Where’s the beef? Here in the Corn State

BY KIF RICHMANN | JUNE 29, 2009 7:21 AM

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Brady McDonald said he can often be found slicing cuts of Iowa-raised beef into steaks and fillets in a restaurant kitchen, some of which might end up on the table during Sunday night’s dinner rush.

McDonald, who works for Atlas Restaurant, 127 Iowa Ave., said the restaurant serves primarily Iowa beef from within a 30-mile radius.

And even outside that 30-mile radius across Iowa, the beef industry has become a $5.1 billion contributor to the state economy. Iowa producers raise about 4 million head of beef cattle per year, ranking seventh in the nation in production of beef cows.

That large volume could be due to Iowa’s famous crops of corn and other grains that feed the animals.

“We have definite feed-cost advantages due to the fact that we raise feed grains here in the state,” said Bruce Bervin, the executive vice president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

Tom Hotz, who raises around 300 head of grain-fed cattle outside of Lone Tree, said the cattle industry is an important part of the Iowa economy.

“There are a lot of jobs related to the cattle industry,’’ he said. Those jobs include distributors, meat packers, and sales associates.

Grain-fed beef is not the only option for cattle producers in Iowa. And the state also has advantages in the grass-fed cattle market — it takes relatively few acres to raise a healthy cow in Iowa compared with other beef-producing states.

That’s thanks to the state’s environment and rich soil, which produce a lot of grass for the animals to graze on.

Nick Wallace, a co-owner of Wallace Farms, west of Cedar Rapids, raises 100 percent grass-fed beef.

For his 20 cow-calf pairs, it takes around one acre of pasture — an area slightly smaller than a football field — to feed his entire cattle herd each day.

Among his 160 acres, half are dedicated to cattle pasture. He rotates his cattle around the pastures, giving them one acre a day to feed on. He referred to this practice as “mob grazing,” and it replicates how buffalo fed on the prairies: hitting one small area hard and moving on, allowing the grazed area to recover.

It’s also cheaper to feed cattle in Iowa during the winter. Corn producers have a readily available source of feed: corn stalks. Wallace said many cattle producers graze their livestock on what’s left over from the summer growing season during the winter months.

Despite the many advantages, Iowa cattle producers face a few distinct challenges, such as trying to mitigate the environmental effects of runoff from cattle lots and grazing areas, an important issue for cattle producers.

Techniques to reduce the effect of cattle include limiting cows access to bodies of water and diverting feedlot water from streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes.

Wallace, who also raises sheep and has raised poultry in the past, said he is not deterred by the challenges of raising cattle.

“We like working with animals,” he said.

But although it is relatively more efficient to raise beef in Iowa, the cost overall to consumers is not necessarily lower. It depends on many factors including quality of the meat and quantity of the purchase.

McDonald said Atlas can save money by ordering large cuts of meat — essentially buying in bulk. But the hormone-free and organic beef at Atlas is the highest part of the restaurant’s food cost.

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