Grain vs. Grass

A topic that is consistently discussed in the beef industry is the differences in grain fed vs. grass fed beef products. Debates cover the diet, cost and quality of the final product. So, which is really better?

Grain fed

Excess energy from a grain finished diet is often stored as marbling. A ribeye with a slightly abundant amount of marbling would qualify for USDA Prime and would likely offer a better eating experience than one with a slight amount of marbling (USDA Select).

This is seen as the “traditional” way of feeding cattle today in the US.  On this diet, cattle can be fed a combination of grass and grains. Grain finished diets are high in energy and allow cattle to build muscle and deposit fat. Grains that may be included in the diet include corn, distillers grains, oats, barley, various forms of silage, and more.

Excess energy is stored as intramuscular fat, or fat that is within the muscle, commonly known as marbling. High levels of marbling are associated with a high-quality product that would be expected to be tender, juicy and flavorful.

The price of grain fed beef can vary based on quality grade (ex. A USDA Prime ribeye will cost more than a USDA Select ribeye). Although there is variation in price within the product, there are plenty of nutritious, affordable, great tasting beef products on the market.

Grass Fed

Typically, grass fed beef is seen as a niche market.  To fall within the grass fed category, cattle must be 100% forage fed after weaning and offered continuous access to pasture. Forages allowed on the grass fed diet include grass, legumes, some cereal grains (pre grain state), hay, crop residue without grains, and a vitamin and mineral mix. 

Due to the grass centered diet being lower energy, it takes a longer period for cattle to be ready for harvest compared to their grain fed counterparts.  Additionally, grass contains a high level of beta-carotene (what is converted to vitamin A, high levels in things like carrots, peas, spinach, etc.).  Because of this, fat associated with grass fed beef is often a yellow color, compared to the bright white color typically associated with grain finished beef.

Since grass fed beef is seen as a niche item, it often will come at a higher price point than the same cut, same quality grade, grain finished product. For example, Walmart sells USDA Choice, grain finished, NY strip steaks for $10.97/lb. They also sell USDA Choice, grass finished, NY strip steaks for $12.96/lb.

Which is Better?

Simply put, grain fed and grass fed beef are both great options. One of the awesome things about the food system in the US is that consumers have a choice. You have the opportunity to choose what cut, quality, and price point best suits you.  

Beef from both grain finished and grass finished animals offers 10 essential nutrients that are necessary for a healthy diet. Beef is an incredible source of iron, choline, protein, vitamins B6  and B12 , phosphorus, zinc, niacin, riboflavin and selenium. Additionally, all meat that is sold in the US is legally required to be processed under USDA inspection to ensure food safety. Whether grain or grass finished, you can trust that you are serving your family a safe, nutritious, great tasting product.  

Considering Color

Imagine you are buying steaks for your family. You walk up to the counter at the grocery store to try to decide which package to buy. What do you look for?  For many people, one of first things that is taken into consideration is the color of the product. In fact, one of the primary factors for discounting meat products is discoloration. Although the product may be perfectly safe, nutritious and delicious, off-color is off-putting to many consumers.  Variation in meat color can be caused by many different factors.

Meat gets its color from the myoglobin that is present in muscle tissue. During life, myoglobin carries oxygen throughout the muscle and is what is responsible for the red color primarily associated with meat. When meat is thawed, myoglobin and water are released creating purge, a liquid often confused with blood. Different muscles have different amounts of myoglobin depending on their use.  The more active they are, the more myoglobin present as the muscle requires more oxygen. The level of myoglobin within the muscle can vary based on muscle fiber type and maturity of the animal.

Type 1 muscle fibers are used for long term locomotion (cross country runner) and have higher amounts of myoglobin. Cattle have predominantly type 1 muscle fibers. Beef are locomotive animals and often are consistently walking to reach water and feed sources. The high levels of myoglobin within their muscles create a bright, cherry red colored meat.

Type 2 muscle fibers are used for short bursts of energy (sprinter) and have lesser amounts of myoglobin. Chickens have predominantly type 2 muscle fibers (there are varying degrees of type 2 fibers, but we won’t go into detail on those today). Typically, chickens only need short bursts of energy to make it to their roost or to run for a short period of time. Due to the lower levels of myoglobin, their muscles will have a lighter colored, pinkish tint.

