There’s nothing better in the summer than a Prime steak or an all-beef burger on the grill. Iowa farmers take pride in providing high-quality, nutritious beef for our summer cookouts and celebrations.

Cattle farming also benefits our everyday lives in ways we might not realize, like when we pop the top of a craft beer while firing up the grill.

Exile Brewing Co. is one of several Des Moines-based breweries that gives away its leftover grains from making beer as feed for cattle.

The arrangement benefits local cattle farmers as well as the Iowa breweries. It gives cattle farmers a source of lower cost yet high quality feed. And the breweries don’t have to dump the leftover grains in a landfill.

“Why should it go to a landfill and be wasted when it has a useful purpose?” says R.J. Tursi, founder of Exile Brewing Co. “It’s great that farmers can come pick it up and use it. We don’t have to pay to have it disposed of, and then they are saving money on feed, so it’s a win-win across the board.”

It isn’t unusual for Iowa farmers to feed leftover brewers grains to cattle. The high protein content of brewers grains makes it a nutritious feed option for cattle, explains Dan Loy, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Beef Center.

“It’s a very common feedstuff that’s been fed for decades, if not centuries. Ever since we’ve been brewing beer, they have been feeding (brewers grains) to cattle,” he explains.

Indeed, cattle play a vital role in a sustainable food system. Cattle can consume plant materials – such as grasses, corn stalks, ethanol byproducts and, yes, brewers grains – that are inedible to humans because of the animal’s unique ruminant digestive system.

“Cattle are upcyclers. They can take food and feed that we humans can’t or won’t eat to produce highly desired (beef) proteins,” Loy says.

In addition, Loy says he gets a lot of media calls whenever there’s a story in the news about farmers feeding unwanted candy to cattle.

That’s right: Cattle can eat candy, and they love it.

“It’s just like how you would give it to children – with supervision and moderation,” Loy says with a laugh. “The last time I got a lot of (media) calls was when there was a farmer who fed his cattle gummy worms.”

Even vegetarians benefit from cattle. Cattle eat the inedible leftovers, including pea pods, beet roots and wheat stalks, from the production of plant-based burgers and meat substitutes.

And if you wear cotton clothes, you’re connected to cattle farming. Cattle eat leftover cottonseed hulls, Loy says.

If cattle didn’t eat these inedible leftovers, then the food waste would end up in a landfill. Unfortunately, landfills are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cattle farmers are listening and responding to our concerns about sustainability in food production, Loy says. Farmers are adopting improved tools and methods to help make farming more effective, efficient and environmentally friendly.

In the last 40 years, the U.S. cattle herd has shrunk by one-third, yet U.S. farmers are producing more beef today than they did in the 1970s.

Additionally, more Iowa farmers are planting cover crops, such as oats, alfalfa and grasses, to prevent soil loss and protect water quality. And as ruminant animals, cattle can eat cover crops.

Cattle farmers also complete beef quality assurance training to ensure that they are raising safe, nutritious beef in a sustainable way, Loy says.

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and (farmers) want to be more transparent,” Loy says. “Farmers are always looking for ways to improve ..., keeping an eye on environmental quality in every aspect.”

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