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Trowbridge Farms

It’s 1:00 am. It’s bitter cold outside, early December. Phil Trowbridge is making his first of three rounds throughout the night to check on his animals. He’ll do the same at 3:00 am, and then at 5:00 am, before even starting the day. It’s harsh, but it always has to be done, every day, even on Christmas.

He hears and sees one of the cows struggling. She’s panicked. When he gets close he knows his long work day is going to be even longer. Her entire reproductive system has prolapsed, and if he doesn’t act quickly, she’ll die.

Phil’s son PJ is with him helping, as he’s done all his life. They live just a stones throw away now that a neighbor sold his house to PJ. They run the farm together.

They get the cow into the chute and place her prolapsed uterus onto a makeshift table that Phil created on the fly, using a stretched feed bag. They raise a bar up under her to keep her from shifting, moving, and making an already dire situation even worse.

The climate in the Hudson Valley can be wet and icy. Her front legs slip forward while her back legs remain propped up from the bar. She tips forward. Now things could get really bad.

But it’s a happy accident. She can’t move, and her body is angled in such a way that it’s perfect for getting her insides back in place. Phil ties her front legs and pulls them forward, keeping her at that angle, while PJ – hands and arms numb with cold in the frigid, dark December air – puts their cow back together again.

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After spending a day with Phil and breaking bread with his family over dinner, I asked him and his son to tell me the most challenging and rewarding aspects of their profession. Phil told me that story, and it exemplifies both challenge and reward together in one grueling morning.

Phil has had to deal with maybe three prolapses in his decades of experience working with cattle, but he knows how to address the problem. In fact, he knows how to fix so much of what can go wrong on the farm, that if his veterinarians get a call, they’re truly worried.

I asked Phil and his son what the hardest part of their job is. Both he and PJ were modest: They told me it wasn’t a hard job, but I know I wouldn’t last a week doing what they do, day in and day out. Given the daily farm work on top of everything else they do, no one is ever idle.

While many things may come easy to Phil and PJ with their collective wealth of experience, there are still some things with which they have trouble.

Phil told me that losing an animal is hard. When that happens, it stays with him. His heart breaks. The roughly 400 animals in his care are like children to him. He checks on them all day, grows and mixes their food, feeds them, cleans them, monitors their health and keeps them healthy, delivers their babies… That’s respect. That’s love.

And from what I’ve seen it’s not just Phil; it’s all cattlemen who are worth a damn in this business. You don’t step into this lifestyle without respect and love for the animals. That’s something the average person doesn’t understand about our cattlemen.

Phil in front of his lab, which is part of an old dairy barn that he uses for housing donor cows and where mature cows are calved.

Phil runs Trowbridge Farms – a patchwork of pastures, farms and barns that spans 1700 acres in Ghent, NY, about two hours North of Manhattan by train/car on the east side of the Hudson River.

Phil’s home can be seen on the right in this panoramic view of his property, shot from inside the first barn he purchased here in Ghent.

Phil is originally from Buffalo, so this area may as well be Florida to him. When he first arrived here decades ago, he was surprised that cattle could even feed on pasture.

You may be thinking something like, “How the hell can someone run cattle in New York, where taxes and land costs are so high?” And that’s an excellent question.

The majority of land Phil works and uses is not his own. Rather, he rents and leases land from homeowners who are weekenders and summer vacationers from New York City. They own second homes, but allow Phil to raise feed crops and grasses there, and to graze his animals on the land, in exchange for rent or barter.

When Phil drives his truck from one barn or pasture to another, he never uses the land owners’ driveways even though they offer access and faster ingress and egress. He endeavors to be invisible to them, non-intrusive on their property, and respectful of their privacy.

Because of this system, Phil can probably raise cattle cheaper than most places in the country. The relationships are mutually beneficial: Phil maintains the land, and the homeowners can sit back and earn additional income.

Cows graze on each pasture for about three weeks, with about 30-40 cows through each field.

The soil here is everything. Across the Hudson, the earth is like clay, and therefore it’s harder to raise crops. Here, it’s more gravely and easier to work with. Phil couldn’t have this kind of productive operation if he didn’t understand the soil and how it affects plant makeup. In fact, there is pressure from dairy farms to get this better land for the alfalfa.

“Why?” For their feed.

Alfalfa is a high production, high nutrient legume plant that Phil uses in his cattle feed.

Alfalfa field.

He takes three or four cuttings, and when I visited on July 2nd, he had already taken the first cutting. With his bromegrass and Timothy-grass farms, he only gets two cuttings. He also grows oats and corn as well, and makes his own hay and baleage.

Phil uses GPS when planting his corn so that he can utilize the most land possible. The systems even tell him how much fertilizer and spray he needs. But here in the northeast, deer are a big problem because they can decimate acres of corn crops.

Baleage, or silage, is a fermented feed that helps cattle in their digestion process. It also keeps longer without spoiling. That combination makes for an economically viable and nutritionally beneficial feed solution.

Dry hay in rolled bales positioned close to the Winter pastures and barns for easy access. Phil’s animals can eat 40-60 lbs of hay per day in Winter, with the range varying on how cold it is. The colder it is, the more calories the animals burn staying warm. As such, they need to eat more to keep growing. But something as simple as providing bedding piles in the pastures can help the animals retain warmth, saving Phil 10 lbs of feed a day for each animal. They eat half as much in the Summer months.
Feeding the animals in covered barns or blacktop corrals also helps Phil conserve feed and keep the animals warm in Winter months. In Summer, the corrals are outfitted with fans and provide shade from the sun. Fly management is also important in the warm months. Excessive head shaking or tail switch swatting burn lots of cattle calories, requiring more feed for growth.

To make baleage Phil uses a vertical grinder and mixer first, to break up the feed crops. Then he covers it with tarp and weighs it down with specially cut tires that won’t collect water and draw mosquitoes. This allows the fermentation to occur and turn the crops into cattle feed.