The muscle structure within animals is not strictly one muscle fiber type or another. They can have a combination within they system based on their use (white vs. dark meat). Even breed and production style can cause differences. For example, farm raised turkeys are not required to be very mobile and don’t need sustained locomotion to get food, water, etc.  Wild turkeys, on the other hand, will cover a lot more ground and engage their muscles a lot more.  They produce a meat that is much darker in color compared to their farm raised counterpart.

In addition to muscle fiber type, maturity can impact final product color. As an animal ages, more myoglobin (what carries oxygen to the muscle and makes it red) is present and gives meat a redder color. This is especially evident in beef animals. Veal, or meat produced from a young calf, will often be a pinkish color. Meat from a traditional market steer is traditionally the bright, cherry red color that we are used to seeing at the retail counter. Meat from old cull cows or bulls, is a darker, deeper, red color that is not as appealing to the consumer.

Additionally, preharvest factors, including diet and stress can impact color. When an animal is harvested, the muscle goes through natural changes to convert to meat. One major change is the pH, or acidity level. Living muscle tissue has a nearly neutral pH of around 7.0.  When an animal is harvested, the pH declines, making the meat slightly more acidic (pH of ~5.4).  Stress prior to harvest can affect the rate and level of pH decline, causing variation in color. In beef, long term stress can lead to dark cutters (product that is almost purple in color). In pork, stress leads to a product that is pale in color, soft (doesn’t hold shape) and exudative (losing moisture). Keeping the effect of stress on carcass quality in mind is important when handling livestock at home.

In addition to these factors, genetics, sex, harvest methods, oxygen exposure, etc. can all impact product color. Although not all variation in color is a negative thing (muscle fiber type), some may be an indication of a problem in production (preharvest stress). Understanding the production process is important to be able to identify the cause of color variation and determine if it is necessary to implement a change in production.

Every Cut has a Consequence

When I first started graduate school for meat science, I had very little experience cutting meat.  I had taken a few meat science courses in my undergrad, but they were focused on the science that goes into meat production. While pursuing my master’s, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the meat lab and got plenty of cutting experience.

Now, every time I get to help on the fab floor, I can hear one of my professors telling me, “Every cut has a consequence.”

This phrase stuck out to me because it reminded me of opportunity cost, a concept I learned in economics that really made sense to me.  Opportunity cost is basically what you give up by choosing to purchase something.  For example, I could buy a new sweater, or I could buy 5 cheeseburgers from Culver’s.  If I buy the sweater, my opportunity cost is the cheeseburgers. I am giving up my ability to purchase them.  If I buy the cheeseburgers, I am giving up the sweater.  As a poor college student, this concept was crystal clear. (I should add, I bought very few clothes in college because I always chose the cheeseburgers. Very rarely would I actually spend that much on burgers, so I saved myself a good chunk of cash and calories).

Opportunity cost relates to “every cut has a consequence” because every cut you choose to make when fabricating meat is a choice against another product.  Let me break this down with an example.

Porterhouse and T-Bone steaks, vs. Filet Mignon (tenderloin) and NY Strip. These steaks seem to have a lot of differences, but in reality they are one in the same.  A Porterhouse is made of the Psoas major (aka Filet Mignon or tenderloin) and the Longissimus dorsi (aka NY Strip), while a T-Bone is primarily the Longissimus dorsi and maybe a small portion of the Psoas major. The only difference is that the Porterhouse and T-Bone remain bone-in. The consequence of leaving the bone in and cutting Porterhouse and T-bone steaks is not being able to get Filets and NY Strips.  Likewise, choosing to remove the bone and cut Filets and NY Strip steaks means that Porterhouses and T-Bones will not be kept.  Every cut has a consequence.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both products. Porterhouses and T-Bones are difficult to cook correctly.  The muscles have difference characteristics and are different sizes.  Those things, plus the addition of the bone make it difficult to get a consistent cook. Additionally, if you are buying them at the grocery store, you are paying for the bone, an inedible product. On the plus side, they taste good.  The filet is the most tender muscle on a beef animal and a NY strip is a very high-quality cut.  You get the best of the best in one cut.

