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More About Grass Fed Beef

A couple of days ago, I wrote about grass fed beef. I compared it favorably to the corn fed beef found in most supermarkets. The responses I got were mostly supportive of what I said, with one notable exception. Laura’s family raises corn fed beef, and she took exception with how I described the process.

My position is admittedly academic, in that it’s almost entirely based on what I’ve read. Laura’s response — actually her husband’s — comes from first-hand experience actually raising cattle. I thought it only fair give his response the same visibility as my original post.

Before I do, let me say this is not a setup to disagree with everything they had to say and restate my point. I actually agree with lots of what they had to say. Some of it is clarifying points that I oversimplified. All of it is an honest description of one family’s perspective.

(And no, there won’t be any recipes today.)

Other opinions

Before I get to Laura’s comment, there were two others I should mention. Mojo Yugen said:

I think most of the comparisons of environmental impact of grass-fed vs. corn-fed beef are based on a small, grass-fed pasture farm verses a massive feed lot corn-fed operation. Not exactly apples and oranges. A better comparison would be a small, family grass-fed operation versus a small, family corn-fed operation. In that comparison the environmental impact would be much closer.

I think the antibiotic abuse also applies (by and large) to the same feed-lot operations. If you have 1,000s of cows crammed together standing around in their own crap they certainly need more antibiotics per animal than a family farm.

This is a great point. When I was contrasting grass fed with “supermarket beef”, I was assuming that the supermarket carries beef that came from a CAFO. That’s probably a safe bet most of the time. But it’s true that there are smaller operations that do feed grain, but don’t use CAFOs. The environmental and health issues I was talking about are products of the huge scale industrial operations.

Then Kristin said:

Actually, 100% grass-fed or 100% grain-fed aren’t the only options. Another option, used fairly widely, in fact (including by the uncle we get our beef from), is pastured cows that are fed rations of corn right before slaughter. It’s kind of a happy medium for people who don’t want their beef to be too far from what they’re used to (grain-fed), but still want it better (grass-fed).

For me the key phrase in there is “happy medium”. I recognize that a mostly grass diet is still better than the alternative, and that’s what I’m starting to research for myself and my family.

The main event

Now for Laura’s letter, from her husband. [My comments will be in brackets.]

Cost

I know grass-fed is all the craze now, but lets take a step back. You have to consider this for what it really is.

For small family farms (which there are fewer and fewer of everyday), space, equipment, and facilities are limited, so profits are a function of how fast you can turn investment into profit. Feeding cattle high-protein foods (such as corn) increases the rate-of-gain, letting the farmer sell them sooner. Feeding lower-protein foods (such as hay or grasses) means the farmer must hold his investment longer. Even if the price they can demand in the end is higher, having large amounts of money tied up for long periods of time for alot of small farmers isn’t possible.

[This explains why grain fed beef makes better economic sense for farmers, but doesn't really address whether it's better for the consumer. However, I admitted that I still buy grain fed beef because my only sources of grass fed are too expensive. It would be hypocritical of me to say farmers should choose the more expensive option if I'm not willing to do the same.]

Health

Next… about the antibiotics. The fact is that without proper antibiotics, a greater percentage of cattle will get sick, which a farmer cannot afford. I know it seems logical that a cow running round on a nice field of grass would be very healthy — but that is not always the case. My father, a cattle farmer all of his life, lost 10 cows in 3 days due to blackleg while the cattle were in the pasture for the summer. Since then, all of our cattle are vaccinated for this, and he hasn’t lost one since. This is not to say feed-lot cattle are free from disease either — antibiotics are important wherever a cow is or what it eats. In cattle, just as in humans, a good diet and good living conditions does not always guarantee perfect health.

[If you really mean "vaccinated" then you're not talking about antibiotics. Also, while I didn't specify this in my first post, the greater concern is non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. I understand why it's easier to just include it in the feed rather than wait for an animal to get sick and try to cure it. But MSRA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has made the jump to livestock. And Ceftriaxone-Resistant Salmonella has been a recognized problem at least since 2000.

For anyone wondering what MSRA and salmonella have to do with non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, the FDA has a great article: The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections. Overuse of antibiotics is a legitimate threat to life as we know it. Any farming practices that lead to that overuse, even as an unintended consequence, should be avoided.]

Also, so called ‘corn-fed’ cattle are not fed just corn. This is not healthy for them. They are fed a mix of corn and some sort of roughage, whether it be hay or grass, etc.

[Agreed. Like Kristin said, 100% corn and 100% grass aren't the only alternatives.]

