- With the suet feeding season upon us, I thought I would provide some real hard
experiences in the types of suet out there available for wild birds. A very long post
and more than you probably wanted to know about suet. But I think it clarifies some
of the issues out there.
I am hoping there are some birders that are cattle folks here. But not TOO BIG of
cattle folks because I want to stay clear of beef politics - though I am sure I am
going to stir up the beef industry in presenting this info to the general public. Note
that all of the information here is from my personal experience in working with beef
products. So for legal reasons, I should say this is all conjecture - based on my
observations rather than formal studies funded by the beef industry or the USDA. I
would suggest that my observations may be more valid.
I say it as I see it rather than 'political correctness' or monetary influence.
And I would also suggest that makes me a real cowboy too.
My goal here is not to cause problems with the beef industry. I am hoping to
confirm and possibly find some more answers in regards to suet products for birds.
Particularly from the smaller home cattle growers - those who grow their own beef.
I am about to add a whole lot of knowledge to the feeding of wild birds. Note that I
am a degreed ecologist (BS Range and Wildlife Habitat Mgt, Washington State
University) with a lot of knowledge and science in the raising of beef (the 'range'
management part of the degree).
For the last two years I have been comparing two kinds of beef kidney fat. Both are
the slabs of fat found under the kidneys. One is USDA choice fed beef. The other
grass fed home grown cattle processed through a custom meat shop. Note that I
live in a relatively small rural town and lots of folks here raise their own beef. What I
have found is that the differences in the fats are very evident. I want to share that
information with folks here for both comment and on behalf of the health of the birds
(and maybe some other creatures too). I have read a lot of confusing information
about hardness and softness of fats and this may clarify some of those issues. It
has to do with the type of beef you are working with. Not all beef is the same.
First, let me say right up front that I was certain to obtain the kidney fat slabs from
under the kidneys (inner cavity of the carcass) so I know I have the right type of
suet from both the USDA inspected shops and the custom beef shops. I also work a
little bit with the strap fat from the meat cuts. So I know the difference between the
two types of fat (actually there are many types of fats but these are the two main
ones). But... and this is a big BUT... the facilities differ from place to place and you
may find some overlap in the findings I am presenting here.
Note in particular that some USDA inspected plants do process some organic and
'grass fed' beef products. But generally, there are differences in the diets of the
majority of cattle processed through the two types of facilities. Let me explain the
difference between the two type of slaughter houses because it is of importance to
the birds - and certainly important to the economics and the politics in the beef
USDA inspected beef plants operate under the federal governments US Department
of Agriculture. USDA inspected beef can be sold retail to the public. They are
closely associated with the common slaughterhouses. They are also known as "Fed
Lots" you see on the highways in the west where the animals are all crowded into
one small area. The diets of such animals are intently controlled rather than finished
off free on the pasture (as is done on the typical home farm situation). The diets of
Fed Lot animals are strictly controlled. And it has an impact on the physical
characteristics of both the meat and the fats (flavor and physical nature of the
Custom Meat facilities are NOT USDA inspected. Let me qualify that. The plants
are inspected for cleanliness but the meat is not inspected for retail sales and
consumption to the general public. Only USDA inspected products can be sold to
the public. And nearly all of that goes through the large (and very politically
powerful) beef industry Fed Lots. That is the main economical difference between
the two facilities - Custom and USDA
If you raise your own beef, you typically call an onsite custom meat facility to kill,
butcher and cut and wrap the animal. You can eat the meat yourself but you cannot
sell it to others. Similarly, I can buy a LIVE cow from a farmer here and then call in
a custom slaughter to kill, cut and package the meat for me. That is the way you get
your own grass fed beef rather than the USDA inspected beef and avoid the fed
lots. And note, as far as I am aware, all of the reported mad cow incidents were
found at USDA inspected meat facilities (where they force feed non-plant materials
of high protien content). You would think the USDA would be more healthy, but that
is not necessarily the case.
Besides the economics, there is also a diet composition that is generally different
between the two USDA and non-USDA custom meat facilities. And it has a lot of
influence over the nature and health of the suet and fats that the animals produce.
And this is where I am sure most birders will find some very valuable information.
*** (Insert Heading Here): USDA Inspected Beef Slaughter Facilities and USDA
Inspected Beef Suet
USDA inspected prime beef tastes good because of the type of feed and the length
of time that feed is fed to the animals. And I have to admit it is most excellent in
flavor. And both the flavor and the physical nature of the beef products are a direct
result of the type of feeds that are control-fed to the animals.
