Is the beef industry sustainable: A look at grass-fed, hormones, growth promotants, and more

Recently, several of my colleagues and I hosted a Sensitive Issues: Media and Communication Training, we worked on developing and improving our communication skills around agriculture and agricultural topics. One of the topics we received more information on was sustainability.

Dr. Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant, was our first speaker. I want to share with some of the messages about sustainability shared by Dr. Capper.

Capper– Sustainability is defined as “able to last or continue for a long time.” Many livestock farmers and ranchers are sustainable – whether they raise 10 head or 1,000 head. If you have never heard of the Century Farms Program, you should check it out. The American Farm Bureau Foundation recognizes farms or ranches by state that have been in a family for 100+ years! That is sustainable.

– There are essentially three things that need to be considered to be sustainable: 1) the economic viability, 2) the environmental response, and 3) the social acceptance. I think you would agree that no matter the type of agriculture system, these are all important to livestock farmers and ranchers.

– Every farmer and rancher can be sustainable! Sustainability is seen in all types of agriculture — conventional, organic, grass-fed, grain-fed, small, and large. Size of the agricultural enterprise is NOT a determinant of sustainability. Sustainability does not just apply to niche agricultural products.

– Animal agriculture’s U.S. carbon footprint is small! According tot he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meat production accounts for 2.1% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

– If everybody in the U.S. went meatless every Monday for an entire year… The National carbon footprint would only decrease by less than 1/3 of 1 percent!

– If animal agriculture did not exist, what would be the carbon cost of sourcing product ingredients that currently come from agricultural byproducts? Think about all of the products we use daily (i.e. cosmetics, gelatin based foods, paints, etc.), medications, and even food for our pets. Animal agriculture helps keep the carbon footprint low!

– Meat and dairy can be replaced with vegetable proteins, but humans produce methane too!

– In 1977, it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef as four animals in 2007. Raising beef has become more efficient. 

– In 1977 it took 609 days to get them to a harvest (slaughter) weight, in 2007 it took 485 days.  This equates to 3,045 animal days in 1977 and 1,940 animal days in 2007. Raising beef has become more sustainable, and is reducing resources.

– If we converted our current cattle feeding system entirely to a grass-fed system:

– We would need 64.6 million more cattle for a grass-fed system. These cattle average a 615 pound hot carcass weight (the weight after the animal has been harvested, hide, hooves, and intestines/variety meats removed), and it would take approximately 679 days to get them to a desirable harvest (slaughter) weight.

– In comparison, a conventional (or grain-fed beef animal) has an approximate 800 pound hot carcass weight and takes approximately 444 days to get to desirable harvest weight. 

*** All cattle farming/ranching systems are needed and valued, whether it is grain-fed, grass-fed, organic, or natural — one is not better than another, they are just different.

– If, the entire beef industry converted entirely to grass-fed beef we would need an additional 131 million acres of land, 468 billion gallons of water, and 131 million tones of carbon!

– Hormones in food are considered unacceptable, but lifestyle hormones are acceptable.

– One 8 ounce steak from a non-implanted beef animal contains 3.5 ng of estrogen, from an implanted beef animal (a beef animal given additional hormones) it is 5.1 ng of estrogen. One birth control pill delivers 35,000 ng of estrogen. In comparison, a woman would have to eat 3,000 pounds of beef daily to get the same amount of hormones through meat that is found in birth control!

– Growth enhancing technologies (i.e. growth hormones) reduce the environmental impact of beef by 10.7%! More specifically, 4.2 tonnes of feed, 1 acre of land, and 22,722 gallons of water per 800 pound carcass and reduced if growth enhancement technologies are used.

– The extra beef produced as a result of using beta-agonists and implants on a single carcass with supply seven children with school lunches for an entire year!

All foods and food systems can be sustainable. Sustainability is best achieved by optimizing efficiency across the entire food and agriculture chain. Technology has allowed beef farmers/ranchers to produce more beef using less resources.

What other questions do you have about sustainability? I have also written about it here.

cow-calf pairs


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The top 10 of 2014…

I have completed my first full year of blogging! While I was not the most diligent blogger, I learned a lot, met some great people, and had some great conversations. My social media goals and expectations were exceeded! Many thanks to you, my readers for your interest. I have new ideas for blog posts and delivery methods in 2015, so stay tuned!

My top 10 blog posts of the year are as follows:

10. Jello, lipstick, and marshmallows – oh my! – learn more about the animal byproducts in the things we use daily!

9. Cold temps cause frozen ears – cute baby calf picture warning, and a useful product too!

8. Toothless Grins…Fun Fact Friday – because who doesn’t want to know random information about animals?!

7. Gluten Free Myths – a guest blog by my friend Dawn Earnesty, MS, RDN.

6. Caring for Livestock in Cold Temperatures – livestock receive the best care they can, even when temperatures plummet.

5. Organic and Natural Programs – part of the meat labeling series on why these terms are not interchangeable.

4. No added hormones and no antibiotics – part of the meat labeling series to help clear up confusion.

3. Growing up a Rich Rancher’s Kid – a fun post for me to write about perception of wealth.

2. Grain-fed and Grass-fed – part of a series on meat labeling terms, and better understanding what they really mean.

1. Dumping Discover – where I explain why I will be finding a new credit card company.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy New Year. May it be full of health, wealth, and happiness! Cheers.


