Last week, work took me on a trip to Phoenix to tour a cattle feedlot and ranch with a group of dietetic interns and the Arizona Beef Council. This is one of the exciting programs with my job where we help future dietitians learn more about how beef cattle are raised and the nutritional science of beef.
On this visit, we started the tour with a visit to Pinal Feeding Company. Established in 1959, the family-owned business has three feedlots with the capacity for 150,000 cattle at one time. The feedlot we visited is located in Maricopa, Arizona and feeds only Holstein cattle. So the views were acres and acres of black and white spots.
Most of the 40 people in our group had never visited a cattle feedlot or ranch before. This would be a new experience for them with many questions. The Holstein cattle in this feedlot are dairy cattle, a breed raised primarily for producing milk, but most all male calves are raised for beef – and Holstein beef can be good!
Cattle in the Feedlot
Most of these holsteins come from California or Arizona dairy farms. The calves are raised in a calf ranch – a farm that focuses specifically on raising and caring for young dairy calves. All of these cattle have an individual identification number. This means we can trace the animal from where it was born all the way through its life.
In the feedlot, cattle are grouped in large pens with shades that keep them cooler during hot Arizona summers. The pens are cleaned and maintained to make sure they remain dry. The cattle in the pictures are gathered at the feed bunk when we walked up, curious to see what we were up to. There is plenty of empty space in the pen behind them.
Cowboys will ride every pen every day to check every animal to make sure they are healthy and eating. Any animals that may be sick will go to see a veterinary crew who will determine if they need to be treated for illness. Respiratory problems or foot problems would be the most common illnesses.
What Feedlot Cattle Eat
The cattle in this feedlot always have feed available. Their diet is formulated by a cattle nutritionist who focuses specifically on what cattle need to be healthy. And the majority of that? CARBS! That’s what their body needs. They consume carbs (with ~7% protein requirement) to obtain everything they need. Their digestive system is very different from ours, so they’re able to utilize sugars from a number of plant sources.
Exactly what cattle eat depends on what is available locally for farmers and ranchers. Corn (pictured as corn flakes) is the most available source of energy that cattle love in the States.
Forages (grasses, alfalfa, wheat, corn stalks) make up a big portion of the cattle diet for their entire lives. Using the entire plant and leaves, we often ensile these to make the plants more digestible for cattle or deliver them dried as hay. This feedlot uses stalks of the corn plant dried and baled as hay.
Plant by-products are a huge way that cattle reduce our food waste by eating parts of plants after we extract nutrients we want that otherwise would end up in a landfill. Pictured is ethanol by-product – distillers grains. Others include cotton plant parts after we use fiber or oil, same for plants for soybeans, peanuts, vegetables, wheat, beets, etc.
This feedlot feeds and markets cattle as natural beef. So no antibiotics or other medications are included in the feed cattle eat.
There were many questions from the group of dietetic interns. It was cool to make the connection between human nutrition they study on a daily basis to the science of nutrition behind what cattle eat.
Arizona Cattle Ranch Visit
Our next stop was a ranch east of Phoenix, where families have been raising cattle since the mid-1800s. Ranching in the deserts of Arizona requires a lot of land due to low rainfall rates. Cattle can adapt to the hot, dry environment and eat a variety of plants on the range. One of the limiting factors for raising cattle in the desert is water. So ranchers will work to locate natural springs and reservoirs for cattle to drink.
This family ranch had just weaned its calves from their mothers after a summer of growing in the mountains. The calves that will not be kept to become future mother cows on the ranch will go to a feedlot in Oklahoma. It’s been very dry in Arizona this year. Even drier than a normal desert year and ranchers are hurting for water in the area.
The rancher spoke with our group of dietetic interns about his family’s history on the ranch. He spoke about each step in the process of raising cattle and what he does to make sure the beef from his cattle is high quality for everyone who eats it.
The group had several questions about the environment, sustainability, and making sure the cattle were treated well. Common questions that I have seen on every tour like this. It’s pretty cool to see the reactions to experience cattle, ranches, and feedlots for the first time.
Beef Nutrition Science
After we returned from the feedlot and ranch tour, the group learned about the nutrition of beef from a registered dietitian. Questions here often focus on protein, fat content and differences (or lack of) in nutrition resulting from how cattle are raised (i.e. grass-finished vs grain-finished).
My role in the training was to offer the dietetic interns the opportunity to learn about media interviews. We want these people, who have extensive training in the science of diets and nutrition, to successfully communicate their knowledge. In a time when so many people think they know about nutrition, it is important that the people who are credentialed and educated in this field of work be able to speak up and be heard using science as a basis for recommendations.
Many people are nervous when they get in front of the camera for a practice interview. Nearly everyone walks away with a smile having survived a round of questions. Our goal is to help them be more confident and prepared when the time comes to do a real media interview.
At the end of the day, I am very thankful for this opportunity to empower others to be stronger communicators. It is a pretty cool scene to watch people experience cattle and ranching for the first time. Hopefully, we always leave them with a positive feeling knowing more about how cattle are raised.
Now, for the tough part of work travel… I’d love to have a little more time to lace up my shoes and hit the desert trails for a few miles to explore this ranch country. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until I have a free weekend for a last minute trip!
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