I say control-fed because the whole purpose of the feed lots is to put certain foods
into the animals to control the flavor and physical characteristics of the meat that is
produced. One issue is the marbling of the meat. Another that is not typically
noticed is the color of both the meat and the fat.
If you saw yellowish meat fat
trimmings (from grass feed beef) on that stake in the store, you would not buy it.
The general public associates white with good. You expect it to be as white as
possible. But this is more of a psychological thing rather than a health issue. White
is a great color when it comes to the product and sales of just about any product
and it is true for meat too. The same is true with the red dyes used on the meat in
most supermarkets to make it look more "appealing". I will explain the difference in
color between grass fed and silage fed beef fat a bit more below.
USDA inspected beef typically go through a "feed lot". Feed Lots are facilities used
to control the diets of the cattle. They are not on green pasture and the animals are
concentrated in one small area where their diets and feed can be controlled. In
essence, the cattle are force fed. They are fed various foods in those lots. Potatoes,
various grains and corn silage. Corn silage is, in essence, corn that has fermented
(or rotted) and more easily digested by the cattle. The silage can contain both grain
as well as green plant materials all of which are generally high in vegetable protein
And then there is the issue of mad cow disease and force feeding of non-plant
materials to cattle (blood products, bone meal, etc). But that is another issue I will
not go into here. Let it suffice to say that most home farms do not feed dead animal
products to their cattle. That is the realm of the commercial retail USDA inspected
beef industry and I would suggest that is why mad cow disease is so closely
associated with USDA inspected beef facilities and fed lots. Such items fed to cows
certainly make for a more flavorful product (very high in protein) but I would suggest
it comes at a cost.
There are two issues here in feeding these animals. One is that the lower activity of
the animals crowded into those small corrals, together with feeds that have a higher
caloric content, results in the animals putting on lots of fat and weight gain (aka,
more money!). Grain is higher in calories than grass. And with the reduced activity,
the cattle put on tremendous weight gains. The ultimate goal is to create more fat or
"marbling" in the meat. The second issue is flavor. Grain and silage is added to the
feed mix and such beef just plain tastes better. But there are other issues at play
here too... and it involves the physical nature of the fats (color, melting point, etc).
Hold that thought for a minute...
Cattle have a different type of stomach than us humans... actually, they have more
than one stomach! And their digestive systems operate differently from humans. In
essence, cattle have a bunch of bacteria in their stomachs that digest the food for
them. In essence, a symbiotic relationship - the cattle bring in food for the bacteria
in their stomachs, the bacteria digest the food and create more bacteria, and then
the cattle digests the bacteria. Most higher animal forms cannot digest plant
materials directly, they can only deal with simple carbohydrates (sugars) and animal
based proteins. So when you eat beef, it is not the cows converting the grass into
human food. The cows are just a host to the bacteria - and it is the bacteria (not the
cow) that actually converts solar vegetable energy into human consumable foods.
Now that is oversimplification but it gives you a general idea of how ruminant
digestion works. The type of microflora (bacteria) in a cows stomach changes with
their diet. Certain kinds of bacteria are better at digesting grain and other types of
bacteria are better at digesting green leaves. Ultimately, this as well as some other
factors, result in a difference in flavor, color and physicial characteristics of both the
meat and the fats. Most folks who raise horses, cattle, etc know that a change in the
diet of the livestock can have very dramatic effects both to the health of the animal
and any final products that are produced.
OK, back to USDA inspected beef slaughter facitilites.
From what I gather from my sources, cattle are in the fed lots for 90-180 days on
these controlled diets. Because the animals are all in one place and the feed is
controlled, it is more economical to manage the animals. To give them antibiotics,
you just put it in the feed. You can't do that with the grass in a pasture. Nor do you
have to 'round up' the cattle. They are all right there in that one little area managed
intensly for the last few months of their lives.
*** (Insert Heading Here): Custom Beef Slaughter Facilities (meat is not inspected
and cannot be sold retail)
Home grown beef is usually just fed in the home pasture on grass and
supplemented with whole grains for 30-60 days before being slaughtered. Generally,
the cattle are left out on the pasture and the cattle are fed only those feeds they
would prefer over the pasture grasses. The animals get a choice - that is the
biggest difference. And so, they take that grain not as a complete diet but as a
supplement to the main normal diet of pasture grasses. So it is a supplemental thing
rather than a control-fed 100% change in diet. About the only thing they will take is
whole grains. Silage is not something you typically see on small home farms. So
the difference in the diet is significant as is the final product of meat and fats
produced by the animals.
