Feedlot versus Grass Fed Beef
The good, the bad and the not so pretty things about beef
Part 3 - Feedlots and Finishing and Grades
Why is 99% of consumer beef sourced from large commercial feedlots? You know the answer, it is the cheapest way to provide 300 million American's the beef they desires (we will assume 10% vegetarians). What is probably less well understood, and maybe the reason is a desire to not know, is what exactly happens there and in the processing plants. If you have ever driven through the dry land plains and been close enough to see a feedlot, your nose probably alerted you to the fact first.
Back to the grocery store and dollars. The USDA is tasked with ensuring the safety of our food as a primary goal. They are also responsible for providing to the consumer an indicator of how nice will any given cut of beef be to eat. Obviously, it would be impossible to take a sample of every steak and taste test it. So the industry has arrived at a visual inspection technique that allows for a close approximation of whether a steak will be superb, great, good, or barely chewable. These quality levels are referred to as the grades which are: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Cutter & Canner.
Unfortunately, like any sledge hammer approach to solving a problem, the grading system is far from perfect. It is based on a simple principle, that for a group of steers that were all the same but fed different grain based diets, those that had the most white fat deposited between the muscle bands are the most tender.
Now if you were a feedlot owner, and you were paid 20% more if your animals graded prime versus select, and it only cost you 10% more to get them that fat, what would you do? Hence the reason we have an abundance of feedlots that are able to provide tons of fat steers and heifers.
One might ask can a grass fed animal be tender or choice? An excellent question and one that is actually very nuanced. Part one is simple, yes, by age, diet and breeding, the beef is as tender as the best you will ever find in the grocery store. The second part of the question, the choice and why is it tender is much more interesting. The nature of tenderness is much more complicated than just is there some streaks of white fat visible. If an animal has been severely stressed or taken to near starvation, no amount of fat is ever going to make it mouth watering tender.
The advantage that we have is that we control the entire life of our cattle. By keeping them well fed throughout their lifetime, our steers and heifers deposit what is called micro-fat layers in the muscle bands. For the biochemist-out there, this is fat that in times of need can be more quickly mobilized than the large fat layers which are there for times of starvation. It is the micro-fat layers that provides the tenderness that your mouth will appreciate without the excessive fat that the arteries do not need. Coupled with age appropriate dates with the butcher, you will have cuts that match or surpass any prime grade cuts purchased from a grocer.
I do want to say, there are hundreds of small family farms that grain finish and provide custom butchering analogous to us and I fully support their efforts. Their beef is an excellent choice, it is just a different choice than ours.