty of room to move around and their welfare was clearly a key focus for workers. Stressed meat does not taste good.
At the feed yard, the cattle are fed a complicated diet primarily based on corn. The cattle diet changes from when they are first admitted to the feed yard to when they are getting ready for slaughter, but for their last few months at the feed yard, here’s how it breaks down:
- 27% distiller’s grain, a yellow powder that is a byproduct of ethanol production
- 53% steam cooked flaked corn
- 9.7% ruffage (hay, ramps, corn stalks, and other)
- 5% CCDS – liquid the corn soaks in while producing ethanol
- 1.1% fat and micro water
The dry weather in the Beef Belt (Kansas and the Texas panhandle) keeps the runoffs and manure from becoming a problem. The cattle pens are scraped when the cattle leave, and the manure is used as fertilizer.
Cattle used to be treated as populations but now are treated with antibiotics individually. The exception to this are the vaccines they receive upon admission, and two types of antibiotics they are fed in their feed: Tylan and Rumensin. Tylan is to prevent liver abscesses and Rumensin is to facilitate digestion.
The cattle are also implanted with hormones (Estrodial and tremblone acetate) to stimulate growth. Dr. Paul Defoor, Cactus Industries COO, estimates that the $5 implant eliminates the need to feed the cattle an extra 3,000 pounds of feed.
When I headed to Texas, I was worried about animal abuse and the environmental impact of grass fed versus grain finished. I no longer have these concerns. I saw cattle leading comfortable lives with great attention paid to their well-being, from birth to slaughter. From an environmental standpoint, I learned that the 2006 UN report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow about the methane produced by cattle was flawed and was later retracted. The environmental impact of grass fed versus grain fed is not clear to me, as grass fed cattle take longer to reach maturity.
My top concerns are now tied to hormone and prophylactic antibiotic use. While I understand that the hormonal implants in conventional grass finished beef speed growth and save considerable resources from being fed, they still make me uneasy. I also understand that only minute traces remain in the meat, in amounts much smaller than the limits set by the FDA. They still make me nervous. The use of Tylan and Rumensin also concerns me, even though they are different classes of antibiotics than those served to humans and in levels deemed safe by the FDA. I’d rather they were not present in my meat.
Because of individual tracking, withdrawal periods, and monitoring, I have no concerns that antibiotics used to treat diseased cattle filter into my family’s beef. I also believe that sick cows should be treated.
We are fortunate as consumers to have so many choices when purchasing beef. We can choose to buy meat based on taste, tenderness, geography, or diet. There are no right or wrong decisions. Everyone should learn more about where there beef comes from to make a decision based on personal preference instead of fear or guilt.
I won’t be changing our family’s purchasing habits at this time. We will continue to buy locally sourced grass fed ground beef for the majority of our recipes, to support local agriculture and to minimize the amount of beef fed hormones and prophylactic antibiotics. Then, when we feel like celebrating with a nice steak on the grill, we’ll buy a beautifully marbled grain finished steak. Because that’s the taste my family loves.
I’m also going to continue our family’s agricultural learning journey. This September, we have a visit booked to Slagel Family Farms to learn about their local, small scale cattle, pig, lamb, and hen operation. We’ll start with a tour, continue with a butchering demo, and end the visit with a special dinner cooked by the chefs of Three Aces, Bedford and Carriage House. Tickets are still available for the September Slagel Family Farms Dinner. They’re family friendly and we’re making a day trip of it with the kids. Join us!