Here is what I have found in regards to small farm and home grown beef that is
SUPPLEMENTED with grains on green pasture (ie, and generally no silage or
1) Fats and suet has a yellowish tint. The suet is not pure white. I suspect this is a
result of the green chlorophyll in the grasses. Green is not one of the three prime
colors (red, yellow and blue). The color green is a product of the two prime colors
yellow and blue. So the yellow is there in the chlorophyll. I am assuming the 'blue'
component is somehow removed by the normal diets of the animal. But again, this
is all conjecture.
2) Fats are softer. In my experience, the kidney fat is not as 'crystaline' nor is it as
hard as that of the (non organic, non grass fed) USDA inspected Fed Lot cattle.
Again, this may have to do with a very high grain diet, or at least some other
componenent in those fed lot diets.
3) Lower melting point. In my experience, the kidney fat of home grown pastured
cattle has a much lower melting point.
4) Also, it has been my experience that the suet smells much different when
rendered or cooked. The suet of home grown beef is not as 'sweet' smelling.
*** (Insert Heading Here): Going to the Birds
So, now, what does all of this have to say about feeding suet to wild birds?
Our perception of hard beef kidney fat as prime suet may be challenged. Certainly,
with a higher melting point, the USDA sources will hold up better in warm weather.
This implies that the home grown beef suet will go rancid quicker. And so, it is a
trade off, convenience for what may be a more healthy product for the birds. There
is another issue too. Some suet producers use a product called 'hard flake' that is
added to the suet to make it harder and increase the melting point. From what I
understand (and I have to be really careful here for political reasons), the 'flake' is a
byproduct of other fat industries, considered 'fat' or 'suet' and so it is not included
on the wild bird suet labeling. But I would suggest that if you added that 'flake' into
our edible products, you would have a LOT more hardening of the arteries and other
heart issues. In my opinion, what is not good for me is not good for the birds. But
that is a whole other issue that folks will have to research and I do not want to go off
on that tangent here.
Harder fats suggest a unhealthy product in regards to heart and 'hardened' arteries.
I am finding a significant difference here in the beef fats - their melting point. The
USDA beef kidney suet is rock hard at 70F. The non-USDA home grown beef
kidney suet is very soft at 70F. The USDA melts at something over 110F. The non-
USDA melts at about 90-100F. In essence, grass fed beef fats are midway in
'hardness' between vegetable oils and the very hard beef fats from USDA inspected
plants and Fed Lot situations.
Now, all of this is from my personal experience and one of the reasons I am posting
here. In particular, I am not suggesting that the bird suet products in our local store
should be based solely on the softness of the fat. There are other reasons for soft
fat including fats from other types of animals (sheep, goats, pigs, etc) as well as
other types of fat on the animal. Some of the meat strap fat on USDA inspected
beef products is softer than the kidney fat from the same animal. And so, you can't
really tell quality from the final bird suet products themselves. But I am suggesting
that the very hardest commercially available bird suet may not be the healthiest for
Now, don't take my word for it. It is a simple matter to go to a small rural community
and find a small farmer that raises grass fed beef. They cannot sell you the meat
directly (USDA forbids them from doing that), but they can sell you a live cow. I
believe you can also partner with other people so that you only have to pay for half
or a quarter of the beef. But the point is, you have to buy it live and arrange with the
farmer. And then you can call in a custom slaughter facility to come onsite to the
farm to kill, cut and wrap your meat. That is how it works though most folks in the
city are unaware of how to go about getting around the USDA and finding what
many consider the healthier beef products.
I am looking for confirmation from other birders who raise cattle in small farm
situations. And preferably from those who have a long history of posting on this list -
that is to distinguish any beef industry politics that might comment under the guise
of a new birding enthusiast or member of the list. In any event, please send me your
comments. I would welcome your thoughts, and not just small farmers. I would
welcome everyone's comments here. It is all part of my research.
Feel free to pass this on but please give me credit and retain all of the orginal
content as presented here. I really do not like bits and pieces being taken out of
context. I am not on Tweeters so feel free to post there. Thanks.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- Hi Ken,
It seems to me that there is a logical break between what is healthy for
birds and humans. Birds in general don't live nearly as long and hardening
of the arteries is probably not a consideration.
