What's the Beef on Beef?

Reader Contribution by Troy Griepentrog

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.