My question is sort of about factory farming I suppose. My dad is a long time cattle rancher from Eastern Montana. He raises over 3,000 head of cattle on open pastures until he sells them to whoever takes them to feed lots to finish them on corn and grain to then be sent to the butcher. We were having a conversation a couple of weeks ago and he basically said that NO cattle ever gets raised completely in confinement like factory farmed chicken or pigs. He said that they actually cannot get enough food unless they are grown in open pastures for most of their lives. So basically his point was, people need to stop complaining about the treatment of cattle because they all are mostly grass fed for the majority of their lives and then they live in the feed lot for only a very short time.
So what I am asking is, is this true? I tried to research it but had a hard time coming up with anything. Are most all cattle in open pasture for the majority of their lives unlike factory farmed chicken and pigs?
Are most all cattle [raised] in open pasture for the majority of their lives unlike factory farmed chicken and pigs?
Yes, this is correct. Some dairy cattle do spend the bulk of their lives inside the dairy barns, but that is another topic altogether and does not apply to cattle raised for beef.
The conventional beef industry is largely set up as follows:
Cow/calf programs - calves are born in early spring or late winter, generally before the beginning of the growing season. By late fall they are then weaned from their mothers. This completes this phase. While born in winter feed pens or calving pens, this is not a feedlot, even if the mothers are given grain supplements during the winter. The summers are spent on pasture in the open air - no grain, no stored feeds, just pasture.
Stocker phase - this is the phase from weaning until they are ready to enter the finishing stage. There are various strategies for stocker calves, depending on when they are born and the climate they are in. Basically, these calves have to grow from their weanling weight until they reach the age where they can begin to be finished for slaughter. If pasture is available, this is also generally done on pasture, but that pesky thing called winter gets in the way in northern climates. To deal with winter, some famers simply feed their stockers the same as their cow/calf herds - in winter feed pens. Others using low-cost pasture based strategies will find ways to graze them through the bulk of winter either on winter pastures like I describe in my book and website, or using swath grazing, direct-feed silage bunks, or any other strategy to get them through the winter at a low cost. Some even are put into what are called back-grounding feedlots - basically a feedlot that prepares them for the actual feedlot finishing later in their life. My dad had a small one of these for many years when I was a kid in order to winter our yearlings. Yes, it is a kind of feedlot, but the vast majority of what they are eating at this time is hay and silage and mixed feed rations of which grain is still only a tiny percentage. Once winter ends, any of the stockers (most) that have not yet reached the weight and size to begin finishing in a feedlot will then spend the summer out on pasture, grazing grass and only grass.
Its only in the final stage - the finishing stage - where their diet really shifts from mostly forage based to being so heavily grain-based. At this stage, the cattle are in feedlot for a few months - I'd hate to generalize the exact time frame because it varies a lot - in which they are fattened on a very grain-rich diet. At this point, the bulk of their calories are from grain, with the hay and silage in the ration serving primarily as roughage. Grain changes the stomach acidity because it requires a different set of enzymes to digest grain than grass - you can read more about it in my article about how a grass vs a grain diet affects cattle.
Not all cattle are finished in feedlots - even in the conventional commodity beef market. For starters, countries like New Zealand and Argentina, where grain is not subsidized and where pastures grow year-round, grass finishing is very common - its the cheapest way of doing things - no unnecessary capital tied up in tractors and fuel and excess labor - just land, cattle, a few electric fences and an ATV. The grass-based farming methods that are gaining in popularity in North America were very much pioneered by New Zealanders - that is why most of the good quality electric fencing companies are originally NewZealand companies - they are not catering to a niche market, but to the way almost everyone is doing things in their home market.
