Click on the link above for a page I put together to help you be an informed consumer.
Are your cattle grass fed?
Virtually all cattle are grass fed. Most beef cattle start their lives on what is called a “cow-calf” ranch. Here the rancher maintains a herd of females and requisite bulls to breed those females on pasture. Most ranchers either calve in the spring or the fall, although there is a small percentage that calve year round or maintain both spring and fall calving herds. Calving season is generally arranged to take best advantage of the local grass cycle, or to accommodate the seasonal market swings for calf prices. Most western Oregon ranches (including ours) are spring calving. California ranchers do a lot of fall calving due to relatively warm winters and very hot summers.
We start calving in late February while the cows are still being fed hay in a smaller field so that we can watch them calve and intervene in the rare case it's necessary to assist them in calving or getting that calf up and nursing early for a good start in life. At birth, each calf is given a vitamin and mineral supplement as well as being given an individual ID number and having its navel treated with iodine to prevent a possible infection.
By mid March or early April of most years the grass is starting to grow (it doesn't really grow in the winter, just think of your lawn), and is ready to have the cows and calves moved onto some of the more rugged fields on the ranch. By the end of May, the cows are ready to start heat detection to be artificially inseminated (AI) prior to summer turnout. After AI, the cows and their calves are turned out on about 400 acres of mixed pasture and timber ground that ranges from 800 to 1800 feet elevation.
Come late September, the calves are 7 months old, 500 to 650lbs, and ready to be weaned from the cows. The grass on the ranch has matured and dried by this time of the year and has lost a lot of its energy and protein. The cow needs to have the calf weaned to allow her to put on reserves for winter (rather than making milk) and prepare her body to care for the calf coming the following spring. Gestation is nine months, and the goal is to have the cow calve essentially the same day every year.
Prior to weaning, the calves are brought in and given their first set of shots. Newborn calves gain temporary immunity to most of the diseases that their mothers are vaccinated against through the first milk that they receive after birth, called colostrum. However, by the time they're weaned, this immunity has started to wane. We vaccinate for common respiratory diseases and clostridial bacteria. When the calves are weaned, they get a booster to that initial vaccine as per the recommended protocol. That booster will now give them a full year's protection. At this time, we also run all the cows through for their annual exams and vaccinations.
Through this whole timeline, the cows and calves have only eaten grass or hay. Once weaned, the calves are placed onto a high forage diet with some grain as a concentrated protein and energy source. Think of weaned calves as teenagers. They're in a rapid stage of growth at this point in their lives. By weaning them, we've removed a fairly dense source of protein and energy from their diet, milk. So we need to replace that with supplemental feed or risk their growth being stunted.
Each ranch has different ways of replacing these nutrients. Some have irrigated pastures that they can put the calves on lushgreen grass. Some will feed a grass pellet that's fortified with dried distillers grains. A lot of it has to do with local availability. We feed all they can eat grass hay with a mixture of corn, peas, and barley. The corn and barley supplement energy, and the peas provide a protein source.
Can I get marbled beef without grain?
So all cattle are grass-fed. Grass-FINISHED cattle have had high quality forages (such as irrigated pasture, high quality hay, silage, or grass-based pellets) fed to them during the finishing phase to encourage marbling. You see a lot of grass-fed beef for sale that in actuality was just a cow or steer that someone stuck out in a field with little regard to the end quality of the product. Many are simply a cow that has reached the end of her productive life and she's cut into steaks. Technically she meets the definition. Just know that the vast majority of grass-fed beef out there (I see a lot of it in my off-farm job) is not finished, and your eating experience will reflect that.
We all have different tastes. If you love what you buy as grass-fed beef, more power to you.
Do you use antibiotics? Do you use hormones?
We use no “growth promotants” in our herd. We do not feed any antibiotics or ionophores because we really don't need to. In the rare event that an animal becomes sick, we will treat that animal with the medically necessary treatment to alleviate its suffering, but it will eleminate that animal from being slaughtered to sell to one of our customers, even following minimum FDA withdrawal .