Now, on the flip side, cutting Filets and NY Strips instead of Porterhouses and T-Bones results in two steaks that are very consistent and therefore easier to cook.  If you are cooking a grill full of Filets or NY Strips, it is much easier to get a good, consistent cook than trying to account for two totally different products at once. When you buy the product from the grocery store you are paying for meat.  There may be small amounts of plate waste from fat or connective tissue, but you are not paying for bone that will be discarded later. Choosing to de-bone and have 2 cuts will also lessen the portion size (positive or negative depending on your appetite).

So whether you’re working with your local butcher on how you would like your beef cut or buy steaks at the grocery store, remember that every cut has a consequence.  Luckily in this case, there are no bad consequences, only great tasting products!

Simple Steak Science: Yield

I got great feedback from my last post about using pineapple and jello to explain tenderness in beef.  This week, I will once again use a pineapple to explain a really important topic in meat science, yield! 

Yield answers the question of “how much?” How much meat can we expect from the carcass? How much boneless, closely trimmed, retail cuts will make it to the grocery store?

Now, it will take a little explaining to answer these questions. I personally am not a consumer of plant based meat, but for this post we will use a pineapple to represent a beef animal. Close enough to a steak, right?

Step 1:

The animal is harvested.  Harvest is a term often used instead of slaughter.  When an animal is harvested, the head, hide, hooves, blood and viscera (internal organs) are removed.  What is left is referred to as the “hot carcass.” The carcass is composed of muscle (meat), bone, fat and connective tissue.  Similarly, when cutting up a pineapple, the first step is to remove the top, bottom and outside, leaving behind the edible fruit and core.

Step 2:

Fabricate the carcass into primals.  Fabricate is another word for cut and primals refers to large groupings of muscles.  From here, excess fat is trimmed and bones can begin to be removed. Likewise, spots are removed from the outside of the pineapple and the core is removed.

Step 3.  

Cut the primals into retail cuts.  At this point, the muscle groups can be further portioned into steaks and roasts that will be sold at the retail counter.  Excess fat is continued to be trimmed and remaining bones are removed (unless cutting bone-in steaks and roasts, then some bones remain). Once this step is completed, you are left with the yield from that animal, or the boneless, closely trimmed, retail cuts. In a pineapple, once the skin and core have been removed, the fruit can be cut into chunks or slices and is ready to be served.

During this process, a lot of weight is seemingly “lost.”  If you were to bring a 1400 lb. steer to the butcher, it is likely that you will only get about 500 lbs. of meat back.  The weight that is “lost” is in the bones, fat, hide, blood, etc.  However, none of this weight is actually lost.  It can all be used.  Medical supplies, sports equipment, textiles, biofuels, pet food, and much more are all co-products of the meat industry and can be produced using that “lost” weight.  By harvesting the animals for meat, supplies are produced to be used in industries across the spectrum.  Nothing is wasted.

Who would have thought that a pineapple and a steak could have so much in common? Now whether you’re enjoying a bowl of pineapple or a steak on the grill, it is sure to “yield” a great experience!

How Many Pounds of Meat can we Expect from a Beef Animal?

This post was co-written with Nebraska Extension Educator, Randy Saner, and originally posted on the UNL Beef Extension website on August 1, 2020. The link to the original publication, which includes more graphs and reported data, is included at the end of this post.

Consumers who buy a live animal from a local cattle producer or 4-H member for custom processing are often surprised by the amount of beef they receive, the amount of freezer space needed and that they did not get back the entire live weight of the animal in retail cuts.  This article will discuss how to estimate how much meat you will receive when purchasing an animal to harvest.

Dressing Percentage is an important term to remember as it represents the portion of the live animal weight that transfers to the hot carcass weight.

Dressing percentage is calculated as: (hot carcass weight ÷ the live weight) x 100.

The hot carcass weight (HCW) is the weight of the unchilled carcass in pounds after the head, hide and internal organs have been removed.  For most fed cattle, the HCW will be approximately 60 to 64 percent of live animal harvest weight.  For example, a 1400-pound animal with a hot carcass weight of 880 pounds has a dressing percentage of approximately 63%, which is calculated as follows:

(880 hot carcass weight ÷ 1400-pound live weight) x 100 = 63%.

