Certified Prime: How Iowa farmers raise high quality beef
Iowa ranks 10th nationally in beef cattle and fourth in cattle on feed. However, our state is a leader in USDA Prime beef production. Prime is the highest grade and indicative of abundant marbling which enhances flavor and juiciness in steaks or roasts.
Dan Loy, director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University, doesn’t mince words when he says, “Iowa specializes in high-quality, grain-fed beef and does it better than most places in the world.”
Why? Loy notes four reasons:
1. Farmers stay up to date on the best animal welfare practices.
The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certification is an industry-wide commitment to scientifically backed farm practices.
Through the program, Iowa cattle farmers learn the latest research on animal care, environmental stewardship, food safety and more. To date, nearly 11,300 Iowa cattle farmers are BQA certified. Every three years, the certification must be renewed, keeping farmers informed on the best management strategies.
In short, the program is a way for cattle farmers to continuously improve upon their goal to provide wholesome, safe beef for those who enjoy it—just like my family does.
2. Farmers are invested in animal genetics.
With today’s technology, desired cattle genetics can be selected to ensure meat quality. Animal characteristics can also be better predicted through a wide collection of data that considers an individual animal’s genetics, its line of ancestors and the traits of its offspring to better predict outcomes.
A desired outcome for a cattle farmer depends on his or her family farm goals, but many look for calving ease for mama cows, the ability to efficiently use feed sources and of course, that sought-after marbling.
3. Farmers partner with experts on animal nutrition.
Many farmers work with animal nutritionists to promote herd health. In fact, Loy says most cattle eat better than people do in terms of meeting nutritional requirements.
Because cattle have unique digestive systems, farmers have been able to adapt to changes in the ag industry. In the mid-2000s, when ethanol plants multiplied throughout Iowa, farmers began feeding cattle dried distillers grains. This high-energy feed source is produced from corn parts that cannot be used for fuel, so each part of the kernel serves a purpose.
However, in 2020, when ethanol plants shutdown due to COVID, farmers looked to soybean meal to fill the temporary void of distillers grains.
With each ebb and flow, farmers continually rely on nutrition experts to ensure their cattle are getting the correct nutrients in the correct amounts, no matter what challenge persists.
4. Farmers understand the sustainability cycle.
Iowa is excellently positioned for crops, cattle, and conservation to coincide.
Iowa farmers grow their own corn, hay, alfalfa, cover crops or other forage to feed their cattle. (Unlike the Southern Plains that source feed from states like Iowa!) Some cattle farmers rotate crops throughout the year from summer silage to a winter cover crop to spring soybeans. This biodiversity builds soil health and protects water quality. Rotational grazing is another environmental practice that keeps living roots in the ground year-long to trap carbon in the soil.
Cattle can also consume and upcycle plant parts that would otherwise go to a landfill, like cottonseed hulls, into nutrient-dense beef. Additionally, manure from cattle is incorporated into the land as a natural fertilizer source for crops. Truly, nothing goes to waste.
At the end of the day, raising cattle boils down to this mantra for Loy: “Farmers never want to let a calf have a bad day.” It’s this care and commitment that undoubtedly makes Iowa a premier place for cattle and top-notch beef.
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