All About Types of Beef

corn silage                                       Chopping green corn for silage.

Ruminants have the ability to take-in complex carbohydrates from forage plants, that are indigestible  to us omnivores, then convert them into high quality animal protein.  Beef brood cows thrive on good quality grasses and legumes; then provide us with feeder calves.  When cows are deemed no longer to be productive enough they are harvested for beef.  Due to darker colored lean, yellowish fat and lack of tenderness cull cow meat is used in either ground beef products or otherwise further processed.  In the common case of ground products, boneless cow meat is blended with fat trimmings from market steers & heifers.  For example, if you purchase ground chuck it will be 80% lean and contain at least 50% chuck meat, but that chuck meat will almost always be from culled dairy or beef cows (not young, grain-finished retail market cattle). Grain-finished fat trim enhances a finished item’s appearance, plus increases desirable flavor and juiciness.  Tenderness is assured by grinding twice.  In further processed beef product plants market cattle fat trimmings have been blended with frozen, boneless, 60 pound blocks of imported grass-finished beef since the mid 1960’s.  More recently, a U.S. cattle shortage that took shape following the 2008, 2010 and 2012 drought years, coupled with and a fairly widespread discontinuing usage of Low Temperature Rendered Beef (AKA Pink Slime), has caused imported beef blocks to be used in the production of both burgers for large fast-food chains and in the blending of coarse ground chubs that are final ground at grocery stores to make fresh ground beef.

Like culled beef cows, old dairy cows provide boneless lean beef for further processing.  Dairy cow’s lives differed from beef cows in that they spent their time fairly close to the barn/milking parlor and were fed high energy (grain containing) rations to help maintain them as efficient milk producers.  Breeding bulls of both beef and dairy types are also sometimes fed grain containing diets to help keep them in good flesh and virile.

Flavor, tenderness and juiciness are recognized as being the most important meat palatability characteristics.  Young cattle are normally relatively tender, but lack flavor and juiciness until such time that they put on enough fat; marbling in particular.  Using early maturing breeds that have a high propensity to marble, then finish feeding them on a high energy diet is the traditional practice for producing US style retail market beef.  Much of the word lacks fertile row crop lands; many people in the world are unfamiliar with grain-finished beef.

Like humans, by nature cattle prefer nutrient rich foods to facilitate storing fat reserves for in case they encounter future lean times.  However, cattle have 4 stomachs, with the first acting mainly as a fermentation vat; so it’s important that changes to their diet are made gradually.  Grain finishing British breeds of cattle was king in the US until beef producers began looking for least-cost production practices and heart doctors simultaneously declared war on saturated animal fats.  Starting in the late 1960’s and throughout most of the 70’s, big Continental European multipurpose (draft, beef, dairy) cattle breeds were crossed with existing U.S. British origin breeds in an effort to obtain more, cheaper to produce, retail beef.  During the start of that time in US beef cattle history a lot of cows died from trying to birth too large of calves.  Heifers had it even worse.  As the change of practice grew and became widespread U.S. per capita beef consumption declined for 25 straight years.  As always, consumers continued to purchase what they could afford and enjoyed eating.  Starting in 1978 some traditionalist founded the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand, which eventually ignited today’s Angus craze.  However, saturated fat avoidance recommendations made by doctors and nutritionist still causes some health conscience consumers to continue buying ultra lean beef.  Perceived health benefits and being eco-friendly are the main appeal of truly grass-finished beef.  The major draw-backs to keeping repeat grass-finished young beef customers are: lack of mild beef flavor, lack of juiciness from being low in fat and a sometimes lack of tenderness from increased animal age.  After cattle reach maturity they will fatten and hopefully marble on an adequate forage diet.  This fact provides a grass-finished outlet for some C-maturity culled beef cows.  However, an acceptable tenderness level and desirable flavor both remain issues.  Traditional dry-aging of beef carcasses offers a workable solution, but the downside is that it causes increased product shrinkage from moisture loss and freshening trimming, plus it requires increased refrigerated facility usage.

In some grass-finished beef production programs bull calves are left un-castrated because they normally have a more rapid growth rate.  Meat from grass-finished bullocks (intact male bovines under about 30 months of age) is usually darker, coarser textured and extremely lean.  Bullock carcass traits often lead to lack of consumer satisfaction because such beef tends to not be as tender, doesn’t have a mild flavor and is not adequately juicy.  In grass steer and heifer production, consumer palatability issues have usually been addressed by either using small very early maturing British cattle breeds or by advertising grass-fed instead of grass-finished beef.  Here is an expert definition of grass-fed beef.  You may be interested in hearing what passes for grass-fed beef by listening to this webinar. The key points are about 70 minutes into the  webinar.  It says that beef animals can be fed forages for as little as half of their lives and still be labeled grass-fed.  It also says that anything less than 100% grass-fed has to be listed on the product label as a percentage of the cattle’s lifetime.  Grain finishing periods are normally 90 to 120 days.  Retail market cattle are normally fat enough to harvest at 12 to 24 months of age; so virtually all market cattle could be labeled grass-fed as long as their percentage of time on forages is also listed.  Helping to add to the confusion, corn is in the grass family and I think corn silage is considered a forage.  Feeder cattle can also be pasture raised where there is a free-choice grain feeder available to them during the finishing phase.

Dyed-in-the-wool grass-finished cattle producers are probably not happy about all this cattle finishing confusion.  Physiological age of maturity, color and texture of both fat and lean, and corresponding expected marbling levels can all be judged by carcass evaluation.  It might be time for grass-finished grading to be offered, on a pay for service basis, to interested cattle producers.  Ironically, U.S. carcass grading was first called for by passenger ship lines and other buyers of high quality beef because they were paying extra to receive grain-finished beef that often ate like grass-finished beef of the day.

To summarize:  Cattle are big enough animals to go out pretty much on their own and turn marginal grass lands into high quality protein, but that natural phenomenon isn’t worth anything if consumers don’t become repeat customers by way of having enjoyable beef product eating experiences.  Fat trimmings from young grain-finished cattle are leveraged to enhance the palatability characteristics of grass-finished breeding stock and imported boneless beef from high marginal land countries.  I think that the U.S. should be sending some fat beef trimmings to other countries for use in enhancing further processed beef products abroad (frozen fat blocks could go back on the same freezer ships that deliver the lean blocks).  That practice seems more sustainable than the Low Temperature Rendering of US domestic fat beef trimmings (LFTB).

US domestic cattle production should have a methane credit from the millions of indigenous wild North American bison that are no longer with us.