Registered Dietitian and food writer from Stirlist, Amber, came out to my feedlot recently and shared one of my favorite meatball recipes on her blog. I was able to show her the feedlots, explain how we take care of our cattle, why we use vaccines and how many hormones are in beef vs. other foods (hint: see picture of M&M jars below!).
Most people end up getting out of Dodge, but last month I found myself spending the day in Dodge, Nebraska. I traveled to Dodge with my mini me (Kristen- my intern) and we had the opportunity to visit with Joan Ruskamp, a cattle feeder and farmer. I was really looking forward to spending the day with Joan so that I could see firsthand what a day in her life looks like. Joan grew up in Grand Island, NE and is a graduate of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture at Curtis in Veterinary Technology. Her role on the farm may have changed over the years, but she stays busy with bookwork, doctoring, processing and other duties around the farm. Joan enjoys being a CommonGround volunteer because it has given her the opportunity to chat with people who might not understand what life is like as a farmer and cattle feeder. Thanks to recent marketing campaigns by brands such as Chipotle, many consumers have questioned her farming practices. However, Joan loves to answer questions and she definitely helped shed some light on a few of the tough subjects she’s had to address the past few years. I think the biggest myths about cattle feeding is that the cows are crowded, “shot up” with hormones, given unnecessary antibiotics, and that the farmers mistreat the animals. What I saw on Joan’s farm that day was the complete opposite. I was surprised to see how much room the cattle had and I was really impressed with Joan’s knowledge about feeding, managing disease, and hormones. She also gave up some very valuable time to answer all my questions, which was very much appreciated. The photo below is the view from Joan’s front door. Do you think this looks like a factory farm?
It’s not quite a “factory farm,” is it? Joan prefers the term, “family farm” because the land was passed down by her husband’s family. In fact, all five of her children have helped around the farm over the years. I was really surprised to see how spread out the cattle were. I realize that I am not an expert in cattle, but I saw no signs of the cattle looking uncomfortable or crowded.
One of the most popular questions that Joan receives is about the amount of estrogen in beef. To help better illustrate the amount of estrogen in beef, Joan created a great visual teaching tool using jars of chocolate candies. The amount of candy represents the amount of estrogen present in eggs, peas, potatoes, and beef. I wasn’t able to capture the labels in this photo below, but the jar starting from the left represents 1 egg, then 1/2 cup peas, 1/2 cup potato, and then 1/4 pound of beef. Each candy represents 1 nanogram of estrogen, which is 1 billionth of a gram. (That’s a pretty small amount!)
1 egg = 993 nanograms of estrogen
1/2 cup peas:452 nanograms of estrogen
1/2 cup potatoes: 300 nanograms of estrogen
1/4 lb Beef: 1.7 nanograms of estrogen
So what do cows eat? You might have heard something about “grass fed” vs. “grain fed.” I think it’s important to mention that all cattle start out on grass, so you could say that all cattle is grass fed. However, “grass fed” implies that that cattle are not finished on the grain you see pictured below. The way Joan explained it to me is that the diet of grain and other nutrients better supports what the cattle are bred for and helps build muscle. The cows strictly fed grass their whole lives will not develop like those that are finished on grain. Joan said that one is not necessarily better or worse, but there is a difference in taste, quality, and price. If you want to eat beef that has only been fed grass it’s whole life, you can expect to pay more for it. The Ruskamps finish their cattle on a diet that consists of grain and other nutrients, and their diet is carefully monitored each day.
As far as antibiotic use, Joan says that they only use antibiotics when they need to treat a sick animal. The inhumane thing would be to not give the animal medicine to improve. It was also interesting to learn how treatments have changed over the years. They can give one treatment that can last 10 days, compared to many years ago farmers were giving higher doses for longer periods of time. Also, antibiotics are only administered in the neck region and not other areas of the body. Fascinating!
Read the rest of Amber’s blog here. Now, enjoy this recipe!
2 pounds lean ground beef (I recommend 93-95% lean)
1 cup water
1 package chicken stovetop stuffing
1 12 oz jar grape jelly
1 12 oz jar chile or chipotle sauce
Mix together beef, eggs, water, and stuffing mix. Portion meatballs into 1 or 2 oz portions. 2 oz portions will yield at least 2 dozen. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
While meatballs are baking, prepare the sauce, Over medium heat, mix together grape jelly and chipotle sauce. Bring sauce to a boil and then remove from heat.
Once meatballs are fully cooked, you can poor the sauce on top of the meatballs and then cook again for another 5 minutes. Or you can place meatballs in a crockpot, add the sauce, and cook on low heat until ready to serve.