The more important question to me is if the suet has the needed fatty acids
and fat soluble vitamins needed by the birds. Since most of the suet eaters
at your feeder are naturally insect eaters, you would actually want to
compare your suet with insect fat to see if you are providing a good diet
Something that you may actually want to consider, if you are a hard-liner in
this area, is starting a meal worm culture. The adults are small beetles
that are generally harmless and easily cared for. The larvae are highly
prized by birds. In fact, if you are wanting to hand feed wild birds, they
make it much easier.
It seems to me that the data needed for this discussion is a comparison of
health in captive insect eaters given various types of suet, whether beef or
(as in a previous thread) vegetable fats. I'm not sure that type of
information is available even in zoo journals.
- We have raised beef for several years on a small farm.
What information are you looking for?
Do you need a source for natural suet?
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- Debie and others,
Would like to know if you (or any others here) have used the kidney fat from your
cattle for bird suet? In particular, I am looking for confirmation that the kidney suet
is softer than the traditional corporate USDA inspected beef suet. At about 75F the
fed lot (USDA) sources will be hard while the free range sources (aka, your cattle)
will be firm but not hard (not as soft as butter at room temperature but not as hard
as butter in the fridge either). Somewhere in between. Free pasture/range should
also be a bit yellower from the grass diet (vs grain, silage, and animal blood and
bone meal diets which tend to be whiter). I am looking to confirm that too. I have
checked with many sources now and we are finding that the free grass/pasture beef
(those raised on a small farm and not force fed controlled diets through the fed lots)
have softer fat tissues. I would like to confirm that with as many sources as
As for a source of natural suet, yes, send me a message privately. And anyone else
too that raises cattle on a smaller scale. I am staying away from the corporate beef
where we had the mad cow problems. I am staying with the small farms where the
beef is more isolated from the large corporate cattle issues, supplemented with
whole grain rather than force fed rotted silage, no hormones, and no animal based
feeds (blood and bone meal). In essence, I am looking for animals that have led a
good wholesome life on free range or large pasture without confinement or
mistreatment in fed lots. Better for the cows and better for the birds.
> We have raised beef for several years on a small farm.___________________________________________________________________
> What information are you looking for?
> Do you need a source for natural suet?
> Debie Brown
> [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
> Message: 2
> Date: Thu, 04 Nov 2004 13:08:39 -0800
> From: ken@...
> Subject: Re: Digest Number 1005
> Acid scarification helps break the dormancy of some native plant seeds. In
> it naturally has to the go through a digestive system. The main seed and embryolike
> have evolved to survive the digestive systems of animals including birds. This is
> common in berries. Birds are a natural transport system for native plants. Much
> pollen in bees.this
> An example is the human sludge buried in soil after treatment. They used to do
> up in the Omak area where we picked baby's breath in the summer back in the70's.
> The sludge was buried in rows and covered with bark. The baby's breath grewheat
> adjacent to those rows where there was moisture. But what was amazing was that
> you would find tomatoes, squash and other plants growing out in the desert where
> they buried the sludge. (the bark covering helped retain the moisture during the
> of summer).it
> In regards to the the smooth sumac, the birds eat it, carry it a distance, then poop
> out elsewhere. Since it has gone through the digestive system, it has received its___________________________________________________________________
> natural acid scarification that breaks the dormancy. The seed is still alive and then
> begins to grow. In any event, smooth sumac probably will not grow so well directly
> under feeder.
> I own a native plant business and supply seed to some of the largest native plant
> nurseries in the northwest. And the wild bird suet is an extension of that business.
> > Nice idea - native plant seeds. They will at least start growing under the
> > feeder. hehe
>Kenneth J. Boettger, Owner and General Manager
> Yahoo! Groups Links
All Green Thumbs
bimonthly: Native Plants & Wildlife, The PNW and the Inland Empire
- In a message dated 11/5/2004 8:43:40 AM Pacific Standard Time,
Would like to know if you (or any others here) have used the kidney fat from
cattle for bird suet? In particular, I am looking for confirmation that the
is softer than the traditional corporate USDA inspected beef suet. At about
fed lot (USDA) sources will be hard while the free range sources (aka, your
will be firm but not hard (not as soft as butter at room temperature but not
as butter in the fridge either). Somewhere in between
I have used it and it is just like you say " Somewhere in between"
Ours is pretty white- not yellow.
A good source for the suet-fat would be a slaughtering person. They will know
the better and smaller farms, too. I will ask ours if he can get some, if you
want me to. I'm pretty sure he just takes it to the rendering plant.
We just slaughtered ours a few weeks ago, but, I'll let you know next year,
if you still want some of ours. We usually have 5-7 steers.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]