Food that is “humanely raised” is in high demand, according to recent literature from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services. The publication reported that 51 percent of consumers indicate that humanely raised food is important or very important when weighing purchasing decisions. The report also found that 68 percent of respondents want to learn how farmers maintain animals while they’re being raised.
Concerns for humanely raised food were more important than food that was fair trade or organic, among other specialty claims. This report also noted that humanely raised products, including meat, could garner at least 10 percent, potentially more, in spending from consumers.
Current state of beef production
Including calves meant for veal production and the 10 million used for milk production, Colt W. Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor of Extension and state livestock specialist at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, said that although there are 90 million cattle in the United States, “Only about 28 to 29 million are slaughtered a year for beef.” Beginning with “cow-calf operations,” as Knight said, the standard method of beef production consists of raising cows and their birthed calves until each calf is approximately 400 pounds. Then he explained the rest of a cattle’s pre-slaughter lifetime.
“[In] a stocker operation, in states where they have a surplus of grass or forage, these animals go there and live off eating that surplus grass until they’re old enough to go into a feedlot operation. Or they go into a background facility, which is a mix between stockers and getting them ready to go into the feedlot,” Knight said. “The cattle will actually get fed grain, but more forage than grain [and] when animals are about a year old, they’ll enter into a feedlot. That’s where we feed more grain and feed the animals until they’re about 1,300 or 1,400 pounds, and then they’re slaughtered at about 18 months old.”
Why the demand for humanely raised beef
With many people unfamiliar with the farm-to-table process of raising cattle, people don’t necessarily know what happens before their meat reaches the supermarket. This lack of knowledge combines with documentaries and animal welfare groups issuing content that raises concerns, as Knight mentioned, “Some of [which] are legitimate and some are sensationalized.”
With grass-fed beef seeing more interest, especially in Maine, this could present beef livestock owners with an opportunity to help qualify for humane certification because some humane certification programs mandate animals are pasture-raised, not relegated to a feedlot. Obtaining humane beef certification may be an option that could reach another consumer segment.
Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World and who speaks on behalf of the Animal Welfare Approved certifying organization, stated that a farm audit or plant review is a straightforward process; it’s just an evaluation of the operation’s compliance with AWA’s published standards.
“The auditor inspects all aspects of the farm, including the land, animals, shelter, feed, supplements, pest control, transport equipment and records,” he said. “We are a farming-based program driven by practical science and grounded in the everyday reality of farm life. We also recognize that each farmer is the expert on their own farm. With that understanding we don’t tell farms how to meet our standards, we just verify whether they are meeting them. All of our audits are confidential and participation in the program is voluntary.”
Gunther noted that his organization works with farmers and ranchers across the U.S. and Canada with a focus on the independent farmer.
“At the end of the day, they are a farmer who has to make a living from farming,” he said. “We require the animals to be on pasture and range. We allow very few alterations to the animal and we prohibit castration beyond a certain age. It’s very animal centered. As part of that you then have some environmental outcomes in terms of making sure we don’t use herbicides and chemicals.”
Steps for certification
As part of the application and auditing process, Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the Green Mountain College Farm & Food Project and professor of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, highlighted criteria that is part of the processes to become certified.
Examples of anatomical modifications
When it comes to “the disbudding or dehorning,” as Ackerman-Leist said, guidelines exist within different organizations. For example, with Animal Welfare Approved Standards, hot iron cauterization is permitted for disbudding only, but only up to the first two months of a calf’s life. Anesthetizing agents must also be applied to the impacted areas, per AWA’s requirements.
Ackerman-Leist also cautioned farmers to be aware of an organization’s specific castration guidelines.
“Castration starts to bring in similar types of questions as to when that’s allowed. That varies in terms of how highly regulated the castration is in terms of timing and process.”
AWA forbids the use of manmade or natural chemical castration or testosterone blocking methods, including interfering with natural immune system responses to induce castration. Ring or rubber band castration is not allowed for calves after they are 7 days old. Burdizzo castration and scalpel methods are not allowed on calves older than two months.
“At the same time we’re probably looking at where the animals will be slaughtered and looking at sending somebody to the slaughter plant to make sure everything [that] goes on at the slaughter plant is [in] compliance with our standards,” Gunther said.
