We are all hearing a lot about grass-fed beef these days and from the sounds of it, it's being put out there as the most healthy, conscientious way to produce and consume beef. But frankly, this is a gross oversimplification with a whole lot of gray area in the phrase "grass-fed".
For one thing, pretty much all beef is "grass-fed". It is the simplest, most natural and cheapest way to feed cattle while they grow and mature, so to have anything but grass-fed in the first 6 months of life would just be inefficient and wasteful across the board. So let's clarify here that what they are really talking about when they're using the term "grass-fed" is "grass-finished", which is finishing out a steer on an exclusive grass-diet.
The most important thing when deciding what type of finishing you are looking for in your beef is to know what is available, what the terms actually mean, what that translates to in terms of your food experience and what it means for the animal. At the end of the day I think we are all looking for the same things- quality of life for ourselves and others, responsible care of our environment, good health and an understanding of what goes into the food that lands on our tables.
There are a few different ways to finish beef, but here I will cover only three. There is plenty of information out there that goes into greater detail/depth on this subject, so this will be a very basic overview targeted to those who are unfamiliar with the subject.
First, the conventional way has been to raise calves on grass to weaning. The calves are then sold to a mass feedlot where they are finished out on a grain diet. Because this is where the bulk of the beef produced winds up, it becomes a numbers game- from weight gain to minimizing illness, the sheer numbers require many standardized processes. Most of the beef you'll see in the supermarket or at any fast food or other inexpensive restaurant will come from a feedlot unless specifically marked with the various certifications stating otherwise (think- Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, Natural Beef, Certified Humane). This route is the most economically efficient way to get inexpensive beef into the hands of consumers. The focus is on quantity, much less on quality and it is about meeting the demands of a global economy.
Second, and increasing in popularity, is grass-finishing. This is a very conscientious method of finishing beef and the focus is very much in creating a very natural product without the use of all those extras. It takes much longer to finish an animal exclusively on grass- about 4-6 months longer (I mean, how quickly do YOU gain weight eating salads vs. salads and carbs?). These animals are generally maintained in beautiful pastoral settings with conscientious ranchers engaged on a much more individualized level with each animal. The focus is on optimal health and life experience for the animal to create beef that is leaner and has a solid nutrient profile. Grass-finished beef will likely taste a bit different and indeed be leaner than the typical grain-finished animal.
Let's talk now about what we do- or what we mean when we say pasture-raised beef. While we do finish some of our beef on grass, it is more expensive to produce due to the longer finishing time- and many of our customers prefer the taste of a grain-finished animal. Our steers spend their whole lives with access to improved pasture. They dine on native pasture grasses conscientiously irrigated by each year's melting snowpack (a source that is renewable thru natural weather systems rather than water pumped from aquifers millions of years in the making) to keep the natural grass and clover thick and lush, which naturally chokes out excessive weeds. For the last 90 days or so before they go to processing, their diet adjusts to a ratio of 30% grain, with 70% maintained on the natural pasture grasses. This enables us to maintain a nutrient profile as close to the grass-fed side as possible, reduce finishing time by a significant margin and provide that individualized, pastoral experience that honors the animal and the land in a sustainable way. The grain creates tender, well-marbled beef that melts in your mouth and needs no more than salt and pepper to bring out the rich, buttery flavor.
It's always a bit difficult to answer the question "is your beef grass-fed?" because as you can see, answering requires that the ask-er and the answer-er be speaking the same language with the same definitions. Most often, it is more an opportunity to educate the curious and the interested on our process and share a little of our passion, perspective and priorities- and even on occasion clear up some misconceptions embedded in the question! And trust me when I say that there is a LOT of misinformation out there regarding many aspects of the beef industry. Stick around and we'll share some very interesting research that turns many commonly accepted beliefs about animal agriculture upside down!
Spring is truly lovely, isn't it? Such a wonderful time to watch the new growth after a long winter as the weather warms and the mountain snowpack begins to thaw and the gentle spring rains build up ground water.
The hills are greening up and the whole valley seems to be cast in an emerald glow. And when the morning sun hits those hills, the place is bathed in that magical golden light and in that moment, if you stay real still and quiet and let it sink into your bones, you could almost imagine that this is all there ever was and all there ever will be and no worries could ever touch you again.
All you need to do is breathe and listen.
That's about when you remember that no, unfortunately, this ISN'T the only moment ever. Grass isn't the only thing growing in that ground with all that lovely water and sunshine.
That's when you remember that there are very real and present worries to resolve right now.
No, there is also lots of fresh, new bacteria growing and they've been working hard to evolve and survive themselves- some at the expense of our new calves. New calves who, like all children, put their curious little mouths on everything they can find.
The biggest problem at this time of year is scours. Scours is basically calf diarrhea and it hits hard. Every year, the strain of bacteria that causes it evolves, like any bacteria, and this year's strain is a rough one.
The thing about scours is that if we don't catch it and treat it in time, the calf will get dehydrated. Once a calf is dehydrated, it is lethargic and weak and less likely to nurse and more likely to become less active. Without the extra energy from regular movement and digestion, body temperature drops- especially in these still-cold spring nights. If a calf gets too cold, it will become hypothermic. Once it becomes hypothermic, the only chance we have at saving it is reheating it to a stable temperature.
So we go out every morning and rush thru every field checking each and every calf- is there external evidence of scours? Will the calf get up? If it does, does it move quickly and steadily or is it lethargic and staggering? If it doesn't, what is the temperature in its mouth? It needs to be hot- and if it is, that calf is better off given a tube of electrolytes and what is basically the calf version of Pepto-Bismol and continued surveillance in the field. Sometimes they also get a special little calf jacket to keep them warm! A lukewarm mouth is a quickly dropping temperature that we can likely save. Cold... well, that depends how long it's been cold. Either way our job is the same- bring it into headquarters out of the wind and create a cocoon of warmth with old sheets and a blow dryer.
It can take hours to bring a calf's body temperature up to a normal- and stable- temperature and it takes still longer to wean it from the warmth of the blow dryer. But there isn't a member of our team who isn't willing to do what it takes to save a calf. And there is nothing better than returning a stable calf to its mom back out in the pasture.
So, yes, spring is indeed glorious- new calves, fresh lovely grass, growth and life all around- and a charge to do everything in our power to keep the lives in our care healthy and happy!