The science and the economics of beef

In Chapter Three of his book Wanted Dead & Alive: The Case for South Africa’s Cattle, Gregory Mthembu-Salter discussed the economics of industrial beef.
In Chapter Three of his book Wanted Dead & Alive: The Case for South Africa’s Cattle, Gregory Mthembu-Salter discussed the economics of industrial beef.
Image: Supplied

Karan Beef in Heidelberg, near Johannesburg, is the largest feedlot in Africa, supplying over a third of the national beef market.

The company, which was taken over by the Public Investment Corporation and Pelo Agricultural Ventures in October 2018 for R5.2 billion, has over 140 000 head of cattle and onsite facilities that slaughter 2 000 cattle and debone 120 tonnes of meat a day.

There was no grass here, just earthen fields, fences, food troughs, dust, the odd vehicle driving around, and thousands and thousands of cattle, standing around in the mud, looking bored, waiting for their next fix of feed.

A portly Afrikaans man from the company’s research and development department arrived to show me around in his bakkie. When he said ‘huge’ – one of his favourite words – he took his time. Huuuuuge.

‘In the old days, all the beef in South Africa was veld-fed. The cattle were slaughtered at three, four, even six years old. I remember as a young boy in the 1960s, the meat was tough, with yellow fat, and not so nice.’

In this man’s telling of it, a consumer revolt during the mid-1960s ended in the country increasingly turning away from the chewy meat of older cattle in favour of younger, more tender beef.

Agricultural researchers then found that for maximum tenderness, you need to slaughter cattle before their permanent teeth emerge, at about 12 to 14 months old. Of course, cattle that young still have a lot of growing to do.

Slaughtering them at that age means farmers – who get paid by the kilogram – miss out on revenue they would have received if they had waited for the animals to beef upsome more. And so South Africa’s feedlots were born.

‘You take a calf away from his mother at weaning and start feeding him high-density rations. You pen him, you put him in a feedlot. You will get faster growth and an animal with a better finish and you can slaughter him earlier. South African feedlots, though in general enthusiastic disciples of the American way, have never had the luxury of excess maize. The country is prone to drought and rarely generates massive, cut-price maize surpluses. So feedlots, though born of an American model, have adjusted.

Feedlot cattle here are fed ‘hominy chop’, a blend of by-products from the production of cottonseed, soy and maize meal that is not fit for human  consumption. The Karan Beef manager put it this way:  ‘For many years, people ate maize meal that was milled on farms. Every little dorpie had a mill. And they didn’t refine that maize. I can remember mealie pap from my young days and it is not like the pap you get today. There was way more of the grit of the maize they left in there. And then people didn’t want to eat the yellow mealie pap. No. It had to be white. So they started taking out the starch too, just refining it more and more. Now … where is all that by-product, what we call hominy chop, going to go? I will tell you … to our cattle.’

Feeding cattle hominy chop might be better than giving them straight maize, but the basic question remains: rather than giving over large tracts of land to grow maize, would South Africa’s limited agricultural land not be better used to produce a variety of crops to meet the country’s nutritional needs?

Feedlotted cattle also produce large amounts of manure. I had been expecting to find fetid piles of the stuff at Karan Beef, but when I got there, the farm didn’t smell much at all. This is because local small-scale farmers buy the manure, using it on their fields to enrich the soil.

Said the Karan Beef manager:  ‘If we go the first-world way and build a biogas plant like the Europeans want, and turn all our manure into energy, I dread to think of how these farmers will react. That really will create a huge stink.’

It seems an elegant, African solution to the problem, but it still leaves the question of methane – a potent greenhouse gas and contributor to climate breakdown. The methane emissions from mega-feedlots like Karan Beef are a major environmental hazard, and, I believe, constitute a powerful reason for doing away with feedlots altogether.

Despite their four stomachs, cattle struggle to digest grain, which is low in fibre compared to grass. Without enough fibre bulk to move things along, grain hangs around longer in the bovine digestive system, producing fermentation acids and generally making the animal susceptible to infection.

So what on earth are we doing taking them off grass and feeding them a grain-based diet? The feedlots’ answer is that the cattle get fatter more quickly. 

According to the Karan Beef manager: ‘As soon as you start pushing the envelope in terms of what the cattle eat, you start to get disorders. That is a major focus for us here … finding the precise point where you cannot cross. Because you need to maximise and you need to optimise …Lung infection is a major issue. Twenty percent of our cattle have it in winter, though it goes down in summer. But there is a big immunity challenge on the feedlot. We treat them and re-treat them with antibiotics, but they still get infected. It’s because the cattle are in such close contact with each other.’ 

Twenty percent of a herd with lung infections is huge. Huuuuuge. By way of comparison, one farmer with pasture-fed cattle I spoke to said a 1% sickness rate would be high for his herd.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this endless injection and re-injection of feedlotted cattle with antibiotics is hastening the emergence of mutated, drug-resistant microbacteria, which reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics for both livestock and people.

So much so, in fact, that in 2017 the WHO recommended that farmers stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.  Feedlot cattle are not just up to their horns in antibiotics.

They are also given synthetic growth hormones, implanted as slow-release pellets under the skin of the animal’s ear. And muscle growth enhancers. And ionophor, to improve the animals’ ability to absorb nutrients, which also acts as an antibiotic.

Even though the European Union has banned the use of some hormones, the manager was unapologetic: ‘We have no qualms about using these hormones. We know they are safe. All that stuff that your teenaged daughter will grow boobs this size and the boys’ testicles will shrink and all that shit … there is no clinical evidence. It is just impossible with the hormone dosages we work with. If you ate 75 kilos of our beef every day you would end up with the same level of hormones as are in your body already.’

He was thankful that the South African government took a more sympathetic stance: ‘In South Africa, our government has given us the leniency to use these products. We tend to follow the American FDA [Food and Drug Administration] system, rather than the European GAP [Good Agricultural Practices]. The difference is that FDA has ‘minimum levels’ for everything. There is always a minimum residue level that is acceptable. GAP has no [minimum] levels.’

The bottom line, said the manager, was that hormones put an extra 10% growth on cattle, which means feedlots can sell beef for a few rands less per kilo. Hormone-free beef would sell at a rate not many retailers are willing to pay because, the manager said, few South Africans care whether their beef has hormones or not.

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