Beefing Up Local Cattle
August 12, 2014
What corn-fed and grass-fed livestock actually eat . . .
A grass-fed cattle ranch brings to mind an old Western movie. A modern feedlot is more like a dose of reality programming. What do you want to tune in to? And why?
Grass-fed beef seems ideal. The animals are at home on the range – eating their natural food in their natural environment. The meat has up to a third less fat and more vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3s than the conventional corn-fed beef coming from feedlots. So why isn’t everyone clamouring for grass-fed beef?
Please don’t read this as disapproval of grass-fed beef. It is different but delicious when cooked properly (that’s another story). I’m all about offering information. The food choices are yours. Daily decisions on what goes into a consumer's mouth are part of ongoing debates regarding taste, price, environmental concerns and ethical animal husbandry.
Know Your Labels
Cattle all eat grass some time in their lives. So “grass-fed” doesn’t say as much as “100% grass-fed.” Other labels that should prompt questions to the butcher are “grass-finished” and “grain-finished.”
Note that “grass-fed” does not mean “certified organic.” Also, do not presume that “organic beef” means “100% grass-fed.” It means that the feed – which may include corn and grains – was organic. “Organic” designations are generally in tandem with labels saying no antibiotics or hormones were given to the animals.
Ontario Beef Production
The grass-fed beef market may be growing, but it is still small. There are 15,000 cattle operations in Ontario, according to Dan Ferguson of the Beef Farmers of Ontario. Of those, 5% are “grass-finished,” he adds. The conventional group sees these brethren “not quite as crazy,” he says, but certainly “a bit over at the left end.”
Money is always an issue in agriculture. Corn-fed cattle get fatter and gain weight faster. In the early 1900s, it took three to five years to raise a beef animal to market weight. Today, it can take less than two years. (However, grass-fed cattle are ready for market later in life, usually 24 to 30 months of age.)
There are three stages in conventional beef production. (Note that ages and weights vary somewhat according to breed and the farmer doing the talking.)
In June, I got the chance to visit a conventional feedlot in Alliston during a tour with the folks at Farm & Food Care Ontario. The Schaus Land & Cattle Co. is home to 3,000 head of cattle, including Charolais, Angus and Simmental breeds. The cattle are marketed through the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program. Schaus has a steam corn flaking mill that is the only one of its type in Canada. All the corn used at the feedlot is local.
I have met plenty of farmers over the years and found they genuinely care about their animals, as commodities and as living creatures. They are neither abusive nor sentimental. They are, after all, raising food. I get that. Still, it’s tough to look at the Schaus feedlot cattle packed in pens like rush-hour commuters on a subway platform. The livestock do give the impression they are waiting for something, and that something is not going to be good.
Wally Schaus points out the dimpled back and bulging loins on one Charolais – signs that it is ready for market. His cattle are all tagged and traceable. They arrive at 12 to 16 months of age, and stay at the feedlot for maybe six months, until they reach 1,500 to 1,600 pounds.
They live in two huge barns. Running through each one is a walkway lined on either side with cattle pens and food troughs. The animals stick their heads through iron bars to graze in the troughs. The floors are slatted, allowing the excrement to fall into pits below. Local farmers retrieve the manure for fertilizer.
Schaus farm manager Paul Martin sends a select few – the “less resilient,” like runts and animals with soft feet – to rest in a small, uncrowded “happy pen” and to graze in a little field beside the barn.
I can’t accurately compare this scenario to a grass-fed beef operation. I did visit a grass-fed cattle ranch many years ago in California, but only briefly. All I saw were cattle roaming the range, like they do in old Western movies. But that’s not the whole story: In colder climes, they do need shelter and hay.
One sure thing I know about cattle, or food animals in general: We are what we eat – and by extension, what they eat. So what do corn-fed and grass-fed cattle actually eat?
What Conventional Cattle Eat
Critics say a starchy diet causes cattle health problems such as enlarged hearts, liver abscesses, and colourfully named diseases such as feedlot bloat, feedlot polio and dust pneumonia. They also complain that unscrupulous producers have been caught cutting costs by mixing byproducts such as chicken feathers and manure into cattle feed, as well as stale bread, pasta, old pet food and even candy still in wrappers.
The practice of feeding cattle meat and bone meal – in effect, turning them into carnivores and cannibals – was never widespread in Canada. It was banned after the mad cow fiasco. It increased the risk of spreading mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
What Grass-Fed Cattle Eat
In pastures and open ranges, they graze on forage. Over the winter and/or in their barns, they eat hay, haylage or silage.
Beef cattle are ruminants with four-compartment stomachs that evolved to chew, regurgitate and digest roughage. Some common breeds have been selectively bred to more readily accept high-energy diets of grain and corn. Thus grass-fed beef farmers tend to choose smaller heritage breeds.
Ranchers vs. Farmers?
Should cattlemen be called ranchers or farmers?
According to Dan Ferguson, in the Prairies or B.C., they’re always “ranchers,” but in Ontario, they’re usually “farmers.” That may be because there are more “Old MacDonald operations” here – meaning multi-commodity farm businesses.
“Ranchers are big-buckle, big-hat guys,” Ferguson adds. “If you meet one, you’ll know it.”
Nice article and glad to see you went to Dan f. of Beef Farmers of Ontario. I raise grass fed beef on rotational grazing pastures and hay and have customers that really like it and other customers appreciate the addition of some grain to finish. Variation in eating experiences with forage beef is the name of the game, between weather and growing conditions each summer, the genetics of the animal,and the hanging process at the abattoir, all contribute to perceptions of taste by the consumer. Corn fed does a bang-up job at aiming for consistency of taste that people can count on. It is great that people have a choice.
-- by Sandra V. on 2014-08-22 09:29:40
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