Healthy red meat from buffalo hybrids. More cows being put out to pasture. Raising beef cattle as the antidote to climate change.
Welcome to the modern world of the beef industry, where consumer demand and environmental concerns are driving the way that many Illinois producers raise, market and sell their animals. It's a continually changing environment populated by odd-looking cattle and bucolic grazing amid the proliferation of meat-substitute burgers, all with an eye toward satisfying the world's hunger for beef.
The livestock industry, and the cattle industry in particular, have come under scrutiny lately following studies that allege the production of red meat produces large amounts of greenhouse gases, uses exorbitant amounts of fresh water, and consumes a high percentage of crops as animal feed. Animal-welfare groups condemn certain livestock-raising practices as cruel, and there are studies that purport red meat is unhealthy and Americans should eat far less of it.
But farmers are nothing if not resilient and resourceful, and they are answering these newest challenges by falling back on nature and tradition.
Home on the range: Beefalo
As the curious animals came closer one late February morning, differences from other cattle became evident. Their heads had odd-looking bumps, and thicker, woolly fur-covered parts of their bodies. These were beefalo, a cross between American Bison and domestic cattle that proponents say are hardier than regular beef cattle and produce leaner, healthier meat.
Will Gross, a 57-year-old lifelong Jacksonville resident, raises the hybrid animals on his 1,300-acre family farm just south of the Interstate 72 and Route 67 interchange in Morgan County. It's a passion that he got from his late father, a veterinarian who began raising beefalo in the 1960s.
"When I grew up there were already beefalo here," Gross said. "They are very robust animals – as soon as they are born they start nibbling on hay. The bison gives them robust flavor and energy and all of the things that come with a buffalo."
Gross' beefalo are a genetic ratio of at least three-eighths buffalo combined with Angus cattle. They eat pasture grass on the rolling hills of the Gross property, supplemented by hay during the winter.
"The meat is much leaner, you'll not see the marbling in the meat but it's still tender and juicy," Gross said. "That's why it has lower cholesterol and saturated fat."
The USDA Nutrient Database seems to agree with that assessment. It lists a 100-gram serving of beefalo as having 58 milligrams of cholesterol, lower than chicken, pork or regular beef; 2.7 grams of saturated fat, slightly lower than pork and significantly lower than 8.5 grams for regular beef; and 188 calories, also lower than pork or beef.
But those nutritional benefits come at a price. Gross said because beefalo are grass-fed, they require more acreage and take longer to mature into marketable animals, so a farmer's investment in time and property is greater. They also require a stouter enclosure and more handling caution, a nod to the bison in their blood.
"You need an eight-foot fence to keep them in. If we buy metal feeders from a farm and home store they are scrapped in a year because they use them like toys," Gross said. "So I get LP tanks and cut them into thirds to make the feeders, which are three-eighths-inch steel and that way they don't tear them up.
"It's been lively times out here sometimes. You've got to watch it because they have wild animals in them," Gross said. "If you are handling, loading or moving them you could get some injuries. You gotta go out there every day to make sure they are on the right side of the fence."
Gross has a steady clientele for his beefalo meat, which is occasionally offered as a specialty item in several area restaurants. He hasn't yet compared the beefalo taste to that of the plant-based burgers offered in fast food restaurants or grocery stores, but isn't worried that non-meat substitutes will erode his business.
"A lot of people distance themselves from the whole meat market, butchering thing, they don't like the killing of animals," Gross said. "But guess what, that's what keeps us alive. If other folks can go to the plant-based stuff and be happy, well, good for them."
Putting them out to pasture: Grass-fed beef
Jim Crum of the Cass County community of Virginia has turned 350 acres of non-tillable pasture land into a grass-fed meat mail-order business.
Crum is the co-owner of U.S. Wellness Meats, one of the largest processors and distributors of grass-fed meats in the country. He and several like-minded producers formed the Missouri-based company in 2000 and now it's like "the Omaha Steak business of the grass-fed industry," he said, with customer orders shipped across the country.
