How beef is processed: A skeptic’s journey to learn more

This content was sponsored by the Washington State Beef Commission. The observations and conclusions are entirely my own.


We love stories. A compelling story inspires or moves its audience. Until recently, the story of big business and the food industry left me with feelings of distrust toward commercial agricultural and particularly how beef is processed.

But a story does not need to tell everything. Creative liberties (or bias) often let important truths fall to the cutting room floor. This is the story of how, in two days, I went from only purchasing grass-fed beef, from small local farms, to an unapologetic supporter of all types of beef producers.

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

Jump To:

Washington Farm to Fork Experience
Before the Farm to Fork tour
My perceptions about how beef is processed
Cattlemen are feeding more people than ever before
Cattle nutrition from pasture to feedyard
The use of medication and hormones in cattle
Impact of cattle production on the environment
How to fit beef into a healthy diet
Conclusion
References

Washington Farm to Fork Experience

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

Recently, I escaped my desk to see how food actually gets to my table. I joined The Washington State Beef Commission on their annual “farm to fork” tour of how beef is processed. The guests come from a variety of industries including retail grocery, restaurant, distributors, and the media.

The tour took us from postcard-perfect Trinity Farms near Ellensburg, to Easterday Ranches feedyard outside of Pasco, and ended at the Washington Beef Inc. packing plant in Toppenish. We saw everything.

No question was off the table. All the doors were open.

I thought I knew how food gets to our table. But this experience gave me a whole new understanding of commercially raised beef, and made me question all of my understandings about food production

Before the Farm to Fork tour

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

In the last few years, we have purchased grass-finished beef as part of a cow share.

What is a cow share?

A cow share is purchased directly from a farm or ranch. It is purchased as a whole animal. Since a whole cow is hundreds of pounds of meat, individuals can purchase as a group and share the meat.

This is easier than it sounds. When you purchase, you let the farm know how many shares you are buying and they divide the meat equitably. Bones and offal are available if you want them.

Why I chose grass-finished beef

Choosing locally raised, grass-fed, beef provided what I saw as a higher quality and healthier meat, at a lower over-all price per pound than store prices. Buying direct felt like the best way to support local farmers, keep our money in the community, and “stick it to the man,” if you will.

In addition to the cost, there are other benefits to the beef we buy.

  • Unlike commercial beef all the meat is aged together, including ground beef, each portion has a richer flavor.
  • Grass-fed beef is very lean, I never need to drain the ground beef.
  • Buying in bulk makes meal planning easy, there is always dinner inspiration in the freezer.

Emotionally speaking, buying directly from a farm is romantic. When our beef is ready, we make a day out of it. We pack a picnic and the kids get to see farm animals, meet the farmers, and understand where our food comes from.

However, I am keenly aware that such a purchase is a privilege— not everyone has the money or freezer space. I am grateful to have the option.

My perceptions about how beef is processed

I went into this tour with strong prejudices about commercial beef production.

  • Commercial beef production puts profit ahead of livestock or customers
  • Cattle producers disregard their impact on the environment.
  • Ranchers are no longer independent family businesses
  • Antibiotics and hormones are overused
  • Feedyards practically force-feed cattle in overcrowded, filthy pens
  • I fretted every time I ate beef, other than from our local farm, that I was supporting a monstrous industry.

Boy was I wrong!

Cattlemen are feeding more people than ever before

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

I went on the farm to fork tour thinking big business owned the entire process of beef production. In fact, many cattle ranchers are independent owners and operators and they’re excited about their jobs.

It is true, a cow’s job is to grow and become high-quality meat. It is the cattleman’s job to provide the cows with a healthy environment to make that possible. Each person we met on the tour spoke of cattle with disarming reverence.

The cattle community is constantly improving efficiency, sustainability, and the well-being of their cattle. Due to improvements in technology and health care, ranchers today feed more people with significantly fewer cattle than a few decades ago.

This improvement is vital: “By 2050, 70 percent more food will be required to feed the growing population.”[1]

Since only around 2 percent of the population is an agricultural producer, a 70 percent increase in demand is mind-boggling.

Breaking the process into multiple steps can increase efficiency. When farmers and ranchers focus on a single aspect of production it allows them to become an expert. In recent decades, this division of labor has led to advancements in science, technology, and understanding of cows’ needs.

Cattle nutrition from pasture to feedyard

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

Cows are ruminants. This means their digestive system break down dense vegetation such as grass and turns it into protein for producing milk or meat. All the cows we saw start life in a pasture eating grass or other natural vegetation.

At Trinity Farm, cows begin life nursing and grazing alongside their mothers in lush green fields. After 6-12 months, on a mostly grass diet, the cows are sold to a feedyard.

