Beef’s greatest talent is protein upcycling
Lacey Newlin, High Plains Journal (KS)
Jan 7, 2020
“There are some really highly educated people out there who are actively against the beef industry,” said Tryon Wickersham, associate professor of animal nutrition at Texas A&M University. “I don’t think there is going to be anything we can do to change that. I think they will be against everything we do, no matter how we do it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mount a defense or stop educating the consumers about the value we bring to their plates.”
Wickersham spoke recently at the Oklahoma State University Beef Conference in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in a presentation called “Beef’s job title.” He says beef’s job title is to be a protein upcycler, which means to improve the value of protein.
Wickersham says, on average, it takes 770 pounds of corn to get a beef animal ready for slaughter. Corn is the primary source of human edible protein, or HEP, we feed and the main competition for food sources between cattle and humans. HEP does not necessarily mean tasty protein, but it is protein a person could consume. For example, grass is a source of non-HEP. Soybean meal, though we would not want to consume it, is a great source of HEP. Some people challenge agriculture for raising corn-fed cattle and believe we should be feeding all that corn to humans.
“If we didn’t feed corn to cattle, we wouldn’t compete with humans for that much food,” he said. “To justify corn-fed beef, we have to be able to say it is a better use of corn to feed it to cattle instead of children.”
He says children are used in his model because they have high amino acid requirements and they grow rapidly. The 770 pounds of corn we normally feed to one beef animal would meet the indispensable amino acid requirements of three children, according to Wickersham. Indispensable amino acids must be consumed in a diet to meet your protein requirements. If a child does not consume them, growth will be stunted.
“We don’t think a lot about stunting in the United States, but it’s a real problem in the world,” Wickersham said. “The world is not deficient in calories, it’s deficient in protein and other micro-nutrients and beef happens to be a really good source of those things. If you want to be a vegetarian in the United States you can, and you can meet your requirements and not be deficient, but not everyone is in the United States.”
Wickersham says corn is also high in calories, so those children would have to consume a lot more calories to meet their amino acid needs. In fact, it would be essentially impossible for a child to eat enough corn to meet their requirements.
On the other hand, if we feed the corn to cattle, through the value of protein upcycling we could feed 17 children and easily meet their protein requirements by feeding that one beef animal the 770 pounds of corn. Furthermore, ruminants can utilize sources of biomass that other meat-producing animals, such as fish, pigs and chickens, cannot.
“We’re really dependent on ruminal microbes to convert low-quality sources of protein into a more valuable source of indispensable amino acids,” Wickersham said. “Our animals can eat things that those other animals can’t and convert them into steak.”
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