If certification is being considered, Ackerman-Leist suggests looking at your farm’s infrastructure and feeding routine because it directly impacts animal management and therefore certification.
Ackerman-Leist discussed how confinement impacts cattle and how that must be considered for certification, which varies depending on the individual certifying agency.
“I think that most of us agree that it’s an issue of confinement. Confinement has several different issues that are important to consider. One is the comfort of the animal and its ability to get out and move around,” Ackerman-Leist said.
Management concerns Ackerman-Leist raised include if cattle come back to or are left in the same place. Without adequate consideration, fecal matter can build up and may become pervasive in the environment, including the feed. Disease issues may arise, which can call into question use of antibiotics.
With confinement normally requiring feed brought to the animal, it can impact the animal’s health. Because those on pasture are naturally able to exercise more, it also increases the “disbursal rate” of fecal matter and urine. This lowers the risk of potential diseases, chiefly parasites, reducing the risk of cattle becoming sick.
Although each certification organization has their unique standards, Ackerman-Leist also pointed out that the “distinguishing factor is access to pasture, sometimes that’s defined as DMI or dry matter intake,” such as with the 2011 USDA/Organic standards stipulating 30 percent of DMI originating from pasture. He continues to explain how seasonality impacts regional requirements.
“That becomes a seasonal question as to how far you can stretch that out. When you look at the different standards,” Ackerman-Leist explained, “it typically jibes with the amount of time that it’s reasonable to have animals out on pasture. That might be as little as 120 days in certain environments or as much as 365 days in other environments.”
Of all the factors, he puts great emphasis on the feeding pattern, and asks how the farmer is managing their pasture.
AWA standards necessitate “continuous outdoor pasture access for all beef cattle.”
Additionally, although a rotational approach is the preferred method for beef cattle to range upon, it’s not the only acceptable manner, as long as there’s an acceptable alternative that still provides that a “goal of high welfare is not jeopardized” per AWA’s standards.
Along with pasture activities not removing more than 20 percent of the area, there are limited exceptions to the pasture requirements. Examples include if pasture is subject to snow cover or weather or safety considerations. Documented in writing through an “animal management” plan, farmers must list what environmental factors prompted the removal, the space used in accordance with AWA’s guidelines and what factors will permit animals back on pasture for any scheduled off-pasture housing or for unscheduled removals from pasture beyond 28 days.
When it comes to nutritional requirements, as Knight noted, becoming humanely certified may entail a prohibition on using “growth promotants,” which includes hormone implants or certain antibiotics, like Rumensin. In contrast to meat sales, regardless of the type of meat and the type and frequency of growth promotants, generally speaking, there’s a required time frame for all animals slaughtered to have either substance withheld before they are slated for slaughter. Knight explained, “The withdrawal period is there so that they naturally clear out from their system.”
Benefits for producers of humanely raised beef
Ackerman-Leist said this type of certification can help a producer set their operation apart.
“There are more small- to medium-scale producers, along with large-scale producers. For those of us who are small to mid-scale, there are more and more around, which is a promising thing. [However], it means that whereas we’ve had to differentiate ourselves in the larger market place, we’re also having to differentiate ourselves from one another, even within our own communities.”
Impacts of a stressful environment, as Knight explained, can impact an animal’s immune system, making it function suboptimally, increasing the chances of an infection. It can also reduce the quality of a slaughtered animal or as he puts it, “treating your animals better translates into a better product.”
How treatment negatively impacts beef cattle
Knight noted that another benefit of humanely raised beef is increased marketability to slaughterhouses and processing facilities. He explained that slaughterhouses and processing plants look at every carcass to determine its characteristics. Naturally, better carcasses command better prices and incentivize an ongoing relationship for future purchases. As Knight said, “From a production standpoint, humanely raised animals provide better carcasses, and better carcasses sell better.”
“Sustainability is an outcome of place. It’s not necessarily an outcome of system,” Gunther said. “If you take care of the animal, you take care of the land and you take care of your local community and the consumer, you’ll have a truly sustainable product.”
Read more: What Do Beef Labels Mean?