Beef, as a staple food, has a bad rap as of late. Perhaps this is for good reason… The feedlot method of animal husbandry is more reminiscent of a dysfunctional family instead of the nurturing, pastoral care exhibited by farmers in the recent past.
Ultimately, you will have to make your own decisions regarding food options, which is a process that doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That is, attempting to save the earth with every bite you ever take will be an exercise in futility. Unless, of course, you commit to living off moss in the wilderness.
Conversely, should you get past the guilt, three square meals of factory synthetic “food” might leave you feeling decidedly undernourished.
The answer to eating sustainably is somewhere in between.
What has worked for me is the Michael Pollan style of diet: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” With the self added modifier, “Eat enough pasture-based protein to stay satisfied.”
But what does that mean: “Pasture based protein?”
The answer on our farm (when it comes to beef) means the following…
First, our cows (mature female cattle) grow and give birth to a calf, typically in the spring. Throughout this process, they consume roughly 8,000 lbs of what is called dry matter in the form of grass. The actual weight of all this grass is much higher since all summer they eat it straight off the soil, so it’s green and full of water, a living plant.
After the calf is born, it is given some nutrition from its mother through milk and learns to eat grass on its own. By the time it is weaned at 6 months of age, the calf’s digestive system can fully digest as much grass as it wants on its own, without any added milk from its mother. During the time before weaning, they will consume dry matter equivalent to 2,000 lbs of grass.
At weaning, we differentiate between females (which are called heifers) and males (which are called bulls.)
The heifers will typically go on to become cows (after giving birth) while most bulls go on to become food. Sometimes they… err… need to have their equipment removed… which makes them a steer. The steers and bulls go on to eat grass for another year before reaching market weight, at which point they will become food. This year of growth requires us to provide roughly 10,000 lbs of grass (dry matter equivalent) for them.
So, if you are keeping track we need about 20,000 lbs of dry grass over the course of two years to raise a steer to market weight. This works out to 10,000 lbs a year. The punch line? Eat grass-fed beef. Growing it is a dynamic (and natural) process that requires more than putting an animal in a stall, pumping it full of antibiotics and corn, then sending it to the butcher.
See below a pictorial representation of how we do this.
What goes into a grass-fed steer?
Dry Grass (20,000 lbs)
- 180 days of sunshine
- 4 Acres of land
- Tractor, cutter, baler, and rake
Apply sunshine to land. Let animals eat ½ of the grass that grows immediately during the warmer months. Retain ½ of the grass using the tractor and hay equipment and give to the animals during the winter months. Repeat as needed for wholesome food for your customers.
20,000 lbs of dry matter (grass) is required to grow a market weight steer. View the pictures below to see how we do this.
This post was written by Nick Schmitz, February 2021.