I have read a few comments made by pro chefs and home cooks alike about beef and cattle that has encouraged my to write this article about the myths associated with cattle grown in the US. Please bear with me as I am not a professional writer nor am I experienced in writing articles.
Before I begin, it is relevant to point out that I live in Kansas, which is located in the heart of cattle production here in the US. Texas and Oklahoma are ranked 1 and 2 respectively in cattle production and Kansas is a very close 3rd. For years, I have sourced my beef from local ranchers with whom I have become personally and professionally familiar. That is to say, I am very familiar with their practices and procedures as ranchers. As a boy, I worked for a rancher during Summers and school vacations. Up until a few years ago, I would volunteer my time to help out one of my friends, who is a rancher. Alas! Now that I wear an older man's clothes, my "help" is more or less reduced to manning the grill and picking the wine when the work is done; a task that I whole heartedly enjoy.
With that being said, there are a few facts that must be realized and accepted as truths before we get into the myths. The first truth is the American Midwest is grassland. This makes raising livestock rather ideal for obvious reasons. Another fact is that grass is cheaper than corn or other processed feeds. Ranchers will spend their money enriching their vast grazing areas with quality grasses and legumes for the two simple reasons that to do so is cheaper than growing corn as feed and grass requires little or no maintenance. As an extra benefit, that grass can be cut, bailed and used in the winter as feed.
The other main crop grown in Kansas and the Midwest in general is corn. But, very little of it is used as cattle feed. Most of it used in processing the foods that we eat, dry pet food, corn oil, distilling, cereals and as of late, the production of Ethanol. Ranchers will grow corn as an additional cash stream. After all, farms are businesses.
With these things being said, here are some popular myths.
1. Cattle are raised in "feed lots."
This myth and the horror stories that go along with it began in the myth mill created by the Organic community. Cattle are not raised in feed lots. Here in the Midwest where more than 90 percent of all beef is produced, cattle are raised in the grazing areas that typically consist of thousands of acres of grassland. The cattle are left to their own to run as herds for much of the year and are only brought in during the Winter months for protection from the elements. During the winter spent indoors, hay comprises the bulk of their diet, not corn. In the Spring, when the grasses begin to revive and are at their most nutritious, the cattle are returned to the large grazing areas. The females give birth and by late Spring or early Summer, the cattle are once again rounded up and placed in holding areas usually constructed for convenience adjacent to the grazing area. There, the new calves are vaccinated, branded and the herd is once again released back into the grazing area where they remain until late fall. At that time, the cattle are rounded up and separated. Those that are ready for sale are separated from the herd and placed in feed lots for no more than a few days at which time they may be given corn or some other high fat content feed to add a few extra pounds of weight. When dealing with literally tens of thousands of pounds of cattle, two or three extra pounds per head adds up very quickly. The cattle are loaded onto trucks and taken to the place of sale where they are weighed and sold. Some of the revenue from the sale of the cattle is then reinvested in purchasing calves or some other aspect of the operation.
The "feed lot" myth was spun into existence by activists such as those who advocate Organic food or those who are the self appointed champions of animal rights. Scare tactics, half truths and in some cases, outright lies have sadly become the tools of the trade to convince the general public, who lack the necessary subject matter literacy to know better, to turn to organic food or abandon animal protein altogether. Hence, the horrific stories of corporate feed lots began to proliferate and litter the internet, especially social media.
Over the years, especially since the internet became so common starting in 2001, those scare tactics have worked rather well. The Organic industry has grown in the US from a 3 billion a year industry in 2001 to more than 70 billion a year today. While there may be some merit to the concept of organic food, especially vegetables, some common misconceptions of beef maintained by many consumers are simply not true.
2. Grass fed beef is better.
This is perhaps my favorite myth. Those of you who own your own establishments or are responsible for sourcing your protein should pay extra attention to what I am about to say. Nearly all cattle produced in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are grass fed. I say "nearly" because I really do not like to speak in absolutes. Like I said above, these three states are prairie states where grass grows is breathtaking abundance.
Growing cattle on corn, especially on a large scale where literally thousands of head are involved, is a monumentally expensive task. In fact, its patently cost prohibitive. This is to say that as a rule, ranchers just don't do it. Like any rule, however, there are exceptions. While some small, private ranchers may grow their cattle on corn, large ranchers typically do not. Why would they? The digestive system of a cow does not do well on corn at all. The corn is hard to digest and tends to overly ferment in the gut which causes serious health risks for the cow. A Cow's digestive system is designed for digesting grass and legumes.
So, yes. What I am saying is that "grass fed" beef is not the exception. Its the rule. Clever marketing has created the myth of "grass fed beef" so consumers will not mind shelling out the extra few dollars a pound for the same meat. The label says "grass fed," so it must be better, right?
3. Black Angus beef is better.
Black Angus beef is no better or worse than the meat from any other breed of cattle. Some will argue that Black Angus beef is more tender or has better marbling. However, these characteristics are due more to age, feed quality and the cow's activity rather than genetics.
The Black Angus breed originated in Scotland and were brought to North America sometime in the early 19th century. Since Black Angus cattle were rather uncommon in the US during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Black Angus cattle took on the myth of being "better" probably because they looked different than the common breeds grown in the US. No one can say for sure where the "Black Angus is better meat" myth began, but, the beef industry has been cashing in on it ever since. Enter stage left, the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) standard created by the American Angus Association in the late 1970's. This was to help weed out the frauds that claimed their beef was "Angus beef" when, in fact, it was not. Seeing the potential harm that counterfeit Angus could have on the beef industry as a whole, the CAB standard was introduced. However, within the ranching community as a whole, the notion that Angus beef tastes better or is more tender is a big, fat, well marbled, perfectly aged, 32 oz whopper of a lie. The fast food industry embraced the "Certified Angus Beef" label as a very effective marketing ploy amid sharply downward spiraling profit trajectories in the wake of the "fake beef" scandals that erupted in the last decade. However, the CAB certification itself was really nothing more than a means to preserve that specialized area of cattle production and it worked.......very well.
4. The beef is bright red, so it must be good. This is another big myth. I think I can safely say that all of us have noticed the bright red beef in our favorite supermarket's meat department. But, that bright red color is not that the natural color of the meat. The natural color of beef is a dark, reddish-brown, not bright red. The bright red color is added to make the meat so it will be more appealing. However, when the package is opened, turn the meat over and the truth of the matter will be exposed.
There are many myths that spin around the food industry. But, of them all, the beef myths that I pointed out here are perhaps the most common and frankly, the easiest to debunk. All you have to do is find a rancher and offer to volunteer your time and 9 times out of 10, they will be more than willing to accept your offer. I don't know a single rancher who would not be wiling to educate someone on what they do and how they do it. If volunteering your time on a cattle ranch is not really your thing, take a drive through cattle country here in the Midwest. Try and find one of those hellacious feed lots that so many people believe exist. Aside from a very pleasant drive through America's Heartland, the only thing you will see is hundred of miles of grassland, cattle, a few oil wells, some horses and a bunch of corn. Sorry, no horrific feed lots.
If you are a proprietor or are responsible for sourcing protein as part of your job, knowing what is fact and was it is fiction could be a real benefit for obvious reasons.
Thanks for reading.