Most dairy cattle eventually enter the beef market with cull cows being the primary source of the ground beef that's advertised as 90 percent lean (10 percent fat), University of Wisconsin-Madison department of animal science chairman Dan Schaefer said.
He spoke to more than 50 attendees at the Wisconsin Beef Council's 2013 Farm to Fork tour.
Of the nation's approximately 9 million dairy cows, about 3 million are culled for slaughter every year, Schaefer pointed out.
He also noted that Holstein breed steers provide about 10 percent of the fresh meat cuts in the country. The United States also has about 30 million beef breed cows with about 3 million of them being culled annually for slaughter, he added.
During the same tour, Wisconsin Beef Council director of nutrition Sarah Agena pointed out there are 29 possible cuts of lean beef that are ideal sources of protein. A majority of those cuts have "round" or "loin" as part of their name, she noted.
Lean beef cuts are the nutritional equivalent of chicken but they need to overcome "a bad rap" they have acquired if the serving size is more than three ounces, Agena remarked.
She noted lean beef cuts have 154 calories per three ounces and that, especially if eaten daily, those meats have benefits for heart health and for lowering bad cholesterol.
Schaefer explained that the mainstream beef sector has three common types of operations.
They are the cow/calf operations such as the Huth Polled Herefords farm that was visited during the tour.
There is also the beef calf raisers who feed the animals on forages and grasses after they have been weaned from their mother cows at about 7 months of age.
The last type is the feeding lot operators who feed the steers on rations of about 80 percent grains and 20 percent forages for 4-6 months until they reached slaughter weight at ages of 16-20 months, he indicated.
In that typical production realm, the cattle are provided with supplemental hormones such as estrogen to add muscle, to increase the efficiency of the rumen fermentation of feeds, and to quicken the growing rates, Schaefer stated.
He noted that the high portion of grain in the ration adds to the amount of fat on the meat.
But there they are alternate production methods, Schaefer observed. The most common one is raising the steers solely on grasses and legumes (grazing or fed as hay) although soyhulls are also an acceptable feed item, he noted.
Meats derived from grain-free or "grass-fed" production are significantly higher in the Omega 3 fatty acid and somewhat higher in Omega 6, Schaefer indicated.
He said it is appropriate to claim health benefits on that basis but added that to obtain such benefits a person would have to "eat a lot" of such meat. He suggested that eating fish is a better choice for obtaining those beneficial fatty acids.
Another variation is what is described as "natural" raising of cattle for beef, Schaefer continued. This means no supplemental hormones can be used and that no antibiotics can be administered either as an ingredient in feed or as treatment for a specific health problem.
A third provision is organic production, which has specific rules that parallel those of "natural" and exceed them in some respects.
In all situations, bovines (both beef and dairy breeds) perform an essential function by turning forages into meat and milk, Schaefer pointed out. As ruminants, they convert forages that humans cannot digest into what is digestible food for humans, he explained.
Whatever the production model or method, Wisconsin is well suited for growing beef animals because of the availability of both grasses and grains - both of which also rank near the top for soil conservation, Schaefer stressed.
He noted that many beef cows are raised on semi-arid ranges where grasses are sparse and grain production in the region is minimal.
The statistics for the Wisconsin beef sector, which are current as of Aug. 2011, might be somewhat surprising, according to the Wisconsin Beef Council. The state has some 14,000 farms with beef cattle (3,000 more than the number of licensed dairy herds) and has had a doubling since 1987 of the number of cattle on feed for finishing (250,000).
The state also ranks 12th among the states for that number, and is third within Wisconsin (after dairy and corn) for agricultural cash receipts and in the United States for its increase in beef cattle numbers - trailing only Nebraska and Washington.
Wisconsin's top 10 counties for beef cattle numbers are Grant, Iowa, Lafayette, Vernon, Monroe, Crawford, Sauk, Buffalo, St. Croix, and Marathon. For more information, check the Wisconsin Beef Information Center Web site at http:fyi.uwex.edu/wbic.