True grass-fed cattle eat only plants such as the grass and legumes found in pastures, unlike grain-raised or grain-finished cattle that are fed corn, soybeans and other grains for some or all of their lives to promote more rapid weight gain. Crum said grass-fed beef has more of the "good" omega-three fatty acids and less of the "bad" omega-six fatty acids compared to beef raised with grain.
"Our animals are weaned, and then they don't receive any grain during their lives, just grass or hay," Crum said. "Grain has starches and that is what produces the omega sixes."
Crum said the pasture-roaming cattle are also healthier than their grain-fed feedlot bovine brethren because they get more exercise and are not confined in a limited space. He does not use antibiotics or hormones in the production of his cattle.
Like beefalo, grass-fed beef is more expensive because the cattle take longer to put on marketable weight, more land is required to raise them, and they have to be moved often to fresh pasture. Crum said his grass-fed cattle gain about half a pound less per day over their lifetimes compared to grain-fed cattle and are typically 24 months old before they are marketable, versus 18 months for grain-fed beef.
"The end product is a little more expensive, but we feel our customers desire the health-conscious benefits," Crum said. "Grass-fed beef is leaner, and we age our products longer to give them a similar taste and tenderness to grain-fed beef."
Crum incorporates cover crops into his separate grain farming operation and lets the cattle graze on the oats, cereal rye, clover or turnips before he plants corn or soybeans. This grazing removes the cover crops and deposits fertilizer in the form of manure.
"They are harvesting their own groceries, they are fertilizing the ground, they'll make the soil better, and the next year it will be better than it was this year," Crum said.
Where's the healthy beef?
Springfield-area nutritionists feel that grass-fed animals can produce a slightly healthier version of beef, but say we are still eating too much red meat.
"Animals that graze on grass and other foliage in the wild tend to have more meat, less fat, less saturated fat, and more polyunsaturated fats, including higher amounts of omega-three fatty acids, or healthy fats which have anti-inflammatory properties," said Katie Beberman, a registered dietitian at the Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate of the HSHS St. John's Medical Group. "But there is limited long-term evidence on any health benefits of consuming grass-fed beef."
Beberman said overall, Americans are eating too much meat of all types while consuming fewer vegetables, and she recommends "don't have too much of any type of protein, limit red meat in general, and eat a wider variety of foods."
Beberman also said plant-based meat substitutes like Burger King's "Impossible Burger" may not be a good alternative.
"While the consumer may think that these plant-based substitutes are a healthier choice, they may also be replacing a whole, unprocessed food with a product which is highly processed, which could be an unhealthful practice," Beberman said.
Memorial Weight Loss and Wellness Center registered dietitian Jan Dowell agreed with the assessment of meat substitutes.
"I think it's what we would call a 'health halo.' Just because it is plant-based doesn't necessarily mean it's healthier or more nutritious," Dowell said. "I looked at the label for one and there were more than 20 ingredients to make the burger, whereas if you are eating ground beef, there is one ingredient. You have to think how processed something is, and would that really always be the best choice."
Not that she's advocating that people eat ground beef, one of the fattier cuts of meat. Dowell said to stick with leaner cuts of beef like sirloin or round if you want to satisfy your red-meat craving. Just keep in mind that less is better.
"Dietary guidelines call for less than four ounces per day of any animal protein," Dowell said. "The logic there is that leaves room for other things to balance your plate, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other things."
Like beef producers, the pork industry is stressing the health-conscious nature of its product versus meat substitutes. A National Pork Producers Council print ad states, "Pork: You can't make it from plants unless you feed them to a pig first."
"Pork producers support consumer choice. However, plant-based products designed to impersonate real meat need to be regulated on the same level playing field," said Illinois Pork Producers Association President Dale Weitekamp of Montgomery County. "One fact that we want consumers to understand is that pork has many beneficial qualities that make it easy to incorporate into a balanced menu."
Beef gas or biomass?
Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are jumping on recent studies that seem to indicate that the cattle industry greatly contributes to the global warming problem, and one of the main culprits, they argue, is cow flatulence.
"Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world's transportation systems combined," said a recent PETA website post. PETA also claims that it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and it "takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals."