Thanks to their powerful digestive systems, cows can also eat plant by-products that might otherwise go to waste, such as grape skins and potato peels.

Like all the other parts of beef production, the time in the feedyard is designed to promote health and efficient growth.

The cattle at Easterday’s can come from local ranches, or they may travel as far as 700-800 miles to the feedyard. Travel is stressful and puts the cattle at an increased risk of illness. While this is contrary to the goal of creating a peaceful life for the cows it is more efficient to bring the cattle to the feed than the feed to the cattle.

The cattle spend the next 4-6 months in large dirt pens. Each sizable pen provides room – at least 250 square feet per animal for the cows to move freely, access their food and water, and even play. While we were watching a few cows got an energy surge and skipped off across the lot.

Throughout the day a large tractor moves through the pens scraping off the top layer of dirt and fresh manure, which provides compost for farm crops.

The nuance of cattle feed is detailed. Easterday’s feed mixture is managed by veterinarians and dietitians. They create specific ratios of grass, grain, and other items like yogurt for probiotics! The mixture changes based on the amount of time the cows have been at the lot—over time hay becomes a smaller portion of their diet, although they do eat it throughout their life.

The use of medication and hormones in cattle

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

This was a big concern for me. Antibiotics are one of the most important scientific achievements of the modern era. However, overuse of antibiotics can result in resistant  bacteria. It is vital to use antibiotics carefully.

Here’s the thing: animals get sick. And no one wants a sick cow– it’s bad for cattlemen and the cows. Allowing a sick cow to go untreated would be cruel (animal cruelty is a crime) as well as risk infecting other cattle.

It is important to be clear; a sick cow CAN NOT go to the packing plant. A USDA inspector checks every cow for signs of illness. Farmer Cody Easterday explained what happens if they send a sick cow to the processing plant.

To paraphrase: You get two strikes. Send a sick cow once and they put the fear of God in you. Send a second sick cow and you’ll be out of business. There is no exception and no grey area.

Lung infection is common in cattle. Cows are enormous but their lungs are small in proportion, which makes them predisposed to Bovine Respiratory Disease or BRD.

“BRD is the most common and costly disease affecting beef cattle in the world. It is a complex, bacterial infection that causes pneumonia in calves and can possibly be fatal.”[2]

Due to its prevalence, cattle producers address the issue of BRD with a prevention-based approach: create a low-stress life, use vaccines to prevent illness where possible and use antibiotics only to treat sick cows.

Prevention is the best defense. The second line of defense is early detection. At the feedyard, pen riders spend their day on horseback observing the cattle for signs of illness, injury, or stress. Cows pulled by the pen riders go to the hospital pen.

Most of the cows who visit the hospital pen are not sick. A cow showing signs of stress is allowed an overnight respite. Out of every few dozen who visit the hospital, fewer than 5 cows will have symptoms of an infection.

When a cow is sick it receives medication. Any treated cow must remain at the feedyard for at least 45 days before moving to the packing plant. That allows time for any medication to naturally metabolize out of the meat. The USDA will not allow medication in meat.

Let’s talk about hormones.

After a day or two in the feedyard’s receiving pens, new arrivals visit a vet station. Each cow gets an ID tag, vaccines, de-wormer, and a slow release hormone capsule. It takes under a minute to process 1 cow through the vet station.

It took all my willpower to keep listening after hearing the word hormone. I don’t want hormones in my food and I don’t want animals forced to grow unnaturally large to make more money.

Farmer Cody Easterday opened the discussion by acknowledging the negative perception of growth hormones used in animal production. He held out his hands and said, “I just ask you listen to why we do what we do then make your own conclusion.”

Benefits of slow release hormones in cattle production[4]

  • Implanted cattle are more efficient with their feed – daily gains increase 15-20 percent
  • Require less land, area needed to grow corn and roughage reduced
    by 16 percent
  • Leaner beef, 35 – 27 percent less fat on the carcass

Occurrence of hormones in people and food

This practice is not new, the hormones in beef production have been in use for over 50 years. All types and dosages undergo stringent testing to understand their effects and ensure their safety.

The following data was compiled by Dr. Gregory Quakenbush with information from Oklahoma State University & www.wdxcyber.com with the exception of the data on birth control pills – see footnote.

A nanogram or ng. = 1 billionth of a gram.

