I am writing this blog post to debunk a lot of the inaccuracies and misconceptions that appear on the internet about livestock production. *See my level and expertise to do this at the bottom of the post
Let’s put a few things up front
All food and fibre production has an environmental footprint. Domestic livestock (as opposed to pets) are bred for purpose and that purpose it to provide high quality healthy protein for human consumption with a low environmental impact.
It is absolute rubbish to say ruminant livestock are not ‘evolved to eat grains’ after all a grain is part of a plant. It’s like saying humans are not evolved to eat grains. What humans are not evolved to do is eat grass and this is what cows do very well.
The role of the farmer is to ensure his/her livestock has as low an impact on the planet as possible and to give their livestock the best whole of life experience they can
One of the ways farmers are able to reduce their livestock’s environmental footprint is to breed cattle that have genes that ensure they can turn what they eat into protein for human consumption as efficiently as they can. That means less grass per cow eaten per kg of meat produced. Beef cattle in this country produce 15% more beef per animal than they did 30 years ago. This means they have also reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 15% – Well done cattle (and farmers)
Cattle are ruminants and this digestive process allows them to break down the cellulose content of the grass, which then allows them to take grass through a process that turns it into meat (or milk)
To do this they have little bugs in their stomachs which break down the food. These bugs produce methane which is quite a significant greenhouse gas (25 x more powerful than Carbon Dioxide). The better quality the grass the less work the bugs have to do and the less methane they produce
So smart farmers grow high quality grass which is better for their cows and better for the environment. Feeding cows grain which is much easier for cows to digest than grass obviously means the bugs in the cows stomach do less work and hence produce less methane. All good stuff
There is no denying grain feeding means in farmer lingo cows have a “hot” diet and this means too much grain can make the stomach a bit too hot for the bugs and they die. Not good for cows or bugs so both cattle ( and bugs) are introduced to grain feeding slowly to allow them to adapt just the same as when they are moved from poor quality grass to higher quality grass
Its also important to note cows on a grain fed diet aren’t exactly on a fully grain fed diet. Their ration is a mixture of feed stuffs that includes lots of high quality fibre like hay and silage to ensure the cow’s stomach environment is conducive for bug survival. The other thing to note is cows spend most of their lives eating grass. The grain feeding is just a finishing process
Because cows on a grain fed diet grow quicker they can be processed quicker and this is better for the environment from a whole of life methane output perspective. Lots more info at the bottom of the page**
But let’s not get too carried away about methane – both systems are environmentally sustainable in their own way, and the choice between the two types of beef (Grass and Grain) is purely based on taste personal preference
At AGvision this week thanks to Kylie Schuller an expert in this space I had the opportunity to get a clearer understanding and have a taste test. The eating quality characteristics of meat (texture, juiciness, flavour) are indeed entirely dependent on the feed that the cattle eat.
Kylie Schuller from Andrews Meat giving students the low down on grass fed vs grain fed with Sally Strelitz Marketing and Communications Officer University of New England
Students at AGvision do the taste test – Grain Fed vs Grass Fed
What is marbling
The take home message from all of this is
A balanced diet containing red meat as a nutritious protein is good for you
I have been in agriculture for close to sixty years. In the main ensuring cows can produce safe, affordable and nutritious milk. I also spent 20 years on a mixed farm that grew crops and produced lamb and beef
I am not a scientist but have completed a ‘high level’ science and medical degree
Grain fed facts
Cattle are considered grain fed if they have been on a grain based ration for at least 60 days for a male and 70 days for a female. To be classified as grain fed, cattle must also be sourced from a feedlot that is accredited by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and audited by AUSMEAT.
Depending on the market requirements cattle are generally entered into a feedlot at around 12 months of age, and fed for a specified period of time. They fed a variety of grains (e.g. wheat, barley, and sorghum), roughages (hay, straw) and bi-products (brewers grain, cornflakes) in a ration that is formulated by a nutritionist to ensure the animals are receiving optimal amounts of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals for their stage of growth and development.
Grain feeding greatly increases the ability to produce a consistent product in terms of yield, quality and supply:
- Marbling is greatly increased in grain fed cattle due to specialised nutrition
- Grain feeding helps to even out inconsistencies in supply caused by Australia’s volatile environment.
- Grain fed beef is often described as having a buttery flavour
Key Ideas surrounding Grain Fed beef:
- Grain fed cattle produce 38% less CO2 per kg of beef than grass fed cattle
- Grain fed cattle spend majority of their life in a paddock
- The feedlot industry represents around 2% of the Australian cattle herd at any one point in time.
- Higher incidence of marbling, which means higher levels of good cholesterol.
- Like the grass fed industry the Australian feedlot industry is predominantly owned and run by families. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirms that 98% of feedlots are Australian owned and that 91% of farms are owned by families.
Grass Fed Beef:
Grass fed cattle live and survive solely on pastures for their entire lives. Grass contains a pigment called “carotene” which is absorbed into animal fat giving it a distinctive yellow hue. Due to the variation in grasses eaten, grass fed beef is often described as having a complex beef flavour.
The ability to produce high quality beef off of grass is entirely dependent on the environment. If grass is in limited supply or of low quality (due to extreme heat, lack of rainfall etc.) then beef production is of a lower quality. Therefore most superior grass fed beef comes from areas with a consistent high rainfall, and moderate temperature ranges.
Key Ideas surrounding Grass Fed Beef:
- Grass fed beef can be lower in overall fat content than Grain fed beef.
- High in Vitamin A and Vitamin E, due largely to the beta carotene in their diets.
- Grass fed cattle have high levels of vital antioxidants
- Healthier balance of Essential fatty acids – but this very much depends on the types of pastures they are fed (having done these on farm pasture trials myself I can certainly testify to that)
- Grass fed cattle help reduce land degradation, desertification and soil erosion and maintain more than 50% of Australia’s landscape
Love these infographics which you can find here