Why is beef both loved and reviled? Why does it conjure images of green grass and open ranges for some, while others see feedlots and manure lagoons? To understand the why we need to remember two simple things. First that farming is an occupation, and secondly that at nearly $70B a year there’s a reason it’s called the beef business. This business wasn’t created overnight, it was built over a long period of time for scale and efficiency. From the settling of the American West, to cattle drives and urban processing centers, the beef business was already old by the time John Wayne was young. The relentless drive to get big has often pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Questionable practices and ethics aren’t new. Today we have pink slime and investigations into slave labor in the supply chain. 112 years ago Upton Sinclair chronicled comparable issues in his seminal work The Jungle. Today over 80% of the volume is controlled by four multinationals; Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef. Slaughter, processing, and distribution are chokepoints, and they control the flow.
Farming is an occupation and as such it needs to provide an income. Farmers and Ranchers must work within our current food system. It’s unrealistic to condemn some farm methods, and unfair to layer expectations of martyrdom on others. Consumers drive the market, why blame supply for satisfying demand? Although a few farmers may be able find niches outside the system (online sales or farmers markets for example) but niches by definition are the exception not the rule. Most cattle farmers are not located near metropolitan areas, there isn’t the population density for direct to consumer outlets like farmers markets or CSA’s, and even if they did most raise more beef than they could sell through those channels. Farmers and ranchers need to live within the lines of the big American historic, modern, romantic, ruthless business that is beef. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t collectively be working towards a better system, only that it’s disingenuous to ignore today's realities, and demean the work of the men and women who feed us.
Like most of agriculture the reality of modern production is light years away from the idyllic marketing depiction. Most cattle in America start their life on pasture, and most end their life in a feedlot/CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Only about 5% of beef remains grass-fed for its entire life. Feedlots are a relatively new phenomenon. We raised cattle on pasture and range, across the globe, from the time we domesticated them 10,000 years ago until shortly after the Second World War. In just the last sixty years we went from a predominately pasture-based/grass system to 3 out of 4 cattle passing through a feedlot today. It’s created a fragmented business, with farms specializing in one part of the life cycle. We may be sold Old MacDonald, but it’s more like Henry Ford…specialization. The lives of cattle are compartmentalized, with farmers typically limited to one stage, and the final destination being a feedlot for “finishing”.
Beef isn’t vertically integrated like chickens or pigs, so big ag doesn’t control the entire life cycle of the animal. Chickens and pigs are easy to confine, and they have shorter life and breeding cycles. A chicken hatches in 21 days and can be raised to market weight and slaughtered by 6 weeks. Pigs gestation is around 4 months, and they reach market weight by 6 months. Cattle on the other hand have a 9 month gestation and aren’t ready until 16–18 months with aggressive finishing, or a longer 18–26 months for a less aggressive or pastured approach. Over two years is a long time to wait for a return of (and hopefully on) your investment. Fragmentation in the market is the result of economic reality, not farmer’s choice. Most consumers prefer the kind of beef produced in a feedlot. Individual farmers can’t compete with the efficiency and scale of a feedlot, nor do they typically have access to the capital required to start one, so they’re limited to the components of the process where they can still compete; the early stages of life and reproduction.
Before we get into the details, some definitions may be helpful. Industry specific jargon is typically useless to outsiders, but it’s important when discussing farming. It’s necessary because it forces conformation to a purposefully limiting vocabulary, designed to communicate important things like gender and reproductive status. These may seem irrelevant, but they’re essential when you’re dealing with living beings. Cattle, beefs, cows, or beeves are all-encompassing terms, catch all’s describing bovines. Most of the other terms you may have heard reference gender and reproductive status. A cow is a mature female who has had a calf (baby cow). A heifer is a young female who has yet to have a calf. A bull is an intact male (still has his testicles), while steers are males who have been castrated (testicles removed).
The various stages of the beef business present different opportunities, in different regions of the country, and for farms and ranches of all size. Simply put there are four stops in the life of beef, and farmers typically only participate in one. Although they’re not mutually exclusive, business evolution favors specialization. The stages follow the life cycle of the animal; Breeding/seedstock, Cow-calf, Stocker, and Feeders/finishing. The first stage of the business is breeding/seedstock. The focus here is providing the best genetic base possible. Breeders work on improving everything from the birth weight of the animal to the finishing weight, with an eye on every trait in between: Maternal ability, weaning weight, feed conversion, meat tenderness, even to how the meat will Grade : all are carefully bred for. Breeding either takes place naturally with an in-herd or rented bull, or artificially by Embryo Transfer (ET) or Artificial Insemination (AI).
