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What I Learned about the Beef Industry

What I Learned about the Beef Industry

Beef can be part of a healthy diet for children. As a rich source of iron, zinc (especially for baby) and other nutrients, beef supplies necessary nutrients for the growth process at all stages of childhood.

Whether you choose to include beef in your family’s diet or not, I wanted to share what I learned on a recent trip to Nebraska, sponsored by the Nebraska Beef Council.

But first, you may want to know my stance on beef.

Jill Castle at Wagonhammer Ranch, NE

I grew up in the Midwest on a diet of red meat and potatoes. In fact, my birthday celebrations always included a meal of steak, baked potato and a wilted lettuce salad–at my request.

It’s still one of my favorite meals. I’ve been a beef consumer my whole life. My kids are beef eaters, too.

I think beef is a tasty way to ensure children receive enough iron, zinc and B vitamins. (Yes, I know there are other non-beef foods that will meet this requirement, as well).

In fact, I advocate the use of pureed beef as a first food for baby because iron and zinc are so important to brain and body growth.

When I was invited by the Nebraska Beef Council to learn about raising cattle, and what it takes to get cattle from the ranch to the table, I gladly accepted.

And yes, I ate a lot of beef in Nebraska!

I toured a processing plant, visited a traditional cattle ranch and a grass-fed, organic cattle ranch, talked with veterinarians, stopped by a feed lot, and met farmers who grew corn and soy.

I learned a lot, including antibiotic practices, animal care, safety measures in processing, and more. Here are just a few highlights:

Glaser Organic Farms; beef

Raising Cattle

I visited Wagonhammer Ranch in Albion, NE, where I learned all cattle are grass-fed, initially, and they eat grass for the majority of their lives. They graze on all kinds of different grasses.

In essence, cattle ranchers seemed just as interested in the health and vibrancy of their grass pastures as they were in their cattle. Without good grass, cattle wouldn’t thrive.

“I grow grass. I spend all day thinking about my grass. My cows manage my grass farm… In essence, I’m a grass farmer.” –Jay, Wagonhammer Ranch, Nebraska

Every 3 days or so, cattle are moved to a new pasture of grass to keep the grass pastures healthy and growing.

Cattle eat grass until they are around 7 to 9 months, at which point they either continue to eat grass or they switch over to a grain-based diet. Grass-fed cattle are lighter and smaller than grain-fed cattle when they go to market.

Cow Pasture in Nebraska

Grain-fed Beef versus Grass-fed Beef

Grain-finished beef represents the majority of available beef in the marketplace. These cattle start off eating grass but are switched over to a grain-based diet including corn, soy and small amounts of grass. This increases the energy density of the diet and allows cattle to quickly put on weight.

The grain-based diet allows cattle to gain about 4# of body weight per day. Grain-finished cattle will weigh more and yield more muscle and fat (meat) than grass-fed cattle when they go to market. The meat will be more marbled, which increases flavor, calories, and saturated fat content.

In contrast, grass-fed beef will be leaner and lighter. Their meat will be less marbled and the calorie density may be lower. They also have higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids ALA, DHA, and EPA.

cute cattle in Nebraska

Organic Grass-fed Beef

I visited Glaser Organic Farms, the largest organic, grass-fed beef producers in Nebraska. The Glasers described the long and labor-intensive process of becoming certified as an organic beef supplier.

Probably one of the most difficult aspects was transitioning all the pastures to organic grasses—it took 3 years. All growing, fertilization, weed control, and more had to be done in compliance with organic practices.

Also, they are allowed to vaccinate their cattle, but not allowed to provide antibiotics to a sick cow under the organic label.

Cows do get sick, however. The Glasers offer their cows antibiotics, but as a result, they are not allowed to sell that cow as an organic beef option. That cow will go to market with the grain-fed cattle.

Grass-fed cows reach an average of 700#, about 200# less than their grain-finished counterparts. Grass-fed beef gets a higher price per pound at market, and organic grass-fed beef gets even higher prices.

However, as the Glasers pointed out, prices are based per pound, so it is relative. They supplement their organic grass-fed cattle ranching with organic soybeans and organic popcorn.

J & S Feedlot, Nebraska

Cattle Feedlots

I visited the J & S Feedlot in Dodge, Nebraska. Cattle go to the feedlot to be grain-finished. Cattle spend about 180-240 days there before they go to the processing plant, and can reach up to 1400 pounds on a grain-based diet.

I was surprised to learn that cattle are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Moving from the ranch to the feedlot can render cattle stressed and increase their susceptibility to illness.

Just like a day care center for your child, exposure to a new group of cattle from another state can introduce viral or bacterial illness.

Keeping cattle healthy means taking extra care to transition them to the feedlot, as many cattle come from all over the country. At J & S Feed Lots, the owners spent considerable time thinking about how they would make that transition so that cattle were minimally stressed and optimally healthy.

They based their feedlot set up on the works of Temple Grandin, an expert in autism and animal behavior.

Old friends unite!
Old friends unite after 25+ years!

My Takeaway

Cattle ranching is hard work! As a beef eater, I felt a respect for the animal at every stage and was increasingly aware of the challenges the beef industry faces, from safe practices (for animal and human) to providing the man-power required to keep the farms, ranches, feedlots and processing plants running.

Beef Recipes

Grilling is a perfect way to prepare beef and I’ve got a few recipes below from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association:

Grilled Steak and Vegetable Salad

Inside-Out Grilled Steak Salad

I also will share one of the fastest slow cooker dinners my family loves–Beef in the Crockpot.

I hope this very brief description of my visit to Nebraska helps!

Do you have questions about beef?

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  1. Very interesting! Thanks Jill for your thoughts. My brother lives in Nebraska and your pictures make me want to go visit now! I personally do not eat beef but my husband and children do. Did you get to learn much about the nutritional differences between grain vs grass vs organic grass? In your opinion is the difference in fat, calories, omega-3 fatty acids ALA, DHA, and EPA worth the price if it’s something you eat rarely (1-2 per month)? Thanks for your thoughts!
    Much Appreciated!

    1. Yes, Nebraska was beautiful country! Grass-fed has less fat usually and more omega-3 fats than grain-fed beef, though the omega-3 content is still relatively low compared to other sources (flax, for example). I think it boils down to economics–or what you can afford adn what’s important to you. What came across to me is that whether grain or grass-fed, the animals are well-cared for. Grass-fed take nearly twice as long to mature to market and at that point are smaller than their grain-fed counterparts. Nutritionally, there isn’t much difference. The difference is in caring for the animal, whether you care about organic practices, and ultimately price (grass-fed being more expensive).

  2. Very well done! Thank-you for the great info! I’m a beef eater, too, and in this world of anti-beef, your article is insightful and truthful. I shared it on twitter and fb!
    Elizabeth Sisselman, RD, LDN
    @dietitianforyou