It is not uncommon for the buyer of a live animal to question, “The dressing percentage of my 1400-pound steer was 63% but I only got 550 pounds of meat – where is the rest of my meat?”  The calculation of dressing percentage is based on hot carcass weight.  The hot carcass weight includes bones, excess fat and moisture loss that will not be packed and wrapped for home consumption. The hot carcass weight is not the actual amount of meat that the consumer will put in his or her freezer. 

Many factors can affect the dressing percentage.  Anything that adds weight to the live animal but does not appear on the carcass will lower the dressing percentage.  Factors that might add to the live animal weight but not be included in the hot carcass weight include:

  • Hide
  • Horns
  • Pregnancy
  • Mud and/or manure on the hide
  • Gut fill

All beef animals are not created equal.  Therefore, the dressing percentage is not consistent from one animal to another.  Some of the primary factors that influence the dressing percentage include breed of the animal (dairy vs beef), live weight and how it was finished (grain fed or grass fed). The table below shows the relative dressing percentage for various types of beef animals and background conditions.

A beef carcass is composed of 70 to 75% water.  As it is chilled, water evaporation will cause the carcass weight to decrease.  It is not uncommon for a chilled carcass to weigh 2 to 5% less than the hot carcass.  That means our example 880-pound carcass could lose nearly 40 pounds during chilling solely due to water loss by evaporation!

After a carcass is cooled, it will be further processed into the retail cuts you bring home.  The carcass is split in half, and further separated into “primal” (or wholesale) cuts.  This process is referred to as “breaking down the carcass or fabrication.”  Beef primal cuts in the front-quarter include the rib, chuck, shank, brisket, and plate; while the hind quarter is composed of the flank, round and loin (short loin and sirloin).  The table below shows the typical weights and percent of a carcass of various primals from an 880 lb. carcass.

Wholesale or primal meat cuts will be further processed into sub-primals or retail cuts. The basic concept of fabricating beef retail cuts is to separate tender muscles from less tender muscles, thick muscles from thin muscles and fat from lean portions.  What remains when bone and fat are removed is referred to as yield, or the percent of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts. For example, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association publication entitled “Beef Cut: Primal and Sub primal Weights and Yields,” the round typically makes up 22% of the hot carcass weight. For an 880 – pound carcass, the round would be approximately 194 pounds.  About 20 percent of that weight is made up of fat and bone. This leaves approximately 155 pounds of meat, including steaks, roasts, and ground product, that will be packaged for consumption.

This picture demonstrates yield. A carcass includes muscle, fat, bone and connective tissue. As a the meat is divided into retail cuts, excess fat, bone and tissue are removed to provide a boneless, closely trimmed product that is ready for consumption. Photo Credit: Jessica Lancaster, University of Idaho

Factors that affect yield of retail cuts include:

  • Carcass Fat – External carcass fat, or backfat, has the greatest impact on the percent of retail product from a carcass.  As more fat is trimmed away from the retail cuts, less weight will be included in the final packaged product; thus, a lower percentage of retail cuts.
  • Carcass Muscularity – Superior carcass muscling can increase the yield of a carcass.  Dairy – type animals with lower lean-to-bone ratios typically yield lower than beef type animals.
  • Cutting style or cutting directions given to the processor can affect carcass yield.  For instance, the amount of bone-in versus boneless cuts, trimming of retail cuts and the percent of fat of the ground beef will affect retail yield.
  • Aging – the two major advantages of aging meat are improvement in tenderness and enhancement of a “beefy” flavor.  A typical aging period of seven to fourteen days allows for tenderness development. Long term aging also can have a negative effect on carcass yield as it results in more weight loss from the carcass due to further moisture loss.

In summary, the amount of meat that is cut and wrapped for consumption will be much less than the live weight of the animal.  A 1400-pound beef animal will yield a hot carcass weight of approximately 880 pounds.  Once cooled, the carcass weight will be approximately 840 pounds. When deboned and trimmed, there will be approximately 570 pounds of product to fill your freezer.

It is important to remember that fat, bone and trim that is discarded from the carcass are not simply thrown away. These products are known as byproducts and can be used in various industries across the spectrum.  From leather, pet food, and fertilizer to medical equipment, cosmetics and sporting equipment; the value of a harvested animal stretches far past your freezer.