We do not use hormone implants either, as they can negatively affect the marbling in the steer. We choose instead to use the best growth genetics available to us so that we don't need to supplement hormones.
Is it true that cattle shouldn't eat corn?
First of all, corn is a grass. All grains (as opposed to legumes like clover, alfalfa, peas or soy) are simply the seeds of grasses that have been bred over centuries to produce larger seed-heads than traditional pasture grasses. So yes, cattle are designed to eat corn. In many parts of the country, field corn is raised to be cut and stored as silage to be fed.
Grains such as corn, barley, and rice and legumes like peas and soy are important parts of livestock diets.
You'll often hear talking points that cattle aren't made to just eat grains. And that's correct. If you fed a steer on a diet completely consisting of grain, it would shock its digestive system and would likely die without intervention. To understand, you need to understand the unique digestive system of cattle. A more in-depth explanation is here
This is an explanation with some factors left out for simplicity. Cattle (and sheep and goats) are members of a class of animals called “ruminants”. They have four distinct compartments to what we would consider our stomach. The first compartment that food enters is the reticulum, which is essentially separated by a half-height wall to the second and largest compartment, the rumen. These two compartments act as a fermentation vat for all the food-stuffs that the animal eats. It is roughly 55 gallons in capacity in a full grown cow. The rumen contains billions of micro-organisms that break down the large volume of feed, some of which would be indigestible to the animal without the rumen bacteria.
Grass is made up of carbohydrates, cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, which are all long-chain carbon structures. All except the carbohydrates are indigestible to monogastrics (as opposed to ruminants) like ourselves. The cow can't use them either by herself, but the micro-organisms in her rumen can alter the long carbon chains to make them a useful energy source for the cow while feeding themselves. It's a symbiotic relationship in that the cow provides the forage, and the micro-organisms feeding on it makes a useful energy source for the cow. In addition, as the micro-organisms grow, regenerate, and die, they wash downstream in the digestive system as additional protein for the cow. There's an old adage in ruminant nutrition: “You don't feed the cow, you feed the bugs” and the bugs feed the cow.
To keep the rumen healthy, you need to balance the amount of readily fermentable grains in their diet with an adequate amount of fiber (cellulose). The rumen microbes ferment the fiber and carbohydrates into volatile fatty acids (VFA) which ruminants are equipped to utilize directly as energy. However, by producing acids in an environment that needs to be roughly neutral as far as pH, the cow needs to buffer it. A cow produces saliva (up to 120 liters a DAY) that can adequately buffer the acid being produced in the rumen, protecting the lining from erosion by the acid. However, if the fiber to carbohydrate balance is upset, or changed too quickly, the cow can't regulate her buffer production quickly enough and she can become acidotic which can manifest anywhere from a mild upset to a life-threatening situtaion. If the cow's diet is adequately balanced and step-ups are managed slowly, she can accommodate a large portion of grain (carbohydrates) in her diet easily.
The third compartment of the cow's stomach is called the omasum , and it primarily works to physically break down the feedstuffs not utilized by the microbes and reabsorb water from the milieu.
The fourth compartment is much like our own stomach, where acid digestion takes place prior to passing into the small intestine.
Is your meat USDA graded?
While we have the cattle slaughtered and processed under inspection by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, a different sub-agency of the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) provides grading services. No slaugherhouse in state of Oregon has grading services available to it from the AMS. Therefore, if someone selling beef to you in the state of Oregon is giving you the USDA grade of the beef they're selling you, there are one of two options: The beef was not slaughtered in the state, or they are lying to you. Most beef you'd buy in the supermarket with a USDA grade is coming from a large slaughterhouse out of state that has full-time graders.
Thankfully, if you'd like to know what grade of meat you are purchasing, it's strictly visual, and the AMS even offers a guide
. Our beef would generally compare to high-choice or low prime grade.
Can we visit the ranch?
Part of the reason that we started raising beef for friends was that they expressed a desire to know where the food they were feeding their families came from. We are always happy to talk about our program, and can schedule a time for a visit by appointment.