Phil’s vertical grinder and baleage tarp. Equipment is Phil’s biggest cost at the farm. But this expensive vertical grinder was worth it, as it acts like a blender to mix up precise amounts of grasses with exacting percentages of nutrients that are evenly distributed throughout the feed.
Phil has to project how much feed he will need for the Winter so that his animals don’t go hungry, and he must pay close attention to weather patterns to avoid having his baleage spoil.

While Phil grows and makes most of his own feed, he does buy some corn because it’s cheap. He also works with local distillers to get fermented corn mash byproduct, which is similar to baleage in its digestive benefits. It’s also a great way to reduce commercial waste and make good use of stuff that is otherwise discarded.

This is dinner at the barn where show animals are being cleaned up and readied for county fairs and other competitions. It’s a mix of cotton seed hulls, beet pulp shreds, soybeans and steam flake corn.
Phil’s granddaughter cleans one of the animals that will be shown at a fair.

Cows love grain and alfalfa because they’re sweet. Alfalfa can be so rich, nutrient-wise, that at times Phil has to cut his feed with more fiber so that the cows don’t get too heavy.

Alfalfa feed. The leaves contain the majority of the proteins and energy.

“Why? Don’t we want big, heavy animals in the beef industry for price-per-weight values?”

It depends. In his sector of the business, Phil is primarily concerned with producing bulls and calves of good breeding stock and genetics, not to get them up to a high market weight for later eating, like what you often see at feed yards in the Midwest.

Like people, some animals grow differently than others. Phil adjusts the feed for each animal depending on the traits they exhibit.

Phil ultimately wants comfortable females for breeding, and energetic, virile bulls for seeding. So, nutrient-wise, Phil takes different things into account because his end product is a much different animal, produced with a different purpose, than those produced in other sectors of the business: Phil’s animals are for breeding, while the others are for eating.

Speaking of Phil’s business, let me segue into more of what he does.

A dirt road through the pastures.

Trowbridge Farms is a seed stock operation, which means that Phil produces bulls that are eventually purchased by cow-calf farms. Since I know that you readers are at a remedial level when it comes to farm terminology, I’ll explain what this all means:

Bulls are intact males that can reproduce (steers are castrated, and can not reproduce). A cow-calf farm is a place where a permanent herd of cows gets pregnant and gives birth to calves, which are later sold.

Phil lets the calves out of the barn so they can go graze in the pasture with the other cows.

Grazing Herefords.

Just prior to my visit, Phil had completed his annual bull sale. He averaged about $3,975 per head. That’s pretty fantastic, considering that his closest competition was bringing in half of that amount.

Phil hosts a yearly heifer sale (female cattle that have never been pregnant) and a calf sale as well. In addition he engages in many sales outside of his annual events.

Something that caught my eye in an antique shop in nearby Hudson. Perhaps from Phil’s farm?

Phil also sells frozen bull semen and embryos with the use of vapor shippers. Cows can give birth about 10-12 times, on average, in their lifetime, before pregnancy becomes stressful on their body. But with embryonic science in play at Phil’s lab, he can get hundreds of fertilized eggs from his cows, freeze them, and use or sell them later. Given this aspect of the business, some of his cows have produced 500-600 offspring.

Almost all of Phil’s cows are surrogate mothers that were transplanted with embryos.

All information needed to identify the parents is printed on the frozen embryo tube. Meticulous records are kept, both before and after pregnancy.

Timing is important when it comes to the cows. He schedules things around their super ovulation. First, CIDR (controlled internal drug release) devices are vaginally implanted  – they’re like giant IUDs. This makes the cows think they’re ovulating, which allows him to synchronize all of their reproductive systems.

They get a follicle stimulation hormone, which produces lots of eggs. He then artificially inseminates them to fertilize the eggs with his bull semen, thereby creating embryos. The embryos are then flushed out and used or sold.

A chute in the calving barn behind the lab, which Temple Grandin helped Phil to correct in order to obtain better results with his animals. She knew it needed an angle change within 10 seconds of looking at Phil’s drawing.

The process is just as intensive as human in vitro science. Phil’s daughter is an in vitro nurse and actually knows more than most doctors she works with, because she’s been doing this with cows for about 30 years.

In Phil’s operation, the bulls never touch a cow’s cervix. He usually puts embryos into cows fresh, as opposed to thawed from frozen, to increase the conception rate (15%-20% higher).

He sells a lot of frozen product to Argentina; about 40,000 units. But he makes more money from his US sales. This one bull, named Powder River, is like a legend around the farm. He’s spoiled and lazy, but he generates tons of product even at an old age – almost quadruple what other bulls can produce.

Powder River kicking up some dirt.

The frozen semen and embryos are stored in tubes or straws, and placed into liquid nitrogen holding tanks. In the event that Phil identifies a genetic abnormality, he will separate and retain the samples because many universities have expressed interest in studying them.

A frozen semen tube smokes as it makes contact with the humid Summer air. It has to be thawed at the correct temperature with a special device before it can be inserted into a cow.

Phil’s customers are buying bulls, bull semen and embryos because they want specific genes to be expressed in their herds, and they know that Phil’s bulls produce some of the most desirable characteristics and embody superior genetics.

Customers look at these purchases as investments, like buying stocks. When they come to Phil, they usually don’t leave without buying.

Most of Phil’s animals are Angus. He has a few Hereford and cross breeds in the mix, but people know him for his superior quality Angus. Hereford cattle are notorious for suffering from pink eye in the summer months, so Phil has endeavored to breed his Hereford to have different eye traits so that his are less prone to pink eye.

One of Phil’s Hereford bulls.
A white face and black body is generally the expressed phenotype for a cross breed.

He has blood tests performed on every animal at a cost of about $50 a pop. Two drops of blood are taken and sent out to a lab.

