Hi! Caroline here, and welcome back to Food for Thought. This is part 3, where we'll be talking about feedlots and taking a closer look at the beef production system in the US. QUICK NOTE: If you haven't read parts one or two of this series, start there. This series is designed to be cumulative.
The first year I was a ranch hand, in the midst of moving cattle around on pasture on horseback, I looked around at all the neighbors doing the same and thought to myself: "Huh! We must be all the good ranchers. The bad ranchers must be somewhere else. I just haven't met them yet!" Little did I know how ~nuanced~ the beef production system is, and it honestly took me a long time to truly wrap my head around the ins and outs of it. Oh and spoiler alert: I never met the "bad ranchers" because...they don’t exist! Don't believe me? Keep reading.
But here's the truth of the matter: All beef cattle are born on family ranches or farms. 96%+ of these ranches and farms are family owned, and most of them have fewer than 100 cows. Let's take a closer look:
Visually, you can see just how few farms aren't family run, only around 2%! You can also see that specifically small family operations also make up the VAST majority of these farms and ranches, and they use almost half of U.S. farm land.
These family ranches and farms where beef cattle are born are referred to as cow-calf operations, because the cow stays with the calf, for an average 6 months, on pasture, eating grass. Cow-calf operations are the first step in the commercial beef production system in the U.S (more on the rest of the steps in a second!).
A visual outline of the commercial beef production system in the U.S. Credit: NRDC
Coming from outside the beef industry, you might be surprised to learn that all beef cattle start their lives out on pasture like this. But it's not all that surprising if you really think about it. You've undoubtedly heard about just how much land cattle use, but why is that? Well that’s because they’re grazing on vast swaths of land that's largely nonarable, aka not suitable for growing crops. In fact, if cattle were all in feedlots, the beef industry wouldn’t take up much land at all.
A typical cow-calf operation. Photo credit: Troy Walz
After the calf is around 6 months old, they are then moved to the next stage in the commercial cattle production system: Either a "backgrounder" or "stocker" operation. Both types of operations are set up for the calves to continue to eat and grow, as they are often too small to head straight to the feedlot. These operations help the calves adjust after weaning and transition them to either grass or grain for "finishing" aka fattened, before slaughter. Backgrounder operations typically put the calves on grain, while stocker operations will put the weaned calves on pasture. Either way, the calves will stay at these operations until they're around 12+ months old.
Note: At our ranch, since we are entirely vertically integrated, the cattle stay here for their entire lives.
After the backgrounder/stocker operations, the cattle are moved to the third and final stage of the commercial beef production cycle: feedlots. Around 97% of cattle are finished at feedlots, where they typically spend four to six months eating grain (could be corn other grains and byproducts) to get "finished" (fattened) before slaughter. The finishing stage is designed to meet customer demand for tender, marbled, consistent beef.
This is the stage where the cattle are in the closest confinement. Feedlots range in size from small to large. It's important to note that only 5% of feedlots have a capacity larger than 100 head of cattle, however, this 5% is responsible for producing between 80% and 90% of all grain-finished cattle. The large feedlots often have close relationships with the packers (aka the slaughterhouses) which make up four multinational corporations that control 80% of the beef market from harvest to retail. These include Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co. These "big four" as they're called have been accused of monopolizing and price fixing to hurt ranchers and consumers but that's another topic for another day. In my opinion, ranchers have been long maligned for issues within the beef industry that the packers have responsible for.
So to put all this in broader terms, one third of a steer’s life is spent with their mom at a cow-calf operation, one third is spent at a background/stocker operation, and one third is spent in a feedlot. When compared with commercial poultry and pork production (which is worthy of a whole separate blog post) with 100% of their lives from birth to harvest spent in tight indoor confinement, I think there’s a compelling argument for beef being the most ethical meat to consume from an animal welfare perspective.
An example of a feedlot. Photo credit: Texasfarmbureau.org
There's something else to consider here when we talk about feedlots, namely - efficiency. Let me explain, with nuance. Dr. Judith Capper, from the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University, wrote in her study comparing the environmental impact of different types of grass-fed beef production systems that “conventional beef production required the fewest animals, and least land, water and fossil fuels, and had the lowest carbon footprint compared to grass-fed systems." If your big issues with the beef industry are methane emissions, water use, and land use, you’re kind of making an argument for feedlots.
Looking purely at inputs, natural beef (as in, cows raised solely on pasture) is simply not as efficient. In fact, if your biggest issues with the beef industry as a whole are methane emissions, water usage and land usage, there's a lot to be said for feedlots and their lower carbon footprint. Now let's take a step back. Of course, I'm not here to knock natural beef (after all, it's how we do things here at Little Creek) but basing our measure/evaluation of sustainability using inputs alone just doesn't get at the heart of the matter. You have to look at the whole picture.
Speaking of that, our next blog post will focus on something that encompasses the entirety of the beef production cycle: Water! Stay tuned!