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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Grass- Fed vs Grain-Fed : What’s The Difference?

By jacob dickson


There’s a lot of hype, mis-information and misconception and out there concerning grain-fed and grass-fed beef. If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, you might get the impression that grain is the devil and eating grain-finished beef makes you a bad person. But the truth is far more nuanced. The grain-finished beef he describes (and is found in your supermarket and McDonalds) is that produced by industrial agriculture and the feedlot system and all the truly terrible practices associated (hormone and antibiotic use, animal based feeds, CAFOs, water pollution and monocultures just to name a few…). This does account of the majority of beef produced/consumed in our country.

But grain-finished beef doesn’t have to be produced in that way (and none of our products are). For example, our grain-finished beef comes from a small farm outside Albany, Wrighteous Organics, and is raised without the use of antibiotics and hormones, with access to pasture, and fed organic grains and hay raised on the farm. We invite you to visit and I’m sure you’ll agree that these animals are healthy and content. And the beef – spectacular. It’s heavily marbled, often at the the high end of ‘prime’

And what about the health impact of feeding grain to cattle? Some say that ruminants (cows and sheep) have evolved over thousands of years to only eat grass and that grains are bad for them. Its really an issue of moderation and what the goals are. In the feedlot system they ‘push’ the animals very hard, trying to get an animal to slaughter weight in 16-18 months. The feed has a very high concentration of corn which raises the ph of their stomachs and will give the animals ulcers if they are not fed antibiotics on a regular basis. In contrast, Martin at Wrighteous Organics lets the animals take their time. The feed is far less carbohydrate (corn) heavy. His animals get to slaughter weight at 24-26 months- 45% longer (and thus less profitable) than what the feedlots are doing. Like candy for humans – in moderation our bodies can process and handle sweets just fine, but in large quantities they have a serious impact on our health.

There is also a lot of hype around grass-fed being better in terms of quality. There is some excellent grass-fed beef out there (like ours), and it is tender with a big, beefy flavor. But the truth is that there is tremendous variation in grass-fed beef and often what is sold is of very poor quality. When I worked at the slaughterhouse, the worst beef we cut was invariably grass-fed (not to say we didn’t also cut high quality grass-fed as well). The reason for this is that grass-fed beef is far harder to do well than grain-fed beef. With grass-fed beef, genetics are far more important. Not all breeds of beef will do well on a 100% grass diet. We’ve spent 60 years breeding animals in this country to do well in the feedlot system, it’s going to take some time to build a herd that does well on a pasture based diet. For this reason, you’re seeing some older varieties being reintroduced such as the Murray Gray, Red Devon and smaller Angus and Hereford varieties. Secondly, quality pastures are a must for a successful grass-fed operation. With grain-fed, you can easily control what you feed your animals based on the feed mix you give them. To finish animals on grass requires extremely high quality pasture with high carbohydrate content. This will vary hugely from season to season even on the same farm. And finally, the knowledge required is much greater if a farmer is going to produce grass-fed beef well. You can’t simply go to Agway and buy a specific feed mix; you need to know your animals, pastures and how to manage the delicate interaction between the two in order to produce a high quality product. We’re just now rebuilding this knowledge base in our country.

There is a prevalent myth that before the 1940s all beef was grass-fed and its a post WWII phenomenon to finish beef on grain. But in fact we’ve been finishing beef on grain for quite some time. Farmer Bob Comis has written a great article on this topic. Bob runs a pasture based farm in Schoharie NY (and does not raise beef) so provides an independent perspective on the topic.

There is also a lot of marketing lately of “grass-fed, grain-finished beef.” I believe this is purposefully misleading the consumer. In our country, that’s just called beef! Even in the feedlot system, most animals are raised on rangeland for the first half of their lives before being sent to the feedlot.

Now I don’t mean to advocate one product over the other. Simply to debunk the myth that all grain-finishing is bad and all grass-fed is good. I support both production methods as long as they are done responsibly and with consideration for the health of the animal and land and produce a great quality finished product that consumers will enjoy.

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