Phil’s 126th college intern, Natalie, draws blood for DNA and genomic marker testing. Phil generally takes on three interns each year, and has been doing so since the 1980’s. They get hands-on experience that classrooms and books can’t provide, and these desirable internships often get filled by our nations best and brightest animal science and agriculture students from top schools all over the country. Phil recognizes passion and is a great judge of potential. He’s motivated many hardworking students and aided them in finding their direction. He even helped some obtain scholarships.

These tests assess 50,000 different genomic markers that express traits related to things like parentage, marbling, tenderness, udder structure, temperament, body build and residual feed intake, among others. In addition to testing for these traits, the DNA samples are also used for parent verification.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, only 2,500 markers were tested. Now the tests assess up to 50,000.

“So what does the average day look like for Phil?”

Well, like most farms, Trowbridge is a family affair. Phil’s wife Annie does the books in the morning before heading to the hospital, where she’s a nurse on the surgical floor.

Phil’s son PJ is vital at the farm. He holds a degree in animal science from SUNY Cobleskill, and is the farm mechanic for all of the equipment.

Phil is usually up by 6:00 am, feeding and checking on the animals, and, thereafter, making hay in the Spring and Summer.

In Winter, he gets up an hour earlier to check on the cows. He recently installed video equipment in the barns so that he doesn’t always need to check on the cows several times overnight to see if they’re calving.

A barn with a blacktop corral where heifers are calved. A circular pen is nearby, where Phil photographs his bulls for bull sale pamphlets and for posting to his website.

Calving is done twice a year: In early winter (January, February and March), and in the Fall. Calving in January means he can cut nine months of the process in working with bulls. Phil is focused on both human and animal safety, and bulls can fight each other and tear stuff up. He likes to sell them off before they turn two years old, because the older they get, the harder they are to manage.

The inside of a calving barn that also houses donor cows, adjacent to Phil’s lab. Phil uses red mulch here that he gets from local farmers. Red mulch is more absorbent and comfortable for his calves. Phil barters for it in exchange for manure that he scrapes off his blacktop corrals.

Right now Phil is playing host to 4H kids for the Summer. They’re learning about cattle, hogs and lambs. The kids pick the animals themselves; they’re purchased on loan and then sold in September.

The kids learn how to take care of the animals, they keep track of feed and vaccinations with spreadsheets, and they show the animals at the county fair.

Many cattlemen work second jobs and perform odd tasks like this in their community. In addition to hosting 4H kids, Phil was the president of the NY Beef Council (which sponsored my tour here), he helped develop the new Veterinary Feed Directive laws that just went into effect, he runs a college internship program, and he goes on speaking tours for the industry. His son PJ has a tow truck gig at night, and he does some construction work for a friend in Albany when needed.

As if all of that isn’t enough, the Trowbridges also have to be vigilant of trespassing. A few months back, someone broke into the donor cow and calf barn behind the lab, took a bunch of video, and posted it online. Fortunately the guerrilla “coverage” was very positive in nature, but someone could have gotten hurt. And now sheriffs have been coming around, warning Phil that kids are stealing some of the ice packs used in shipping to make meth. Crazy.

Needless to say, no one is ever bored at Trowbridge Farms. But no one is resting on their laurels either. Phil wants to pass the farm on to his children, and beyond to his grandchildren.

He purchased his first barn there 25 years ago when it was a brush pile. He built it up and installed all the fencing little by little at night after spending his day working at a nearby farm. Since then his operation has become scientifically cutting edge and well respected in the community. Articles have been written in trade magazines attesting to Trowbridge’s advances in the field.

Not only is Phil’s farm economically productive and a benefit to both the industry and the community, but Phil is ecologically responsible and an excellent steward of the land.

Phil builds lasting relationships with everyone he encounters on a regular basis. I had the pleasure of hearing a message that someone left on Phil’s voicemail, thanking him for all he does in the area. The people of Ghent respect what he does, and he respects the people of Ghent. He even throws a hot dog and hamburger cookout for the locals each year that draws hundreds.

When Phil was driving me around the community, he pointed out some of the other business that came and went. Old chicken farms, welding shops, mechanic shops, well drillers, orchards, artist warehouse studios, craft breweries… And even some newcomers like grass finished, no antibiotics beef producers.

Some of these folks will allow their animals to die because they refuse to treat their cattle with antibiotics. Phil understands and respects the “no antibiotics” niche markets that have developed, but he’s also a big believer in medicine and cares for the animals too much to let one die when an illness is perfectly treatable.

His words: “If that doesn’t bother you, then there’s something not right.” In my opinion, this kind of attitude is absolutely necessary in order to work with animals to any measure of lasting success. Phil is by no means one of a kind within the beef industry when it comes to this outlook on animals, but that’s no slight to him. His work is demonstrative of how great the practitioners of this business are at its core. He’s exemplary, and exemplary is common in this business. That’s a good thing.

But Phil’s love for the animals he works with is instantly revealed to all the moment he encounters them. They’re calm in his presence, and very trusting of him and other people – even strangers like me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

The Trowbridge family name is celebrating 60 years in the cattle business this year. I’m very happy to have met Phil and his family, and I’m honored to put a spotlight on them for my readers.

Beef: Community, Lifecycle & Production

It’s been a year since I started getting more deeply involved with beef industry professionals and writing posts that advocate on their behalf. One thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people don’t realize how many different professions are involved in the beef industry.

It’s not just farmers, butchers and chefs. It starts, of course, with the animals themselves, the cattlemen that raise them, and the farmers that grow their food.

Like humans, cows have a nine month gestation period. For the first few months, a calf is raised on its mother’s milk (colostum – for key nutrients and immunity). After maybe six or eight months, a calf is weaned off of mother’s milk and put out to pasture. At that time decisions are typically made about whether the animal will be sold off or kept for breeding.

The feed yard is typically the next location for the animal (when the animal is about a year old). This is where they get fattened up for market.

