Corn-fed beef is a nutritious friend to environment

Local View for the Lincoln Journal Star (Aug. 13, 2010)

By Kelsey Pope, ag promotion coordinator for the Nebraska Corn Board

Which is the better beef: grass-fed or corn-fed? More than ever before, consumers have a lot of questions about their food, and beef is no exception. They see cattle grazing in the fields and they see cattle in feedlots, but they don’t understand the difference.

In response to Erin Duerr’s column (“From Scratch: Try natural, grass-fed beef for your meals,” LJS, Aug. 4), I’m here to tell you that both types of beef production exist because of consumer choice.

Growing up on a cow/calf ranch, I’ve seen both sides of beef production. I now work on behalf of Nebraska’s corn farmers representing the livestock industry, as well as running seedstock cattle of my own.

It is important to know that most all cattle are raised and spend most of their lives on range or pasture conditions eating grass from the time they are born until they are 12 to 18 months of age. Then, depending on how the feeder cattle are marketed, they are moved to a feedlot and usually separated into groups of 100 where they live in pens that allow about 125 to 250 square feet of room per animal. Cattle usually spend four to six months in a feedlot, during which they are fed a nutritionally formulated ration of corn and/or silage, hay and distillers grains.

On the other hand, some ranchers may prefer to finish their feeder cattle on grass. Also called free-range, grass-finished cattle eat only a grass and forage-based diet throughout their whole lifespan. Breeding stock, or cows and bulls, live their entire lives on pasture, and some are fed grains additionally.

So what really is the difference? Duerr mentions the cost, the nutritional value and the impact on the environment. First, the cost of corn-fed beef, which also is called conventional or modern beef production, is less expensive because beef are fed for a shorter, more efficient period. The modern beef production system also provides a year-round supply of safe, wholesome and nutritious beef at an affordable price for consumers around the world. Grass-fed beef takes longer to reach a finished age, thus incurring more expenses for the rancher.

Second, the nutritional value. There are 29 cuts of beef that meet government guidelines for lean. This is true whether the beef is produced conventionally or as part of an organic, natural or grass-fed program. Grass-finished beef contains slightly more omega-3 fatty acids (less than one-tenth of a gram more per 3.5 ounces), but no specific type of beef is considered a primary source for omega-3s. Grass-finished beef also can provide more conjugated linoleic acid than other beef. CLA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that health professionals believe has cancer fighting properties; however, it is not clear whether there is a health benefit in this difference. No matter what type of beef consumers choose, they can be confident all types of beef can be included in a healthy diet.

Third, the impact on the environment. Erin gives no reference when she states grass-fed beef is better for the environment. However, according to a report released by the Hudson Institute’s Center For Global Food Issues, pound-for-pound, beef produced in a modern beef production system generates 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and uses two-thirds less land than beef produced using organic and grass-fed production systems.

Additionally, animal agriculture contributes minimally to the production of total greenhouse gases in the United States. Cattle (whether grass-fed or corn-fed) naturally produce methane, a greenhouse gas, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the entire U.S. agricultural sector contributed only 6.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2006.

So here’s the wholesome on your wholesome beef: The most important point is that consumers have a choice to what they eat. Beef producers in Nebraska and across the United States are producing a safe, wholesome and nutritious beef product, whether it be corn-fed or grass-fed, to give consumers the choice in their eating lifestyles.

The fact is, in order to meet the demand of a growing world, which is expected to increase to a population of 9 billion by the year 2050, modern beef production is needed to feed the world this powerful protein. If all beef was grass-finished, there wouldn’t be enough land to produce the amount of beef we do now with modern beef production, much less produce it at the same quantity year-round.

You have a choice at the grocery store because of the great beef ranchers such as the ones we have here in Nebraska. There is no other state better situated for beef production than Nebraska, with accessibility to land and feed. That’s not only great for the consumers of beef, it’s great for Nebraska’s economic engine: agriculture.

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