The U.S. Beef Industry counters in its handout literature that beef production is responsible for only 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It only takes 308 gallons of water to produce a pound of boneless beef, and water use by beef is around five percent of U.S. water withdrawals. Corn going to feed beef cattle represents only 10 percent of harvested corn grain in the United States, or eight million acres.
The Illinois Pork Producers Association also defends the livestock industry, noting that pork production per pound now uses 75.9 percent less land than it did nearly 60 years ago and uses seven percent less energy, 25.1 percent less water, and produces 7.7 percent less carbon.
Then there's a third camp, one that argues that grass-based livestock production can actually reverse global warming.
"Regenerative food, farming and land use, especially grazing and pasturing animals properly on the world's 4.3 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, is the key to ending (concentrated animal farming) emissions and drawing down enough CO2 to reverse global warming," said Organic Consumers Association director Ronnie Cummins.
Cummins said pastureland photosynthesis helps absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen and turn atmospheric CO2 into a form of "liquid carbon" that builds up both the plant's stems, leaves and root systems. That "liquid carbon," or sugar, feeds the soil's microorganisms. Grazing livestock keep those carbon-filtering plants healthy by fertilizing and pruning them, Cummins said.
Nature and nutrition activist and writer Michael Pollan agreed that producers of grass-fed cattle can have a beneficial impact on the environment.
"Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air, tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed, (the) process at the same time adds to the land's fertility and its capacity to hold water, which means more and better food for us," Pollan said.
"This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix," Pollan said. "Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its 'root-shoot ratio,' sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes and microbes, digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created, from the bottom up."
Western Illinois University School of Agriculture Assistant Professor Keela Trennepohl wouldn't speculate on the effect that grass-feeding livestock can have on global warming, but agreed that grazing animals can help the environment.
"Grazing ruminants are of great benefit to the environment, but there would not be an advantage of 'nontraditional' grazers (such as beefalo) over standard ruminant grazers like cattle or sheep," Trennepohl said. "All systems have their place in the marketing product, but I wouldn't want to separate ruminant species' positive benefit to the environment based on niche marketing systems" like beefalo or grass-fed beef operations.
Soil conservationist Christine Goldstein with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service for Macoupin, Montgomery and Christian counties said the environmental benefits of grazing can be increased if farmers move their animals around.
"We work with livestock producers to do a rotation pattern. Instead of fencing off a big area and letting the cattle, goats or sheep run in an open area, it's better for the grass if it has a little bit of a rest period," Goldstein said. "That grass is feeding long-term nutrients back into the soil. The grazing animals add some nutrients back as well."
"We are a commodity"
There's no better place to take the temperature of the industry than at the annual Illinois Beef Expo, held Feb. 19-23 this year at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Nearly everyone we spoke to there realized that the industry has challenges and that some change is inevitable, but not everyone thinks beefalo or 100% grass-feeding is the answer.
"There's not much grass feeding in Illinois. Mostly we meet consumer demand with genetics," said Ron Severson of Morris, a producer with 100 cows who had a bull for sale at the Beef Expo. "You can find cattle with not much back fat, big ribeye areas, more marbling, and use bulls with those traits."
"I think the beef industry is kind of making a turn, we seem to have seven-year cycles. There are actually less cattle this year than last year. It's been tough for the last two or three years," Severson said. "People want lean beef but they still want marbling. And the 'Impossible Burger,' it's probably going to get a lot of people who were vegetarians anyway, so I don't know if beef is going to lose much of the market."
Reagan Hoskin of Pittsfield helps run a 60-head cattle operation on the family farm with her father and brother. She said rather than trying to graze their cattle, her family is looking toward more confinement because they need to use every available acre for crop production.
"Land is expensive in Illinois," said the 19-year-old Hoskin. "Everybody wants to put in crops instead of cattle because crops will give a better return on the fertile land that we have."
The beef industry, like most others, is driven by profit.
"We are a commodity, and that means that we are driven by consumer demand," Hoskin said. "I could have the best-looking cow but if I can't sell the beef, then it doesn't matter."
Fletcher Farrar, Illinois Times editor and CEO, owns a southern Illinois cattle farm where he is trying to make a business of regenerating soil by raising livestock on grass.