Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Add to My MSN

What's the Beef on Beef?

8/31/2007 12:00:00 AM


In a recent discussion with other Mother Earth News editors, someone asked, 'Don't cattle that go into feedlots spend at least part, probably more than half, their lives on pasture first?' Good question. Since I grew up on a beef farm, I felt qualified to address the question. Our system (more than 20 years ago in North Dakota, though things haven't changed much in those 20 years in many respects) was to raise calves with their mothers on pasture. Here's a general timeline:

  • Calves were born in March and April (most of them).
  • Cows and calves went to pasture in June (some farmers in the area turned cattle onto pasture earlier, but we felt waiting a bit was better for the cattle and the pasture).
  • The pasture stopped growing and the snow started flying in October, so cows and calves came back to the farmstead.
  • In November, calves were weaned and put in a separate area. I almost wrote 'lot,' but that conjures images of concrete pads. This pen was on dirt, had trees in it, etc.; it wasn't tight confinement. Calves lived there until the next summer when they were moved to the feed 'lot.' Again, room to move, piles of straw to lounge on, trees for shade.

By my calculation, that's a little more than 20% of their 2-year lives spent on pasture. That was North Dakota. There's no way you could keep cattle on pasture all year long without supplementing their feed. I'm not defending or condemning that system. (Read to the bottom before you post your response.)

Now I live in Kansas. The growing season is much longer here. Some ranchers do keep their cattle on pasture most of the year. It's a different environment. Most ranchers feed some hay in the toughest winter months though.

'Organic beef' is not necessarily 'pasture raised.' Nor is 'hormone free' necessarily organic or pasture raised. There is a not really a 'standard' system to producing beef in the U.S., although a majority of beef is 'finished' (fed and fattened) in feedlots, which are not all the same.

At this point, you're thinking, 'What's your point, cowboy?' Here it is: Do you really know where your beef comes from? Can you (realistically) know where your beef comes from?

Yes! If you buy beef from a local farmer, you can ask how his/her system works.

  • What do you feed?
  • Where do the animals live in winter and in summer?
  • What medications do you use or refuse to use?

Then ask for a tour or if you can drive by the pasture.

Ask those same questions of the people behind the meat counter at your local supermarket. Then write about the response in the comments section below so we can all have a good laugh.

Related Content

It Takes a Village to Raise a Prairie

Repair, restore, rejoin is the call to heed if we are to save this planet.

I Just Couldn't Do It

I don't get grossed out very easy - but this special cut of beef made me cringe!

Homemade Grass-Fed Beef Jerky

Lean, grass-fed beef is perfect for making jerky.

Healthy Grass-fed Beef

Beef from a cow raised on pasture is a safer choice than feedlot beef, offers richer flavor and more...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.