By Mille Whitehead
Healthy cattle for the farmer creates safe and nutritious beef for the consumer. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! Cattle nutrition is affected by a mixture of biological and ecological factors that actually make the subject quite complex. It is our responsibility, as farmers, to provide top-notch animal care for our cattle so that we can have top-notch beef in return.
Digestive system functions, diet, environment, weight, genetics and body condition are just a few of the factors that influence cattle nutrition. My family and I depend on healthy cattle for our livelihoods, so we make sure that each animal on our land has an abundance of care from the very beginning.
This starts with the land itself. We have large grazing pastures that are planted with bermuda grass for summer and ryegrass or fescue for the winter. Each pasture also contains a clean water source. We regularly check the amount of grass and water in each pasture to ensure that it is enough to support the group that it contains. The weather and amount of rain we receive heavily impacts the quantity and quality of grass in each pasture. Since some seasons are dryer than others, we rotate our cattle on a regular basis to help prevent overgrazing. Our hayfields supply our cattle with hay and silage for the winter months. Minerals are also provided for added nutrition in their diet.
Quality beef begins before conception. If a cow does not receive proper nutrition before the breeding process, it is very unlikely that she will reproduce. If a cow is able to reproduce but does not receive proper nutrition after she calves, not only will her own body condition be poor, but she will not be able to keep a good milk supply to support her calf. Cattle nutrition is a long and ongoing process, but if the commitment is strong from the very beginning, it has a better chance of enduring.
Our steers that we keep for processing are on a grass- and grain-fed diet. Some people hear the words “beef” and “grain-fed” in the same sentence and automatically think of cramped feedlots, but our operation does not fall into this stereotype. Our steers reside in large pastures with an abundance of grass; they just happen to get fed grain on a daily basis as well. The grain that is added to their diet is a natural custom feed. We consistently weight-check our steers and only feed the correct amount of grain per their percentage of body weight. The grain in their diet helps add marbling to the beef and is one reason why each cut of meat is so juicy.
The working relationship and environment that we create between the farmer and cattle also plays a critical role in the type of beef each steer produces. When beef cattle become stressed, it causes adrenaline to set in, which increases more alertness to their surroundings. This adrenaline activates a change in the pH of the meat, which ultimately makes meat tough and flavorless. A few other examples of factors that cause stress in cattle are fear, physical discomfort, injury and even genetics. Handling our cattle in a low-stress environment and regular checking not only creates healthy and happy cows, but it also creates nutritious and tender beef.