What Do Beef Labels Mean?

The majority of the beef consumed in the U.S. is classified as conventionally produced. It is safe, inexpensive, free from drugs and added hormones, is available year round and tastes great.

A growing segment of consumers are demanding beef produced in a manner that better meets their preferences. It, too, is safe, a little more expensive, free from drugs and added hormones, may not be available year round and tastes great.

The bottom line is that regardless of production method, the attributes of safety and palatability are exactly the same. The desire to differentiate products in the market has led to great confusion among consumers and even producers. In this article, I will attempt to demystify the various production systems.


Whether finished on grain or grass, conventionally raised beef uses all available technology, such as feed delivered antibiotics, ionophores and growth-promoting hormones. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines the concentration of drugs and hormones that are harmful to human health. All beef, regardless of production method, is presented to the consumer without violative residues.

To Do December/January

  1. Pregnancy test and cull all open cows.
  2. Cull problem cows and marginal producers. Production data is easily obtained using Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS).
  3. If you have access to corn stalk fields you can reduce and or stretch feed.
  4. Wean calves less than 120 days old before hard winter weather sets in. They will do better on grain plus hay than if left on their dams.
  5. Calves kept over the winter should be fed to gain 1.3 to 1.5 lbs/day. Full fed legume/grass hay plus 5 to 6 lbs. of grain will support this level of growth. An all forage diet should contain at least 62 percent TDN and 14 percent CP.
  6. Take forage sample for nutrient analysis. Depending on your locality, hay may be in short supply or of poor quality. Allocating the best feed to younger, higher producing animals will stretch out your supply. If practical feed and manage separately: 1) weaned heifer calves, 2) first and second calf heifers and old thin cows, 3) the rest of the dry herd, 4) lactating cows and their calves, and 5) herd sires.
  7. Cows should be in body condition score of 5.0-6.0 for March calving (smooth appearance, last 3-4 ribs are just visible, and there is some brisket fat).
  8. Heifers should be in body condition score 5.5-6.5 (slightly fatter than cows, can begin to see pockets of fat on either side of tail head).
  9. If forage quality it low, send sample in for nutrient analysis. Contact your Cooperative Extension agent, feed dealer or Dairy One Forage Testing Laboratory at 800-496-3344.
  10. If hay for the cow herd is in short supply, replacing up to 3 pounds of hay with 2 pounds of whole shelled corn will stretch hay supplies. Include corn at no higher than 50 percent of the ration. Small grains like barley, wheat and rye can also be used, but unlike corn, must be processed.
  11. If corn or corn silage is a significant portion of the diet, calcium could be in short supply. Contact your feed dealer or Cooperative Extension agent for assistance in balancing minerals in the ration.
  12. A good windbreak, e.g., woodlot, building, hillside, can reduce energy requirements 10 percent in the cowherd.
  13. Watch for outbreaks of lice. Treat the whole herd, not just affected individuals.


There is no USDA-sanctioned production claim for Natural. There is a processing claim, meaning no processing and nothing added. For example, neither ground beef nor hot dogs could carry the USDA Natural claim. As such, Natural protocols are defined by the market. However, it generally means no feed delivered antibiotics, including ionophores (Rumensin and Bovatec), and no added hormones. Restrictions around the use of injectable antibiotics to treat disease includes either increasing the withdrawal time if used or “never ever.” Markets that specify “never ever” do not allow animals that have ever been treated. All farmers treat sick animals; there is no production method that condemns an animal to suffering when there is a method to treat it. However, if treated, with the “never ever” protocol, the animal must be marketed through a different outlet. Some natural protocols further prescribe the diet such as no waste products from the human food chain (bread, doughnuts), and animal byproducts.


This protocol takes the Natural claim of no antibiotics or added hormones and restricts how the feed is produced. As with Conventional and Natural protocols, cattle can be finished on grain or grass. However, no feeds are allowed that have been produced with the aid of manmade chemicals (fertilizer, pesticides). A further restriction is the use of genetically engineered feeds (GMOs).

To simplify the very confusing array of production protocols, see table below.

Grass finished

There is no longer a USDA certified label for grass (forage) fed livestock. However, the specifications of the protocol were that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Animals are not to be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The USDA Standard did not specify production methods, so feed delivered antibiotics and growth promoting hormones could be used. However, this is not typical for most grass-fed programs.

In addition to diet and technologies, many markets now require certification on animal housing and handling. I’ve listed a few of the more prominent programs:

Finally, some markets require evidence of environmental stewardship. This is accomplished most often by writing a conservation plan with the USDA National Resource and Conservation Service.

You’ve heard it many times: you represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. There are many organizations that would like animal production to go away completely. Do not give them the ammunition they need by fighting among yourselves regarding who has the only product that is safe and tastes good.