From Pasture to Plate:

A Glimpse into the “Secret World” of Cattle Production

Pasture to Plate

Hormones. Antibiotics. Natural beef. Grass-fed. Feedlot. These are all words that are floating around in articles, the news, and clogging up your news feed on social media. But for those not involved in the cattle industry, they spark fear and questions on what is true and what is false. Hopefully, this will help some people understand what goes on in what is perceived as a “secret society” of production.

I realized a few years ago while in Alabama, how little the public knows about how their meat gets to their plate. I was at a State Fair with a friend, who loved to introduce me as “a real life cowgirl”, at the time I was working in a large feedlot in south east Idaho. Questions poured in, most of them about my horse and if I really wore a cowboy hat. But one woman asked me questions that will forever be stuck with me. “Why are the cows mooing? Is it because they want to go back to the wild?”. At this point, it was hard for me to decide if she was joking or asking me a serious question, but her eager face told me she was as serious as can be. Her next question, is one I answered multiple times, “What is a feedlot?” I explained that a feedlot is the middle man in production, the place calves go after leaving their mamas, to finish getting fat, before going to the kill plant, and then their meat arrives in stores. Her response was what made me realize the need for Pasture to Plate information. She gave me a quick smiles and said, “Huh, I guess I always thought stores went to a farm and just picked up the meat. I didn’t know there was that much to it.”

For the most part, everyone knows that calves are born and grow up to become the beef they get in the store. But what isn’t realized, is how much goes into creating a perfect steak. Most people are familiar with the product stamp “Certified Angus Beef”, or CAB. Great steaks come from great genetics, but not all your great steaks are from only Angus cattle. Some of the best meat is produced from cross-breeding. So your delicious steak could have come from a black baldy or a smokie, calves that have two different breeds as parents. Most often, one of the parents is Angus, because of their superior carcass qualities, but not always. Extensive research goes into finding that perfect combination of genetics to produce the tenderest and juicest steaks, research that I myself, have been lucky enough to be a part of

So a ranch picks out the perfect genetics and calves are born, but that’s where most people’s knowledge of the industry stops….what’s next? What steps does a calf go through before it’s the beef on your plate?

As much as the social media and animal activist groups would like you to believe that your meat comes from cattle that are hooked up to an IV, pumping them full of hormones to grow faster and antibiotics to ward off diseases.

It’s nowhere near the truth.

The truth is, many feedlots and ranches produce meat that is hormone and antibiotic free, these fall into the category of Natural Beef Producers. Their cattle never receive a hormone implant and are removed from their natural beef program if they are doctored with any medicine. Many of these producers have websites and you can purchase meat directly from them. One of the sister feedlots to the one I worked for had a large natural beef program.

Cows feeding at a feedlot

But what about the ranches and feedlots that do use implants and cattle that do receive antibiotics? Is this meat truly full of dangerous residues that will harm you? The answer is no. When cattle receive a hormone implant, they are scheduled to receive them at specific times in the feedlot based on their weight, by the time they are ready to ship, the implant is no longer in their system. Various antibiotics are used to treat many different illnesses or injuries. To expect a producer to never doctor an animal with any type of antibiotics if it gets sick, would fall into a category of neglect. Producers strive to do what’s best for the animal. Pneumonia is the most common problem for young cattle. When caught early, most cattle can come out of it with only one treatment. Feedlots are equipped with the best antibiotics on the market, overseen by a veterinarian. Cattle that receive any antibiotics are listed in a system as “Hot”, meaning that they have not passed the drug’s withdrawal time. Once they have hit the approved amount of days, they will become clear and have the ok to be shipped. The system I have used in a feedlot even listed them as hot longer than what the drug’s labeled withdrawal time is, to ensure that the cattle could not be shipped with drug residue. This is something most people don’t realize even happens to ensure drug residue does not get into meat intended for human consumption. If an animal is shipped before this withdrawal period is over, the kill plants will immediately red flag the meat and not only rendered it as not consumable and destroy it, but they will also fine the feedlot or producer. The checks and balances are very strict. So there is no need to fear the meat in your grocery store is crawling with antibiotic residues and pumped full of hormones that are going to cause you harm.

Carcasses go through numerous inspections before the meat is ever cut and wrapped. USDA graders inspect the meat for the qualities that help them decides what grade the meat will fall under. Prime being the best of the best, but generally the steaks you buy in the store are graded as Choice. Which is where the term “certified choice” comes from, that some stores advertise. When you choose your steaks, the ideal steak is cherry red in color with a lot of white flecks of fat, which is referred to as marbling. The beef producer’s number one goal is producing a steak that is juicy, tender, and full of flavor. Then comes the question of grass-fed or corn? Which produces the best steaks? My mother is one who has asked me this exact question. Grass-fed beef tend to be on the leaner side, they have not been fed rations that capitalize on the optimum growth achieved with a combining different commodities such as corn and alfalfa that feedlot cattle have. But no matter how they are fed, it will still come back to genetics, something that this industry is always striving to improve.

The beef industry is full of amazing producers that are striving to bring you a product that meets you’re expectations and research that is always finding new ways to improve the industry. Support your local ranchers, because they work hard every day of the year, in all conditions, hoping to at least hit that break even mark. Because your meat never just “appears” in the store, it is the work of thousands of people working endlessly to ensure your beef is the best in the business. Without your support, the beef industry could start to be out sourced to countries that do not have the same standards or quality. So the next time you want to purchase some beef, check to see if there are any producers in your area that sell local beef. And ALWAYS support those that have jobs that depend on Ag!

Nicole SykesNicole Sykes has worked in the cattle industry since graduating for high school in 2002, including work for cow/calf operations and feedlots. She has a degree in Ranch Animal Science and has worked in genetic and drug research with Simplot Veterinarian Research and Precision Genetics. She now lives in Northern California with her husband and four children. Her husband is a cowboy for a ranch that produces natural beef.
Photo Credits:
Black heifers in pasture – Wheeler & Son Cattle Co., Holton, KS