The great thing about this country is we have many choices. But choices can be a challenge, too.
How does the production system impact your grilling and eating experience? Well, for nearly 95 per cent of all U.S. beef produced, the traditional system is weaning a calf at six to seven months. Then it’s placed in a forage-based stocker growing program for three to six months, followed by 140 to 160 days of grain feeding to finish.
That was certainly not the original beef production system. Up until the 1950s, all cattle were grass fattened, but about that time, Midwest farmers started finishing them on grain. All of a sudden the consuming public said, “YES, we greatly prefer the flavour of grain-fed beef.”
You likely knew that history. But here are some things you likely did not know about how the beef production system impacts your beef grilling and enjoyment.
Let’s start with a little Q & A.
How long do cattle need to be on feed before the flavour profile we enjoy is created?
Numerous feeding trials have shown that 80 to 100 days are required before we start to taste the difference, but adding 40 to 60 more days further increases flavour and tenderness of the beef.
How much benefit is created by the added days?
A study at South Dakota State University answered that question. Researchers harvested one group of steers with .3 inch of fat cover but fed another group another 77 days to .5 inch of fat cover. They found that the extra time on feed resulted in an additional 105 points of marbling (a full quality-grade difference) creating a more tender, flavourful product.
Our company also did a survey at Certified Angus Beef-licensed packing plants in which we evaluated carcasses by compositional end point. The underfed cattle (.2 inch of fat cover) had considerably lower marbling scores, per cent Choice and Prime carcasses and lower CAB acceptance rates.
So back to the meat case, how would grass-fattened beef compare to beef produced in a normal production system? Workers at the Ohio State University just reported results (2015) of a trial they conducted to answer that question.
The researchers compared a traditional grain-fed system where calves are spring born and fall weaned then placed on a 90 per cent concentrate diet, to cattle “fattened” on grass. The latter group was also spring born and fall weaned, but placed on grass for a short fall grazing period after weaning. They were fed hay over the winter and then placed back on grass in the spring with harvest occurring at about 16 months of age.
There was a 180-pound carcass weight advantage for the traditional, grain-fed cattle. The trial resulted in a fat cover of .23 inch and marbling score of 427 (Slight marbling or quality grade of U.S. Select) for the grass-fattened versus a fat cover of .60 inch and marbling score of 604 (Modest, or Premium Choice) for the grain-fattened cattle.
A small percentage of consumers (less than 15 per cent, according to Nebraska research) do prefer grass-fattened beef. The majority of consumers will continue to prefer grain-fed beef, which will be the future of U.S. beef as we compete globally. Grass-fattened beef is much more common outside of the U.S.