Every Wednesday, I’d like to visit with you about beef. This week’s post is a general myth vs. fact sort of affair, addressing things either I or Bert hear often, or see on social media regularly. I won’t lie to you and say that some of these don’t really grind my gears, because they do. But it’s no use fussing about it, let’s get right to it.
Calves are born in feedlots where they live on corn until we eat them. All calves are born on ranches and farms. I’m not exaggerating–calving cows in confinement doesn’t work very well, so we tend not to do it. Calves stay with their mothers, on pasture, drinking milk and eating grass, until they are weaned at 6-8 months of age, then typically go to a stocker or a backgrounder and then on to a feedlot. Cattle spend 4-6 months in a feedlot, where they have plenty of room and top-notch care, and are fed a ration of various types of food, including hay. They don’t eat just straight corn!
Ranching takes land away from farming. Honestly, this one kind of kills me. 85% of land used for raising beef cattle is not suitable for farming. I’ve often heard that we should get rid of cow herds and farm the rangelands to support a global plant-based diet. While maybe it’s a nice idea in theory, it doesn’t work in reality because you literally can’t farm most of the places where cows graze. The soil isn’t good for growing crops like the Sandhills of Nebraska which are, you guessed it, very sandy hills; or the ground isn’t suitable for being farmed like mountains of the American West, or the swamps and everglades and bayous of southern coastal states, or the deserts of the southwestern part of the country. We’ve lived in places where the growing season is too short to support farming (North Park, Colorado), or where the soil is too poor and the climate too dry to support anything but native short grass (Capitan, New Mexico), or where it’s too rocky and steep for anything but non-native grasses to thrive (Cameron, Montana). The really neat thing about cattle is that they’re taking a resource that humans can’t use for food–grass–and making it in to something that we can.
Grass-finished beef is better for the environment and grass-finished cattle are better cared-for. The science says no. I’ve heard both ends on this one, but I’ll ask you to consider this: grass-finished cattle can take twice as long to reach a (lower) slaughter weight than conventionally-raised cattle. That’s a whole year longer to consume resources like grass and water, and produce waste. More space, more time, more resources, for less beef. In fact, if we consumed the same amount of beef but it was all grass-finished, we’d need over 60 million more animals, 131 million more acres of rangeland, and would produce 135 million tons more greenhouse gases. Article here! Also, grass-finished beef can still spend time in a feedlot eating a diet of grass, forage, hay, or silage, and can still be given antibiotics or hormones. They aren’t cared for any better or worse than any other cattle, either! We do our best to take care of all of our cattle, regardless of how they are finished or marketed. Someone might tell you that I’m just shining you on, but spend some time with any rancher (I can find you one near where you live!), or on this blog, or come on down and visit me, and you’ll see that we really do our best by every cow we raise.
Grass-finished beef is better for you. I see this often cited with Omega-3s in mind. It’s true that grass-finished beef has double the amount of Omega-3s than grain-finished beef but it’s still not a good source. A serving (3.5 oz) of grass-finished beef has about 80 mg of those good ole fatty acids, whereas the same size serving of salmon will have 1,000-2,000 mg. Another thing to note is that salmon contains the “better” fatty acids EPA and DHA, while beef contains mostly AHA.
Beef is a huge cause of global warming. There’s a lot of controversy about this since there are many different studies with many different approaches. I use the EPA’s numbers, which say that beef production accounts for 3.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Full stop. Things like transportation and wasting food (we waste 40% of our food in this country, guys!) have a much larger impact. Also, properly grazed rangeland environments can actually act as carbon sinks, so that’s pretty cool. Another thing that’s pretty cool? We keep getting better. We keep decreasing our impact and increasing our efficiency year after year.
Beef is bad for you. Again, nope. Beef is a great source of protein, especially for the calories, and provides nine vital vitamins and minerals. I’m not saying to go out and stuff your face with a 20 oz steak, because moderation in everything is key, but don’t feel like you’re killing yourself by eating beef, either. You’re fueling your body with some good stuff!
All conventional meat has antibiotics in it. Even if an animal was treated with antibiotics, you aren’t “eating” those antibiotics when you consume that meat. All antibiotics have withdrawal periods before an animal can be slaughtered to prevent residues from ending up in meat. USDA inspectors then test the carcasses at the packing plants to ensure that residual guidelines are strictly followed. There’s literally a National Residue Program for this, and programs for continuing producer education like Beef Quality Assurance. There’s also a publicly available list of producers who have more than one residue violation. It’s updated weekly, and the USDA will use it to take extra care to inspect meat from those producers. Cattle buyers also use it to know if any of their suppliers have residue problems so they can be extra vigilant or choose not to work with that supplier. It’s a big deal, y’all, and we take it very seriously.
All cattle in feedlots or not in an antibiotic-free program are given antibiotics. While sick animals or at-risk animals that need antibiotics will be doctored and cared for by an experienced professional–most feedlots have at least one veterinarian on staff–this doesn’t mean that all animals not in an “antibiotic-free” program are given antibiotics. From the ranch to the feedlot, beef producers are careful to use antibiotics only when they are needed for many reasons, but especially because it’s the right thing to do, but also antibiotics are expensive and take valuable time to administer so producers have no incentive to use them otherwise. That antibiotic pictured above, albeit one of the more expensive ones, costs nearly $5 a mL, and the dosage is 1.1mL/100 lbs. So, that $1200 bottle might treat about 35 weaned calves, or 25 yearlings. For a business with small profit margins–especially on the ranching side–that’s nothing to shake a stick at. It’s not like when you or your child is sick, and you go to the doctor and maybe only have to pay a copay, if anything. The producer is bearing the full weight of the cost of that drug, so you bet your hiney they’ll be using it judiciously. Lest you think that money is the only thing that matters in beef production: nope. The main thing here is that if an animal is sick, we are going to try and get it better. That might mean repeated treatment, or even a costly vet visit. We are not, however, going to throw away money by treating animals that don’t need it. Balance.
We’ll leave it there for now. I know it’s hard to navigate food. It’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not thanks to junk all over social media and regular media (hey Netflix, get you some better documentaries), and it’s hard not to worry because it’s food. It quite literally gives you life. You want the best for your family and for yourself. Oddly enough, so do we. On these Wednesday posts, I hope we can walk a little bit together and that I can help you know a little more truth about some of your food!
Up next week: beef choices, and how to find beef that fits what you’re looking for.