Living with Livestock, Part Four: Cattle Conundrums

My last in a series of four livestock workshops at the University of Minnesota took place on the Rosemount campus, a 7,000-acre spread given to the university by the U.S. Department of Defense. Originally used for manufacturing smokeless gunpowder during World War II, the site now hosts experiments in both produce and livestock run by the U of M’s farm extension program. Its broad expanses of wild grasslands made the perfect setting to discuss those pasture-loving fixtures of livestock farms, cows.

We started out by debunking a few myths about the cattle business. Their imaginations fueled by books and movies critical of the conventional farming industry, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc., many people think that cattle farms are all gargantuan, corporate-run feedlots. But in class we learned that the average U.S. cow/calf operation – that is, the type of farm that breeds and grazes beef cattle for most of their lives – has just 40 bovine members. Feedlots, which buy cattle from the cow/calf operations for “finishing” on grain-based feed, are bigger, but you don’t get really huge until you get to the packers who slaughter and process the meat. There are just four major beef packers in the U.S. -- Tyson, Cargill, JBS Swift, and National Beef -- and they account for 80 percent of the beef sold.

Since many of the would-be cattle farmers in the class were less than enthusiastic about joining a conventional beef industry dominated by those packers, the discussion quickly shifted to alternative niche markets. There are a plethora of production and marketing options: all-natural, organic, and grass-fed, to name a few. And there are surprises in store for the farmer interested in any of them. Think natural is the way to go? It turns out that the only USDA requirement for beef to be “natural” is that no water or other additives are injected into it during processing. Legally, the label has nothing to do with how the cow is raised or fed. Organic meat is subject to more stringent requirements, but those requirements may not always work as intended. For example, animals must never be fed antibiotics under USDA organic standards. But then what do you do with a cow who’s sick and for whom antibiotics are the most effective, or sometimes the only, solution? Do you give her antibiotics, knowing that you won’t be able to sell her meat as organic, or do you let her suffer, ill, so you can slap an organic sticker on a package of steak and get a premium price for it? (Notably, European organic standards allow a single course of antibiotics over the lifetime of a beef cow to try to address this problem.)

The debate only heated up as we got to talking about grass-fed cattle. Not everybody believes the fledgling industry’s claims that grass-fed beef is healthier because it delivers more Omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients which recently have been touted as improving everything from heart health to brain function. In particular, our U of M presenter didn’t believe it. Yes, he agreed that the percent of Omega-3s in the fat of cattle fed solely on grass is higher than the percent in the fat of conventional, grain-finished cattle. However, the total amount of fat in a serving of grass-fed beef is smaller than the amount in grain-finished beef; that is, it’s a leaner meat. So if you choose to eat grass-fed beef, you get a bigger percent of Omega-3s per unit of fat, but fewer units of fat, which means that your total intake of Omega-3s might actually be lower than if you’d stuck with the conventional stuff! From the dubious expressions on my classmates’ faces, I’d say that not every grass-fed aficionado was convinced by this argument, but it’s certainly food for thought. For a detailed meta-analysis of all the major scientific studies on grass-fed beef’s health benefits by a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, read Greener Pastures.

We were able to end the class on a peaceful note, though, as we visited the new baby chicks at the U of M’s poultry barn. Even those of us who had grown up with chickens and spent most of our lives with a hen or two around the house couldn’t help but ooh and aah at the tiny downy bundles of joy waddling around the coop. We wished them well as we went on our way, much the wiser after four weeks of training in the sometimes amusing, sometimes frustrating, always entertaining habits of livestock.


Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who contemplates the ethical implications of our food choices. She thought she’d left philosophizing for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world; but after several years of corporate life, her natural disposition reasserted itself; she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’ll likely find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at From Animal to Meat. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Living with Livestock, Part Three: Sheep and Goats.