Origins – Traditional vs. Feed Lot Beef

grass fed beef cooking over a fire

Are the Old Ways Still the Best Ways?

It’s easy to romanticize our ancestors cooking a baby pig over an open fire, munching on wild greens living in harmony with the land. If we could only live like that now – free from modern stress and pollutants, wouldn’t life be so much better?

Hell, no.

I grew up on a farm doing chores at 6:00am before school each day—something I have no desire to relive. It’s an energy-intensive lifestyle that doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Sure, our ancestors moved more and only ate wild, organic food, but this type of living was hard, and not without risk.

I’m an “indoorsman.” If you catch me wandering around in the woods something has gone terribly wrong. Please call my wife to let her know where I am. She’ll be worried. I feel the same way about fighting. I always want to fight the weakest guy, on the biggest stage for the most money. I feel the same about diet and exercise. Thankfully, modern technology allows us to take advantage of traditional foods without making the effort to hunt and gather. This often (but not always) costs a little more, but the benefits are significant.

Changes in the way livestock is raised and fed has altered the nutritional characteristics of much of our protein.

Pasture-raised, Organic, Grass-fed, Natural, Wild…What?

When we hear these buzzwords, the image of rolling hills and fresh grass from the idyllic countryside come to mind. Birds are chirping and cows are happily grazing in the sunshine. As you might have guessed, that picture is not entirely accurate.

About 10,000 years ago, humans convinced a few select species of animals to live alongside them. The animals agreed to this because every day they were given food, water, and protection, which was much easier than life in the wild. Of course, they didn’t know what they were offering in return for their room and board, which was their lives. None the less, this arrangement proved to be successful. The number of domesticated farm animals grew, and our ancestors had a much easier time surviving.

For humans fortunate enough to adopt this lifestyle, breeding and living near domesticated animals improved resistance to diseases and helped keep a steady food supply throughout the year. Organic, free range, and grass-fed were terms that were never used because that was the only way these animals were raised.

A Reliable Food Supply Brings Progress

Excess food allowed small tribes and their cultures to grow. It was no longer necessary for everyone to spend all day foraging for food. As societies developed, specialized jobs emerged: artists, teachers, religious leaders, and craftsman. Innovation escalated dramatically. Full speed ahead, right?

In modern times, technology has made the process of raising animals for food much easier. To produce an inexpensive product that meets our food needs, modern commercial beef production methods were developed. Commercially raised beef can now be found in your local supermarket for less than $5.00 per pound. Protein (and most food, for that matter) is cheaper now than it has ever been in modern history.

What Do the Food Labels Mean?

When trying to determine how the protein you’re eating was raised, labels can be misleading. Pasture-raised refers to where a cow eats every day. In this case, a pasture. Grass-fed refers to what a cow eats. In this case, grass (or hay). But cows raised in a pasture can still be fed grain, and confined cows can eat hay.

Beef labeled “organic” must come from cows that have not been given antibiotics, but they are not necessarily grass fed as they may have been fed organic grains. Organic, grass-fed beef comes from cows that only eat grass and have not been given antibiotics. Confused?

All cows start out in a pasture drinking milk from their mothers. But the vast majority will end up in commercial feed lots between the age of six to eight months with the goal of finishing them at fourteen to sixteen months.

Large feedlots contain up to 100,000 cattle living on top of their own excrement. If you’ve ever driven past one, the pungent stench sticks with you for miles. It’s in feed lots like this that most of the beef cattle sold in the United States comes to gain weight as quickly as possible before heading off to slaughter. Unfortunately, these facilities tend to be filthy and their practices are considered by many to be inhumane. This is not the type of place you’d want to picture your steak living the last third of its life.

A Feedlot Where Cattle are Fattened Before Slaughter

Cattle rapidly gain weight when fed approximately 32 pounds of feed each day. This feed consists mostly of corn with a little alfalfa and silage, all mixed with liquefied fat, protein supplements, vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and antibiotics. It’s not uncommon for candy makers to send defective products to cattle farms because they serve as “cheap carbs.” Who knew that cows ate Skittles?

Unfortunately, cows are designed to eat grass. They have a difficult time digesting grains like corn. These high carbohydrate rations cause such rapid weight gain that the cow would die from it if it wasn’t slaughtered first.

In addition to rapid weight gain, this method of feeding alters the cow’s gut bacteria, weakening its immune system. Add that to the unhygienic living conditions and you know why cattle are given prophylactic antibiotics—to keep them alive until it’s time for slaughter. Corn-fed beef is easy to spot – it’s typically pink in color and the fat is very white.

What About Pastured, Grass-fed Cows?

In a small number of cases, cows are raised in the traditional way—eating grasses in a pasture where they are free to roam and do what cows do. For a rancher who raises cattle in this way, it’s impossible to compete on speed to market or price per pound. Cows that spend their life eating grass on a single farm take much longer to gain weight.

A commercial feed lot that finishes their cows on a very high carbohydrate diet can fatten a cow up in fourteen months or less. A true pasture-raised, grass-fed cow can take 24-30 months to mature. They are walking around grazing up until a few minutes before slaughter. These cows are typically leaner, and the meat has more flavor and a healthier fatty acid profile. I’d venture to say they’re happier as well.

A pasture where cows might be grass-fed

Adelaida Springs Ranch is a perfect example of a ranch doing it the old fashioned way. They have circumvented modern beef production and distribution by raising and slaughtering their cattle on the same piece of land—1,500 acres of pristine oak woodland in a remote valley of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. They are the only ranchers in California who use a mobile, USDA certified animal processing facility to slaughter cows on their own property. The cows are walked in under very little stress and quickly put down.

a pastured, grass-fed cow

Pasture raised and finished cow.

A note regarding the ethical treatment of animals: When an animal sacrifices its life for us to eat, it deserves respect and, as much as possible, dignity. Allowing an animal to roam, graze, and live in a natural setting is by far the best approach from a health and moral stand point.

Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas is also doing things somewhat differently than the norm. They harvest wild deer, elk, and pigs with a sound suppressed long rifle and process the meat in their own USDA inspected mobile processing unit. Within one hour from the time the animal is put down, it is cleaned, quartered, and hanging. This represents the most humane way of killing an animal and allows us non-hunters access to wild meat.

wild game (deer) on Broken Arrow Ranch, Texas

Wild game – Broken Arrow Ranch

More Is not Always Better

Modern food production has altered many of the foods we eat, and not for the better. While increases in food production (quantity) are essential to support a growing population, we need to consider the health effects of the foods we’re mass-producing. We see the impact unhealthy, processed food has—1/3 of the world’s people are overweight. Learning where your food comes from and how it’s raised and processed is a big step toward protecting your health. With that knowledge, you can decide what types of food you will incorporate into your diet.

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