Know Your Beef, Know Your Rancher
If you’re an alert beef buyer shopping at the farmers market or a small grocery store that champions local products, are the terms “natural”, “organic”, “grass-fed”, “grass-finished” clear to you? Can you keep them straight? What does it mean that a small, local beef rancher is “grain-finishing”? I thought grain was bad for cows? Do you know what you’re buying exactly?
It turns out the USDA is not clear about labeling. How can you know what’s what? I can tell you that the word “natural” has no legal definition, so be wary of that term. In an effort to clarify other terminology and figure out what our local producers are raising for us, I’ve reached out to seven local beef producers and one national producer whose product is readily available in Chicago and asked them to describe their feed practices. Four responded and I’ve consolidated their answers below. Sorry it’s a long post, but it seems extremely valuable to me.
My takeaway is that our local producers are wonderfully thoughtful people. They took time out of their busy lives to answer all my tedious questions and in the end I think we must learn that this is not such a black-and-white issue. Becoming an educated consumer means navigating a lot of grey and in the end, we can only do that with the help of our producers!
Bartlett Durand, Black Earth Meats/Otter Creek Organic Farm (Black Earth, WI – 166 miles*)
Jody Osmund, Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm (Ottawa, IL – 80 miles*)
Michelle Dietzler, Dietzler Farms (Elkhorn, WI – 87 miles*)
Jeremy House, Meadow Haven Organic Farm (Sheffield, IL – 128 miles*)
* distance from 1 N. State, Chicago
Black Earth Meats: Otter Creek raises about 60 head a year. These are Black Angus. Black Earth Meats sources from almost 80 farms with each farm raising anywhere from 2 to 300 head per year. The breeds available are numerous, but the most common is Black Angus or Angus crossed with something else.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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).
Dietzler: We have about 100 cows (breeding females) in WI, 250 in CO and their offspring are spread out. Total, we have about 660 animals between all our properties. We raise Angus and Hereford cattle – some Black Angus, some Red Angus and then we cross them with the Herefords. A Black Angus bull crossed with a Hereford cow results in a black baldy- black animal, white face.
Meadow Haven Organic: Our beef herd is about 150-175 animals from babies to mature cows. Right now we have a mixed herd of moms (cows). The three bulls we are using are Murray Grey. Murray Grey cattle are supposed to be good mothers, easy keepers and finish well on grass. So all our calves are at least 50% Murray Grey.
What is your pasture size and how often do you rotate?
Black Earth Meats: Again, Otter Creek is the home farm and the beef cattle are given access to semi-permanent pastures. These pastures are rotated every few years. The other farms Black Earth sources from vary in pasturing, from the old Amish “back pasture” to intensive prescriptive grazing.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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.
Dietzler: Pastures are generally about 4-6 acres in size and cattle stay in a pasture for 3-4 days at a time during the summer but it varies with the season. The pastures are grass and legume mixes.
Meadow Haven Organic: Our farm has about 300 acres that are certified organic. Of those, 20 were planted to corn for our chickens, pigs and turkeys and the rest is pasture or hay. 170 acres are dedicated mostly to pasture for grazing. The other 110 acres are for hay or sorghum to be stored for winter feeds. As we grazed this past year, fresh pasture was given once or twice a day, depending on the other things that needed to be done that day.
Are you an organically certified farm?
Black Earth Meats: Otter Creek was the 2008 Organic Farm of the Year. Regarding Black Earth Meats, all our farms are certified organic if we pull organic animals from them; otherwise they are grass-based endeavors.
Cedar Valley Farm: No.
Dietzler: We aren’t organically certified but are third party verified through Food Alliance for our all natural practices.
Meadow Haven Organic: Yes we are certified organic.
Do you use antibiotics? If not, how do you address illness?
Black Earth Meats: Never. Most illnesses are preventable through healthy feed and consistent attention to the animals. In the event an animal absolutely requires antibiotics, they are treated by a veterinarian and sold to a neighbor.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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 its physical or reproductive soundness in question is an automatic cull to the conventional market (examples would be prolapse, hip injury, etc.). 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 infection after giving birth to twins is 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.
Dietzler: Antibiotics are only used when an individual animal contracts an illness that can’t be treated naturally. That animal will never be sold through the Dietzler Farms label. We have a naturally healthy herd, so illness requiring antibiotics is rare on our farm as we feed and care for them in ways to prevent illness.
Meadow Haven Organic: We do use antibiotics if necessary, but those animals can’t be sold as organic. Realizing this we address animal health proactively, by trying to copy the natural systems for each species we have, while still implementing a production system. For instance, rotational grazing allows the animals new pasture every day while restricting them from 95% of the farm. In nature the animals would graze over a much larger area, but our neighbors wouldn’t like that. By keeping the cattle off recently grazed pastures we minimize their exposure to parasites. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure before there is a problem.
