The Myth of Pre-World War II Beef (Bob Comis)

By jacob dickson


Bob Comis operates Stony Brook Farm in Schoharie New York where he and his wife pasture raise heritage breed pigs, lamb, goat and poultry. In his posts, Bob shares his thoughts on farming, regional food systems, and his vision for the future.

[Note: Below is an e-mail that I sent to someone who is increasingly becoming an important and visible focus of the local/grassfed/pastured movement who recently perpetuated a couple of myths in a video about finishing beef that I am trying to bust. I am keeping the couple anonymous because I did not/have not yet asked their permission to publicize any part of our discussion.]

Please note that the reason I am kind of keeping my eye on you guys is that you are becoming a visible and important focus of the local/grassfed/pastured “movement.” My concern is that at some point this movement is going to get big enough that industrial ag is going to start trying to co-opt it (it already has with the “grassfed” standards) or push back against it, so it is important that we have our stories straight, and unfortunately, at present, the movement’s beef narrative is built on one very important myth, which you perpetuated in the video.

The myth is that before World War II all, or even most, beef was 100% grassfed, which would mean that we are returning to traditional ways of raising beef. The earliest edition of Henry and Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, which was for more than half of a century the standard text on the subject, that I have been able to find on-line is the 1910 edition. This is what Henry and Morrison have to say about 100% grassfed beef in 1910: “Waters of the Missouri Station states that gains are cheaply made on grass alone, but such gains are also low in selling value because the cattle are not usually fat enough to market and must be sold as feeders with sufficient margin for the buyer to profitably market them” (p. 320, section 502). Halligan, in his Elementary Treatise on Feeds and Feeding from 1911 makes no mention of finishing beef on grass alone. Rather he states, “Corn is the best grain feed for fattening cattle. In this country it is used more than any other single grain for this purpose” (p. 207). This is stated within the context of needing to feed some sort of concentrate to finish beef. What both Henry and Morrison and Halligan do suggest is that the best gains can be achieved with concentrates fed to pastured cattle. The source of the myth of grass-finished beef almost certainly comes from the careless reading out of context of statements such as this from Smith’s third edition of Profitable Stock Feeding, published in 1908: “In localities where corn is relatively high in price, and hay and grass are abundant, finishing steers on grass is often profitable” (p. 165). Of course, the next sentence, explaining the previous, states, “Cattle fed on grass require less grain for a given increase in weight than when winter-fed on hay and grain” (p. 165, emphasis added). Other texts from this period, leading up to and just after World War II, make similar arguments, illustrating clearly that the standard method for fattening beef was grain (corn), and decidedly not grass, at least in the United States. It was taken for granted at the time that statements like “finishing steers on grass” meant pasturing steers while at the same time feeding them grain, as opposed to the less economical method of feeding them grain and hay on a feedlot. The judicious use of grain (corn) would have been the standard fattening regimen even on small farms in the Northeast during this period. This is not to say of course that there was no beef slaughtered off of grass alone. It is to say that very, very little of it was. Attempting to grass finish beef in the United States is not a return to traditional ways of raising beef, it is something totally new, and it is not easy, being much more of an art than grain finishing, which is why so many people are so bad at it.

Also, you seem to state in the video that feedlot beef today is raised on grain from weaning to slaughter, which is incorrect. One hundred percent of Nearly all feedlot beef is raised on rangeland or pasture and finished on grain in a feedlot. The difference is that they are spending more time on the feedlot than they used to, and, of course the feedlots are much much bigger, and much much more crowded, and the animals are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and note, since I am in myth-busting mode, that antibiotics are not fed to confinement animals to ward off disease, although they likely do that to some degree, animals are fed antibiotics because mid-20th Century experiments showed that antibiotics economically increased feed efficiency, by a few percent.

Anyway, I think this is important stuff. I am hoping that I can change our narrative by talking to people in a position to spread the word, but if I am unsuccessful, I think I am going to need to write a book, or at least a long essay.


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