Grass-Fed Cornfusion

For the past several years there has been an increasing number of times that I’ve heard sound-bites along the lines of “Cows (they meant to say cattle) eating grass (forages including immature cereal crops) only is the natural, most sustainable and humane way to raise beef animals; that’s also healthier for humans to consume.”  This type of statement causes me confusion because it sounds like common sense; yet at the same time much of it runs counter to what I thought I knew about beef cattle production.  After pondering the issue I decided it to be rather complicated and easy to reduce to sound-bites for people that want to be ecologically friendly; while eating healthy beef products at the same time.   Unfortunately, most of those same people are not interested enough in the meat they eat to pursue learning more about the gargantuan world-wide beef industry.  More information might increase their big-picture thinking about the North American grass-fed beef trend.  As I started working on this post it became apparent that each paragraph could easily become a lengthy blog post on its own.  This condensed article is “meaty,” so depending on your background, parts of it could call-for further explanation or research.  I have no financial interest in the often impassioned grass-finished -vs- grain-finished beef debate, but have tried to present pertinent facts about the interesting subject of beef production.  The most important fact is likely that all beef animals are grass-fed the majority of their lives.  It appears that the finishing phase, in young/tender “market” cattle production, is the point of contention.  As herbivores, beef brood cows are routinely raised and maintained solely on forages; while producing a high protein – tender calf every year.  Bovines energy needs largely come from complex carbohydrates which humans are unable to digest, plus they don’t require complete proteins because the first section of their 4 compartment stomach (rumen or paunch) is basically a fermentation vat where bacteria and protozoa grow to create a protein-rich biomass that’s later absorbed.  Then, at the end of brood cow’s productive lives they provide us with boneless meat to blend with fat beef trimmings in the production of palatable further processed beef items.

All bovines are not created equal.  American Bison are basically wild/hard to work with (therefore, males are not usually castrated), have heavy hides & big heads (lower dressing percentage), carry the majority of their weight in the less desirable forequarter, have a low genetic propensity to marble, mature slow and produce comparatively tough meat.  Bos Indicus (Brahman influence AKA South Cattle in the U.S.) cattle have good beef body conformation, like bison are good foragers, and are more heat & disease resistant then Bos Taurus cattle.  But, Bos Indicus are relatively slow maturing, yield comparatively tough meat and have a low predisposition to marble.  Bos Taurus (European) cattle were domesticated thousands of years ago then selectively bred for meat, milk and/or draft.  Cattle with near optimal production and eating quality characteristics were indigenous to the British region.  Those cattle were early maturing, had good beef conformation and a fairly high genetic propensity to marble.  FYI: Waguy originated from British and European Continental breeds; including dairy types.  Dairy-beef tends to marble well because the more milk a cattle breed produces, the more likely they are to display higher degrees of marbling.

Different countries have different climates and land types which dictate what kind of cattle production enterprises, if any, have a chance of being economically successful there.  Countries that predominately consist of marginal grasslands are well suited to offer boneless, frozen, 90% lean beef blocks for export to blend with grain-finished fat trimmings in the making of further processed beef products.  The U.S. has been importing grass-finished  beef blocks by the freezer ship load since the 1960’s.  Given that grass-finished beef products are still becoming more popular in the U.S., it seems it would be a wise marketing ploy to start labeling further processed beef items to point out the high percentage of grass-finished meat they contain (from both foreign raised stock & domestic culled breeding animals).  In the scenario where the efficient production of lean beef is the priority, large heavy muscled breeds can often be utilized, bulls are seldom castrated (castration reduces rate of weight gain and eating quality will later be enhanced with grain-finished fat trim), this type of market animal is harvested just as its growth curve starts to level out and breeding stock are of near equal value to younger animals (grinding takes care of meat tenderness).  In tropical region countries grass is available year round, but higher heat and insect populations make the use of Brahman or Brahman cross-breeds an optimal choice.  High marginal land countries that have more temperate climates can more economically grass-finish British breeds at a young enough age (meat cut tenderness issue) to market as retail cuts.  But, even in temperate climate grassland countries the production of 90% lean beef is probably more profitable because it minimizes feed stuffs and facilities usage plus turns a dollar in a shorter period of time.

Many grain-bearing plants, including corn, are botanically classified as belonging to the grass-family.  Further, some the highest nutrient value forages are legumes such as alfalfa and clovers.  Since alfalfa is high in beta-carotene a diet containing a lot of it tends to produce a softer (less saturated) and somewhat yellow fat; which is not as eye-appealing to fresh meat buyers as hard, white, grain-finished fat is.  As it is with humans, if nutrient dense food is available herbivores will naturally opt to consume it in order to build-up fat stores that would be useful to help survive potential “lean” times in the future.  Also as with humans, eating too much of a good thing can cause health problems.  Roughage needs to be part of a market cattle finishing ration as a means of preventing costly health problems.

In the early 20th century some passenger ship lines, high-end hotels and a few restaurants began paying more for grain-finished beef, but often received product that varied widely in eating enjoyment.  As a result, USDA Quality and later Yield grades were requested on a fee-for-service basis.  Quality grades are predictors of the major palatability characteristics: tenderness, flavor and juiciness.  Acceptable tenderness is most often found in younger cattle.   Flavor & juiciness come from fat, and fat flavor is influenced by an animal’s finishing ration.  Therefore, the trick is to get portion steak cut size cattle to put on white fat (preferably marbling) before muscle collagen increasingly forms heat-stable cross-links (toughness) that come with older maturity levels.  Yield grades predict the percentage of closely trimmed, boneless retail cuts a carcass will yield.  Yield grades were more economically relevant back when the breaking of beef sides was widely practiced in retail establishments.   Fat trimmings from big harvest plant wholesale cut fabrication are sold to grind/blend with 90% lean beef blocks and/or meat from culled breeding stock, or fat trimmings are rendered to produce beef tallow & low temperature rendered beef.  Low Temperature Rendered Beef (AKA Finely Textured Lean Beef) is also used in further processed items; now usually precooked patties.

The U.S. has abundant natural resources for small-scale grass-finished beef production.  However, since we currently kill about 28 million “fat” (retail market) cattle per year there is not enough grasslands to support both the breeding herds and slaughter steers & heifers, that take about 2 years to properly finish on grass.  Any lack of acceptable tenderness from older grass-finished retail beef is usually corrected by dry-aging, but that  causes increased carcass shrinkage and there is more amine formation in the meat.  Further, some of the moderately dry range States have long winters plus fragile ecosystems.  The U.S.’s grain-belt is too valuable to use for forage production because grain can be used directly by humans around the world.  Less time to feed-out (so too many cattle aren’t hoofing-up the range and covering plants with green manure), less facility usage and less time putting out methane all look to be ecological advantages of grain-finishing.

The Certified Angus Beef brand is a marketing success story where many other Angus specifications were eventually written to help gain a marketing advantage from the breed name.  Since grass-finished U.S. beef has to be higher priced than grain-finished, it’s possible that unscrupulous beef producers might try and take financial advantage by marketing grain-finished as grass-finished.