Beef: A Sustainable Family Affair

Happy Beef Month!  Yes, that's a thing.  So dig in to a ribeye, burger, or whatever other meatiness your heart desires.  After traveling to the heartland and seeing beef's journey from farm to fork firsthand, I feel even better serving it to my family.  More reasons to feel good about indulging your carnivorous desires, here.  

I recently had the opportunity to be included in the Nebraska Beef Experience, a two-day tour of three farms and a large-scale processing facility in the largest beef-producing state.  The Nebraska Beef Council provided room and board; meals; and transportation.  I was not compensated for my time nor was I required to author this blog post.  Opinions are entirely my own.

If you're familiar with the FOOD tab here at EFEL, you've seen quite a bit o' beef in recent months.  You can check out my recap of an upstate NY farm tour, get the recipe for my prize-winning Tricolor Strip Steak Salad, and read up on why beef + eggs = Spanish joy here.  Since each of these posts includes information on the nutritional value of beef (spoiler: it's a powerhouse), I won't rehash those details here.  

Lunchtime at Knobbe Feedyard, West Point, Nebraska.

Lunchtime at Knobbe Feedyard, West Point, Nebraska.

Being a dietitian in the age of social media (i.e. food shaming and fear-mongering) requires more than nutritional know-how.  My greater purpose?  Helping moms just like myself cut through the noise and make food-shopping decisions based on facts, not fear.  Phrases and words like "big food" and "sustainability" (just to name a couple) are thrown around willy-nilly, and when it comes to beef, I'd like to put your mind at ease on both fronts.

According to the Beef Checkoff, 97% of farms and ranches producing beef in the U.S. are family owned.  More than half of them have been in the same family for three generations or more. Considering 20% of the world's beef is produced here, that's a significant number of families working to bring a tasty source of protein to our plates.  So much for "big food."

Silos at Knobbe Feedyards, where ruminant nutritionist Dr. Fleck utilizes corn grown onsite and local distillers' grains in rations.  "The benefit of ruminants is that they can utilize a wide variety of feed sources," says Fleck. "This permits industry to use sources that would otherwise be wasted." 

Silos at Knobbe Feedyards, where ruminant nutritionist Dr. Fleck utilizes corn grown onsite and local distillers' grains in rations.  "The benefit of ruminants is that they can utilize a wide variety of feed sources," says Fleck. "This permits industry to use sources that would otherwise be wasted." 

I had the privilege of meeting four such families during the Nebraska Beef Experience, and each wowed me on some level.  Perhaps part of that awe is due in part to being a "city" girl, but I was genuinely impressed with the detail and care involved in each operation.  At Peregrine Ranch, tour-goers met Don and his two college-age daughters (one studies nursing, the other, business), and learned the painstaking measures the family takes to ensure cattle are stress-free and comfortable.  For example, calves are weaned from their mothers on the same pasture (as opposed to being separated), and when temperatures soar (as they tend to do at the edge of the Nebraskan Sandhills), compromising cattle comfort, they're fed Atlantic kelp as part of their rations.  According to Peregrine, it helps to reduce body temperature and therefor death in the summer months.

Ask ten people their definition of sustainability, and you'll get ten different answers.  After forty years on the job, Peregrine seems to have it down to a conservationist science: cattle graze from pasture to pasture (eight in total), allowing their bluegrass and chrome grass ample rest in the fragile, sandy environment.  He toured us through the natural environs surrounding the pastures, indicating that, in recent years, it had become rich with wildlife and was now a destination for other sport.  When winter rears its ugly head, says Peregrin, " we're blessed with soy and corn residue - run on that through winter and cut costs."  

Takeaway: The beef industry strives for sustainability.  Land utilized for grazing as well as feedlots is rarely suitable for other vegetation.  Beef farmers and ranchers care for and conserve these terrains.  According to the Beef Checkoff, there was a 7% decrease in the overall environmental and social impacts from the U.S. beef value chain between 2005 and 2011.  

