Here’s a simplified version of the difference between the beef we serve at the Harvest table, and the beef you would get at any other restaurant in Washington County:
The first picture was taken at our own farm, right here in Meadowview, part of a small herd of Dexter cattle, and part of the grass finished supply of beef to The Harvest Table. The second picture was taken from Google Earth, and shows a cattle feedlot operation in Oklahoma (1).
Why does this matter? Well, if you agree that an organism derives its health from what it eats, then the differences between these two feeding systems is dramatic. To begin, let me compare the two systems, feedlot beef versus grass-finished beef. First, both pretty much start out the same, with calves born in a grassy field. The divergence of techniques shows up clearly when the animal reaches about 75% of its final weight, and is ready to be finished for the table (at maybe 10-16 months for feedlot animals, and maybe 20 months or more for grass-finished). To understand this better, at this point the animal has pretty much reached its adult weight (like a late teenager), and the additional growth during finishing will fill out its frame and add fat to the muscle. The finishing period establishes the final meat product. It’s this last period, the finishing, where the two methods diverge the most.
In feedlot finishing, animals are sold to a buyer, shipped to usually somewhere in the Midwest, and typically placed in a transition situation (called backgrounding) where they train the animals’ digestive system to transition from a grass diet to a diet of corn, soybeans and other food waste products. If cattle are placed directly on a high-protein corn and soy finishing diet, they are likely to get seriously ill. Because the backgrounding is quite taxing to their systems, they are routinely given antibiotics, and because the goal is to fatten them up, they are given growth hormones. Following their backgrounding, they are moved to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) and fed an even richer diet of genetically-modified corn and soybeans for fattening, until they reach some target weight and are sold to a slaughterhouse for processing. Because of the concentration of animals, we also see higher levels of stress and disease, and their waste products are highly concentrated, which is a huge environmental problem.
In grass finished beef, after reaching maturity the animals are kept on pasture. The simple version is that animals remain on grass until they are harvested. In reality, the following two steps require a bit more expertise. For grass-finished programs, how the animals treat the pastures is an important part of the operation. If animals are given free access to pastures, like children, they eat the best grasses, maybe a little of the second-rate forage, and almost none of the third-rate and beyond. If a rancher wants her fields to remain healthy, they have to consider the interaction between the pasture and the animals. In other words, she will use the animals to enrich the pasture for successive seasons. One straight-forward method for doing this is to implement rotational grazing, where a field is divided into as many as 15 or more smaller areas, and the animals are moved from paddock to paddock on a schedule largely determined by the condition of the pasture; the rotations would be shorter when the grasses are growing better (2). The finishing is a bit trickier, and requires both more time than feedlot finishing, requires a very rich grass supply, and requires some active management on the part of the rancher. The most effective way to finish on grass is to provide the animals with the richest possible grass, usually accomplished by moving animals through rich pasture on a short rotation, and best done during the time of year (spring and fall) when grasses have the best nutrition and growth (3). When done this way, grass finished beef is a seasonal product.
So how are outcomes from these two systems different? From an economic perspective, the main advantage of CAFO feedlot systems is that the beef ends up overall being cheaper, for three reasons. First, because it takes a shorter time period to finish animals. Second because the bulk of what they are being fed is subsidized by your tax dollars (true!). And third, and one of the main points of this essay, is that the actual costs of this production method, and the costs of the resulting environmental and health problems, are not included in the cost of the beef. In other words, cheap beef isn’t so cheap (4), and the main profits are being made by the big CAFOs, not the cattle ranchers (5). From a food-related perspective, the grass-finished beef is healthier, lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium and in total omega-3s (6). Finally, if done right, and the pastures are managed properly, it is one of the few human activities that actually removes carbon from the atmosphere (7).
So what do others think of feedlot beef? Well the well-known food writer Michal Pollen says,
“…we've made the meat cheaper. We've democratized meat. But in the process, we've made it a less healthy product with much more serious consequences for the environment.” (8)
The nutrition writer, John Robbins, is more direct:
“Feeding grain to cattle has got to be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.” (9)
So the next time you’re in the mood for a good burger, or a fantastic steak, ask yourself where does the beef come from? Do you want to support industrial beef production in feedlots, or would you prefer more environmentally friendly and healthier beef? That’s what we have at The Harvest Table, and we offer that as a promise: all of our beef is grass based and local, and none of it ever comes from a feedlot.
Can any other restaurant in our region make that same promise?
1) If you want a bigger context for this, the feedlot is located at 36.942381, -101.619526 (put that in google and look at the aerial image). What I show here is only about 2% of the animals at that feedlot.
2) Rotational Grazing in detail: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1097378.pdf
3) Discussion of grass-fed standards
4) For an overall discussion of the differences:
a)Interview with Michael Pollan: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/pollan.html
b) An article by Ken Kailing, Grass-Fed vs. Feedlot Beef - What's the difference?
c) Barry Estabrook: Feedlots vs. Pastures: Two Very Different Ways to Fatten Beef Cattle:
5) Stephanie Ogburn: Ranchers struggle against giant meatpackers and economic troubles
6) S. K. Duckett, J. P. S. Neel, J. P. Fontenot and W. M. Clapham
Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate,
J Anim Sci 2009.87:2961-2970.
8) Michael Pollen: (PBS interview)
9) John Robbins: What About Grass-fed Beef?