Beef Cattle– To feed, or not to feed?


  • The raising of cattle divided into 4 segments
  • Rangeland more sustainable
  • Feedlots are quicker


Stocker Cattle at Swanton Pacific Ranch

Stocker Cattle at Swanton Pacific Ranch by Cassie Burrows


Beef is what’s for dinner, but do you know where your hamburger or steak comes from? As the world moves toward more sustainable means of production, the question becomes whether conventional means of raising cattle, such as feedlots, stand up to the new desire to raise cattle on open rangeland.

There are always two sides to every story, and the beef industry is no exception. As a whole, raising beef cattle can be divided into four segments:
Cow-Calf Operations. This is the aspect of the beef industry where cows are bred to produce calves, many of which are sold to be stocker cattle. Some of the calves are kept as future breeders.
Seedstock Production. This is a specialized cow-calf endeavor which lets cattlemen select the cows that will yield purebred cattle, and the cattle are then used to make genetic improvements to a herd. Seedstock production allows the cattle to be sold to other cattlemen and used to better the beef industry as a whole.
Stocker Operations. These operations receive calves from cow-calf operations, which are then turned out on rangeland to graze until they reach a better age of maturity. This type of operation can be seen through Cal Poly’s Stocker Enterprise at Swanton Pacific Ranch.
Feedlots. This is usually the final place cattle go before they are sent to slaughter houses. Once they have reached their peak weight as stocker cattle, they are sent to feedlots to reach the desired weight for sale. Here they are fed energy-rich, surplus grains.


Beef Section at Albertson's

The Beef Section at Albertson's Grocery Store


Now, the beef industry is seeing a move toward purely grass fed beef (whether that is because of animal rights groups such as PETA, or society’s desire for a more sustainable way of raising beef). This leads consumers to wonder whether rangeland can create the type of beef they are looking for, and whether feedlots are as bad as some groups say.

Proponents of the movement toward rangeland operations say that grass fed beef uses fewer resources because the cattle are just turned out to fend for themselves for the most part. There are also arguments that grass fed beef utilizes land that is not useful for crops, such as hillsides. The cattle may also be healthier on grass because they are not consuming energy-rich grains (like corn) which create fat in the beef.

Those in favor of the feedlot means of raising cattle argue that the main reason for feedlots is that they are quicker than rangeland operations. They are also more adept at creating the kind of product that Americans want (that is to say a fattier, and thus juicier, piece of beef). Feedlots utilize surplus grains and they don’t run as much of a risk of contaminating water supplies, as rangeland operations might.

Doctor Kevin Grayson, a large animal veterinarian with a Ph.D. in Public Health makes the point that one is not necessarily better than the other.

“Regardless of which kind of operations you are using, it all comes down to good management. Feedlots must work to control flies, clean the facilities and keep the dust down. Rangeland has its own set of problems, too. Any form of farm animal operation can be inhumane if the management doesn’t know what they’re doing.”—Dr. Grayson

So now you have the knowledge… The question is what you want to do with it. The beef is on the table, do you care where it comes from?


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