That’s right you meat eating sons of bitches, I’ve written a book!
The Beef Bible: A Carnivore’s Compendium is a collection of articles, musings, and beef information that every steak lover should have at his or her fingertips. Inside my meat manifesto, you’ll learn all there is to know about the beef biz; from breeding to butchery, from calving to carving.
The Kindle edition is just $4.99. But here’s a money saving tip: Kindle is FREE as an app on your phone, and you should be able to borrow my book from the Kindle owners lending library for FREE as well, once you install the app! It can also be shared with you through the lending library by others who have purchased it. So you don’t even have to pay the measly $4.99 if you don’t want to drop a crisp Lincoln to support my sorry ass.
But in the rare case that you do want to support my sorry ass with a cash purchase, there’s a fuckin’ paperback version as well, and it won’t cost much more than a crisp Hamilton! It’s available on Amazon for just $11.99:
That’s my “proof” editing copy with the annoying “not for resale” ribbon across the front. Yours will be much prettier. And that’s Benjamin Franklin in the back, from the mini-series John Adams. Damn that’s a lot of founding fathers mentioned in one post, for no reason at all really!
Those of you who follow along here … “religiously” … will recognize some content, but everything has been updated and improved for the book. The Kindle version has full color photos for your phone and/or tablet displays, while the paperback is in regular old black and white, save for the cover art. A color print job would’ve meant me charging upwards of like $25 to even make a penny on the sale. Absurd! At that price, just go out and buy the fucking steak instead of reading about it.
In any case, I hope you savages read what I have to say, and continue to worship alongside me at the Holy Altar of Beef!!!
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
In my effort to educate you dingbats about all-things-beef, I figured this would be a nice little primer on what’s going on in the industry around the Beef Checkoff Program.
In 1985, the Food Security Act, aka the “Farm Bill,” established something called the Beef Checkoff Program. The program, which later became mandatory in 1988, takes $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable grab on imported beef and beef products.
The dough is collected by state beef councils, which retain up to half the amount collected. The state councils give the other half to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which oversees the national checkoff program, subject to USDA review.
There are 100 members of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. They’re nominated by fellow beef producers and appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and they represent all segments of the beef industry.
Beef Checkoff was designed to get people to sell more beef and motivate consumers to buy more beef. This is accomplished through advertising, marketing partnerships, public relations, education, research and new-product development. The Beef Act defines six program categories: (1) promotion, (2) research, (3) consumer information, (4) industry information, (5) foreign marketing, and (6) producer communications.
You may have heard the slogan “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” somewhere in your travels. That’s just one example of their success.
But fear not! By law, checkoff funds can’t be used to promote breeds or brands without USDA and Beef Board Executive Committee approval. Furthermore, checkoff funds can’t be used to influence government policy or action (including lobbying). The law also disallows checkoff money to be invested in production research that isn’t aimed at improving beef products.
The main goal of the program is to increase commodity demand, and thus increase economic growth in the industry. Most beef and dairy producers believe that their beef checkoff dollars bring value back to them. Many of my posts are a result of beef checkoff funding, actually. The MBA and Top of the Class programs in which I participated were funded by the checkoff. Do you think that money went to good use? I do!
Should the funding ever increase (to more than $1 per head, for example) the checkoff may consider putting the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” message back on TV, stepping up consumer education, or increasing foreign market development.
I hesitate to even use the word “industry” when talking about beef in the USA. Perhaps “Sustainability in US Beef Production” is a better title for this post. “Industry” makes people think of the “factory farming” bullshit myth, which I already debunked HERE.
In any case, Happy New Year!!! As usual, this post is designed to do away with yet another set of myths about US beef. Apparently some false ideas have spread that beef production in America is vicious to the environment, emits far too many “greenhouse gases,” is responsible for “global warming” (or whatever people call it these days), is wasteful, and is generally not a sustainable practice. Lies. Every one of them.
Grasslands involved in beef production 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 grassland in the US is actually not suitable for crop farming due to soil characteristics, topography or rainfall. Cattle grazing is a good use of the otherwise inarable land, and it even helps prevent wildfires. Also, cattle can eat shit that almost nothing else can. Bovine digestive systems are made to convert inedible plants into protein that we can eat.
That’s all wonderful, and you may have read a little about that on here before. But what I’m going to do now is introduce you to the concept of “diversified farming” practices.
What the fuck is a diversified farm? Essentially it’s when a farm produces a variety of crops or animals, usually both, with the crops feeding the animals that they raise, in an effort to create a self-sustained farm with little waste or reliance upon other operations.
You may recall that Walbridge Farm is like this as well, where they grow sunflowers and raise cattle. The sunflowers are used to produce cold pressed sunflower oil, which they sell at their market.
