B is for Beef

Beef - it's more than just dinner around our house.

According to my mother, "cow" was my first word.

It was also the first word of my oldest daughter and son. (Surely not because we read hundreds of cow books and farm books.)

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve bucket calves and the sale barn.

My kids now love to feed the cows with grandpa every chance they get.

Tucker prays for the cows each night.

And prefers magazines about cows and beef production over standard children's books.

Their father relishes a ribeye in the same manner I devour brownies.

Cows - cattle - are part of my heritage; key to my family's livelihood.

They are our tradition - something I hope to pass along to my children.

And for the rest of America, beef is what's for dinner. Or more specifically, 53% of America's meat dollar goes to beef and 80% of individuals consume fresh beef an average of 1.6 times per week. (You could say we do slightly better than that around here.)

Yet there's a segment of America working hard to get beef off your dinner table. They are telling you beef (and almost all animal) production is inhumane, that cattle are pumped up on antibiotics and hormones, and that cows are the leading cause of greenhouse gases.

The Potted Goose is here to clarify a few things for you; shed light on the realities of US beef production; and help you to look forward to summer barbeques as a way to showcase your "average American tendency to prefer beef on the grill." (Will someone get me a margarita? I'm already excited!)

Let's begin with a baby calf. After all, it's springtime and these adorable little guys and gals are running and jumping across the Kansas prairies as we speak.

There are about 97 million of these cuties - mommies, daddies and cousins included - running around the US presently. The majority of them - 79% - are born on small, family farms whose cattle herd numbers 50 or less. Cattle and beef production is the largest segment of American agriculture and is concentrated in the Plains states. Even more interesting, there are about 6 million cattle and calves in the state of Kansas compared to 2.8 million people. There are almost three times as many beef animals in Kansas as there are people. (I knew I liked living here!)

Calves weigh between 60-100 pounds at birth and remain on the farm and on pastures with their mothers until weaning at 450-700 pounds. At this point, depending on the size of the calf, some may go to a backgrounder or stocker where they will continue to graze and put on weight. Others, will be sold at auction and moved to a feedlot. Cattle spend about four-six months at a feedlot, until they reach 1,200-1,400 pounds or reach 18-22 months of age.

During their short time in the feedlot, cattle are provided clean water and given rations balanced by a nutritionist. They are provided adequate room to move and exercise, and their health is monitored by a veterinarian.

The Beef Quality Assurance program is providing guidelines for proper management techniques at all levels of production. Over 90% of US cattle production is influenced by this program.

Once the cattle are "finished," they are transferred to a processing facility for harvest. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation of safety, quality and animal welfare standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to retail and foodservice establishments for consumers to purchase. My husband - a former member of a junior college meat's judging team (think prime or choice beef...somebody has to make that determination) - has had the pleasure of working inside one of these facilities. He would be happy to answer your more specific questions about the inner workings of a packing plant.

Processed beef is then sold to your retailer as "boxed beef." These are larger cuts of beef, such as the loin, which are then cut into steaks at your local grocer. Ground beef can be ground at the processing facility or at your local retailer.

And this is where you and I - Vice Presidents' for Groceries - come in to play. We make our meal plans for the week and head to the grocery store. Sloppy joe's on Tuesday, steaks on the grill for Friday. Ground beef and sirloin steaks have made the list. Let's say for the sake of this example, we made this trip in February. Then we would have paid $2.28 / lb for the ground beef and $5.42 for the steaks, for a total of $7.70 for our beef for the week. (Side note on ground beef. What does 80-20 mean? 80% meat, 20% fat. The higher the meat component, the more costly per pound, yet healthier for you.)

You may notice, as you walk away from the meat department, that chicken prices are on average lower than the beef prices. You ponder the cheaper chicken for a moment, and then realize the look on your husband's face when you produce chicken breasts instead of sirloin for Friday night's festivities. Ooohh...not good. Moving right along.

But, I'm trying to help make you a smarter shopper. So here are the facts behind the price differences in chicken and beef:

  • Beef prices averaged $3.89/lb in 2009, chicken $1.78
  • A slaughter ready steer weighs 1,200 lbs and takes 4-6 months to finish, a chicken 8 lbs and is finished after 6-7 weeks on feed
  • Cattle need 6 lbs of feed to gain 1 pound, chicken 2 lbs of feed per pound of gain
It simply costs more and takes longer to feed a steer from 600 pounds at weaning to 1,200 pounds at slaughter than it does to put 6 pounds of gain on to a chicken.

So what are you getting for your dollar? A nutrient rich, satisfying, pleasing food for your family. Beef is especially plentiful in iron, a nutrient necessary, and often found deficient, for children and pregnant women.

And finally, about all those folks trying to get beef off your dinner plate. Let's remember a few things. The entire US ag sector accounts for only 6% of US Greenhouse gas emissions. Antibiotics are used to treat infection, however, absolutely no meat can be sold in violation of FDA standards for residuals. And hormones - or growth promotants - increase an animal's ability to convert feed to pounds of gain, thereby reducing the amount of feed necessary to finish a beef animal. Hormones must also follow strict FDA standards.

But you have choices. Grass-fed, natural and organic beef products represent a growing market segment of beef production. Just remember - these production techniques have inherently higher costs and those costs will be passed on to you at the grocery store.

Whew, that's a lot of (bull) information. And there's so much more. I think we'll have to visit the letter B again. Or Chuck roast, Ground beef, Hamburger, Steak, Ribeyes...all this talk about applying beef to the letter of the alphabet makes me hungry. Fire up the grill, babe! It's dinner time!


tera rooney said…
Very well stated.

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