That fertilized egg grows at a Cow-calf operation, where farmers are focused on raising the next generation. These farms and ranches are a diverse mix, with a permanent herd of cows and a clear objective to raise and sell weaned calves. Cattle don’t start out on the concrete pads of feedlots, they just end up there for “finishing”. Nearly all begin their lives on pastures and ranges of all shapes and sizes throughout America. This creates a unique opportunity for small independent farmers and ranchers. A newborn calf is a vulnerable 60–90 lbs at birth and must be cared for until 4–6 months of age. A cow nursing a calf is a better and less expensive option than providing milk replacer and the labor necessary to bottle feed, so this part of the business remains pretty natural. Calves are weaned around 6 months, typically weighing 350–500 lbs. Cow/calf and Stocker operations have the added advantage of being able to make use of marginal land, by allowing animals to forage free choice. One of the biggest benefits of domesticated livestock is the ability to make something from nothing — to graze land that isn’t good enough to grow crops on, and to harvest plants which are inedible to humans. Livestock are mobile, self-directed, solar energy converters and stores of protein.
Weaned calves are sold as “Stockers”. Stocker operations oversee the animals “teenage years” and get them ready for the feedlot by getting them as big as possible on the lowest cost feeding option. The object is to get them to put on weight from the lowest priced forage available, so it’s influenced by the seasons and existing regional agricultural resources. When a Stocker has grown to 700–900 lbs, it’s ready for the last stage of the beef cycle, feeder/finishing. Most of this happens at feedlots/CAFOs.
Feeder/finishing operations place cattle on high energy (mostly grain) diets so they can gain weight and “condition” prior to being slaughtered at a target weight between 1,000–1,400 lbs. Eighty percent of all cattle in American are finished at feedlots in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. Feedlots centralize and control the last stage of life, the finishing of the animal. In a feedlot there’s not only a concentration of cattle, there’s a concentration of feed, knowledge, and expertise that couldn’t be supported on a small scale. It’s this system that can take cattle from both skilled and unskilled farmers, of both poor and excellent genetics, as well as those who have had access to well-balanced diets or deficient diets alike, and produce a consistent product which has mass market appeal. Feedlots make the beef American consumers want.
Which brings us back to why? The cycle has been driven by two main factors. The first is that Americans want meat that is tender and consistent, secondly, they want it cheap. On a large scale the existing beef business makes that possible. We’re not going to discuss quality of life or environmental impact here. To have an informed discussion we must be honest and fair, and feedlots are amazing at taking animals of varying starting quality and producing, quickly and cheaply an incredibly consistent product that most Americans love. It would be disingenuous to dispute that.
To better understand think of yourself and your friends as cattle, then imagine cutting a ribeye out of everyone. Put all those ribeye’s on Styrofoam trays and sit them in a meat case. Big ones, small ones, fatty ones, lean ones, the cuts would be as diverse as your friends. You couldn’t sell it as the same product, everyone is just too unique. Customers wouldn’t buy it. But if you crowded all your friends on a couch in a small living room and gave them a high calorie diet; let’s go with Cheetos and Mountain Dew (coincidentally derived in large part from the same corn being fed in feedlots — Cheetos: Corn Meal, Corn Oil, Maltodextrin — Mountain Dew: High Fructose Corn Syrup). Those ribeye’s start to become a lot more tender (none of that pesky moving around to build tough muscles) and as you and your friends put on weight, all that extra fat makes for a juicier steak. Now instead of inconsistent and lean, thanks to the Couchlot/CHFO (Confined Human Feeding Operation) we have consistently big, tender, and juicy. That’s exactly what consumers want.
We can’t blame the supply chain for satisfying demand. We shouldn’t pit farmer against farmer for delivering what consumers want. The current system was built in a free market, catering to consumer tastes. The system will change when tastes change. The contrast in how people see beef is reflective of why it’s both loved and reviled. It’s loved for delivering exactly what people want. It’s reviled because as people become aware of the environmental impact, quality of life for the animals, and the financial sustainability of the farmer who raise our food, they want a better system. We can’t advance it by placing blame or passing judgement. The only way to bring change is through transparency . By honestly assessing the benefits of the system we have today, and by voting with our food dollars for the system we want tomorrow.
Why should it be any other way?
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