Grain finished animals stay in a feed yard for about 120-180 days. The grain mixture they eat is typically representative of local agriculture. For example, in California there may be almond hulls mixed in with the standard corn or wheat. In New York, there are sunflower seeds mixed in. In Idaho, there is some potato mash.

Grass finished animals stay on pasture or hay for seven or eight months longer, on average, than grain finished animals. They do not eat grain. It generally takes longer for them to get to market weight.

After that, it’s off to the slaughter they go, where we have people who work at processing plants for slaughter and packing. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, updated in 1978 and 2002, governs how all of this is done.

At the packing plant, the beef product is broken down into primal and sub-primal cuts:

  • Primal: chuck, rib, round, loin.

  • Sub-Primal: bottom round, top round, eye round, round tip.

Then, the meat is shipped off to grocers, butchers, restaurants and other end-user locations, ultimately ending with diners like you and me gobbling up all of that delicious meat.

Veterinarians, animal care specialists, scientists and government inspectors are present at each step during this process, from farm, to feed yard, to slaughterhouse, to distributers, to grocers, restaurants and butcher shops. And, of course, law makers and beef industry professionals have helped put together all of the guidelines and regulations that govern and run the industry.

It’s a very complex and well-monitored process, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that beef is somehow unsafe. The industry also provides for countless jobs, and that stimulates the economy. Last, and most importantly, they all help to put steak on our dinner plates.

B.A.M. Episode 6: Antibiotics, Schmantibiotics

A whole crapload of unnecessary freaking out has happened over ranchers’ use of antibiotics in the raising of animals for human consumption. While some of the alarmist stuff out there might sound scary, in reality it isn’t. So I feel the need to ease some tensions here with this beef advocacy post.

It’s Humane

The judicious use of antibiotics is the humane thing to do for animals that are in need of care. Just like humans, animals need help every so often to fight off a bug. When sick, their ears droop, they cough and have runny noses. They separate from the herd and go off by themselves. Some diseases can be avoided through the use of vaccines, and illnesses can be prevented and combated with the use of vitamins and antibiotics.

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The Law

By law, producers must wait a certain amount of time after administering an antibiotic before an animal can be slaughtered for consumption, to ensure that no traces of the antibiotic remain within the animal. These “withdrawal times” are strictly monitored and vary from 0-60 days based on the substance being administered. That means you can be confident that there are no antibiotics in the meat you buy at stores or order in restaurants. Once the withdrawal time is tolled, that basically means the antibiotic has been completely metabolized and has worked its way out of the animal’s system.

Ranchers must carefully follow directions for administering the proper amounts of antibiotics to their animals, and the FDA tests for traces of antibiotics in meat products as well. There is a mess of paperwork, regular federal inspections and tedious record keeping involved in this entire process. It really is a tightly run ship.

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Let me unpack those generalizations a bit here: Under new FDA guidelines, there are very specific, detailed measurements that are set for antibiotics in feed – authorized by veterinarians – that are called “veterinary feed directives.” These directives outline exactly how long an antibiotic can be used and which illnesses can be treated. They also specify the number of animals that can be treated.

Again, these drugs will only be used to treat, prevent and control disease with the oversight of a veterinarian. Farmers and ranchers will be required to form even stronger relationships with licensed veterinarians in order to receive authorization for the appropriate antibiotic for a specified illness, and for a specific time period. I’d say that creates a pretty well regulated and closely monitored situation.

Additionally, new laws require that little to no antibiotics given to the herd can be in the same class as human medicines. This is done to prevent any potential reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics that are needed to treat human diseases.

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Even something as simple as a vaccination carries with it a host of guidelines. For example, no shots are allowed in the hip or thigh, as this can damage the sirloin or round cuts of beef.

Ionophores

This is a good time for me to talk about ionophores, actually. Ionophores are a class of antibiotics that are not involved in human health because they work specifically in the rumen (a digestive organ which we do not have).

Coccidiosis is a parasitic disease in the intestinal tract of animals caused by coccidian protozoa. Ionophores combat these organisms, so they’re technically “antibiotics” from the US standpoint.

In Europe, these ionophores have a different term (anticoccidials), and are not classified as antibiotics like they are here. You may have heard that Europe has much lower antibiotic use in their beef industry. That’s misleading, mainly because Europe does not consider the ionophore to be an antibiotic.

Hormones

Hormones and steroids are often used for growth promotion, digestive aids, and to prevent illness and the later need for antibiotics in a herd. Small pellets are implanted behind the animals ear, under the skin, to release these aids into the animal’s body. Many don’t realize that these are completely metabolized and no traces are found in the beef products at the point of consumption.

The FDA and USDA enforce rules on these things, and scientists have tested them for safety. Additionally, once the use of a hormone has been reviewed and approved, it’s continually re-tested, annually, and reevaluated. It will only stay on the market if it continues to pass all FDA and USDA testing. So this stuff may sound scary, but in reality it’s completely safe according to all scientific testing.

Niche Labels

Despite these numerous safety assurances, U.S. consumer concern about using antibiotics in animal feed has led producers to create niche markets for products with specialty labels. “Never ever” means that the animal was never given an antibiotic, for example, throughout its entire lifetime. Other labels tout the fact that the animal was not given any antibiotics in the last 60 days of it’s life, or from various points of its life cycle onward (for example, no antibiotics administered once the animal is sent to the feedlot).

The USDA makes no claim about these products being safer. They are, however, more expensive to produce, and, therefore, more expensive to buy at the consumer level. Here are a few more:

  • Natural: minimally processed with limited additives.

  • Naturally Raised: No antibiotics and no hormones except for ionophores.

  • Certified Organic: No hormones, and raised on 100% organic feed, which means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used to grow the feed.

Conclusion

While our beef producers are wonderful for creating new markets and catering to the odd and unique demands of a diverse population, I felt obligated to set the record straight on the issue of antibiotics with this post.

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In general, the use of antibiotics is more an issue of animal health than human health, but it’s still an important topic to know about.

