Grain Fed Cattle Production

Grain Fed Beef

For the past 60 or so years, beef production has consisted of “finishing” (also called ‘conditioning’ or  ‘fattening’) young cattle on concentrated high-energy diets (grain) until they are ready for slaughter anywhere from 14-16 mo of age. Calves are generally weaned from their mothers between 6-8 months of age and then shipped off the ranch to feedlots where the finishing will take place. Since grain is produced most efficiently in the Midwest, feedlots are especially centralized in states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas.

When sufficiently fat, cattle are slaughtered and processed into saleable beef at nearby facilities that have become incredibly efficient. The largest such facility, an IBP plant in Dakota City NE, is now capable of slaughtering 38,800 cattle per day, and the top 20 processing facilities in the country slaughter at least 1000 cattle per day. In a nutshell, this system of production has succeeded brilliantly at its primary goal: producing lots of beef that is relatively consistent in quality and safe, all at a very low cost to the consumer.

“Why is grain such an important part of this equation,” you ask? Grain is the key to the current system because it fattens cattle faster than a grass diet can, and this fat helps to make beef a commodity. That is, the fat that grain produces makes it possible to take cattle of various sizes and breeds that have been managed in many different ways for the first 6-8 months of their lives, and produce from this diverse mix a consistent beef product that is as predictable as possible. In this way, the beef harvested from all the different types of cattle can be processed together, packaged together, and marketed under a single term, “beef.”

Aside from speeding up the process of commodification, fat content is how the industry has come to measure the quality of beef. In fact, the USDA grades of Prime, Choice, and Select are simply quantifications of fat content (Prime being the highest). Without sufficient fat content, both within the muscle (“marbling”) and on the exterior surface of the carcass (“backfat”), beef can be difficult to process, store, cook, and ultimately not very enjoyable to eat. In general, fat adds both moisture and flavor to beef, and given that Americans have become accustomed to eating Grain Fed beef since WWII, it is usually what we want and expect.

In summary: the practice of fattening cattle on grain has been central to the US beef production model for three main reasons: 1. Fat allows for the commodification of cattle, 2. Fat allows for greater ease in processing, storing, and cooking beef, and 3. Fat adds moisture to beef and produces a flavor that the American palate is accustomed to.