Environmental impact

Environmentally, raising cattle has impact regardless of what they are fed. Cattle fed just grass require large amounts of land. With farm land prices rising to ridiculous levels, farmers will make cattle grazing areas out of the least-farmable land they have. Along with this, cattle need a source of water — so grazing areas are typically waterways, wetlands, etc. [which are essential to our environment]

[This is where it becomes more a political issue than health or even simple economics. Corn is heavily subsidized in the U.S.: "Buying livestock fattened on cheap subsidized grain saved chicken processors $11.3 billion, pork processors $8.5 billion, and beef packers $4.5 billion in the 1997-2005 time frame."

Without the subsidies making corn so cheap in comparison, much more grazing land would be economically viable. Furthermore, if the existing corn subsidies were not just cut, but instead shifted to supporting more environmentally sustainable practices -- this is exactly what they do in Switzerland -- it's possible feeding grain to cattle wouldn't make economic sense at all.]

“Taking sides”

Cattle farming is a tough business, just ask the the kid who’s Christmas depends on how dad’s cattle did that year. That is why I have more of a fiscal point of view to this. We need to get past the buzzwords and misconceptions and take things for what they are. So before we proclaim something as the best thing since sliced bread, make sure you see both sides. Cattle are raised and fed different ways, and I hope people chose based on the facts and not just hype. I am on the farmer’s side of this, no matter what they feed their cattle.

[When you take the "farmer's side", who do you think is on the other side? If you think it's me, as the buyer, I disagree. The "other side" of the issue is the politics that generates long-term solutions to short-term problems, with a host of unintended -- though entirely predictable -- consequences.

This article explains how the previous farm policy of supporting crop prices while controlling overproduction through loans, was replaced with a system designed to depress prices and encourage overproduction through direct subsidies. This fix for a single bad harvest in an election year has reshaped agriculture for nearly four decades.]

Angus?

Oh – one other thing. I see “Angus” get thrown out alot. How many people really know what that is? Angus is a breed of cattle. A pure-bred or full-blood Angus needs to have certifications and documents to prove it, much like a dog would. Most beef cattle are a mix of many different breeds. I can assure you that next time you eat that “Angus” steak you are not eating a full-blood Angus. It has become a term thrown around to make things sound better to people who don’t really understand what it is. The reality is Angus meat is no better or worse than any other beef breed, or cross. Age, fat content, diet, overall size… etc, contribute way more to the taste.

[I couldn't agree more with this. The trade group for Angus beef lists the primary criteria for calling beef "Angus" as: "Live cattle must be Angus-influenced, have a predominately (51%) solid black hair coat ... to be eligible for CAB (Certified Angus Beef) evaluation." In other words, it has to have at least some Angus genetics, and it has to be mostly black. That's about it. Yes, there are other criteria for certification, but they all depend on health, size and appearance, not "breed" per se.]

Good people, bad alternatives

Farmers do things the way they do for good reasons. I don’t think anyone is getting up in the morning saying to himself, “I can’t wait to go out and destroy the environment today … and reduce the quality of my product while I’m at it.”

Farmers do what they do because they don’t get to deal with the world the way they think it should be. They have to deal with the world as it is. And that means cheap (subsidized) corn feed is the surest way to have a profitable herd.

When I say that grass fed beef is healthier to eat, I’m not saying farmers should absorb the extra cost to produce it. When I say that farm subsidies as they are currently structured cause farmers to produce the wrong foods in the wrong way, I’m not saying we should stop supporting farmers.

What I am saying is that the current regulations have lead to a less-healthy food supply. And until people start talking about that fact, there is no pressure for anyone to change those regulations — against massive pressure from the current beneficiaries to maintain the status quo.

So I’m thrilled that there are people 100% focused on the issue of environmentally sustainable food practices. I’m ecstatic that there are others 100% focused on the health concerns of the current food supply. Thanks to these activists the concerns are starting to filter through into mainstream public awareness.

Activists view everything through the prism of their cause. It’s not just unavoidable, it’s necessary so they can make any headway. I am not an activist. I try to view people’s position through the prism of their experience, not mine, so I can understand them better. Sure, I’ve got opinions — sometimes strong ones — but just because I express an opinion doesn’t mean I’m taking sides against you. I’m not. Unless you’re an executive or lobbyist for ADM or Monsanto, then yes … yes I am taking sides against you.

Want more like this? For more recipes like this, that you can hold right in your hands, and write on, take notes, tear pages out if you want (Gosh, you're tough on books, aren't you?) you might be interested in How To Cook Like Your Grandmother, 2nd edition, Illustrated. Or to learn your way around the kitchen, check out Starting From Scratch: The Owner's Manual for Your Kitchen.

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