Wheres the beef?…. Or where does it come from exactly?

You know that part of your brain that’s responsible for creativity; well lately I’ve been convinced that mine is broken.  So after a month long hiatus, I’M BACK! I have to give Jenny Dewey credit for inspiring today’s post, so if you get a chance check out what she’s up too on her two blogs; J.L.D. Photograph and Chico Locker and Sausage.

Back to the task at hand, so what is beef and where does it come from?  Today’s media has effectively skewed the public’s perception of beef and what type of cattle it is derived from.  When I googled cow, bovine and heifer the first dozen or so images were either Holsteins licking at the camera or a big ole “black and white” standing in a field.

3-Cows-lgFor instance, Chick-fil-a has done a great job marketing the “Chick-fil-a cows”.  This type of marketing has changed the public’s perception of the beef industry.

Let me first clear up the difference in dairy and beef cattle.  Dairy cattle are unique in the fact that they can produce high amounts of milk without significant emphasis on muscle mass.  Muscle mass is an important trait that is sought after in modern beef production.  Holstein cattle are a breed of dairy cattle and are the typical black and white spotted cow that is routinely seen through today’s popular media when references to cattle and beef are made.

So do we eat dairy cattle?

According to the USDA’s cattle inventory for 2012 there were approximately 39 million head of beef cows in the US and 9 million dairy cows. (These numbers reflect cows that have calved)  The inventory for steers over 500 lbs (steers are castrated males) was an astounding 15 million with heifers (young female cows that have not had a calf) a bit further behind at around 10 million.  Of this 25 million only 13% are typically of dairy influence.

Though dairy cattle are the “minority” of the cattle industry (from a total number standpoint) a portion of them do indeed make it into our food chain.  Since only cows can produce milk, the male dairy calves are typically castrated and placed on feed after weaning (weaning is a term that is used when calves are weaned off of milk) and fed to about 1250 lbs to be harvested for our consumption.

As I mentioned before, the dairy breeds don’t typically exhibit the muscle mass as typical beef breeds however, they do in fact have a tendency to show evidence of higher quality grades on average.  Quality grades are how the industry grades beef cuts, you will see them displayed as; prime, which is the highest, followed by choice, select and standard.  Quality grades are based on a combination of age and marbling (the fat that is deposited within the muscle, it can typically be seen best on fresh ribeye steaks).  On the other hand, dairy cattle that enter the food chain typically have much smaller muscle surface area.  This means, your typical ribeye in square inches is much smaller than those produced from a beef type animal.

When older dairy type cattle enter the food chain the beef derived from them usually ends up as “ground beef” used for burgers and patties.

So next time you think beef, think this.

Beef Cow

Not this.

Dairy cow[1]

To learn more about the dairy industry check out these great blogs

Dairy Carrie 

Zweber Farms

Heim Dairy

For more info on the beef industry check out these great blogs

Life on a Kansas Cattle Ranch  

Agriculture Proud

The Cattle Call

9 thoughts on “Wheres the beef?…. Or where does it come from exactly?

  1. Pingback: Where’s the Beef or Where Does the Beef Come From? | Protect the Harvest

  2. Thank you for linking to us! On our farm, we raise about half of our bull calves for beef and sell the other half to other farmers to raise for beef. Our main business in dairy, but we also sell beef directly from our farm. About 25% of our herd is crossbred. Usually a Holstein, Normande, Swedish Red cross. The Normande breed is dual purpose, so we save those bull calves (vs the pure Holstein) to raise for beef. The crossbred calves do much better on a nearly grass only diet. This year we are experimenting with Holstein, Normande, Angus cross. We will raise both the bull and heifer calves for beef vs dairy. Our direct marketed beef sales have grown exponentially, so we are trying to find a good combination to fit our current farm structure and also provide a consistent product to our customers.

    PS We eat dairy cow ground beef and filets. It is the best tasting beef in the world (in my opinion of course).

  3. This article does not tell the whole story from calf to table. “Where does it come from exactly” is a question that is not answered. This just talks about the type of cattle we eat.

    “Where does it come from exactly” leads through the feed lot in most instances. Could you please discuss that step in the process.

  4. Love this! We raise beef cattle and appreciate you getting the word out there. Those you aren’t familiar with the industry usually do sterotype cattle as black and white dairy cows.

  5. I commented recently asking for you to provide more information on “where does it come from exactly”, such as what the last 2 months of the cattle’s life is like, but have not received a reply, even though I asked to be notified. If I have missed your reply by not finding it in my junk mail folder I apologize. Otherwise, I wish for a response. Thank you

    • Thomas;
      I apologize for the late response. This article was intended to reach out to those individuals that don’t know or didn’t know the difference in beef and dairy type cattle and their uses.

      The answer to the question “where does beef come from exactly” was fully answered in the writing above. How the product gets from pasture to plate was not addressed in this particular article.

      I will try to address the process of raising, feeding and processing cattle in a future article. This should answer the question that you are interested in. I will say that the industry as a whole is very complex from the time cattle are born to the time they are processed. Starting from a cow/calf operation, upon weaning beef cattle are typically sent to a backgrounding/stocker operation where they are placed on pasture and allowed to mature. Once they reach appx 900 lbs they are placed in a feedlot where they are fed to about 1250 lbs. Once finished cattle are sent to a packer where they are harvested and further processed into the cuts we enjoy today.

      I hope this helps clear up any confusion Thomas. Let me know if there are any further questions that I can help you with. Keep an eye out for a future post on the beef process from pasture to plate.


  6. Pingback: Between Milk & Hamburgers | hannamoore

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