Even in North America, there are increasing numbers of farmers that are applying the most powerful low-cost pasture-based farming strategies to the finishing stage - grass finishing on grass or alfalfa pastures and then simply selling back into the commodity markets and NOT bothering to build a separate marketing system for their cattle. The Grass-Finished Beef chapter of my book describes one such North American grass-based system - a conventionally marketed grass-finishing program using daily rotations on alfalfa along with a bloat inhibitor. So there is a small chance that the steak that you buy at your big-chain grocery store is actually grass fed - it just hasn't been labeled as such as it is not being differenciated as such. These producers are using pasture-based finishing strategies strictly to control and reduce their production costs, not to produce a specialty product. It shows just how powerful grass-based farming strategies can be when someone takes the time to design a really well-thought-out grazing program for their land - some of these folks are former feedlot owners who understand the precise details that must be accounted for in the finishing process and exactly what weight different cattle must reach to be properly finished - and are making the switch because it saves them money. So, when a farmer complains about high production costs to raise grass-fed beef, it is because their production strategy needs some ironing!
This discussion brings up several important points. When buying grass fed beef - it's the finishing process, not the rest of the time that comes before - that sets grass fed beef apart from grain fed beef. From a consumer standpoint - that is what makes the difference whether the fat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Both types of beef have both omega-3s and omega-6's, what changes is the RATIO between them when the finishing diet is mostly grass-based or mostly grain-based. And yes, that also means that cattle that are finished in a feedlot on only forages (hay and silage) without any grain does technically qualify for the USDA's standard to be marketed as grass fed beef.
From a farmer's point of view "grass-fed" is used to more to describe pasture-based farming practices, like those used in NewZealand, strategies designed to reduce the cost of production. These are the strategies discussed on my website and in my book. But they can be used by anyone raising cattle as a way to lower production costs, not just farmers marketing grass fed beef - whether these are cow-calf producers who want to benefit from calving during the growing season, or cow/calf, stocker, or finishing programs that want to learn how to do winter grazing to reduce their winter forage costs, just to name a few examples.
Unfortunately a lot of farmers get so focused on marketing a grass-fed beef product that they actually only tack a grass-finishing program onto the end of their otherwise very conventional-looking beef farming strategy - no daily pasture rotation, no summer calving, no winter grazing, no monthly forage analysis program, etc. This applies equally to many certified organic beef producers - whether they are grass fed or organic feedlots. And then are surprised when their costs are high.
As grass fed beef production strategies become more wide-spread, everyone wins - farmers because their costs come down, and consumers because the cost of beef comes down and some of the healthy ingredients like omega-3's go up. When grass fed beef producers only focus on the market label, they are undermining the chances that grass-fed production becomes more wide-spread to benefit more people and more cattle because they have to charge prohibitively high prices for their beef because their production strategy is not superbly fine-tuned.
Feedlots produce beef for a very cheap cost because they are truly specialists, ironing out everything to make a really efficient assembly line and then scaling it up to benefit from volume to make the most efficient use of their capital.
Grass-fed producers have exactly this same opportunity - to create a finely-tuned pasture-based beef production assembly line - but unlike feedlot production that relies on scale to justify it's massive capital outlines, grass-fed beef production strategies are significantly less scale-dependent - even very small producers can compete. They just have to get really, really, really serious about fine-tuning their strategy. New Zealand and Argentinian farmers of all sizes can ship their grass fed beef half-way around the world and complete with other local produced beef without even asking a premium for being grass-fed - that is the real power of grass-based production from a farmer's perspective. The grass-fed beef premium will fade over time as it becomes more wide-spread, even if it never disappears altogether - it is the farmers who are implementing the low-cost grass-based production strategies NOW, whether or not they take advantage of the high premium for grass-fed beef by adding their own direct-marketing program - that will remain after those that only focus on the end product have long gone out of business.
Wow. What a wealth of information. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer !
I feel like a lot of the people (on the hippier side) that I know tend to have a misconception of the way cattle raised for beef get raised. Like you said the dairy cows are another story but I know a lot of people who don't eat beef (along with other meat) because they think they are cooped up in a little confined area the most of their life but I now understand. It is crazy how I could be raised on a ranch and still not understand the logistics of it. (I had my own rebellion to tend to, of course). So for the consumer, the important thing to look for is grass FINISHED, not only grass fed. That is definitely good to know. I guess I still can't really assume all of the cattle are getting treated the way I want them to be treated but it does make me feel a little better that they get to be out in pastures for most of their lives. I will just have to stick to my grass-fed and finished beef.