There they were. Hundreds of them, in roomy pens, air moving freely. They milled, they chewed, the lay down and took rests. All getting ready to be beef, which I enjoy on my plate on occasion.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Larson Farm in mid-October and met four generations of family farmers. Together they manage 6,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and 2,500 head of cattle. Lynn, member of Generation 2 and daughter to the 1st Generation was in charge of the fields while her husband Mike managed the cattle operation. They work together and separately, making a life for their son and his children. They have four full time employees (also a family affair) and one part-timer to help them out. What I gathered that they have most of, is each other.
There are some facts that I really want to share with you that are fascinating.
Hormones – yes, there is estrogen used in the rearing of these all-male beef cattle There are 1.9 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef that was treated with growth promotants compared to 1.3 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef from an untreated steer. There are 225 anagrams of estrogen naturally occurring in the baked potato you set next to that steak.
Antibiotics – yes, there are antibiotics in the feed. These antibiotics are to prevent cows from developing blood in their stool; these antibiotics do not exist on the human side. Antibiotics are given to sick animals that DO exist on the human side. There is a strict regimen followed including a “withdrawal” period, which most farmers will extend out. These do not show in the meat we eat and help keep the animals from getting sick.
Corn – they eat it. Their food consists of mother’s milk until they are six months old and then a mix of corn, hay, a glutinous mixture of sticky goodness that is the byproduct of processing corn for ethanol or cornstarch, and a small additive in pellet form which contains the antibiotic and a protein supplement.
Meat Grade – this was super cool. Mike ultrasounds the steer between the 12th and 13th rib. From this ultrasound they can detect the fat layer on the back and the marbling of fat in the muscle. They do this ultrasound to determine how many more days they can feed the cow until they go to market, and what the expected grade might be. This is all determined by complex equations calculated in seconds by a specialized computer program. There is nothing they can do to improve the grade other than feeding the cow and they are very careful to ensure the cow is at a healthy, manageable weight – sometimes sacrificing grade.
All of that talk about marbling made me hungry for steak, even after seeing the cows in the pens, seeing the feed, and looking around what is known as a CAFO or a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; AKA the devil.
Here is what I can tell you.
The family cares about the welfare of the animals. They care about their use of manure, they monitor their water usage for runoff, and they want the best for us and for the animals. I came away with some questions about how it could be better.
Could the operations be smaller? Lynn tells me that the smaller operations, say 300 head of cattle, are not regulated in the same way, all livestock operations are regulated, but the bigger they are the tighter focused the microscope gets.
Could the pens be bigger, and could the cows roam? They could. I can pay more for that at the grocery store and if enough of us do, then things will change. Farmers are always responding to the fluctuations in consumer preference. If we, the consumers, want cattle to be treated or raised in a different way then we argue that point with our checkbooks, and we will pay for it. This is our choice and the farmers are ready to accommodate.
But what I am trying to tell you is that these animals looked good and healthy to me, in this large operation in my home state. I trust that they are not only safe to eat, but that the farmers are being responsible about their overall health management, the environmental conditions an operation like this produces, and the desires of the consumer.
Am I comfortable eating meat? Yes, I was before and I am now. I feel like I know a little more about antibiotics and hormones and I cannot wait for steak night.
Sara is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.