Friday, April 1, 2011

Grass Fed & Grass Fat Beef's Demise - Historical Changes in Livestock Feeding

British White Bull Calf, Sire is Carter, dam an El Presidente daughter
 Grassfed Beef - Already a Fond Memory in 1848 Britain 

Vast amounts of money and time have been spent, and continues to be spent, in researching the nutritional benefits of grass fed beef, a 'natural' beef product; as well as researching the various beef fattening qualities of assorted grains and industrial byproducts for the modern day 'traditional' approach to both rearing and fattening cattle.

A look back in time to the agricultural conversation of the middle 1800's in Britain reflects, in its very essence, the same agricultural conversations found in the United States today in mainstream beef fattening research and practice.

The singular difference in those 'conversations' is the clear recognition that a grass fattened beef animal in the middle 1800's was a fond memory -- yet still considered the optimal eating experience. Population growth and demand for beef, coupled with vastly improved agricultural practices in the large scale growth of vegetables, made this preferred grass fattened carcass impractical as arable land was converted to crops.

•"We doubt however whether any of these products can produce meat of such succulence and flavour as that furnished by a grass fed ox of mature age, finished off in the winter by fine meadow hay, with perhaps a little addition of barley or bean meal; but that plan can no longer be generally pursued, for our meadow and pasture land would not alone furnish animals equal to the demand." (1)
•". . .Of all vegetable productions, nothing can be better than good hay for improving the flesh of fitting cattle, and this was formerly the only substance used." (1)

J.West's Blue Boy
Oil-Cake was the first Major Supplement Used for Fattening Cattle

The first major change in supplementation of the beef animal's diet was in the use of what was termed 'oil-cake'. Oil-cakes in their early use were primarily a residual product of linseed. The oil of the linseed was expressed from the seed and the remainder was referred to as oil-cake. This is much like the dependence today among many small beef cattle farmers on a ready supply of salted cottonseed meal. The product is generally salted to varying degrees to control consumption, and allows it to be provided 'free-choice' to cattle herds.

In the mid-1800's, farmers had already begun to experiment with various vegetables and by-products for use in fattening cattle. Today's use of brewer's yeast in the fattening of cattle seems one that is novel when you look at the mountains of research aimed at clarifying and promoting it's usefulness in a beef animal's diet. However, the use of 'brewers wash' has a long history in cattle feeding.

Some apparently odd vegetables were as well fed, such as the mangel-wurzel mentioned below, but this is actually a variety of the common beet having a white root. And just what is treacle? Well, it's nothing but syrup, or molasses, made from sugar cane. The use of molasses became common place, and continues in use today -- though generally with a motley collection of additives, unless you can buy it directly from a local sugar mill. Molasses was once considered a good tonic of sorts for cows or oxen that had been worked hard, and it was given mixed with water to aged horses in the West Indies.

•"Of late years, however, oil-cake has been very generally added in fattening them off for market; and the increased consumption of animal food, together with the production of green crops now cultivated by the improvements in our agriculture, have also induced the feeders to employ every species of field root grown on our farms. Potatoes, mangel-wurzel, carrots, parsnips, cabbages, and turnips of every kind are, therefore, in general use; and in some of our large distilleries bullocks are also fed upon the wash. Treacle has also been tried; and there can be no doubt that, if it could be had free of duty, it would be a valuable assistance in fatting, if given either in water or mixed up with meal."(1)

Without the benefit of PhD's, research assistants, and large sums of money -- many experiments in feeding were conducted, and the results stated quite simply as shown below. On the feeding of potatoes, it was interesting to note elsewhere in this old book that a diet high in potatoes made the manure of the animal quite atrociously foul.

For those unfamiliar with the old 'stone' measurement, one English stone generally equated to 14 lbs. I doubt a cow or bullock could eat 252 pounds of turnips in a day, so the translation of a 'stone' of turnips must surely be of lesser pounds, or the citation below of '18 stone' of turnips daily is surely an unfortunate misprint.

•"In those districts where grass abounds and where hay is much used in fatting, it has been generally found that a bullock of 50 stone weight, consuming 40 lbs daily of sound hay, will acquire flesh at the rate of 2 lbs, and should, therefore, in twenty weeks increase to 70 stone; or 10 lbs of hay, with a bushel of potatoes, will have the same effect. In other experiments it has been observed, that, besides an adequate quantity of dry food to correct the effects of moist roots, bullocks of 60 stone or upwards require about 18 stone of common turnips daily: an acre of 25 tons will therefore generally fatten a beast of that weight if the dry meat consist of hay." (1)

Have the use of Industrial Byproducts Changed the Taste of your Grocer's Beef?

It is now 162 years since the printing of Mr. Burke's book on British Husbandry. Today, the high cost of what became traditional grain products used in the supplementation of beef cattle; such as corn, oats, and cottonseed byproducts, has resulted in cattle feeders exploring other industrial byproducts that are cheaper to use for fattening.

How this is impacting the taste and texture of the average pound of beef on the grocery store shelf -- I just don't know. I eat grass fed and fattened beef, and I like to add a bit of oats and molasses at the end, much like Mr. Burke mentions the addition of a little barley or bean meal towards the end of the finishing.
Despite all the money spent to research, compare, denigrate, and deny the uniqueness and superiority of grass fed beef; the simple 162 year old statement of Mr. Burke's in regard to the "succulence and flavour" of grass fed beef is worth more than the last 10 years of heated debate and research on the subject.

(1) British Husbandry: Exhibiting the Farming Practice in Various Parts of England, Volume 2, p.385, By John French Burke, Copyright 1848

Copyright © Feb. 10, 2010 Jimmie Lynn West