No farm is complete without cows, don’t you think? It’s like the song says, Where are the cows? There ought to be cows. Send in the cows. Or something like that. Luckily for us, Farmer Ted agrees. So throughout the year around the farm we have been treated to the sight of heritage Wye cattle and the extremely cute (and don’t they know it!) Belted Galloways (or “Belties” as they are affectionately known in the industry). Just don’t call them Oreo cows. These gentle, grazing creatures want nothing to do with the processed food conglomerate, Nabisco (a subsidiary of Kraft.) Red Devons round out the herd.
What’s so special about these kinds? Well, they are medium-sized breeds that rate high in consumer taste tests. And they are the kinds that can grow to market weight on a diet of grass alone within a time frame that makes the farmer and the consumer happy. Farmer Ted and his ilk pay a lot of attention to the quality and quantity of grass available to their herds, because that affects the quality of the meat, as well as the efficiency of the weight gain of the herd. Walk the pasture with Farmer Ted and he can identify at least a dozen if not more kinds of grasses in there at any given time, from alfalfa to fescue to rye.
We all know by now, because we’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma and seen Food, Inc., or The Future of Food or Fast Food Nation, that bovines are exquisitely adapted by nature to turn grass into protein and get sick when they are forced to eat grain, and make us sick too when we eat them. Oh, you haven’t read the book or seen the films? Then do yourself a favor and at least watch a 10-minute really cool cartoon packed with information on the meat we eat that may possibly change the way you eat, if it isn’t changed already. It’s called “The Meatrix.”
Back to bovines. What they’re not exquisitely adapted to do is to be transported long distances (sometimes days) packed into trucks without food or water, and unloaded into a CAFO to learn how to eat grain, a substance their stomachs can’t, well, stomach. The lot they stand around in is thick with manure. So thick it coats their legs and bellies in many instances. Combined with their ill-health due to their over-acidic, grain-filled bellies, their E-coli counts soar. So they’re given antibiotics along with their grain. All that manure (and the antibiotics it contains) makes for a rather cumbersome waste disposal issue, and is often handled in ways that pollute the air and water.
In short, that beef you buy at the supermarket, while seemingly cheap, has many hidden costs. Not to mention artery-clogging fat.
Luckily for us, people are catching on to the whole cows and corn and feedlots thing and wanting a healthier choice, one which farmers like Ted are stepping up to provide. Here are just a few of the benefits of Grass-fed beef:
- Healthy omega-3 fats: Grass-fed beef contains WAY more healthy omega-3 fats, and way less omega-6 fats, helping you maintain a healthy ratio of these essential fatty acids. In fact, next to oily fish, grass-fed contains the most omega-3s of any animal product.
- Cancer-fighting CLA:Grass-fed beef is full of health-promoting conjugated linolenic acids (CLA.) The stomachs of grain-fed cattle are too acidic to make it.
- Less disease risk:Unlike their grain-fed, industrial-raised counterparts, grass-fed cows don’t eat animal by-products, take steroids, growth hormones, or unnecessary antibiotics, and their insides aren’t friendly to E-coli. It’s safer for everyone that way.
- Better for the environment: Small farmers raising grass-fed beef cattle don’t have a “waste management” problem the way concentrated feedlots do. Their animal help keep the land fertile, period.
Unfortunately, the marketing industry terminology has not quite gotten ironed out and consumers seeking a “Grass-Fed” beef product are subject to an array of terms that can be quite confusing. Almost as confusing as trying to buy free-range eggs.
There’s “range-raised,” “grass-fed,” “pasture-grazed,” and “grass-finished.” And some packages brag about the beef being “corn-fed,” linking their product to visions of strapping young chiseled men and rosy-cheeked girls from Iowa.
Don’t be fooled. Be the discerning, educated consumer. Know that virtually ALL cattle are, in fact, out in the grass, enjoying fresh air and sunshine and food they are designed by nature to eat for the first months of their lives. So, in the absence of clear labeling terminology guidelines, some unscrupulous types are trying to get in on the grass-fed premium prices by claiming their CAFO beef is, after all, “grass-fed,” even if it was a long long time ago in a land far away for just a few months.
Luckily for us, for the most part, grass-fed refers to animals that remain on pasture their entire lives, and never step foot into a CAFO. Here’s where it gets tricky again. Some farmers, in attempt to get their beeves to market weight in a timely manner, and/or to ensure adequate marbling of the beef if they don’t have faith in the breed or the quality of their pasture to produce a delicious beef, supplement the diet of their herd with grain. The cattle are still on pasture, but have access to some grain and/or legume-based feed. The resulting beef is still healthier than industrial meat, but not quite as healthy as beef that comes from grass-finished beeves.
Aha. There’s a term that IS well-defined. If you see beef that is grass-finished, this means it comes from cattle that have been out on pasture, and eaten only grass (hay included), their entire lives.
So the next time you sit down to that grass-finished beef dinner, consider how awesome it is that you can get healthy protein from grass, thanks to the formidable creatures called bovines.