Last week we went through a sort of general overview of a steer's life. This week we go into a little more detail about finishing on grain.
Grain finishing rations for steers are mostly corn and beans, but they include all kinds of other stuff too. I've seen footage of a feedlot mixing waste candy, wrappers and all, into a wagon to feed. Until the mad-cow scare of the 90s it was legal to feed protein sources from slaughterhouses. In some places it is still common to put chickenhouse waste (chicken poop) into cattle rations because the rumen bugs can use the nitrogen in it to make proteins. Nevermind that a cow would never eat chickenshit given a choice in the matter, or the fact that it can impart a fecal smell to the carcass itself. The bovine digestive system is a beautiful thing, designed to process large amounts of low quality feed into parts and pieces of life. It is easily overwhelmed by concentrated sources of calories like corn and bean meal. An out of whack digestive system pushes problems into the rest of the organism and they get really fat really quickly. They're fed antibiotics and other growth promotants to push their growth rate up ever higher. Most receive an ear implant of hormones to goose their growth beyond the pale. All these things would be fatal in short order for even the most rugged steer, but the cattle go to slaughter before the wear and tear of pharmacology, unhygenic living conditions, and an unatural diet can exact their ultimate toll.
Most consumers only ever meet their meat on the dinner plate. So what does grain finishing this way do to the final product? It makes for a higher percentage of soft meat (this is the one desirable outcome of this style of finishing). Standing around waiting to be fed doesn't promote connective tissue development the way walking a hill in search of a tasty bite of grass does. This allows some cuts of a grain finished steer to be softer on average than a properly finished grass-fed beefer. I'm thinking specifically of round and sirloin tip steaks... But the classic steak cuts from the rib and loin should be tender, no matter the production model. If they're not, something is out of whack. Grain finishing changes the fat profile in the meat. Grain finishing allows for slaughter at a younger age as we discussed previously. I believe there is a rough correlation between age at slaughter and flavor. All other things being equal younger animals are milder in the flavor department. And many people are now used to bland beef because that's all they've ever been exposed to. Grain based rations also dampen the flavor compared to the diverse diet of self-fed cow. Our pasture has at least 70 species of plants, and the cattle eat most of them. On a mixed ration cattle get all their sustenance from just a few plant seeds, and the majority of it is corn.
Most grain finishing occurs on huge, huge feed lots in the mid-west. These massive manure factories foist their odors and water contamination on all the neighbors within several miles, but just because most operations move with disregard for the social and environmental externalities they impose on their communities doesn't mean grain finishing must be that way. There are smaller organic feedlots that do a much better job of keeping their animals healthy and clean. And there are many small farms like ours that have a beef herd and sell meat directly to consumers after finishing the cattle on grain themselves. So if you prefer the flavor and texture of grain finished beef, it is possible to find farmers who do it as well as it can be done.
Next week we get to the fun stuff that really makes us different - grass finishing.
We don't feed our cattle any grain so I can't show a picture of it, but since photos are fun here's one with some cows and two calves from this year.