Do you use genetically modified feed or grasses?
Black Earth Meats: For Otter Creek organic farm or any certified organic farm, never. For our grass-fed patrons, most likely not but it is not required under the USDA grass-fed claim.
Cedar Valley Farm: Regarding GMOs, this particular genie is already out of the bottle and may be impossible to ever shove back in. All of the chicken, pork, and beef we raise on our farm eat corn that is grown from GMO-free seed. Last year we began contracting with the pork breeder we work with to raise it for our farm. He also feeds it to all of his hogs. This sounds great, but this doesn’t tell the full story.
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 (via setbacks, 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 neighbor’s 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 its 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.
Dietzler: All of our feed is grown on our farm and no genetically modified plants are used on the operation.
Meadow Haven Organic: No genetically modified organisms.
What percentage of time are the animals on pasture?
Black Earth Meats: Whenever pasture is available.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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 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, depending on weather and field conditions. As the weather turns in the late fall, they are brought into the feedlot where they 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.
Dietzler: The cows are on pasture 100% of the time and fed hay when the grass isn’t growing. The calves are on pasture for about 66% of the time and fed a diet high in forages during the remaining part of their development.
Meadow Haven Organic: The animals are on pasture during the grazing season. Our grazing season for 2010 will be about 210 days. Of that there were less than 5 days where the cattle were kept off pasture due to muddy conditions. When it is hot they do use the barn for shade from about 10:30-2:30. Of the remaining 155 days, about half the ground is frozen or dry so they have access to both the pasture, and the barn, for shelter. The other time they are locked in the barn area because of muddy conditions or during frosts when the legumes in the pasture will cause the animal to bloat and can cause suffocation.
Are your cattle 100% grass-fed? If so, why?
Black Earth Meats: Depends on the customer/claim. Grass-fed is 100% grass-fed/grass finished. Some people believe this makes for healthier meat. At Otter Creek, we’ve done both: grass-fed and pastured with supplemental corn. Certainly on our dairy we’ve found it is essential to provide the extra energy from the corn to maintain a healthy herd. In our organic line, we use farmers who have a very high forage-to-grain ratio as that is our preferred feeding method. Some of our organic beef, however, is grass-finished as well.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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.
Dietzler: We use forages for the majority of the diet that is fed to the cattle but they do receive some of our non-GMO grains to create the well-marbled product our customers desire.
Meadow Haven Organic: We are 100% grass fed to all our market animals. The pure grass-fed meat is higher in Omega-3 fatty acid and CLA. In the winter our cows (the moms) do get a little corn silage for extra energy. That leaves me more grass-based feed for the 100% grass-fed steers and heifers.
What does “grass-fed” mean in the winter?
Black Earth Meats: Haylage (“hay”) and pre-kernal corn silage.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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.
Dietzler: Even though we are not grass fed, we use stored feed in the form of dry hay, whole plant corn silage and some round bale silage to feed the cattle during the winter months.
Meadow Haven Organic: Grass-fed in the winter means, on our farm, that when fresh pasture is not available the cattle are fed hay and haylage. Some of our acres are mainly for winter storage feed. We make hay in 1500 lb round bales, and also make haylage (50% moisture) stored in an 8 foot diameter bag. That is 150 feet long.
If you grass feed but grain-finish, please answer these:
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?
Black Earth Meats: Do not confuse grass-finished (100% no grain) with grain-finished (feed lot style, 100% grain and grain byproducts) with a high forage diet. It IS very confusing. The way we understand meat in this country now, we expect a high degree of marbling in the meat. While some grass-finished producers, with proper genetics and attention to their pastures, can achieve some “choice” steers, the whole choice/prime vs. select concept came about when corn was added to the diet.
Over the last decades, we’ve been breeding the animals to tolerate corn. Corn (grain) alone is NOT healthy for them and causes all kinds of problems (except for the major meat companies that like them fast growing and high fat). Grass only is problematic for the animals if they are a result of modern breeding programs (vs. older lines of cattle) and is often not appreciated by the consumer. “Wild” flavors slip into meat when the cattle are on grass; it is difficult to achieve consistency throughout the year; and the meat is generally not as tender/succulent as grain-finished.
In our dairy herd and with some of our beef cows, we’ve found that a high forage diet (pastures and haylage/sileage) with some corn/grain added gives the best of both worlds. The animals get an extra kick of energy from the grain, but aren’t relying on it as their primary source of nutrients. The Omega 3s remain extremely high (and solid ratios of Omega 3 to Omega 6). This seems to give the animals better overall health and the meat is more tender (better marbling). There was a study out of the University of Wisconsin on dairies with three types of feed (for the same group of cows): grass only, grass plus grain, and grain only. The grass plus grain was the preferred choice of feed for both the health of the animals and the quality of milk/cheese. This matches what we’ve found at Otter Creek with our dairy, and is our inclination with the beef as well.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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 pre-dating the advent of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones, and other drugs prevalent in the industry now. From an 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 and replaced it with our problematic industrial grain and industrial meat system.