Dr. Lindsay can also be found on:

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Meat labels: What do they mean?

Today I wanted to come back to meat labels. A couple of months ago I did a series on what meat labels mean. For full details check them out at: Grain-fed and Grass-fed, Organic and Natural programs, no added hormones and no antibiotics, Humanely raised, and a quick reference guide on interpreting the labels.

The University of Nebraska’s Market Journal followed up with me to do a video segment on what the labels mean – check it out.


MEAT Facts…Fun Fact Friday

It has been awhile since I have done a Fun Fact Friday post. I saw this list pop up on BuzzFeed yesterday, and I thought it was great.

The American Meat Institute put together a list of 15 common myths about meat and meat production and provides the FACTS to disprove these myths. They are honest and TRUE! If you would like more resources or information about any of the facts presented, please let me know – I would be more than happy to visit with you!

15 Common Meat Myths That Need to be Crushed for Good

Note: you can click on the headers in each section for additional supporting information.

Have a great weekend!

Quick reference guide on meat labeling terms

Meat labeling terms can be confusing and daunting to understand. Over the last few days I have provided information on grain-fed vs grass- fed, organic vs natural programsno added hormones or antibiotics, and humane certification programs.  I also wanted to wrap-up the meat labeling series with a user-friendly chart for you.

Quick reference guide on meat label type and attributes

This chart is designed to provide you with information needed to make the best decisions for you and your family.

Do you have questions or need more information/clarification on any of these meat labeling terms?

Grain-fed vs. Grass-fed – meat labeling terms (1)

(Updated March 2017)

How many times have you been grocery shopping or watching your favorite television program and you see and/or hear that organic meat is better? Grain-fed tastes better? Grass-fed is healthier? It can be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating – who do you trust?  Below I will provide you with the facts and truth, as well as resources to do some homework of your own.This discussion on meat labeling terms will be presented in a series so as not to overwhelm you with the amount of information in one post!

Meat is a nutrient dense food product. Specifically, beef is a good source of protein, zinc, B vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients! (Beef Nutrition, 2007).

Apple Jack 012
Getting my BBQ on for a meat cutting and tasting demonstration.


Conventional or grain-fed is how the majority of meat animals are raised in the U.S. Conventionally raised meat means the animal receives grain through a balanced diet for a certain time period before it is harvested. Grain aids in helping the animal grow more quickly. It also increases the marbling (intramuscular fat), improving meat quality by making the meat flavorful, juicy, and tender. U.S. consumers not only prefer and consume grain-fed beef, but it is also exported to other countries.

Cattle raised in a feedlot are more efficient, offsetting the greenhouse impact of additional transport and feed production needed. Efficient weight gain offsets higher carbon footprint, and better digestibility of grains means less methane production (Peters et al., 2010).

When it comes to carcass quality, grain-fed cattle have a brighter, more cherry-red appearing meat product; larger Rib Eye Area (REA); higher Kidney, Pelvic, Heart (KPH) fat percentages (internal fat around the kidneys, in the pelvic region, and around the heart); higher Hot Carcass Weight (HCW); and more fat thickness over the ribs (Harrison et al., 1978). More fat on the carcass and larger carcasses means that the carcass cools more slowly. When a carcass cools slowly there is less cold shortening (shrinking of muscle fibers; short muscle fibers mean the meat is less tender); which attributes to increased tenderness. Grass-fed carcasses can have a problem with cold shortening due to the fact the carcass is usually lighter in weight and there is very little fat (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroder,et al., 1980).

Research also indicates that grain-fed beef is more tender (as determined by the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force test and sensory panels), is juicier from the increased marbling (intramuscular fat), and is overall more desirable (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder, et al., 1980; and Melton, et al., 1982).

Grain-fed beef can be labeled organic, as long as the grains and forages the animal consumes are certified organic. Grain-fed beef can also be labeled as all-natural, since there was no further processing of the meat during processing to be all-natural. Grain-fed beef can also be labeled as organic and all-natural – this would mean the animal has eaten certified organic grains and forages for the duration of its life and that no further processing of the meat was done during processing.

AppleJack 2011 007
Grain-fed beef on the BBQ.


