A Brief History of the Cattle Industry
A Brief History of the Cattle Industry

A Brief History of the Cattle Industry, and How Grains Affect Beef

by Joel Huesby of Touchet, WA

It all started with an experiment at our kitchen table six years ago. We had read that 100% grass fed beef was better for our health than grain-finished beef, that there were “good” fats and “bad” fats, and that the ratios of these fats to each other was also important. The old saying: “You are what you eat” should apply to cattle as well as us, right? So, we tried a simple experiment that would end up changing our lives forever.

In separate pans we cooked some feedlot-finished ground beef next to some ground beef we had made from a heifer that was 100% grass-fed (or as we now say, “Pasture Finished”™). We drained the drippings from each into separate jars and watched what happened. To our amazement, the 100% grass fed beef drippings remained much clearer and liquid, while the feedlot beef clouded and became a solid as it cooled over the next several minutes. We also noticed a pasty feeling on the roof of our mouths from what we would later understand to be the excessive saturated fats in the grain fed beef that was not present in the 100% grass fed beef.

This was a watershed dinner for us. We had always been taught that cattle were to be finished on high energy diets of grain and other starches and that there was no dietary difference between one feeding system to another (feedlots vs. pasture). Boy, had we missed the mark!

Subsequent laboratory testing of our beef at a nutrition research lab confirmed what we had observed at the kitchen table. The science overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that healthy fats in meats come from animals fed traditional diets of grass.

We decided soon after to name our fledgling business, “Thundering Hooves – Pasture Finished Meats,” which served to help our customers understand that just because an animal may be raised on pasture, it is almost never finished on pasture. What can be confusing to the average consumer is that even most of the “organic” and the “natural” brands of beef (which – to their credit – raise their cattle without hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products), still finish their beef on grains, which is, evolutionarily speaking, a most ‘unnatural’ practice.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, cattle had evolved eating a diet of grasses and clovers. The only grains they consumed were seasonal tiny grass seeds, and the cattle grew at a very ‘natural’ rate. This changed, however, with the advent of combine harvesters and an emerging beef industry which rewarded cattle producers almost solely on the basis of fast weight gain. For the first time in history, combines allowed for huge quantities of wheat, oats, and corn to become readily available to beef producers at a relatively low cost. Just as you and I could gain weight pretty aggressively if we spent 150-180 days sitting on the sofa eating as many potato chips as we could stuff into our mouths, cattle fatten up quickly in feedlots under essentially the same system. But at what cost?

This industrial paradigm shift ushered in a whole new set of beef industry practices. For faster early growth, calves were injected with growth hormones. Time is money, after all, so why pay to feed a steer for 24 months, when a combination of early hormones and late grains can get one to ‘finish’ even faster and fatter at 18 months? Of course, the answers to that question are beginning to emerge. One disconcerting statistic we learned in our research was that nationally the biggest users of the active ingredient in Tums, Calcium-Carbonate, were cattle in feedlots. Why? Because it takes a month for cattle to adjust to this excessively calorie-laden diet and it often creates a condition called “Acidosis”, much like the upset stomach we can get when we eat too many corn chips or fast food meals. Then, as a result of this diet and the over-crowded conditions, cattle develop weakened immune systems, so they are often indiscriminately fed antibiotics as a ‘proactive measure’ to prevent the onset of disease.

Another result of this emphasis on weight gain is that the cattle industry over the last 60-80 years has progressively selected for cattle that would perform well in a feedlot environment (as measured by high average daily gains and conversion of grain-fed rations to fat and muscle). Thus, cattle are much larger now than they used to be. In the last 30 years the average live weight for finished cattle has increased by about 300 pounds. Unfortunately, as these cattle have become more efficient weight gainers on grains, they have become less efficient on grass, thus requiring more acres and more time per head than the smaller cattle of my grandfather’s generation. We have found that these industry-type cattle still can be finished on pasture, but that they take much longer and there is too much variation in the degree and quality of marbling as well as the meat yield from one animal to the next. Some cattle have given us steaks that were absolutely tender and flavorful while others were less so. There is a better way.

On our farm and on ‘The Bennington Place’ (leased from the PCC Farmland Trust), our goal is to create a well marbled (flavorful) and tender (soft muscled) steak time after time from a steer economically finished on grass. But as we have developed our rotational grazing skills, we have learned that this inconsistency was as much about learning proper pasture management as it was learning about the importance of matching the genetics of the cattle to their finishing environment. So, we asked the questions, “How did cattle survive through the winter and how were they finished throughout the centuries before we had created a livestock industry utterly dependent on “steel and oil” (mechanical harvesting and transporting of grains and forages)?”

It turns out that the cattle of my grandfather’s day fit the bill much closer than today’s “thoroughbreds”. They were smaller, shorter, wider, and longer proportionately than nearly all of today’s cattle body types. These smaller cattle performed well on grass since less energy was required to build the larger frames of today’s cattle. Thus more energy was available for breed back ability, milk production, and well-marbled grass finish.

It is this type of cattle that we desire to reintroduce to our production system once again. We have begun the process of selecting for genetics in cattle which can take better care of themselves in a more natural environment. It will take years. In the mean time, we can make improvements at nature’s pace beginning with carefully selected “grass bulls”, since essentially half his genes will be expressed in the next calf crop. Our cattle should ultimately remain connected in their relationship to a particular environment for their entire lives. Doesn’t it make the most sense to leave them where they can convert sunlight through grass into meat as they were intended? In the coming months we are constructing our own USDA inspected ultra-low stress, pasture-slaughter facility, because for our livestock, the best place to die is where they live… and that means the most natural product possible.

These issues are at the heart of the difference between being a ‘natural resource manager’ and a ‘cattle producer’; Production vs. Re-production. The latter is focused more toward individual cattle performance and we more toward system or herd performance. We need to manage for both, of course, but the pendulum has swung too far…

And so six years after our little kitchen experiment with ground beef, we are learning to let nature guide us toward better land and livestock management practices: allowing our soil to plow itself with worms and microorganisms, allowing our cattle, more than tractors, to be our four-legged harvesters, allowing our livestock to live and, ultimately, die on the grass, and allowing our children and our customers to benefit from the healthy results of these practices.

(For more information on the differences between grass-finished and grain-finished beef, we highly recommend the book, “Why Grass-fed is Best,” by Jo Robinson.)