It is important to understand that these numbers will vary based on many factors.  Not all harvested animals weigh 1400 pounds.  Some may be harvested at 1100 pounds and some at 1500+ pounds. Some animals may be dairy type and others may be beef type.  Some may be grass finished and some may be grain finished.  All these factors contribute to how much meat you take home.

When deciding to purchase an animal for harvest, keep in mind the space you have available for safe and effective storage. A quarter of beef takes an approximately 4.5 cu. ft. of chest freezer or a 5.5 cu. ft. upright freezer.  A side (half), requires around 8 cu. ft. of space, while a whole beef will need 16 cu. ft.

To summarize: A 1,400-pound steer, one-half inch fat, average muscling, yields an 880-pound carcass. The 880-pound carcass yields approximately:

  • 570 pounds boneless trimmed beef;
  • 280 pounds fat trim and bone;
  • 32 pounds of kidney, pelvic, and heart (KPH) fat, trim loss and carcass shrink.

https://beef.unl.edu/beefwatch/2020/how-many-pounds-meat-can-we-expect-beef-animal?fbclid=IwAR0Xfo63fE4c6jy4fRZAHW1-I87U14gfye-QlyxfF5OmWxY5NIEtzN7uZWs

Sources:
Preparing to buy a Quarter of Beef, University of Minnesota Extension
Beef Cuts Primal & Subprimal Weights and Yields Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
How Much Meat To Expect From a Beef Carcass University of Tennessee Extension Publication 1822
How Much Meat Can You Expect from a Fed Steer, South Dakota State University

High Stress Steaks

My whole life I have been very fortunate to have home-raised beef in my freezer.  It is not often that I have had to buy meat in the store, however, I do enjoy perusing the meat counter whenever I go grocery shopping to see what is available and how much it costs.  Recently, I was shopping with a fellow meat science grad student when something in the meat counter caught our eye. 

The picture on the left shows product that would be considered a
“dark cutter.”

This picture shows two very different appearing steaks.  The package on the right appears normal, being the typical bright cherry red color that we would expect to see.  The package on the left, however, is a much darker color.  

The condition of this product is known in the industry as being a “dark cutter.”  As the name implies, it produces a very dark, unappealing product.  It is caused by long term stress of the animal that can be influenced by genetics, environment, or management.

The simple explanation:  Stress causes muscles to tense.  When this happens all the energy in the muscles is used.  When the animal is harvested, there is no energy left in the system to produce lactic acid and cause the meat to have a drop in pH.  This leads to product that is darker in color, firm in texture due to holding water, and dry on the surface since all the moisture is held within the cut.  For a more scientific explanation, read on.  If this is enough, skip to the final paragraph.

To get scientific: muscle tissue stores energy in the form of glycogen.  When we use our muscles, that glycogen is converted to lactic acid. (Think about when you try a new workout and are often sore the next day.  This is due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles since you used the muscle’s energy.)  When an animal is stressed for a long period of time, it uses up the glycogen within the system and depletes the lactic acid. (Think about when you’re stressed.  Do you tense up? Do you clench your fists and your jaw?  Your muscles are working.  The same thing happens to livestock.) 

When an animal is harvested, a lot of things happen as muscle is converted to meat.  One of these things is a drop in pH.  Living muscle tissue is very neutral, with a pH of approximately 7.0; whereas beef has a pH of approximated 5.6 (making it more acidic than living muscle). The drop in pH is caused by all of the glycogen that is left in the system at harvest being converted to lactic acid.  If an animal has been stressed for a long period of time, there is no glycogen available in the system, and there won’t be any lactic acid to drop the pH.  This causes the meat to have a very dark color and bind water tightly, creating a dry, tacky surface.  This produces a product that is dark, firm and dry.

It is important to note, that this product is still safe to consume, but due to its high level of moisture, is often used in further processed products.  Dark cutting beef is only found in approximately 1-2% of harvested cattle, often following severe changes in harsh weather.  Producers do all they can to limit this occurrence by controlling the animal’s environment and stress level.  Housing animals indoors, providing shade in the summer if housed outdoors, consistent feeding times, treating sickness, these are just a few practices that producers use to help mitigate stress of the animal.  Animal care is a priority to producers and ensuring a safe, high quality product for consumers is their mission.

