Cows return to a low-carb diet
Grass-fed beef, though a newly growing trend, is a very old tradition
Dave and Sue Henthorn reach into a cooler labeled “grassfed beef” at the Saturday farmers market outside Whole Foods and pull out a deep red selection that’s vacuum-sealed in plastic.
Beef labeled “grass-fed” is turning up at natural foods and gourmet markets alongside organics offerings. Touted for its health, humane and environmental advantages, it’s one of the latest consumer niche markets, though its roots are as old as livestock production. It’s nothing new to the Henthorns, who’ve been buying it for the past four years from Tina and Jim Smith of Home Grown Nevada, who raise about 60 head of cattle on open pasture without the use of growth hormones, antibiotics or grain on their certified organic ranch in Wellington.
“It tastes like beef used to taste when were back in England,” says Dave. “Some things are worth paying for.”
As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, grass-fed beef means it’s produced from cows fed a diet of at least 99 percent grass and forage rather than grain. Other groups, such as the American Grassfed Association are pushing for stronger standards that would say grass-fed beef is not confined or treated with antibiotics or hormones.
After milk, all young cattle start life eating grass. In the years before World War II, that’s also how they ended it. However, post-war, industrial agriculture was interested in producing beef fast, cheap and plentifully. That’s when, after six to 12 months, cattle were led from pasture to the feedlot. There, they’d be fed grain until they reached a certain weight—something that happened quickly on their new, high-carb diet—before being taken to slaughter. Federal subsidies for corn made it easy. Beef became “what’s for dinner” rather than a rare treat. Grass-fed beef fans say this way of production has taken a toll on the health of people, cattle and the environment.
People: Studies show beef from cows raised on grass rather than feedlots contains less saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, and has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which data suggests may help prevent breast cancer, diabetes and other illnesses.
Cows: Cattle are ruminants, designed to eat grasses, plants and shrubs. When fed grasses, they rarely need antibiotics. A grain-dominant diet can cause stomach ulcers, abscessed livers and acidosis in the guts of cattle. This high acidity, TIME magazine reports, can breed an acid-resistant form of E. coli that can spread from feces-contaminated carcasses to meat.
“Grass-fed beef are generally going to be a healthier animal,” says Mike Holcomb, facility manager of Wolf Pack Meats, which is operated by the University of Nevada, Reno and produces both grass-fed and grain-fed beef. “A lot of time, the beef themselves, if somebody feeds them too much of one type of grain or a mixture, it’s like nitro for a car, a system can only take so much. You start getting problems with their liver and kidneys—they can’t handle all that. … At some point, that cow is just going to up and die on you.”
Environment: Whereas grass-fed beef are raised primarily on open pasture, most beef eaten today end their lives in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS), where they deposit large amounts of manure. Responsible farmers collect and transport the manure away from the areas, but there’ve been instances of dumping it near feedlots, which can lead to ground and water pollution.
The Smiths fell into organic grass-fed beef accidentally. They didn’t have enough money for fertilizers, chemicals, hormones or corn storage, and they were getting lower prices for it when they brought their smaller cows to market. So they decided to sell it themselves, as certified organic farmers growing vegetables and grass-fed beef.
Grass-fed beef is significantly more expensive than grain-fed, mostly because it takes longer for cows to reach the desirable weight when fed grass rather than grain, thus causing the farmer more in feed and care. For example, a pound of grass-fed ground beef from Home Grown Nevada, as well as in the Whole Foods meat case is about $6, compared to about $3.50 at Safeway. Her New York strip steak runs $21 a pound, compared to about $6 a pound at Save Mart. Smith also pays more to have her meat custom cut and packed in Orland, Calif., near Chico. But a number of farms producing grass-fed beef are finding customers willing to pay its premium price.
“Grass-fed does cost more, but the majority of people, I think, are turning back to the old-fashioned way,” says Holcomb. “People seem to be sick of [getting sick from meat.] … I think people are wanting to live a healthier, better life where they’re not having to go through life on a bunch of pills. If [market demand] was dwindling away, Trader Joes wouldn’t keep expanding like they have. I don’t see it dwindling away at all.”
However, not everyone raised on corn-fed beef likes the taste of grass-fed. Some say it’s tougher, with an odd flavor. But the flavor varies widely from farm to farm, depending on the type of forage the cattle eat.
“I personally am not a grass-fed beef fan because I like the flavor of [grain-fed],” says Holcomb. “The different types of grass determines the taste.”
In a time of beef recalls, some consumers just like knowing exactly from where their beef comes. Some of the Smiths customers buy their beef by the quarter, the half or the full cow, stocking their freezers for the year and splitting it with friends.
“We’re just typical slow food here,” says Tina Smith. “It puts on weight naturally, we keep them longer—it just seems the more natural, healthy way.”
But does grass-fed beef make sense for Nevada, a place where gardeners are being encouraged to strip their lawns and replace it with drought-resistant plants?
“I struggle with the water situation,” says Tina, whose farm has existed since 1917. “Nevada isn’t ag-minded. We have developers and politicians and cities that want our water that we do have, and I’m not sure farmers are going to be able to compete with that. There was a lot of farming in Nevada a long time ago, but the developers took [much of it.] I’m not sure. We are in a desert; we all have to remember that. If you want to think as simply as eating locally, we have to have enough resources to do that.”