When the tour bus pulled up to the farm of veterinarian couple Ryan and June Loseke, I had just finished reading an article about "Power Moms" featured in Women Who Work magazine. It highlighted the likes of Beyonce and Amal Clooney, and my eyes rolled deeply as possible into the back of my head.  Any-who...

Look up Power Mom in the dictionary and June's photo should probably be there, in a gilded frame.  Aside from raising four kids, running a veterinarian practice focusing on large animals, and feeding cattle, she also grows corn, soy, and alfalfa - 1700 acres in total.  For some perspective, here's one of the ginormous, GPS-powered John Deeres she OPERATES HERSELF.  

 

Equipment used for precision planting by Ryan and June Loseke.

Equipment used for precision planting by Ryan and June Loseke.

This behemoth ensures rows are planted straight and evenly (to maximize land usage) and also takes a read of the soil to determine nitrogen and phosphorus levels.  Oh, and when there's a glitch in this precision planting system, it's June on the phone at 2 a.m. working it out with customer service.  God I hope her family did something REALLY nice for her on Mother's Day.

June was quite clear that the cattle fed on her ranch are the same cattle that eventually make it onto her family's plates.  It's the same beef that her relatives and friends purchase, and she and her husband strive for a consistent eating experience.  

"If a mom is going to a meat counter worried about antibiotics, she has nothing to worry about," said June.  "We have the safest food supply in the world."  

Takeaway: June's perspective as a mother, farmer, and veterinarian put a face to the facts about beef, and her message was one echoed throughout the tour at each stop: good enough for your family because it's good enough for our family.  

I am so, so sorry to report the packing plant we visited enforced a strict zero-photography rule. There are images emblazoned into my memory I wish I could share with my readers, but I understand the reasons why I wasn't allowed to snap any photos on the beef fabrication floor. A few friends and relatives balked at my enthusiasm for this part of the trip; "wasn't that disturbing?" and "ew...what was THAT like?" were posed upon my return.

This quote from June's son, Cort, comes to mind: "cattle are not pets.  I see a steak on legs." Good attitude, kiddo!  In all seriousness, I'm teaching my young daughter that certain animals provide nourishing foods we love, and we can express our gratitude for their sacrifices by enjoying these foods to the fullest.  So, in answer to everyone's queries, no, visiting a packing plant was not disturbing, and, to the contrary, it was quite comforting.  

The Cargill processing plant in Schuyler, Nebraska is where many family ranchers bring their cattle for harvest (it's one of the four largest of its kind in the state).  A whopping 5300 cattle are processed here each day, an undertaking that requires 2200 team members working across seven acres - all under one roof!  This facility in particular employs an impressive percentage of women (roughly 45%), and many of them perform highly-skilled fabrication (precision cutting of beef carcasses into wholesale and retail cuts) that requires months of training.  You go, girls!

As a consumer who shops for most of her meat at the supermarket (I feel it's a much safer bet than from a cooler at an urban farmers market, and butcher shop prices are prohibitive), I found comfort in the food safety measures taken at the Cargill facility.  Beef is sampled for bacterial contamination at nine different points of the production cycle by three different labs, one of which is operated by a third party.  Representatives from the USDA are also onsite daily.  Every stage of processing is carried out in meticulously clean quarters; considering there are thousands of cattle making their way from desensitization (which we viewed on live video and is very humane) to various cuts of beef, the whole affair is a lot less messy - and less bloody - than you might expect.  

Back to sustainability: the motto at Cargill, Schuyler is "use every drop of water twice."  The conservation process takes water that is initially used to "shock" pasteurized carcasses and eventually converts it to natural gas via the introduction of certain microbes.  As for all the bits that don't make it onto our plates?  Tallow is shipped off to soap makers, and Red Wing uses the majority of hides.  Indeed, everything but the tail switch and the moo gets a home.  

Takeaway: "Big food" operations depend on family farms, and both parties work with respect toward the environment to deliver a nutritious, safe end product that's a pleasure to eat.  

Hopefully my experience leaves you feeling as good about feeding beef to your family as I do mine.  Hungry for more?  Check out factsaboutbeef.com for the latest evidence-based info.  

Enjoy your beef!  Enjoy your life!