Remember, beef producers have a vested interest in raising healthy, safe and nutritious food, because they feed themselves and their families with the same beef that you and I eat. They understand that antibiotics are vital for the health of the herd, and administering them is a humane act to safeguard their animals.

Farmers and ranchers are dedicated to providing safe products to the market. It’s their livelihood, after all. Implementing new antibiotics guidelines and working closer with veterinarians are just a few examples of how farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the cattle industry.

There’s really nothing to worry about. US beef products are safe, nutritious and delicious. There are safeguards put into place at every step of the beef life cycle, and even afterward at the slaughterhouse and packing plant, to ensure our safety.

B.A.M. Episode 5: Beef Does Not Cause Cancer

A little over a year ago, the World Health Organization published a finding through their International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that the consumption of red meats represented a “hazard” and classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” While the craziness over that fake scare has already passed like a cow fart in the wind, I think it’s useful to talk about it here, even if just to reiterate how wrong it was.

First, I think it’s important to discuss a few things right off the bat.

Okay but seriously…

Difference Between Hazard and Risk: The IARC does not evaluate cancer risks. They only identify hazards. A risk is a statement about the probability, possibility or likelihood to cause harm, while a hazard is merely representative of a possibility to cause harm under any circumstances. It is always important to look at hazard and risk together when talking about things like cancer.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference between the two is by way of analogy. Think about driving, for example. If it’s raining, we know that wet roads represent a hazard to drivers for getting into an accident (cancer). Now let’s say you’re speeding, driving with bald tires, and not using your windshield wipers after drinking a six pack of Bud. You’ve significantly elevated your risk of getting into an accident during hazardous driving conditions like wet roads.

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www.vintodphoto.com

If we apply this to beef, the IARC merely told you that the roads are wet. They identified a hazard, and nearly anything can be hazardous. Water is hazardous. It only becomes a risk when you try to breathe it, or drink it while hanging upside down or something ridiculous. So, wet roads? Maybe you walk to work, or maybe you have new tires, drive very slowly in the rain and never drive while intoxicated. As a result, your risk of getting into an accident due to a wet road hazard is very low.

See the difference, and the need to always consider both together? Of course you do, because you’re not an idiot. So when we extrapolate this to something complex, like diet or personal health, the need to assess both becomes absolutely vital. If you’re an alcoholic smoker who works around asbestos all day, never exercises, and consumes nothing but bacon grease, then chances are you’re going to die of cancer pretty quickly, because your personal risk levels are through the roof and you’re dancing around several big hazards.

Scope of Study: First, the IARC does not seem to specialize in the evaluation of food. They’ve looked into more than 1000 chemicals, mixtures, biological agents, personal habits and occupational exposures, but diet and food represent large complexities that are simply out of their realm of specialization.

Second, the IARC only categorizes things into five wishy-washy designations: Probably Not Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 4); Not Classifiable as to its Carcinogenicity to Humans (Category 3); Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 2B); Probably Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 2A); and Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 1). Aside from the fact that language like “probably” and “possibly” is arbitrary at best, only one substance has ever received the Category 4 designation of “Probably Not Carcinogenic,” and that was caprolactam (whatever the fuck that is).

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www.vintodphoto.com

They claimed that red meat was “probably carcinogenic” (Category 2A) and that processed meats were “carcinogenic” (Category 1). So what do “red meats” and “processed meats” even mean?

According to IARC, red meat refers to “unprocessed mammalian muscle meat.” This means beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse or goat meat. Yeah, you read that right: Pork is not “the other white meat.” Based on the amount of myoglobin or “stuff that looks like blood, but really isn’t blood” in the muscle tissue, pork is categorized as a red meat.

Processed meat refers to “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” In the U.S., processed meats like bacon, sausages, hot dogs and deli meats primarily contain pork and poultry, but sometimes contain beef as well.

Note that all production and processing methods fall into these definitions, and that even includes organic, grass-fed, nitrite- and nitrate-free meats, as well as conventional meats. NO ONE IS SAFE FROM THE IARC!!!

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Findings: The findings are based on pre-existing research. What is that research? How can they control for external factors that may increase or decrease risk when studying human diet? Well, according to their Q&A, “In the case of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”

In layman’s terms, that means other factors could have influenced the weak positive associations between red meat and cancer, like poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, bad habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, or even genetic health conditions or pre-existing diseases (think speeding, driving on bald tires, driving while intoxicated, etc). So there’s that difference between hazard and risk being played out again.

In short, don’t believe the hype!

Research has always shown that beef should be part of a healthy and balanced diet. But don’t just take my word for it; check out what some dietitians think. To me, it’s clear that the scientific evidence doesn’t show that red or processed meat causes cancer. Studies in humans are limited and inconsistent, and evidence has weakened over time. Take a look HERE for research that the Beef Checkoff submitted to the IARC. The Beef Checkoff is an organization that’s funded by farmers giving $1 for every animal produced in order to pay for research and marketing campaigns within the industry. If you think those submissions are biased for some reason (which is silly, because beef farmers and ranchers feed their families with the same beef and have a vested interest in the industry’s safety), then go HERE for independent submissions that were sent to the IARC.

Okay so what about hot dogs and bacon, the “processed meats” that were categorized as being “Carcinogenic?” If you poked around their website you may have noticed that smoking and asbestos are in IARC Category 1 as well. But on their Q&A they’ve explained that eating processed meats is not equally as dangerous as smoking – not even close, as a matter of fact. As I mentioned above, rather than assessing the level of risk, the IARC classifications merely describe hazards and potential causes.

Just one last note here on the findings: every one of us has about a 1.8%-4% chance of getting colon cancer, which is the form of cancer that many of the studies focused upon for red meat. Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer and cancer-related deaths. Even if the risk of colon cancer goes up 17-18% due to eating red meat, as some of the more fear-mongering studies said (and recall that some studies said there was no increased risk), it’s only about 17-18% of that 4%, or an increased risk of 0.72%. That’s only 4.72% total, if we use the worst figures we can find. The bottom end all-in figure is more like 2.1%, and again that’s only if we ignore all of the other studies that found no risk in eating red meat.

