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Suet Science

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  • ken@wildlanders.com
    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
    Message 1 of 5 , Nov 2 12:46 PM
      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
      industry.

      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
      products).

      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
      content.

      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
      non-plant feeds):

      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
      the birds.

      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.

      -Ken
      The Wildlander
      ken@...
      Ellensburg, WA




      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Ron McCluskey
      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
      Message 2 of 5 , Nov 2 2:27 PM
        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
        for them.

        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.

        Best wishes,
        Ron McCluskey
        Cheney, WA
      • Sturnella@aol.com
        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
        Message 3 of 5 , Nov 4 8:45 AM
          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]
        • ken@wildlanders.com
          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
          Message 4 of 5 , Nov 5 8:32 AM
            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
            possible.

            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.


            Ken
            ken@...




            > 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]
            >
            >
            >
            >
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            >
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            >
            > 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
            essence,
            > it naturally has to the go through a digestive system. The main seed and embryo
            > 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
            like
            > pollen in bees.
            >
            > An example is the human sludge buried in soil after treatment. They used to do
            this
            > up in the Omak area where we picked baby's breath in the summer back in the
            70's.
            > The sludge was buried in rows and covered with bark. The baby's breath grew
            > 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
            heat
            > of summer).
            >
            > In regards to the the smooth sumac, the birds eat it, carry it a distance, then poop
            it
            > 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.
            >
            > -Ken
            >
            >
            > > Nice idea - native plant seeds. They will at least start growing under the
            > > feeder. hehe
            > >
            >
            >
            >
            >
            >
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            Kenneth J. Boettger, Owner and General Manager
            Alpine WildSeed
            http://www.wildlanders.com/members/aws
            All Green Thumbs
            http://www.wildlanders.com/wildlanders/aaaasp/agt/agt.asp
            bimonthly: Native Plants & Wildlife, The PNW and the Inland Empire
            http://www.wildlanders.com/wildlanders/aaaasp/home/newsletter.asp
            ken@...
          • Sturnella@aol.com
            In a message dated 11/5/2004 8:43:40 AM Pacific Standard Time, ken@wildlanders.com writes: Would like to know if you (or any others here) have used the kidney
            Message 5 of 5 , Nov 5 2:57 PM
              In a message dated 11/5/2004 8:43:40 AM Pacific Standard Time,
              ken@... writes:
              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
              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.
              Debie


              [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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