The hulls, shells and ground up sunflower byproduct from that oil-making process is then used to create cattle feed. Pretty brilliant, if you ask me. Not only is this a good idea from a business standpoint, since you are becoming more self-reliant and utilizing more of what you make, but it is also responsible environmental stewardship.
Speaking of environmental stewardship, many diversified farm operations also catch water runoff from their feed yards to be processed and rendered inert before being reclaimed by the land. In fact, water management is an area of the industry that has seen great improvement in recent years. In addition, almost all diversified farms collect cow dung as well, which is then used as fertilizer for their crops. Even waste is not wasted!
But aside from diversified farming efforts, cattle are natural recyclers. They kick so much ass at recycling that you can literally feed them the waste from other industries.
Do you enjoy bourbon? Of course you do, because you’re a man with balls and a dick swinging between your legs. You’re a red-blooded fucking American, and nothing is more American than bourbon, except for maybe jazz or steak. Do you know how bourbon is made? With corn! Good: You’re not an idiot. Corn mash, to be more accurate. That gets fermented and turned into booze. But what happens with the mash after the fermentation and distillation process? You guessed it: it often gets turned into cattle feed.
You all know how much I love Martin’s Potato Buns, right? The reason I love them so much is because their buns are always fresh, supple and soft; perfect for constructing a burger. I recently learned why that is the case. They pull their bread from shelves a little earlier than most, to ensure freshness to the consumer. Know what they do with the buns after they get pulled from the shelves? Rather than going to the garbage heap, they get re-purposed and turned into cattle feed.
That’s just two examples of other industries and businesses that contribute their unused byproducts to the beef production cycle, thereby reducing and re-purposing waste. The ethanol fuel industry is another big one, but many others contribute as well.
So what about greenhouse gases? We’ve all heard how cow farts are supposedly destroying the planet, right? Come on…
According to numbers from the EPA, cattle production is not even a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s some recent data:
Agriculture: 6.9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Livestock: 3.1% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Livestock Methane: 2.8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Beef Cattle Methane: 1.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
What about other industries?
Electricity Generation: 33% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Transportation: 26% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Industrial Use: 11% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Residential/Commercial: 8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s really pretty simple though: Cattle are not the major cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And as far as the US is concerned, we do a pretty damn good job at containing the impact that beef production has on the environment. The US is actually one of the most efficient nations in terms of lowering greenhouse gases and environmental concerns that stem from beef production. Click the image below to see a larger version:
Furthermore, a “Lifecycle Assessment” of the beef industry was recently conducted. What that means is that everything and anything that touches the production cycle was examined. Use of farm equipment, water, machines, everything – not just the cattle themselves or the land use.
Take a look at this nifty graphic that encapsulates the findings of the life cycle assessment (click for a larger version):
It turns out that the beef production cycle scored much better than car emissions from the auto industry. Why mention emissions and the auto industry? Because they promoted a poor emissions study and leveled some wild accusations at the beef industry.
Better still: the emissions study didn’t focus on the entire auto industry lifecycle in the way that the beef study did. Had they conducted a full lifecycle study, they would have had to include assessments of things like power plants and such. Once those things are factored in, the beef industry becomes squeaky clean in a direct comparison with the auto industry in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
For more information about the improvements made in the beef production lifecycle, go HERE.
Niche Market Beef
A lot of hulabaloo has been going on around the discussion of grain finished vs grass finished beef. People seem to think that grass finished beef is somehow more natural and environmentally friendly. Yet we know it takes about 226 more days for grass-finished cattle to reach market weight than grain-finished cattle. More days on grass may mean greater environmental impact.
Let’s look at the difference. Each pound of grain-finished beef requires:
45 percent less land;
76 percent less water; and
49 percent less feed;
51 percent less manure; and
42 percent fewer carbon emissions.
So it would seem to me that grain finishing is more environmentally sound. For more on that, click HERE.
Just the idea of it makes me cringe. What would possess someone to avoid meat just because of alliteration? Why not increase beef intake and call it Meaty Monday? Because some fool out there thought it would be healthy and better for the environment to cut meat from your diet just one day a week. Were they right? Of course not. Let’s examine the idea:
As for the environment, “Meatless Monday” would have a very small impact even if every American followed it. One meatless day per week would account for less than one half of one percent of the U.S. carbon footprint. For more on that, check out THIS LINK.
Nose to Tail
Are we, as a society, wasting any part of the animal? Not really.
First, you’ve all noticed some of the shit I’ve been eating lately at fine dining establishments: Oxtail stew, blood sausage, bone marrow, tripe, and all sorts of offal or “variety meats.”
There is a readily identifiable trend in the food biz where chefs want to use the entire animal, from nose to tail, to reduce waste and elevate their cuisine by offering on their menus the proteins that used to be relegated to the impoverished.
