Pounds of choices

By Kyle Bauer

Fairbury senior

You walk into a supermarket and head to the deli section of the store. It’s a beautiful sunny weekend, and that means one thing – grilling. In the Midwest, this commonly calls for you to approach the display case packed full of fresh steaks, where you might see a variety of choices, such as organic, grass-fed, and the traditional grain-fed beef. How will you ever make up your mind?

It can be confusing, but one thing they have in common is that they spend at least two-thirds of their lifetimes in pastures.

Grain-fed beef is the most common form of production in the United States. This animal can be found in a feedlot being fed such things as dry distillers grains, rolled or steam flaked corn or sorghum, silage, and hay of some sort. They are fed this diet after grazing with their cows prior to being weaned. After weaning, cattle are usually backgrounded through grazing or being grown in a grower feedlot with a similar ration to their finishing ration, except it contains more roughage and less grain.

After their growing period, they are moved to feedlots to begin the finishing process. As a result, all finished cattle spend the first two-thirds of their lives on pasture. The difference is in the final phase.

The more time consuming practice in beef production is grass feeding. These animals have a similar upbringing, being raised on their cow on grass. They are then weaned and continue to be grown on grass. But instead of entering the finishing phase in a feedlot, the cattle continue to graze until they meet an acceptable market weight. This process is slower and on average requires 10 extra months or a total of 24 months compared to the 14 months for the typical grain-fed animal. The need for more land and the longer feeding requirement causes less availability and a heftier price tag on products deemed “grass-fed” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The intensive production process is organic beef production. These cattle are required to be separated from cattle in differing production systems and have more extensive standards to receive the organic grade. They are allowed to be vaccinated for diseases, but not allowed additional antibiotics. So if they get sick and need treatment to get well, they are no longer sold as organic. They are not allowed to be fed anything but 100-percent organically raised products, or anything containing animal by-products. This allows for grain feeding but only if it was certified organic. The finishing process is accelerated compared to grass-fed due to the increased energy of the diet and increased fat production from grains.

The differing practices give rise to various concerns. Grain-fed beef fights the stigma of using antibiotics and hormones and the myth of these compounds being found in the retail beef sold in stores. The USDA diligently checks beef to prevent the circulation of meat containing any form of antibiotics. All medications allowed to be given to cattle have strict withdrawal dates that have been rigorously researched to determine how long the medicine stays in animal systems. With these withdrawal dates, producers know when it is safe to ship their cattle for harvest and for the beef products to pass regulations are set by the Food and Drug Administration.

The eating quality of the finished product can be in question when it comes to grass-fed beef, known for being a leaner product. Consumers have struggled with cooking grass-fed beef. Over cooking leads to less flavor along with a higher degree of toughness.

Organic beef struggles to be a cost effective and readily available in all markets. Producers have higher input costs due to the lessened availability of certified organic feedstuffs and the practices required to be certified organic. Organic beef may be grass- or grain-fed. In fact, over two thirds of the organic beef produced in the United States is fed grain. If cattle get sick or injured and require treatment, they must be removed from the National Organic USDA program. Without the aid of added antibiotics, the animals have to rely more heavily on their own natural immunity to fight disease, and producers might be reluctant to give medical treatment, which would result in removal from the program.

Even with the differences in production, the end result is three very similar products. Dr. Stephen Smith, Texas A&M University, has shown that both grass- and grain-fed beef contain high amounts of heart healthy fatty acids, the same ones found in olive oil. The main differences in these products are small differences in levels and types of fats. Grass-fed beef has a little bit higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in comparison to grain-fed, which has a little bit higher level of oleic acid, a fatty acid which increases the HDL (good) cholesterol level and reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol. Organic production does not affect these fat levels.

Superior fat marbling gives an advantage to grain–fed beef, along with the improved tenderness, juiciness and flavor. The vast majority of the higher quality cuts come from grain-fed cattle, with deeper and more widespread marbling.

Diversity in the beef industry provides a high quality selection for everyone and their varying tastes. Nutritionally, they all are high quality sources of protein and vitamins. They differ slightly in fatty acid composition, but all forms have heart-healthy qualities, which has been proven by reliable research projects conducted at such institutions as Penn State. As a student at Fort Hays State University and an advocate for agriculture, I encourage the continued development of this essential industry to our country.

Kyle Bauer, a 2015 Fairbury High School graduate, is a senior majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Brian and Sandy Bauer, Fairbury, Neb.

This essay on a topic in agriculture was researched and written by a student as part of a project in a senior animal science class at Fort Hays State University. The project director is Dr. Brittany Howell, associate professor of agriculture, bjhowell@fhsu.edu, 785-628-4015.

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