Production Systems

Compare Organic and All Natural Beef Programs


Overview of Beef Production Systems

Cattle in the United States are produced under three management systems.  The standard for years has been conventional production.  More recently, however, in response to consumer demand, two other production systems have evolved.  These are the “Natural” and “Organic” production systems.  The following describes each of these types of production systems and compares the requirements of each.

Conventional Beef Production

Conventional production is exactly what the name implies – it is the conventional means by which cattle have been produced in the United States for years.  It also accounts for the vast majority of beef production. Conventional methods allow for the use of all approved nutritional and health products that are available in the market.  These include vaccines and antibiotics, both injected and fed, for the mediation of health challenges the animal may encounter.  Some of these products are known to improve production and weight gain performance, while others improve reproductive performance.  Still other approved products include growth promotants that are hormonally based and have been shown to increase weight gain at a given feeding level and are known to promote lean tissue development (muscling) in favor of fat.  For the most part, these products are all available to the cattle owner and manager for use in their program and promote healthy, efficient animal growth and performance.   There are no perfect programs, and the guidelines are basic and largely dictated by market economics.

Beginning with the cow-calf producer, calves are produced on pasture or in range environments where the primary nutrient source for the cows, and subsequently the calves, is forage.  Well-managed programs target producing a weaned calf per cow once a year.  The efficiencies of this production system are seldom 100% given the large number of variables that can affect this biological system.  Nutrition is by far the greatest variable, particularly in terms of the nutrients required by the cow and produced by the forage base.  The forage base, in turn, is dependent on moisture conditions and soil fertility.  The next great variable is management.  And while management can affect soil fertility to a degree, as well as supplemental nutrition, it has no affect on the environment (i.e. rainfall and temperature).

Once the calf is weaned from the cow, it may go one of several places.  The possibilities include a:

1)   Stocker or Grazing Operation – in this case, the weaned calves go from the cow/calf phase to a grazing phase where the cattle grow to a larger weight by predominantly consuming pasture or forage.  These gains are typically fairly low cost.  This is primarily due to the low cost of pasture establishment as well as the inherent efficiency found in these lighter weight cattle.  Properly managed, these post-weaned cattle, beginning at around 550 to 600 lbs., can gain 2.0+ lbs. per day on pasture and forage as long as it is of reasonable quality and their nutrient needs are met for that rate of gain.  This may require some degree of supplementation.

2)   Preconditioning/Backgrounding/Growing Operation – this is a form of a feedyard where the cattle come in after weaning and are fed a higher forage ration for a period of time or until they grow to a target weight.  The gains achieved on this type of operation are higher and generally more expensive.  The production level can be more consistent since the nutrient intake is not dependent on the growing forage supply.

3)   Feedyard – under certain circumstances, weaned cattle may go straight to a feedyard.  This may be market driven due to a lack of cattle, lack of forage availability, or low costs of feed sources.  The early phases of this scenario are like that listed in No. 2 above for a period of time.  Cattle will be grown on a higher fiber, lower energy feed for a longer period of time until they reach a target frame size and weight.  At this point, they will be fed a high energy, high grain ration that will increase muscle and fat mass.  Once these cattle are “finished”, they are sent on to a processor for “harvest”.

After a growing phase, the cattle are in most cases sent on to a feedyard as described in No. 3.  Cattle in the feedyard are fed a high grain, high energy ration where rates of gain are much higher and cattle are fattened.  This is a very technical phase with rations carefully formulated and feed intake carefully monitored to insure cattle are performing as efficiently as possible.  In general, profit margins are very tight and can vary widely depending on a large number of factors.

In the growing and stocker phases, health management is critical because cattle are commonly combined from a variety of sources, thus being introduced to numerous pathogenic sources for which they may have no immunity.  They also can undergo stress due to handling, processing and transportation.  Because of this, special management steps must be taken to enhance immunity, reduce stress effects, or provide vaccines and antibiotics to help overcome these challenges.

This production system is still by far the most common in the United States today.  While many components of this system are under scrutiny by the marketplace and regulators, it looks to remain the standard for years to come.

All Natural Beef Production

In defining beef, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) refers to “natural” as a product containing no artificial ingredients or added color, and that is only minimally processed.  This focuses strictly on post-harvest processing and does not guarantee the animal has never received hormone and/or antibiotic treatment. It is primarily focused on the cattle growing and finishing phases.  In general, the USDA does not provide extensive guidelines in defining the parameters of natural beef production.  The definitions come more from the various natural beef programs that producers may participate in for marketing purposes.  For the most part, natural programs restrict the use of antibiotics and growth promotants (hormone based) in the production of the cattle that are enrolled in their program.  They may also have requirements concerning breeds as well as carcass quality.  Once the cattle are harvested and the meat labeled, the various programs provide an indication to the consumer of these limitations.  Some label claims on natural products say more.  These claims, which describe a verified process that must be documented, are specific to the particular companies.

The standard in the industry, however, has become “never-ever.”  Never-ever programs not only prohibit the use of antibiotics (therapeutic and feed grade) and hormones, but they also prohibit ionophores and animal by-products throughout the life of the animal.  However, there is considerable variation, even in the never-ever programs.  The Natural Beef Industry possesses more ambiguity than the other two programs.  Industry programs may prohibit these products throughout the life of the animal, prohibit during the finishing phase, or allow production of a minimally processed product with no artificial ingredients.   Since voluntary claims and statements are so variable, the USDA has moved to definitively classify “naturally raised” to improve clarity in the marketplace and to ensure consumers’ interests are better protected.  “Naturally raised” pertains to how cattle are managed.  These management strategies are defined by companies that have process-verified programs by the American Marketing Service.