On January 12, 2016 the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) withdrew the grass-fed claim for ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep) and the meat products derived from them. This announcement came with mixed reactions. The truth is that the term was somewhat deceiving, as it indicated only animals in a grass-fed system eat grass, when in actuality cattle and sheep primarily eat grass for their entire lives. The only exception is when animals produced for meat receive grain in the final months of their lives or if an animal needs to be supplemented with grain to maintain body condition. On the other end of the spectrum it was upsetting to some that the government would no longer help provide standards for this program, a program that seemed to be growing in popularity with consumers.

This new announcement does not completely remove all verification, according to conference call notes, a person can apply to the USDA – Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) for a grass-fed claim on their label. Additionally, AMS will have the authority to audit a company to ensure they are truthful in their marketing.

Prior to this major change, grass-fed meat meant that the animal should only consume grass and forages for its lifetime with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Acceptable feeds included: grass (annual and perennial), grass forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state, hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources are considered suitable feed sources. Mineral and vitamin supplementation may have also be included in the routine feeding regimen. Additionally, animals could not be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Depending on the cattle rancher/farmer, there are some variations to grass-fed. They are: finished on grass only, grown on grass then finished in dry lot, and feed high roughage ration in feedlot.

While it is common practice for producers of grass-fed meat to not give their animals additional hormones or antibiotics (McCluskey et al., 2005), there is no governing body to regulate this. If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones, antibiotics, or that have not consumed forages where pesticides were used, make sure you purchase your meat from a rancher/farmer or retailer that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.

Grass-fed beef is perceived to be healthier than conventionally (grain-fed) beef. Some health claims that can be made for grass-fed meat (specifically beef in this case) include:

  1. Some steak from grass-fed beef can be labeled as “lower in fat” than steak from conventionally (grain-fed) raised beef.
  2. Steak from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods low in total fat may reduce risk of cancer.
  3.  Steak and ground beef can be labeled “lean” or “extra lean”.
  4. Steak and ground beef from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids may reduce risk of heart disease (Clancy, 2006).

Other health claims indicate that grass-fed beef is higher in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) and milk from pasture raised cows is higher in CLA and ALA (Alpha-Linoleic Acid (Clancy, 2006). Concerning fatty acids, grass-fed beef has 4% omega-3, 6% omega-6 minus CLA, and 3% CLA. Comparatively, grain-fed beef has 1% omega-3, 7% omega-6 minus CLA, and 1% CLA, respectively (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003). Interestingly, CLA is found naturally in meat and milk products of all animals – regardless of their feeding situation.

There are some limitations to grass-fed beef which include:

1. Increased production time – it takes twice as long for a grass-fed animal to be market ready. Grass-fed beef takes two to three years to finish, while conventionally (grain-fed) produced beef takes approximately 14 months.

2. Increased cost of production. Since it takes twice as long to reach an ideal harvest weight, it can cost twice as much to raise the animal.

3. Grass-fed animals produce more greenhouse gases because they grow more slowly, and are eating roughages for a longer period.

4. Less time on feed equals less emissions. Grass-fed creates more methane (high fiber diets are harder to digest) (Abend, 2010).

5. The seasonality of forage resources can be a challenge for producers (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder et al., 1980).

6. Grass-fed beef has a darker muscle color, which generally means less customer appeal. (Schroeder et al., 1980; Reagan et al., 1977). Also, the flavor of the meat will change as the forages change; a grass-fed flavor may be detected.

7. Meat from grass-fed animals may be less tender, thus it will require more aging to help break down connective tissues (Brewer & Calkins, 2003; Schroeder et al., 1980; Melton et al., 1982).

Grass-fed beef is generally leaner, lower in fat, and has more omega-3 fatty acids. Beef should not be considered as a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids; fish (such as salmon, tuna, halibut, algae, krill), canola or soybean oil, some plants, walnuts, or ground flaxseed would be great options (Sacks, 2014; Omega-3 fatty acids, 2013).  Being leaner and lower in fat, grass-fed beef oftentimes sacrifices tenderness, juiciness, and flavor due to a decrease in marbling (the intramuscular fat) and an increase in connective tissue. It is important to prepare cuts of meat from grass-fed animals with moisture (or wet cooking methods); a dry heat cookery method may make the eating experience less desirable.

Just because meat is grass-fed does not mean it is produced in accordance to organic or all-natural standards (more on these later). Meat can be labeled as certified organic grass-fed, and this would mean the forages that the animal consumed met all organic certifications. Meat can also be labeled as all-natural grass-fed, and this would mean that the animal was grass-fed and there was no further processing of the meat during processing, but the forages consumed would not be considered organic. Finally, meat can be labeled grass-fed, organic, and all-natural – this would mean the animal has eaten certified organic forages for the duration of its life and that no further processing of the meat was done during processing. It should be mentioned that the more time and effort invested into growing a meat animal, the more the meat product may cost.

Ground beef (prime and grass-fed) in the supermarket, notice the price difference.

When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a rancher/farmer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, a Farmer’s Market, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and your family preference.

Other meat labeling articles you may be interested in include: organic and natural, no added hormones and no antibiotics, and humanely raised.