A Closer Look at Feedyards – Grass, Grain…What Are the Cattle Eating?

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The average American today is at least two generations removed from agriculture.  That describes me pretty well.  My grandparents had a small honey bee operation, and five years ago my sister married into a crop farming family, but other than that, I have no direct exposure to agriculture of any form.  That means that most of what I know about my food and how it’s raised and by whom, comes only from the media.  I’m so glad I received this opportunity to get a closer look at where my beef comes from and meet the people who are involved in the industry.  Unfortunately when you hear about cattle operations of any kind in the news, it’s usually negative, and the industry isn’t like that overall.

Most cattle spend the majority of their lives grazing on grasslands before moving to a feedyard where they receive a balanced grain-based diet.

A typical day at the feedyard starts early.  At T&E Cattle Co., the feedyard I visited, the feed trucks go out to the pens first thing in the morning.  Of course prior to that the feed all needs to be mixed in the right proportions for each pen.  Some are still eating a mostly grass mixture of roughage, others are on a higher grain diet.  This system is highly computerized with the feed ingredients scaled, and micro-ingredients are added to the ration through sophisticated measuring equipment before being poured out into the truck and mixed together.  Each batch is linked through a computer system that is in the trucks so that there is an accurate posting of feed for each pen.  Then the workers in charge of feeding the cattle do it all over again in the afternoon!

The cattle know when their food is coming too – it was kind of humorous to see them all lined up waiting at the trough for the feed to put in!

You may have heard that cattle have byproducts in their feed.  That’s true, BUT, it’s nothing that you nor I couldn’t consume as well.  We might not LIKE it, but it wouldn’t be harmful for us to eat it.  In places like Idaho it might be discarded potato products, in North Dakota it might be the tops or pulp from sugar beets. 

In Nebraska the byproducts can come from corn that’s grown and harvested for ethanol production.  It results in a compound called Distillers Grain, which can be used as a source of nutrition in cattle feed.  I actually tried some of it straight from the pile, and while it wasn’t overly palatable it certainly didn’t hurt me to ingest it.

So no more thinking that byproducts refer to fast food containers or discarded products off of store shelves.

And what about GMOs?  What if the feed that is being used for the cattle came from GMO crops?  This was one of the questions I had prior to taking this trip.  I was somewhat concerned about the effect they might have on my beef.

The labeling of food derived from genetically modified plants is a matter of some controversy. The FDA does not consider the method of production, including genetic modification, to be meaningful information which is required to be on product labeling unless the modification results in a significant material change in the food product.

Dr. Del Miles, the veterinarian that was on site at T&E Cattle Co., indicated that any GMOs that might be used on the crops that are then used in the feed, have no bearing on the end beef product that comes from the cattle.  Since the corn is still ‘corn’ and hasn’t changed composition it’s a non-issue so to speak.

If you think your teenagers eat a lot, try feeding between 15 and 18 thousand head of cattle twice a day!  T&E Cattle Co. also has 1600 acres of land where they grow their own corn for feed.  That only supplies them with 9% of the feed they need for their cattle though!

Feeding cattle is not your typical 9 to 5 job, and there are no holidays.  The cattle need their feed on Christmas and Easter just like they need it Wednesday and Friday of every week.  And crazy weather?  Well Nebraska gets plenty of that and when it’s 30 below outside, the cattle still need to be fed.

If the mill breaks…well it has got to be fixed, because the cattle need to be fed (seeing a pattern here?!).  The work isn’t done for the feeding crews until all the cattle has been fed in the afternoon, and the area is cleaned up for the work to be done again the next day.

So now the big question – what’s the difference between Grain-Finished and Grass-Finished Beef?

The marketing term “Grass-Fed” refers to beef cattle that spend their entire lives on pasture and never go to a feedyard, the fact is all beef cattle are grass-fed given they spend the majority of their lives grazing on pasture.  With grain-fed beef it’s just the last part of their lives that they are fed a grain-diet.

It’s true that Grass-Finished beef has higher concentrations of Omega-3s in it as well as a higher concentration of a type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA.  Grain-Finished beef in a feedyard however has increased meat quality, uses fewer natural resources and it produces reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  Research studied at the University of Washington State found that grass-finished cattle may actually in some respects present more environmental challenges.*

Don’t confuse grass-finished beef with organic or natural beef either.  There are more requirements that need to be met other then the cattle eating only grass to fit under those standards.

Regardless of whether the beef we eat is grass-finished or grain-finished, cattle farmers and ranchers use the resources in their local areas to produce nutritious and safe beef.  What that means for you is that you have a variety of beef choices to feed your family depending on what you’re looking for in your beef.

Next up…what the space is really like at a feedyard and how can they keep track of the health of 15,000+ head of cattle anyway?

*J. L. Capper. The environmental impact of conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production systems.  Greenhouse Gases in Animal Agriculture Conference held in Banff, Canada on October 3-8, 2010. 

I was taken on a tour sponsored by the Beef Checkoff with a group of influencers and experts to get a first hand look at where consumer’s beef comes from. All expenses were paid, however all opinions in the posts are my own and were not swayed by that.

5 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Feedyards – Grass, Grain…What Are the Cattle Eating?

  1. Thank you for taking time to understand what we really do on our cattle feeding operations. I am a co-owner of a feedlot with my husband of 30 years. My two most important roles are cattle health and record keeping. I walk pens, give shots and vaccinations. Cattle can get sick just like you or I might. I would invite any of your followers to ask this mother of five who grew up a city girl about what we do and how we do it. DO NOT TRUST the average movie producer giving you information that will put money in his/her pocket. DO NOT TRUST HSUS propaganda as they have an agenda to eliminate meat production in this country. BE SMART! Seek the truth as we truly are doing all we can to give you ZIP! Zinc, iron and protein! As a mom I know how important it is to make sure our kids are strong and healthy so they may excel in all they do!

  2. My grandfather, a butcher all of his life, gave a definition between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has a lot of water in it. Has anyone ever noticed that when you cook ground beef and you have all the water in your pan–that is from the grass that the cattle eat. When you buy grass-fed beef, you are also buying all the excess water (like a water added ham). Grain-fed beef has less water, and you are buying more beef for your buck. That was my grandfather's take on the difference.

  3. @royalegacy – what a great visual comparison! Thanks for commenting

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