About the Animals – Beef

We get many questions about how our animals are raised and what they eat.  Below you can read an interview that Jody gave food writer Grant Kessler with excellent questions and thoughtful answers on how our beef is raised.

 

How many head of cattle do you have and what is the breed (or predominant breed)?
We market about 50 head of beef per year. Some are raised on our farm. The majority are raised by a neighbor who has been developing his Black Angus herd for over 25 years. Genetics and practices are similar (our breeding stock comes from his farm)

What is your pasture size and how often do you rotate?
Pasture is extensive with over 200 acres of grass/timber pastures for 90+ cow/calf pairs. Also, a 30 acre alfalfa field is utilized for grazing newly weaned stock in the fall. Rotational grazing is used. The grazing “system” lies somewhere between continuous grazing and MIG (management intensive grazing). Pasture moves are weeks apart rather than daily or twice daily as in UHD(ultra high density) grazing. Pastures are stockpiled for late fall/winter grazing.
Are you an organically certified farm?
No
Do you use antibiotics?  If not, how do you address illness?
We don’t us sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics (This is the practice commonly used on mega-dairy farms and industrial beef feedlots that some/many believe has helped to breed virulent strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria).
 If an animal gets sick or injured (a very rare occurrence), we treat it with needed drugs or antibiotics. If this is a market animal, it will go to the conventional market after the appropriate withdrawal period.
If a breeding animal becomes sick or injured, it is re-evaluated for its suitability to continue in the herd. An injury that puts it’s physical or reproductive soundness in question, it’s an automatic cull (examples would be prolapse, hip injury, etc) to the conventional market.
An infection due to accidental cut or scrape will be treated with antibiotics. If the wound heals properly with no adverse affects, the animal will be returned to the breeding herd.
Reproductive tract infections occur occasionally due to difficulties at birth and these are treated as well. What happens with these animals depends on the details behind the infection. For example, a cow that contracts an in infection after giving birth to twins is looked evaluated more favorably than one that has trouble with a regular single birth.
Multiple factors are considered when making such decisions. If there is any indication of a genetic flaw contributing to ill health, a cull decision is made.
 Do you use genetically modified feed or grasses?
Regarding GMO’s, this particular genie is already out of the bottle and may be impossible to ever shove back in.
Consider these facts: Corn, like all grasses, is wind pollinated. Growers of GMO grains are not obligated to keep their plants’ modified DNA from spreading (set backs, buffers, etc.). Although our grower tries to isolate the GMO free corn field, that is not an absolute guarantee that it will not be contaminated by a neighbors GMO planted field. Over 90% of the corn planted in the US is GMO. Corn grown from GMO-free seed may have GMO traits. We don’t test the DNA of the grain we feed.
Another GMO issue to consider is soybeans. Soybean meal is the most common source of protein for livestock in Illinois. 98% of soy planted in the US is GMO. It IS possible to plant GMO-free soybeans, however, raw soybeans are not palatable to livestock. It has to be roasted or heat treated to change it’s chemical profile to be digestible by livestock. (Soybean meal is a by-product of the soy oil extraction process – the high pressure pressing generates the heat that makes it palatable.) Feed mills with roasting equipment that could process GMO-free soy are very rare. Time and distance make this logistically and economical unfeasible at this time.
Also, protein alternatives present their own sustainability, cost, and logistics issues.
The beef breeder we work with does feed GMO corn to the animals that are finished with grain.
What percentage of time are the animals on pasture?
As for the questions about antibiotics and grain there is not a cut-and-dried answer. This answer depends on which animals you consider as well what the weather/pasture conditions dictate.
Brood cows can graze 8-11 months of the year. Depending on conditions, they may be be supplemented with stored forage (hay, silage, baleage) at any time of year. Typically, cows graze on grass pastures from April through November. After corn is harvested, the cows graze on corn stubble/fodder and are supplemented with hay(they will glean corn kernels that have dropped on the ground as well). They will continue on the corn stubble through early spring. If the field gets muddy, they are kept in a dry lot and fed hay, so that the field’s tilth is not destroyed by pugging.  If there are drought conditions, cows may be dry-lotted and fed hay or silage to preserve the pasture. It seldom makes economic sense to feed grain to breeding animals – grain feeding is significantly more costly than grazing. If there is an extended period of extreme weather (drought or extreme cold/ice with limited hay supplies), grain may be used to preserve the health and reproductive efficiency of the herd. It’s a rare occurrence. In my lifetime (41 years), there are two instances where this was necessary (the extreme winter or 1979-80, and the drought summer of 1989). With predicted weather extremes in our future, it is a technique that must stay in the husbandry toolbox.
Market animals (typically born January – March) nurse and eat hay until the herd is moved to grass pasture in the spring. They continue nursing and grazing until early fall, when they are weaned. At that point, they graze a very high quality alfalfa field (stock-piled from late summer) for 1-2 months duration depends on weather and field conditions. As the weather turns in the late fall, they are brought into the feedlot where there are fed high quality alfalfa hay and grains (corn and soybeans) are introduced into their diet. These market animals continue on their finishing diet through slaughter in spring/summer/fall.
If you must have a specific ratio of grass to grain feeding for our beef, it would 100% (with exceptions for extreme circumstance as explained above) for breeding animals and for Milk & Meadow Beef.
For market beef it ranges from 25% – 33% of their lives eating grains.
Are your cattle 100% grass-fed?  If so, why?
The majority of the beef Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm markets is finished with grain feeding. We do offer, seasonally (sold out for 2010), Milk & Meadow Beef which is 100% grass fed. Milk & Meadow beef continue to nurse and graze when the rest of the herd’s calves are weaned. They are harvested in November. This schedule allows us to ensure the highest quality grass-fed beef possible.
What does “grass-fed” mean in the winter?
For breeding animals, this means eating hay, field fodder, and/or silage. Grain is fed only in extreme weather as detailed above.
For young (market) animals, grass-fed means the same diet as above with the very highest quality hay being given to these animals. It, also, means a period of significantly slower growth because stored forages generally have lower nutrition and calories than green, growing pasture. For a market animal, this occurs when (physiologically) higher calories/nutrition are needed to sustain growth. To put it in  human terms, an 8-10 month beef animal is entering adolescence and wants to eat like a teenager. A 100% forage diet essentially puts these animals into a “holding pattern” for the months they receive only stored forages until pastures are ready to graze again in the spring.  Typically, an additional 6-12 months are required for these animals to recover from this growth delay and back to a level of finish that ensure the highest quality beef.
If you grass feed but grain-finish, please answer these:

o   Why?  We hear in films and books that cows are “meant to eat grass”.  How do you explain doing anything shy of 100% grass-fed?

Films like Food Inc. and books like Omnivore’s dilemma paint a very black and white picture of cattle production. Either it’s 100% grass fed, or it’s bad  – bad for the animals,  bad for the environment, and bad for the people eating those animals.  Fortunately/unfortunately, we don’t live in a black and white world. In the US, farms in the northeast and Midwest have been fattening cattle with local grains for a long time – far predating the advent of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones, and other drugs prevalent in the industry now. From and economic perspective, feeding grains to animals has been a way for farmers to diversify their revenue stream as well as to cycle nutrients back to the soils where cereal grains are grown. Of course, as Wendell Berry has observed  “modern farming” has taken an elegant system of symbiotic of grain/livestock farming an replaced with our problematic industrial grain and industrial meat system.
Another reason, is the American palate prefers beef that is tender, flavorful, and has marbling. Also, most consumers expect consistent quality and availability year around (without having to store it themselves). Grain feeding allows farmers to ensure the quality and availability of beef year around. By the nature of the growing cycle, high quality 100% grass-fed beef IS seasonal. It is my belief that off-season harvesting of grass-fed beef has lead to a very inconsistent product that is a barrier to widespread consumer acceptance/demand. People will buy grass-fed beef for their health, environment, and the local economy, once. They’ll continue only if the taste and quality meet their expectations.
Velocity of money is another important factor – a grain finished animal is ready for market in 12 to 16 months of age while a grass-fed animal typically takes 18-24 months of age.

o   Describe the length of finishing time, ratio of grain to grass (if any) during finishing, type of grains and any necessary confinement during this period.

See above time ratio. As cattle approach market weight,  the percentage of grain in their diet is highest (75%). During the finishing period the cattle reside in a dry lot with access too fresh air, sunshine and loafing space as well as shelters bedded with corn stalks or straw (not the typical concrete of an industrial operation).

o   What is your view of the nutrient decline (CLA, vitamin E, Omega 3 etc.) during grain finishing?j

I’m not qualified to answer questions,  they are better left to a nutritionist. What I do know is what our customers tell us about our grain finished beef: “When I eat ground beef from the store, I get sick. When I eat yours, I feel good.”

o   What is the health risk to cows when you alter the pH of their stomachs with grain?

The health risk to from altered pH increases over time. Dairy cattle that are on a nearly continuous diet of grain for years (not weeks or months) suffer the most from a skewed diet.