Estrogen in people

The average woman of childbearing age produces 480,000 ng./day

The average adult male produces 168,000 ng./day

A pre-pubescent girl produces 54,000 ng./day

A single birth control pill contains 35,000 ng./day[5]

Estrogen naturally occurring in plant food

Soy milk contains 30,000 ng. estrogen

4 oz. of raw cabbage contains 2,700 ng. of estrogen

4 oz. of peas contains 454 ng. of estrogen

Estrogen in cows products:

3 oz of milk (non-BST) contains 11 ng. estrogen

3 oz of milk (w/rBST) contains 1 ng. estrogen

4 oz of beef (non-estridiol) contains 1.2 ng. estrogen

4 oz of beef (w/ estridiol) contains 1.6 ng. estrogen

According to these numbers, half a cup of peas contains more than 28,000 percent more estrogen than a serving of beef – and I eat far more peas than beef!

These statistics made me reconsider my perceptions. But there was one more argument for hormones that caught me by surprise. Hormone treated cows are better for the environment! (read how in the next section)

Impact of cattle production on the environment

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

Commercial beef production is subject to a lot of federal oversight including the Federal Trade Commission, United States Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Larger feedyards, like Easterday’s must meet minimum air quality standards and comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

Water Use and Conservation

“Feedyards with 1,000 or more cattle are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, meaning they must submit an annual report, develop and follow a plan for handling manure and wastewater and must not discharge any pollutants into the waters of the United States. Violators are subject to steep fines.”[6]  

According to feedyard owner, Cody Easterday, it is common for the EPA to flyover feedyards looking for water runoff violations. Easterday’s feedyard collects the runoff into fully lined holding pools. The water is reused to fertilize throughout the farm. Once in place, the system is efficient both in overhead costs to the farm and use of natural resources.

Air quality

Collecting and recycling waste water makes sense, but how do you address the issue of air quality? Anyone who has ever driven through a rural area knows, cows emit gasses.

The answer, shockingly, is hormones!

A small dose of hormone means cows need less feed, grow faster, and produce less waste. (It is also interesting to note, cattle who eat grain produce less gas and reach their full body weight faster than grass fed cattle.) Treating cows with growth hormones reduces their output of ammonia and nitrogen by 25 percent. Surprised? I was. Without hormones Easterday’s feedlot would not meet the EPA requirements for clean air.

To me, this was the epitome of using science to act in the best interests of cows, land, and people.

How to fit beef into a healthy diet

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

Until recently, I viewed beef as a high fat, high calorie food difficult to fit into a weight loss diet. While losing weight I gave up beef almost entirely. One of the reasons I decided to purchase grass-finished beef was the lower fat content.

Per 3.5 ounces serving, grain finished beef averages about 5.2g of fat while grass finished beef has only 2.9 grams. For comparison, cooked, boneless skinless chicken breast has 3 grams of fat per 3.0 ounces.

How to find lean beef in the grocery store

Lean beef is any cut with 10 or less grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 100 grams (about 3.5 ounce). Extra lean has less than 5 grams of total fat and less than 2 grams saturated fat. Look for “loin” or “round” to choose lean cuts of beef

The Leanest Cuts of Beef per 3.5 ounce serving[7]

Beef Eye Round and Steak – 144 calories, 4.0g fat (extra lean)

Top Round roast – 169 calories, 4.3g fat (extra lean)

Top Round steak – 157 calories, 4.6g fat (extra lean)

Bottom Round roast – 139 calories, 4.9g fat (extra lean)

Top Sirloin steak – 151 calories, 5.0g fat

Chuck Shoulder steak – 149 calories, 5.0g fat

Is beef better protein?

All cuts of beef are an excellent source of protein, 25 grams per 3.5 ounce cooked – nearly half of many people’s daily recommended amount. It is also rich in nutrients such as iron, b-vitamins, zinc, and more. You can get all this for about 150 calories.

An equivalent amount of protein from a vegetarian source comes with far more calories making it more challenging from a weight management perspective.

Vegetarian Protein Sources:

Food Amount Calories Grams of Protein
Tofu 1/3 lb 218 24
Black Beans 1 2/3 cups 377 27
Quinoa 3 cups (cooked) 720 24
Eggs* 4 large 288 25

*not plant based

As a weight loss coach, I encourage including a wide variety of lean protein, whole grains, and an abundance of colorful vegetables and fruits in any weight management diet. After reviewing the data, it is clear to me that grain- or grass-fed beef can be include in any healthy diet.

From cattle to meat: Touring a beef packing plant

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

After a full day visiting Trinity Farms and Easterday Feedyard we understood the respect that goes into raising cattle. The time had come to understand how cows become beef on our tables.