I don’t know about you guys, but even if these false-positive studies were somehow believable, I’d be perfectly willing to take on a 0.3% to 0.7% risk in exchange for a lifetime of enjoying nutritious and delicious red meat in my diet. The air I breathe here in NYC is probably way more hazardous or risky to me than red meat.

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Charred Crusts: Another concern that was floating around the web was the idea that the charred outer crisp on meats that develops when the meat comes in contact with fire (like the crust of a broiled steak or the smoky crisp on a flame-kissed burger) is also cancerous.

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The chemicals that form during this charring process are present on any meat that gets hit with flame (not just beef). They’re called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

They are, indeed, known or suspected carcinogens. However, they aren’t present in high enough concentrations to be a real concern when grilling or cooking. I’ve known of people who charred meat to a crisp and tested the meat afterward, and the amounts of harmful chemical present were so small that they were insignificant. Concentrations matter here. There are probably harmful chemicals in the water you drink too, but unless they’re highly concentrated there’s no cause for concern.

Conclusion: Given the totality of the studies, it’s clear to me that no single food, including red or processed meats, causes cancer. So, my meat minions, beef on with confidence and pride. And go forth and continue to develop that delicious, nicely-textured crust on your steaks and burgers as well. Just don’t overcook anything, for fuck’s sake!

B.A.M. Episode 4: Herd Management & Health

Before we get further into the “meat” of these advocacy posts, it’s important to lay out a few basic terms and concepts that you might run into if you’re anywhere near the beef industry.

Animal Gender Terms

Heifer: A female that has never given birth to a calf.
Cow: A female that has given birth to at least one calf.
Bull: An intact male that still has his family jewels.
Steer: A castrated male.

Why do cattlemen castrate males? Well, it is one of three techniques used in herd management.

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Herd Management Techniques

  1. Castration: Cutting the gonads off a bull is done for two reasons: (1) to control temperament; and (2) to improve meat tenderness. This process lowers testosterone. By lowering testosterone, farmers can reduce animal aggression as well as meat toughness. Castration is normally done within the first three months of life.
  2. De-Horning: Both males and females can grow horns unless they are genetically unable. By removing horns farmers can protect themselves and the herd from injury.
  3. Branding: The reason farmers brand their animals is to keep better records of individual animals, and to protect and identify their herd in the open range or at the marketplace. In the old days, this would also deter cattle theft.

Generally, if things are timed correctly with calving season, these three herd management techniques are done all at once, in one quick procedure, which results in less stress for the animal.

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Calves need colostrum, a nutrient-rich version of mother’s milk, because it’s packed with beneficial vitamins and natural immunizations. But after some time, it becomes prudent to ween them off their mother’s milk and send them out to eat in the pasture. In most cases it’s as easy as putting the calves on the other side of a split-rail fence from their mother; they will still be in contact with one another, but the calf will eat grass instead of milk.

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Contrary to popular myths, calves are not born and then immediately rigged up to some bio-mechanical factory farm machine where they can’t move and are force-fed until the moment they are slaughtered. These are myths.

Animal Health

Just like humans, animals need help every so often to fight off a bug. When sick, their ears droop, they cough, have runny noses and they separate from the herd and go off by themselves. Some diseases can be avoided through the use of vaccines, and illnesses can be prevented and combated with the use of vitamins and antibiotics.

Beef Quality Assurance guidelines limit the location of vaccination shots so that the process doesn’t harm the meat by piercing valuable muscle groups. In addition, beef safety laws require no trace of the stuff to be present in meat prior to slaughter (you must wait a certain number of days before  sending the animal to slaughter), and that little to no antibiotics that are given to the herd are in the same class as human medicines (to prevent a reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics needed to treat human diseases).

Last, grain finishing allows for the animals to go off to slaughter sooner, when the animals are healthier and younger than grass finished animals.

B.A.M. Episode 3: Raising Cattle

Once again I am going to dedicate this post to dispelling some common misconceptions about the beef industry. Some of the biggest fabrications I hear these days is that the US beef industry is chock full of “factory farms,” where thousands of cattle are born and raised on feed lots, jammed into tight spaces, given nothing but grain and hormones for sustenance, and are generally mistreated and abused whilst farmers destroy the natural environment. ALL FALSE.

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Most people don’t know that 97% of the 619,000 beef farms in this country are small, family owned operations with an average of 50 head of cattle. There goes the factory farm myth. And beef farming makes up about 29% of all US farms, in case you were wondering.

“Calving,” or the birthing of cattle, generally happens in a different area of the farm, removed from the feed yard, where farmers and veterinarians can more closely monitor the animals and keep them healthy. Once the calves are weened from their mother’s milk, they are put out in the pasture to eat grass and grow. Born and raised on feed lots? Screw that “bull crap.”

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Cattle in the US are grass-fed in pasture for the majority of their lives. Don’t believe what you hear to the contrary. The development of grain feeding started way back, when the addition of grain into the animals’ diets was done to supplement meals for cattle during winter months and times when there were less live, growing grasses for cattle to eat. It was often mixed with stored hay silage as well.

Farmers noticed that the addition of grain to the diet caused cattle to grow faster. So today, grain is used for finishing and fattening up the cattle in the last months of their lives, prior to slaughter. This adds flavor content to the meat in addition to getting them up to a profitable weight for the marketplace. Grass finished animals (animals that only eat grass for their entire lives) take longer to get up to market weight, and are therefore older when they go to slaughter. That means they have to survive more winters and tough out more illnesses before getting to your dinner plate.

Jammed into crowded spaces? Nope. While cattle can withstand cold temperatures, farmers started using barns and other fully or partially enclosed shelters early on to shield their animals from the harsh weather in winter.