Producers must be aware that some performance is lost when products like implants and medicated feed additives are not used.  Production costs are usually higher for natural beef.  Understanding those extra costs is critical to making sound decisions about producing cattle in a natural beef program.

The natural beef market has developed into a legitimate marketing option with incentives attractive enough to justify consideration. Generally, “certified natural” cattle have received premiums ranging between $0.25 to $15.75 per cwt on a live-animal basis. This variation is likely due to the absence of an official, standardized definition for cattle that are naturally produced. The average premium being offered by marketing companies is $5.79 per cwt, while feedyards are paying $4.76 per cwt. Although the increase in selling price is considered a “premium,” often this premium is necessary to offset losses in productivity associated with required management practices to produce natural beef. In some cases, these premiums have been consistent and high enough to exceed losses in productivity, causing cattle producers to take notice. As the consumer market increases demand for products of this nature, the premiums will also increase.

Before a cattle producer participates in a natural beef program, it’s important to have an understanding of the natural beef requirements for the branded program they are interested in. Numerous natural beef programs are in existence, each with its own set of production requirements. Natural programs are very different from organic programs in several ways. Although a natural beef program may qualify for USDA process verification, such programs are actually administered and regulated by the company or organization that owns the brand name, not the USDA. Natural beef is produced to fit into a specific branded beef program, and therefore, the owner of the brand sets the requirements and is responsible for regulating compliance. This makes the natural beef program’s integrity extremely important.

To use the term “natural” on a food label, the USDA requires only three simple things: (1) the product must be minimally processed, (2) the product cannot contain any artificial ingredients and (3) the product cannot contain any preservatives. The USDA has no specific restriction on management practices during the life of the animal.

The comparison diagram at the top of the page lists the general production and certification requirements for a natural beef program. If a beef producer is considering a natural beef program, it is advisable that specific program requirements be reviewed. For example, some natural beef programs only restrict antibiotic and implant use during the last 100 to 120 days prior to harvest. Again, the exact system used is dependent on the program the producer participates in.

Organic Beef Production

Consumers purchasing beef labeled as “organic” can assume that the product has come from a source that has never received hormones or antibiotics for any reason.  The USDA has a program called the National Organic Program (NOP) and certifies agents that subsequently can certify producers to follow the livestock production and handling standards set by the NOP.  Cattle for slaughter must be raised under strict organic management from the last third of gestation.  Producers are required to feed products—including pastures—that are 100% organic, but they may provide vitamin and mineral supplements allowed by the NOP.  Organically-raised cattle may not be given hormones, ionophores, or antibiotics for any reason.  Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, to keep cattle healthy are allowed, and producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from sick or injured cattle.  However, cattle treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.  The parameters of organic production are much stricter and require detailed record keeping.  All organically raised cattle must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture. Cattle may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled “organic” must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made from synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, or bio engineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified. Farms and handling operations that sell less than $5,000 per year are not required to be certified by the USDA. Although exempt from certification, these producers and handlers must abide by the national standards for organic products and may label their products as organic. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled and processed.

Along with the national organic standards, the USDA has developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. The USDA has developed a USDA Organic seal that tells the consumer that a product is at least 95 percent organic. Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free and natural, can still appear on food labels, but only certified organic food can use the USDA Organic seal. For more information on the USDA organic standards, go to

To produce, market, label or advertise beef using the term “organic,” producers and processing companies must each be certified by the USDA as organic producers. This is a highly involved process that requires tremendous time, effort and documentation. To qualify for an organic label, all USDA organic regulations must be met. Beef produced and sold as an organic product must be managed under an organic program from birth to harvest.

Here is a list of a few requirements necessary to be labeled organic:

  • Animals must be produced and processed by a USDA-certified organic farm and processor.
  • The animals must be free of any antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • The animals must be free of mammalian or poultry protein or by-products. Feed must not have been exposed to pesticides or fertilizers made from synthetic ingredients or bioengineering.
  • Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation.
  • Producers are required to feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • In order to produce 100 percent organic feed, the land must have no prohibited substance applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients must be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotation and cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.
  • Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a producer may use nonorganic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions.
  • Crop pests, weeds and disease must be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls and grazing. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
  • Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, must be used to keep animals healthy.
  • Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.
  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production, inclement weather or to protect soil or water quality. Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited.
  • Livestock used as breeder stock may be brought from a nonorganic operation onto an organic operation at any time provided that, if the offspring are to be raised as organic livestock, the breeder stock must be brought onto the facility no later than the last third of gestation.
  • Livestock or edible livestock products that are removed from an organic operation and subsequently managed on a nonorganic operation may not be sold, labeled or represented as organically produced.
  • Breeder stock that has not been under continuous organic management since the last third of gestation may not be sold, labeled or represented as organic slaughter stock.
  • The producer of an organic livestock operation must maintain records sufficient to preserve the identity of all organically managed animals and edible and nonedible animal products produced on the operation.
  • The producer of an organic operation must not feed rations containing urea or manure.
  • The producer of an organic operation can perform physical alterations as needed to promote the animal’s welfare in a manner that minimizes pain and stress.
  • Manure must be managed in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, heavy metal or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients, and the producer must manage pastures and other outdoor areas in a manner that does not put soil or water quality at risk.
  • Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
  • All nonagricultural ingredients, whether synthetic or nonsynthetic, must be included on the National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances. Handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with nonorganic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances. In a processed product labeled as “organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be organically produced, unless the ingredient(s) is not commercially available in organic form.

Obviously the differences between the three production systems are considerable.  Producers should carefully evaluate each of these beef programs to determine which best fits their interests and goals.  Opportunities exist under each program and should be weighed carefully.