One Bad Apple

I recently took a day-trip to Couer d’Alene, ID (an absolutely beautiful area, I highly recommend a visit). Anyway, while I was there, I came across a big street fair with vendors from all over the area.  Clothing, jewelry, food galore, and mixed in the crowd was a PETA demonstration. 

Participants were dressed in black clothing and white masks, and were holding screens that played videos showing animal abuse.  The ag community continually struggles sharing our story with consumers, while this group can confidently degrade everything we are working towards.  Now, I know many people don’t fully trust PETA’s representation of the industry, but often think, “they had to get the video from somewhere.”   

The easiest way for me to think about and describe the work PETA is doing, is with the following scenario:

Imagine that you were at a farmer’s market.  A beautiful day with booths full of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables all grown locally.  You stop at a stand, Annie’s Apples, to buy fruit for the week.  While looking at the big, shiny, red apples, you come across one that is small, disformed, bruised and just mushy.  Rotten. 

Seeing this rotten apple, you decide that if she had one bad apple, the rest of them at her stand must not be worth buying.  Annie doesn’t raise her apples properly.  If this one is bad, how can the rest be good?  She can’t be trusted. 

You then tell your friend’s not to buy apples from Annie.  This develops as you and your friends share on social media a picture of the gross little apple.  Now, all your connections not only think that Annie’s apples are bad, but every farmer must produce those bad apples.  They’re not only skeptical of buying apples from Annie, but from any apple producer.  No apples from farmer Annie, Adam, Alex, etc., etc.  Since their apples can’t be trusted, that means they can’t be trusted.  They’re abusing the apples just to make a quick buck.  They don’t actually care about the apples or the people eating the apples.

This scenario seems a little crazy, right?  Who would purposely abuse an apple?  And if one person thought that was a good idea, does it make sense that every apple farmer would purposely sell rotten fruit?  No. If an apple is bruised it isn’t going to taste good, and will cost the farmer money by trying to sell a poor-quality product.

Well, the same thing is true of animal agriculture.  Most farmers care deeply about their livestock.  Stress causes the animals to lose weight, makes it more difficult to care for their young, lowers their milk producing ability, causes meat quality problems.  Basically, stressed animals go against every goal that a farmer has for his livestock.  Those videos come from bad apples; often in the form of undercover, ‘animal rights activists’ working on farms.

Yes, there are a few bad apples out there.  There always has been, and there always will be.  But next time you see something posted, or maybe an in-person PETA protest, I hope that you don’t let one bad apple destroy your opinion on the whole bunch.

Branding and Green Grass

This time of year is busy for farmers.  Most have finished up calving and are ready to get the cows to pasture.  For the past few months, many producers have had their cows kept close to home to make things easier for calving time.  Now, it is time to take the ladies to greener pastures for the summer.

Before cows go to pasture, a few tasks must be completed.  Calves are typically vaccinated to help keep them healthy and many are branded.  Some producers brand their calves the first year they go to the pasture with their mothers, while others wait until they are a little older. 

There are different types of branding that serve different purposes.  My family uses both hot branding and freeze branding on our operation.  

We use freeze branding to number our animals.  It is done using a branding iron that is frozen using dry ice and liquid nitrogen or alcohol.  Once the irons are cold, they are pressed onto the desired location for 30-60 seconds.  This type of branding kills the color follicle of the hair.  Although the hair will grow back, it will not have any pigment and will be white in appearance.  This method of identification is ideal because it allows for easy ID of the animal during any season and from a distance.  Our cattle also have ear tags that match their brand number; however, tags can be difficult to read.  If an animal is sick or has any reason to be noted, a freeze brand makes identification much easier!

This is a picture that my brother took of one of our bulls. The number brand that you see on his side was done using freeze branding. This practice helps us easily identify the animal.

Hot branding on the other hand, is used to put the farm’s brand on the animal.  Brands are unique to the producer and can help distinguish one farmer’s cattle from another’s.  This is ideal for cattle that will be moved to pasture for a season with little oversight by the farmer.  If a fence is broken and the cows get out, they can easily be identified to who they belong to.  Brands must be registered to the state and approved to be used.

Branding is a quick method to help easily identify and place ownership of an animal.  It is an effective tool for producers to use and can be very beneficial in running their operation.   Once this job is complete, the cows are ready to enjoy their summer on green grass!