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They found that cattle naturally gravitated toward one another anyway. They are social creatures. Even in pasture, when they’re out in wide open spaces, you will still see them huddled up together. Bison/buffalo do this as well. They even do it on the feedlot, where each animal has about 125-250 square feet of space, on average, in the US. Another myth bites the dust.

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Now let’s discuss the environment. The US beef industry grasslands account for nearly 75% of US natural wildlife, and cattle spend a majority of their lives feeding on these natural grasslands. Up to 85% of our grassland in the US is actually not suitable for farming crops due to soil characteristics, topography, or rainfall. So cattle grazing is a good use of the otherwise inarable land that doesn’t do any additional harm. Lastly, bovine digestive systems are perfectly set up to convert the inedible plants on these grasslands into protein; beef that humans can eat!

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I think that’s a good start for now. I’ll address animal care and animal health in the next BAM.

B.A.M. Episode 2: Beef Nutrition

There are a ton of misconceptions in the world of beef. One of the biggest going around today is that consuming red meat is somehow bad for you. It’s fat. It’s poisonous to your body. It lacks nutritional value. Give me a break! Beef is nutritious and good for you! Let me just attack some of these points here for you guys in this article, which is my second installment of Beef Advocacy Mondays (BAM).

First the fat: The beef of today is leaner than it was in the past, due to genetic selection of certain characteristics for over four decades throughout the beef supply chain. Sirloin, for example, is 34% less fat today than it was in the 1960’s.

About 66% of beef cuts are considered lean cuts today, and a part of that is due to the fact that there has been an 80% decrease in external fats on grocery store meat cuts.

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Most saturated fat from beef is located in the outer portions of fat, located externally from the muscles that we eat. The marbling, or intra-muscular fat, does contain saturated fat, but a third of it is steeric acid, which is cholesterol neutral. Beef also contains mono-unsaturated fat, which is the same kind of fat content you get from olive oil or avocados – the good fats, in other words. What this means is that if you trim your beef of any external fats before cooking and choose a lean cut, you’ll end up discarding most of the remaining “bad” fats and retaining the good fats.

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I’ve thrown around the word “lean” a bunch of times here already. There’s actually some unpacking to do here. The term “lean” means that the beef has 4.5g or less of saturated fat per serving, and 10g or less total fat per serving. Leanness is mainly a function of the grade of beef (prime or choice vs select) and the location of the cut (rib vs sirloin or tenderloin), as opposed to farming and production methods (grain finished vs grass finished).

Okay so aside from fat content and leanness, I also mentioned that beef is nutritious and good for you. Here’s why: Beef contains 10 essentials vitamins and minerals that are abundant in each serving. Most notably, it’s an excellent source of iron, B-vitamins, protein and zinc, but beef is a good or excellent source for all of the following:

  1. Protein: 48% daily value
  2. Vitamin B-12: 44% daily value
  3. Selenium: 40% daily value
  4. Zinc: 36% daily value
  5. Niacin: 26% daily value
  6. Vitamin B-6: 22% daily value
  7. Phosphorus: 19% daily value
  8. Choline: 16% daily value
  9. Iron: 12% daily value
  10. Riboflavin: 10% daily value

A 3oz serving of beef averages just 150 calories, and contains 25g of protein (48% daily value). You can imagine how great this is for building and repairing muscle after a hard workout or a long run.

Plant based proteins don’t provide all the amino acids that beef provides. Essentially they’re “incomplete” proteins. Let’s take beans, for example: You’d need to consume 371 calories worth of beans to obtain the protein content found in just 170 calories of beef. And peanut butter? Even worse. With that we are looking at nearly 600 calories. At that point you are blowing through your daily allotment of calories too fast, and you are not being satisfied in the meal.

With beef, you spend fewer calories for equal if not better nutritional content. In other words, beef is the better buy, the most bang for your buck. And it has been scientifically shown that consuming meat proteins actually has a satiating and hunger-satisfying effect on a person. I know I have perceived this phenomenon. On days when I have tried to eat veggies only, I ended up over-eating because I couldn’t ever seem to feel satisfied. Screw that. Give me some damn meat!

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Grass-finished animals, or animals who exclusively eat grass and not grain for their entire lives, produce meat which also contains more Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA). This has been linked to long term weight management, and is thought to have health benefits that help combat a host of diseases, including cancer and heart disease. You just have to be careful with some of the research here, as many proponents of the grass-fed trend are very quick to bash anything that has to do with grain feeding without having the full picture. While I generally don’t particularly fancy the flavor of grass fed beef, the nutritional benefit of CLA is something to consider, and it just further strengthens the argument for consuming beef.

One caveat to this CLA business: The difference in CLA content between grass and grain -finished beef isn’t really big enough to justify excluding grain-finished beef from your diet. If CLA is what you’re after, maybe work some salmon into your diet, as that seems to contain more. But don’t forget to eat that yummy and nutritious beef either!

B.A.M. Episode 1: Beef Industry History

Happy Birthday America! What better day to start a new series of articles than the one celebrating our independence from tyranny?

This is the first installment of my B.A.M. posts. No, it’s not a damn sound, like Emeril’s ridiculous catch phrase. In these hallowed halls of meat, B.A.M. stands for Beef Advocacy Monday. My goal is to share something positive or educational about beef on each Monday, or at least once a month if I get lazy. Let’s see how long I can go before I run out of crap to talk about. I love beef, so I’m sure this will continue for quite some time. I’m a beef pusher! You all know I’m passionate about meat; so that’s the main reason I’m doing this.

But another reason I’m doing this is to combat the horrible “Meatless Monday” trend going on in the food world lately. I’m sorry, but the phrase “Meatless Monday” should have no place in the American lexicon. Why? Because we Americans pretty much revolutionized the beef industry to make it what it is today. We run the biz when it comes to beef. Yeah, yeah, yeah… we all know that Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Japan are responsible for some great beef as well. But come on, people. It’s the 4th of July, so I’m going to briefly talk about the USA and our vibrant beef history.

