Why Iowa farmers specialize in high-quality beef
If you have a picky eater, you know the feeling of elation when your child finally adds another food to their already short menu.
For us, that food was cheeseburgers. (OK, well truthfully, a hamburger with cheese on the side, but I’ll take it.) I feel relieved knowing my son is getting more high-quality proteins in his diet.
And I like knowing we’re supporting farmers who work hard to provide us with nutrient-dense beef.
Iowa ranks 10th nationally in beef cattle and fourth in cattle on feed—some of which are later exported to nearby states. However, our state is a leader in USDA “Prime” beef production. If you’re unfamiliar with beef grades, prime is the highest grade and indicative of abundant marbling which enhances flavor and juiciness in steaks or roasts.
Dr. Dan Loy, director of the Iowa Beef Center, didn’t mince words when he told me, “Iowa specializes in high-quality, grain-fed beef and does it better than most places in the world.”
Why? Four reasons stood out to me in my recent chat with Dr. Loy:
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, Dr. 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 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 Dr. 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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