Calving Season

The story of a steak begins long before it finds your plate.  In fact, for this story to begin, we must rewind over two years from when you purchased that steak, to baby making season…

Farmers make careful genetic decisions to improve their herd and the quality of meat that the animals produce.  There are numbers called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), that help producers predict how specific traits will be passed down to future generations of livestock.  Think of these numbers like batting averages.  That number helps you predict how your favorite player will hit and gets more accurate every time he is up to the plate.  EPDs work the same way; helping producers make decisions with their accuracy improving with the more offspring an animal has. EPDs are often used if a farmer is buying a bull or choosing one to use for artificial insemination.   These predictions can be specific for birthweight, ribeye area, marbling ability, and much more.

Natural breeding is common to the beef industry, but many operations incorporate artificial insemination into their program. Artificial insemination (AI) is an incredible technology that producers can use to help improve their herd genetics.  To use AI, semen is collected from the male, frozen and can then be shipped all over the world (In fact, when I visited a farm in China, they were using semen from a bull owned by a farmer I know in South Dakota!).  AI can be a relatively low-cost option to farmers to purchase limited quantities of semen, rather than making a large investment in a bull.  AI can be very successful for many operations and allow for specific breeding choices to be made, improving livestock quality.  

So now that the cows are bred, they need to be taken care of in terms of nutrition, health and environment to ensure a healthy calf is born.  Working with nutritionists and veterinarians help ensure that the cows are getting the nutrients that they need and are cared for. 

Then, about 283 days later…. it’s baby time!  Calves are born and a whole new round of excitement begins.  It’s calving season right now, and many farmers and ranchers are keeping busy. This winter has been hard on a lot of producers and livestock.  Farmers check on the livestock day and night to ensure new calves can be dried off and warmed up.

When a calf is born, it is important for them to be able to stand up and eat.  The first milk that they receive from their mama’s is colostrum.  Colostrum contains antibodies and nutrients that are passed on to the offspring.  This first meal is vital for future health of the animal. 

It is important to care for the calves during this time, but it is also necessary to keep a close eye on the cows.  The cows need to be fed a good diet that provides them enough energy to maintain themselves, as well as helping their calf grow strong and healthy.

This is just the beginning of the story of how meat makes it to your kitchen table.  Simply having a calf turns into a big process and requires so much time and hard work; from selecting a bull, to breeding, to keeping the cow healthy, to calving.  But all that hard work pays off knowing that it is the first step in providing a high quality product for consumers.  

The Journey to Your Table

Do you ever look down at the food that you’re having for supper and think about all the people that had to go to work to provide that meal for you?  I do, and it absolutely amazes me. Just think:

Your plate.

The grocery store.

The meat counter.

Truckers to get it from the packing plant to the store.

Packing plant workers.

Farmers.

USDA Inspectors, veterinarians, livestock nutritionists, meat scientists, extension agents, feed salesmen…the list goes on and on.  The meat industry in the United States directly employs over 525,000 people and indirectly employs 6.2 million people (those who are not working directly with meat but still play a role in producing the product).  All of those people are devoted to producing a safe, nutritious, high quality product for you to serve to your family.

When I was younger I used to go to church camp in the summer.  Before meals, we would pray and then do a short, group song.  One of them that always stuck with me was as follows:

                “Back of the bread is the flour,

                And back of the flour is the mill,

                And back of the mill is the sun, and the rain, and the maker’s will.”

This rhyme has always stuck with me and makes me appreciate all that goes into the food we eat. 

Growing up on a farm I just thought of it as my family raised the livestock, a local butcher harvested the animals, we picked up the meat and our freezer was full.  I never really realized how great of a blessing that was.  Now that I am living 1200+ miles away from our farm it isn’t quite so simple.  During my studies I have been able to tour multiple packing plants and visit with people employed in the meat department at various grocery stores.  It is so cool to see the care and passion that goes into producing a high-quality product all the way from the farm, to the packing house, to the grocery store and to your kitchen table.  In the following weeks I will break this down into the different phases of meat production and talk about specific practices that are done at each step to ensure a safe product ends up on your kitchen table.

So next time you celebrate a birthday with a steak, or eat a hotdog at your child’s baseball game, take a minute and think about all the hands that had to play a role to provide that meal for you.  I think you’ll appreciate every bite just a little bit more.