It was mid-morning, and already uncomfortably warm, when our bus rolled to a stop in front of Agri-Beef’s Washington Beef packing plant. The plant tour takes visitors from the “cold side” to the “hot side” meaning we began in the chilly refrigerator looking at retail portions of beef and ended awe struck at the moment of sacrifice.

The sparkling clean facility hummed with activity and the sound of machinery moving the carcasses. Nothing goes to waste. In addition to its meat, the cow’s hide, blood, and bones are processed for other uses, and the organs are sold for consumption overseas.

To enter the packing plant, cows follow a path personally inspected by Temple Grandin. One by one they move forward in complete darkness. The darkness gives the cows an increased sense of ease as cows respond most to visual stimulation. At the end of the tunnel only their head pops through a gate into a brightly lit area. Immediately, a highly trained employee administers a single blank shell to the center of their forehead. The knock, as it is called, renders the cow insensible instantaneously.

Regulations restrict access to the knock box, so the actual knocking was not part of the tour.

From our viewpoint on the other side of the knock-box we could see the carcasses of the massive 1400 pound cows join the butchery line, hanging from the back hooves. As they entered our view, steady-handed plant workers opened the artery in their neck causing a flood of blood into the collection troughs below.

Everything we had seen over the past two days brought us to this moment of transition from livestock to meat. I watched in reverence thanking the animals for their sacrifice.

Conclusion

How two days, viewing commercial beef production, transformed me from distrusting consumer to unapologetic supporter of how beef is processed.

We live in a culture overwhelmed by stories but lacking experience. The best way to understand the world is to get out and see things for yourself. Before the farm to fork experience, my thoughts about the beef industry were mostly negative. Having listened to those who play a direct role in the process, I have re-framed each perception regarding how beef is processed.

The farm to fork tour changed how I think about food. Parts of the tour were as romantic as the farms in a child’s picture book, others were messy, smelly, and uncomfortable. I learned the most by leaning in and listening during the uncomfortable parts.

While I will continue to buy beef through a cow share, it will be based on taste preference not to avoid an evil industry. I am also delighted to develop healthy recipes using beef and encourage anyone to purchase beef in a store guilt-free.

References

[1] “Beef Life Cycle Sustainability Study Executive Summary” 2014, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association 

[2] “Bovine respiratory disease” Wikipedia  

[3] “Implanting Beef Cattle” Published on Apr 10, 2006, Reviewed May 23, 2017, Lawton Stewart 

[4] “Growth Promotant Use When Raising Beef” 2007, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association 

[5] “Worried About Hormones?” By Bruce Treffer, UNL Extension (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) 

[6] “Beef and water use” 2012 Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association 

[7] Nutrition information from “Many of America’s Favorite Cuts are Lean” 2012, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.  

Comments

  1. Thank you for your efforts to get the facts out. I’m someone living the real facts. On a Virginia century farm that struggles every day to keep our cows safe and healthy above all. What folks should understand is we need our herd happy or it will not supply our 91 year old mother with an income that mainly pays taxes, health ins and farm bills. Our father fought to keep a farm functioning and my sister, at age 56 recovering from a knee replacement, will be back on the tractor shortly. Fall hay awaits! Snowballs don’t feed cows in the winter….had a nice roast beef sandwich last night. I know where everything I ate for dinner came from. Twin Farms !

  2. Thank you so much for investing your time to learn how meat is really produced and for being open to changing your mind when presented with actual facts. And for sharing your experience with the world. I wish more people had the opportunity to take this type of a tour and see for themselves what agriculture is like instead of being scared by fake documentaries produced by people who don’t know the first thing about agriculture but want to scare other people into believing the same ignorance they do. Farmers and ranchers need and deserve support!

    • Thank you for reading Sharla. I appreciate your comments! I also wish more people had the opportunity to be part of this type of tour. I know the producers are eager to tell their stories and organizations like the Washington State Beef Commission are committed to giving them a platform. The hard part, as you said, is overcoming the vast amount of misleading information that has become so prevalent.

  3. This was very difficult for me to read. I eat meat. I like the taste of meat. I wish I had the willpower to be vegan. I believe that a vegan based diet will ultimately lead to a healthier body and soul. We were dairy farmers…it was a generational family business. I’m the first to admit that a dairy cow’s life is not bliss. At least..our cows were always pastured on large acreage spring through fall. The whole food source issue is for debate…the resources used…the pollution factor…the souls of God’s creatures…. thank you for having the courage to witness the birth to death cycle of an animal birthed, raised, and killed to provide food for humans.

    • Kris this is not an easy topic. Thank you so much for reading even though it made you uncomfortable – that takes huge strength of character. Thank you for sharing your experience I appreciate your comments. Your loving heart is evident in your concern for all aspects of creation.

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