August 12, 2014

Beefing Up Local Cattle

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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?

     Corn-fed, tagged and traceable. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

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?

  • Because people like the taste of what they are used to. If you are expecting a juicy steak, for instance, you might find grass-fed beef too “beefy,” earthy-tasting, tough, dry or chewy.
  • Because fat equals flavour. Canada A, AA, AAA or Prime grades are largely measures of marbling and type of fat (white vs. yellow). The grades correspond to lean, moderately fatty, fatty and ultra-fatty beef. Corn-fed beef is fattier.
  • Because the taste of corn-fed beef is consistent. Terroir plays more of a part in grass-fed beef. Its taste can vary from location to location, and from time to time.

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.)

    Feedlot cattle, working on getting fatter faster. 

There are three stages in conventional beef production. (Note that ages and weights vary somewhat according to breed and the farmer doing the talking.)

  • Cow/calf: Calves are raised to a weaning age of about 6 months.
  • Stocker/Backgrounding: Weaned calves are raised on pasture grasses, plus given wheat or oats, until they are reach 750 to 900 pounds. They have access to barns.
  • Feedlot: Anywhere from ages 9 to 16 months, cattle are moved to feedlots. They are confined, and fed mainly corn and grain until they reach market weight of about 1,500 pounds. In feedlot jargon, that would be expressed as “controlled feeding” and “finished weight.”

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.

     Fresh batch of steamed, flaked corn at the mill.

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.

     One big barn at the Schaus feedlot in Alliston. 

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

  • Calf starter: Mother’s milk is supplemented by a feed with grains and minerals.
  • Forage: Pasture plants such as grasses, clover, alfalfa and trefoil (which young cattle graze on) are collectively called forage.
  • Hay: Dried grasses, legumes, clovers and flowers are known as hay.
  • Haylage/silage: Haylage and silage are both fermented and more nutritious than plain hay. Haylage is hay that has been baled and covered in plastic. Silage consists of chopped vegetation that is fermented in a silo.
  • Grains/corn: Once transferred to a feedlot, cattle are gradually switched to a high-energy diet that is about 90 per cent grains (such as barley) and corn (including flaked corn and moist preserved cracked corn).
  • Soybean or canola meal: Farmers may opt to include these protein-rich feeds.
  • Mixed rations: These can include silage, corn, grains, hay and molasses.
  • Supplements: Cattle are given vitamins and minerals, and provided with salt licks.
  • Medication: Animals may be dosed with antibiotics, not only when sick but as a preventive measure during weaning or when different herds first co-mingle. Ionophores are added to feed to aid digestion and decrease methane production in the stomachs of cattle.
  • Hormones: Some farmers use hormone implants; others do not. Hormones help cattle convert food into muscle more quickly.
     Conventional diet includes mixed rations.  

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 its 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.”

     Is this a ranch or a farm?