Offal and “variety cuts” were always cheap and within the budgets of the poor, especially outside of the US. You know what I’m talking about: stews, cured meats, slow and low cooked meals, etc. Now, restaurants are taking inspiration from some of those humble dishes and featuring them on their menus.
But even outside of human consumption, the carcass is utilized across a wide spectrum of modern society. Take a look at this diagram, courtesy of Facts About Beef:
I also liked this one from Snopes, mainly for the conclusion at the bottom of the image:
I haven’t independently verified all uses claimed on the Snopes chart, but the Facts About Beef chart is 100% legit and it looks like whoever made the Snopes pic just grabbed the same list from the BeefUSA graphic. The overall point is that beef byproducts are in a lot of things we use every day. It’s not like we just kill cows, cut the meat off and fling the carcass into a ditch on the side of the road. There’s really no waste.
I guess I should cut this baby off here. There’s a lot to talk about as far as sustainability is concerned, and if I tried to tackle everything, this would be a book as opposed to an article.
Just remember that America’s cattle ranchers have a vested interest in sustainable environmental practices. After all, the beef community thrives on multi-generational family farms. Cattle farmers have an average of 13 different practices in place to accomplish environmental goals.
Meet Your Meat posts are a new way for me to introduce my readers to the people responsible for raising and producing our food. Farmers, ranchers, processors, butchers, etc. You get enough chef info in my restaurant reviews, but it’s high time that I start focusing on the people who actually supply restaurants with their delicious beef proteins.
That experience is the subject of a whole other post, so I won’t get too deep into it here, but the point in mentioning it is to anchor your understanding of why I’m choosing Anne Burkholder to be the first person that I spotlight in this new “Meet Your Meat” endeavor. Anne was an instructor at the Top of the Class, and over the course of the two day training program, I got to know her and was inspired to write about her journey.
Since I and most of my readers are from the NYC metro area, many of us don’t know a lot about farming, or we take it for granted. Most of us are probably still in the dark about what it takes to bring beef to our plates every week. We just don’t get exposed to the process often enough.
Anne represents all of us urbanites and suburbanites. She grew up in urban Palm Beach County, Florida. While anything “Florida” may sound like a sprawling paradise to us NYC folks, urban Palm Beach is certainly not a farming community; it’s a city!
Smart as a whip and with incredible athletic pedigrees in both cross country running and swimming, Anne attended an ivy league college. She met her husband Matt there, and they later moved back to Matt’s home town in Nebraska.
Matt’s family owned and operated a diversified farm business. What is a diversified farm? Essentially it’s when a farm produces a variety of crops or animals, usually both, with the crops feeding the animals that they raise, in an effort to create a self-sustained farm with little waste or reliance upon other operations. You may recall that Walbridge Farm is like this as well, where they grow sunflowers and raise cattle, with the sunflowers being used to produce both sunflower oil and cattle feed.
Okay so back to Anne. Soon after graduating cum laude at Dartmouth, she was putting on boots and blue jeans to work at her and her husband’s cattle feed yard, Will Feed, Inc. This is where cattle get fattened up, so to speak, before going off to market. Check out this short video that explains what she does:
See how much space these animals have? Just goes to show you how bogus those myths are about “factory farming.” But anyway, I digress…
Nearly 20 years have passed since Anne moved out to the country, and she still loves what she does. Apparently the beef community loves what she does as well:
In 2009, she was awarded the Beef Quality Assurance Producer of the Year Award for her volunteer work in beef farmer education concerning animal welfare and food safety. In 2013 she was voted to Vance Publishing’s 40 under 40 in Agriculture, and in 2014 she was awarded Beef Magazine’s Trail Blazer Award. Both awards were given for her work in consumer outreach through her blog, Feed Yard Foodie.
She’s a member of the Tyson Fresh Meats Animal Well-being Committee for Farm Check, the National Beef Quality Assurance Advisory Committee, a Director of the Nebraska State Beef Council, and an avid advocate for the cattle industry. She’s constantly and actively improving cattle welfare and beef safety. She is an irreplaceable asset.
The best part is that Anne’s operation is a family farm, and she loves the personal responsibility that her three daughters learn from taking care of their land and animals. So not only is Anne working to improve all-things-beefy, but she is setting a great example so that the next generation can do so as well.
In addition to running cattle on grass in the spring and summer, Anne is soon to start a new job with Beef Marketing Group and Innovative Livestock Services. Her role will be in communications, and she will also be helping take on various animal welfare projects for four Nebraska feed yards. She’s looking forward to implementing her animal care ideas to impact a larger number of animals.
I encourage you all to follow her blog and check out her insightful posts. She’s a wonderful person and an inspiration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!!!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Herd Management Techniques
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
I think that’s a good start for now. I’ll address animal care and animal health in the next BAM.