Eating beef has become quite controversial. With the rising popularity of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and concerns over sustainability and animal welfare, many people have passionate feelings about the beef industry.

After going on a beef immersion experience, courtesy of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, I consider myself and expert on the beef industry. During the three days I spent in Greeley, Colorado, I saw the lifecycle of cattle from beginning to end -- from the ranch to the packing plant and everything in between.

Getting the opportunity to take such a close look at beef production brought to light much of the mythology surrounding the beef industry. It’s time to set the record straight. Here are 4 facts about beef that will help you make more informed decisions, no matter what you choose to eat.

1. Antibiotics Aren't the First Line of Defense

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Ally Hardebeck

Contrary to popular belief, ranchers aren’t forcing antibiotics on their cattle recklessly. Given how expensive these drugs are and the growing concern over antibiotic resistance, there’s no incentive to do so.

Instead, cattle producers focus on preventing sickness from occurring in the first place - this means ensuring the young animals receive adequate vitamins and minerals, vaccines, and veterinary care.

Plus, not all antibiotics are the same. Some ranchers opt to use ionophores, an important tool to help cattle digest feed efficiently. Ionophores are part of a class of antibiotics not even used in human medicine, but they do help preserve natural resources like water and land. 

Also important to note? Antibiotics are never going to be physically present in your meat. The USDA tests all beef for withdrawal time compliance (AKA the amount of time between an animal receiving antibiotics and when it was slaughtered).

So when you see an attractively-marketed product in the grocery store labeled “antibiotic free,” remember that this doesn’t mean that beef without that label is dripping with drugs. It’s not -- the USDA makes sure of it. 

2. Grass-Fed Beef Is a Tricky Topic

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Ally Hardebeck

First, let’s get our definitions straight: grass-fed or grass-finished beef is produced from cattle that spend their entire lives eating grass or forage. Grain-finished cattle live similarly until the last 4-6 months, when they are fed a mixture of feed that includes grass, grains, and local feed ingredients such as sugar beets or potato hulls.

The foodie world may seem crazy about switching to grass-fed beef, but is this really the most sustainable option? Cattle emit methane for their entire lives, the main reason why beef has a high carbon footprint compared to other foods. Because grain-fed beef grows much faster than grass-fed, cattle produced in this way live shorter lives, which means they produce less methane and consume fewer resources. Depending on your definition of sustainability, this is a question about the beef industry worth considering. 

3. It Runs in the Family

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Ally Hardebeck

 In Greeley I was surprised to learn that much of the beef industry consists of family businesses -- this view definitely clashed with the cold, corporate world I typically pictured when thinking about large-scale agriculture. 

Statistics paint a different picture. 91% of beef ranches and 80% of cattle feedlots in the United States are family-owned or individually-operated. For many, beef is a family affair. 

4. Cattle Are Nature's Great Upcyclers

Ally Hardebeck

While humans are focused on decreasing our carbon footprint by recycling plastic bottles, cattle have leveled-up from such basic recycling and make their mark as upcyclers.

The animals consume lower quality plant feeds and convert them into high quality protein. Humans can’t eat grasses, hay, and byproducts like corn stalks and leaves, but cows regularly do, providing us with plenty of protein and 10 essential nutrients in the process. 

That’s good news for a country that wastes up to half of its produce: cattle can eat products like beet tops and bruised vegetables and reduce some of that waste.

Know Your Beef

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Ally Hardebeck

Regardless of what you choose to eat, I firmly believe it is important for everyone to understand agriculture and know how food is produced. If you ever have the opportunity to see our food system in action, I urge you to take it.

Knowledge is power. Knowing how the ingredients from last night’s dinner were produced is no exception, and learning about the beef industry is the first step to knowledge.