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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grilling is a perfect way to prepare beef and I’ve got a few recipes below from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association:
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?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: July 20, 2016
Updated on: May 8, 2019