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We have a rich beef history here, considering our relatively short time in existence as a nation. At first, beef was generally just slaughtered as needed. Most if not all beef was very fresh and hyper local. I’m talking 1600’s days here, and lots of the animals were really bred for dairy and milk rather than protein consumption.

Pork was different. Salting and smoking were common “packing” techniques that allowed pork to be preserved so that it could be transported away from localities and moved around as a commodity for sale. Cincinnati became a pork epicenter for this packing biz.

Beef never took off like pork did during those days, because cattlemen would have to drive their herd literally across the country to these packing and slaughtering hubs in order to get their product to the market. Not only was this a dangerous endeavor given our relations with Native Americans at the time, and given cattle thieves who would kill and steal for a herd, but the harsh weather conditions at various times of the year were also an issue. Cattle would die very often on these drives. This meant that ranchers were breeding their cattle to be able to survive the cattle drive rather than for flavor quality or meat grade.

It’s no wonder the industry wasn’t taking off. The market was not responding favorably to the product and there were too many obstacles in the way for farmers to make a good return on their investment.

It wasn’t really until the advent of the railroad system and the Industrial Revolution that the beef industry really began to flourish as a major part of the US economy. With the advent of railroads, cattle from the mid-west and Texas could reach the northeast and other major cities with ease. There were no more worries about whether the herd could survive the long journey by hoof. The animals were simply loaded into train cars and transported to places like Chicago, where, in 1865, the Union Stockyards overtook Cincinnati as the epicenter of the meat packing industry. Beef was, in turn, becoming a much larger piece of the American diet. The beef industry actually saw a 61% increase in beef consumption from 1850 to 1860. That’s huge.

Refrigerated train cars even began popping up as early as the 1850’s, allowing for slaughter facilities to be built and maintained closer to the farms, rather than near the packing centers in Cincinnati and Chicago. This eliminated the need for crowded animal transport, and allowed farmers to stay involved with the process from calving to carving.

By 1888, most farmers were breeding and feeding cattle to produce the best quality beef for taste rather than to survive the cattle drive north and east. As you can imagine, this made for much happier meat eaters.

The men who built America and the railroads – those mega-capitalist captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt – were really the ultimate reason for this explosion in the beef industry. I thank them for their efforts.

But that’s not the end of it. We all remember learning about Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, which exposed nasty conditions within the meat packing industry. This eye-opening expose led to Congress passing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which prevents adulterated or mis-branded meat and meat products from being sold as food. It also ensures that meat and meat products are slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.

Then, in 1967, the Wholesome Meat Act extended those federal regulations into the states. It requires that states have inspection programs equal to that of the federal government. These programs are administered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 1978, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act amended the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act and created standards for the humane treatment of animals prior to slaughter.

Since then, various amendments and add-on regulations have honed the guidelines further and allowed for new information and scientific breakthroughs to better inform the whole process. In 1997, in response to a 1993 E. coli outbreak, many best practices guidelines came down the pike for reducing the incidence of food-borne pathogens in meat products. The Beef industry was the only industry to meet the goals of reducing food borne pathogens by half by 2010, and it intends to reduce that number by half yet again for 2020. And we are talking about a decrease in food borne incidents from 2.1% to 0.6%. These figures are much lower than other industries, like poultry.

In addition, in 2004 there were more guidelines and regulations introduced to address things like Mad Cow Disease. Now, inspections happen at every point in the cycle of the beef industry, from calving to animal nutrition on the pastures and in feed yards, to transportation requirements as the animals move to slaughter facilities, and even beyond, to the post-slaughter workplace conditions at packing plants, shipping facilities and grocery stores.

Taken together, the history of the beef industry and these important safety improvements have really created an atmosphere where the American beef consumer can feel confident that the product he or she is buying is safe, nutritious and delicious.

So go forth and heat thy grills for thy July 4th BBQ’s. Slap some burgers and steaks on there and enjoy! Then go blow shtuff up in the sky (safely, of course), because America rules.

Happy “Beefday” to “US.”

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Get Your MBA: Masters of Beef Advocacy

The generous folks at Beef.org offer a free set of five online course modules, after the taking of which you become an official Master of Beef Advocacy. I discovered this by poking around their website one day. After reading more about it, I decided to fill out the application.

This was an ideal opportunity for someone like me, who spends so much time thinking about, writing about, photographing and eating beef. I mean, I have the “CC” after my name for “Carnivore Connoisseur,” which is completely made up, so I figured I might as well try for the official Beef.org certification as well! It would lend a bit more legitimacy to my screeds on here, no?

Anyway, a few days later I received my acceptance letter! Soon after, I began taking the module courses. The courses are as follows:

The Beef Community: an overview of how to talk to consumers about the way beef is raised from pasture to plate. It focuses on the community of people involved throughout the beef life-cycle.

Raising Cattle on Grass: this introduces the student to the first step in the beef life-cycle and the benefits of raising cattle on America’s vast grass pasture resources.

Life in the Feed-Yard: this course is a discussion of the role of feed-yards, including animal care, nutrition and environmental stewardship or sustainability.

From Cattle to Beef: this is an in-depth look at the slaughter process and the humane handling and safety measures that are in place today at beef processing facilities.

Beef – It’s What’s for Dinner: this module is a primer on choosing and cooking the right cuts of beef, and the important role that beef plays in a healthy diet.

What you come away with from these courses is a ton of valuable information about how to address consumer concerns regarding issues like hormones, antibiotics, grass and grain finishing, GMO feed, choosing cuts of beef and cooking.

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Anyone who is a big fan of steak, like me, should think about investing some time into these free courses. I’m a big proponent of knowing a lot about what you are eating. And not only are you getting a ton of info here, but you are also having various health myths dispelled in the process.

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Beef most certainly IS what’s for dinner. At least in my gut anyway. And knowing what I know now, after taking these courses, I’m going to keep it that way.