Also, the American palate prefers beef that is tender, flavorful, and has marbling. And most consumers expect consistent quality and availability year round (without having to store it themselves). Grain feeding allows farmers to ensure the quality and availability of beef year round. 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 – a grain finished animal is ready for market at 12 to 16 months of age while a grass-fed animal typically takes 18-24 months.
Dietzler: It has become a hot topic to pit grass-fed vs. grain-fed. Cattle often eat the seeds of grass plants (often in the form of grain) as that part of the plant is usually highest in energy. We use grains, non-GMO corn and whole food-grade soybeans as part of the diet to develop a well marbled product that our customers desire. The cows that we raise eat grass or stored hay the whole year and the calves only eat a diet that contains grain for the last few months of their development.
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.
Black Earth Meats: Our animals grow until we select them, so we don’t have the specific finishing times like in the industrial production models. The forages will provide 90% or more of their diet. Confinement is very limited — usually winter months and even then the animals are in hoop houses or large barns with outside access at all times.
Cedar Valley Farm: 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 to fresh air, sunshine and loafing space as well as shelters bedded with corn stalks or straw (not the typical concrete of an industrial operation).
Dietzler: We introduce the calves to no more than 20% grain at around 12 months old to allow their rumens (stomach) to become accustomed to the higher energy part of their diet. For the last three months of their growth, they are fed a diet of no more than 50% concentrates (grains and minerals) and 50% forages. This diet that contains a high level of forages keeps the rumen healthy and out of an acidic state that is so often described in films. These animals are fed in large outdoor lots where they have room to move around and remain in a healthy environment while still allowing a safe handling system for feeding and sorting.
What is your view of the nutrient decline (CLA, vitamin E, Omega 3 etc.) during grain finishing?
Black Earth Meats: There is nothing natural about grain finishing ruminants in feedlots. I’m surprised the animals can survive at all.
Cedar Valley Farm: I’m not qualified to answer these 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.”
Dietzler: Although some decline in these nutrients can occur, we don’t believe that it is any greater through our feeding system than it would be in feeding stored feed during winter months. We live in a climate that requires us to use the highest quality stored feeds we can produce to maintain and grow animals during winter months when fresh grass isn’t available (even to grass-fed farms). We take care to feed the animals we produce the best quality feed we can store in order to provide as consistent a diet as possible when fresh growing grass isn’t available.
What is the health risk to cows when you alter the pH of their stomachs with grain?
Black Earth Meats: we see the E. coli mutation from grain finishing that you don’t get in grass (or high forage) diets.
Cedar Valley Farm: The health risk 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.
Dietzler: The risk to cattle is great if grain is used improperly. As stated, we use a limited amount of grain and high amount of forage (when using grain at all) to prevent large changes in rumen pH levels. It is often overlooked, but a small amount of grain, which is high in very available energy, often provids the needed starch for the stomach microbe population to break down the high forage (fiber) diet that cattle thrive on. Without this added energy, especially when eating stored forages, the cattle often aren’t able to utilize the forages efficiently or effectively.
Where can consumers find you in the Chicago area? (retail and restaurants)
Black Earth Meats: we’re all over the place. We run through Natural Direct, a great natural food focused distributor down there. A number of the smaller natural food stores carry our meats and cheeses, as well as a growing number of restaurants. Some of the ones off the top of my head: Hopleaf; Z&H Market Cafe; Olivia’s Market; Fruitful Yield; Rootstock; Goose Island; Anteprima; Hot Chocolate; Floriole Bakery; Marion Street Cheese Market; Elyssian Hotel; Bistro Campagne.
For more information about our (Otter Creek) type of agriculture, visit ottercreekorganicfarm.com and midwesternbioag.com. For more about our abattoir (Black Earth Meats), visit blackearthmeats.com. Black Earth Meats is USDA, certified organic, and Animal Welfare Approved, with four levels of humane handling audits.
Cedar Valley Farm: To learn more about our farm and how to receive our meats, please visit our website cedarvalleysustainable.com.
Dietzler: All of our restaurants and retailers that we work with are found online at Dietzler-Farms-restaurant.
If a consumer wants to buy from us directly, they can pick up at the farm, at the processing plant (Seward, IL) or at the distribution center (Chicago).
Meadow Haven Organic: You can find us at the Green City Market on Saturdays.
Also we have monthly drop offs in Downers Grove, Elgin, and Arlington Heights. The schedule for those deliveries is on our website meadowhavenfarm.com.