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!
The last couple of weeks have been absolutely relentless with these snowstorms. It is nearly March and spring is nowhere in sight- but the weather is so bipolar I'm sure it will suddenly decide to melt off one day and start blooming!
At the beginning of winter we were just hoping and praying for a solid snowpack to lead us into the coming El Nino summer- water is always the question and we need solid irrigation to keep us in grass and hay to harvest for next winter. Last year our snowpack was a bit low, so there were a few winter pasture fields we worried about getting enough water to really get a good graze ready for the herds to come in on from their summer pastures, but by and large they came into some really deep, lush grassy fields. The snow held off for long enough that they maximized the grazing potential of each field. Sometimes if it snows too much too early, all that graze goes to waste because it winds up flattened beneath the snow and becomes much less accessible. This year we needn't have worried- nearly every field was grazed optimally before the first real snow.
The other part of that concern is the hay already stored up for the winter season- and in our case, banked for following years. After a summer like this one, the question is whether or not you'll have to buy feed. It is vital in these cold months that cows get enough to eat, and of nutrient and protein-dense feed. Not only does it keep them at a healthy weight and nutritionally healthy, it gives them energy and helps to keep them, and in turn, their calves, warm. Fortunately, we have been able to harvest enough over the past two years that we have hay banked for a year such as this- a cold winter following a dry summer. Not every rancher has been as lucky, and at the current prices of $160 per ton (one ton feeds about 60-65 head per day), it can get truly painful.
When I was a kid, I remember the weather worries of all the local farmers- but it pretty much all seemed focused on rain. I don't recall ever hearing any emphasis on the importance of snowpack, but then again all I remember feeling about winter was that it was terribly inconvenient. I truly did not appreciate how much everything in agriculture is impacted by the weather, from the day to day to full seasons and even years.
After a worrisome December and January, the snowpack had built enough that it appeared irrigation would be manageable, but not ideal. We are in the last week of February now and the snowpack in our region is over 120% of the normal range. So I'm finally ready to let out the breath I've been holding over snowpack- but now the worries for our new calves in the cold and the wet are ready to take the place of snowpack concerns.
I don't love rolling around on my quad in icy or slushy fields and roads in twenty degree temperatures, my hands and face freezing, my breath condensing on my eyelashes and my nose hairs freezing. But all it takes is one brief moment picturing these very wet, wide-eyed calves being expelled from the warm confines of their mothers' wombs into this same world I complain about from within my layers of warm and dry Carhartts to get me rushing out the door every single morning to help the team check every field and make sure all is well. Every day that we find healthy, happy calves nestled in the feedline is a victory- and every time we find a calf or cow in distress we have an immediate opportunity to resolve that distress. All it takes is getting our eyes on the problem in time.
Winter is a harsh season, but once the initial checks for the morning are done, its quietness and beauty are worth a pause to simply absorb. For all the worry and the inconvenience, there is always a moment in there to let the stillness of the snowfall blanketing the earth suspend time, to sit quietly and watch as the cows lick their nestled babies. To listen to them low gently, talking to their new little ones. To watch the older calves kick up their heels and frolic in pure, unbridled joy at this big, new world to explore. To breath in the crisp air and just be there fully in that moment.
We keep saying our beef is hand-finished, but what do we mean by that exactly?
There are two main elements in our definition. The first is that we walk among our herds daily- our cattle know us and are comfortable with our presence among them. The second is that our finishing expert knows precisely what to look for to ensure a steer is finished and he finds that information with his hands.
Docility in cattle is a measure of temperament, or how calm a given animal is in a new or stressful environment, specifically in handling by humans. It is a trait that can be inherited- which of course means that it can be improved through breeding. It is also highly influenced by their environment, mainly the manner in which they are handled by humans. Low docility, flightiness or wildness, is expected when cattle are raised in the wild as it is required for survival- an approachable cow will not last long with natural predators about. However, our herds are pastured and protected, so high docility scores are desirable, both for the safety of our team and for more highly graded meat.
Our standard practice is to work each and every animal and the herd at large as quietly and calmly as possible. We work in slow, steady movements and speak in low, quiet voices, always focusing on using the least amount of pressure required to move or work them. This is always best practice from a practical standpoint as a stressed animal is an unpredictable animal. Further, we are solidly dedicated to raising them in as peaceful and humane an environment as we can foster. We may be raising them as a food source, but we have every responsibility to ensure they live naturally and free from fear and pain where we can manage it.
The second aspect of hand-finishing requires this docility in our cattle- and not only are our steers approachable, they love getting the daily hands-on attention of our crew! They know that when their people are around that means good things- and we want to keep it that way.
Our Finishing Manager has years of experience under his belt and knows exactly what to look for visually in a finished beef and especially what to feel for and where. The feel of the animal at the tail, rib and loin, weight gain tapering off and the overall look of the animal all inform on when a steer is finished. Each animal is unique, of course, which means they finish out at different times and different weights.
We take our responsibility in our stewardship over these animals quite seriously and are thoughtful at every level of their care and keeping. Our entire focus and intent is to give them full, happy lives in wide, green pastures and we work hard every year to improve our knowledge, skills, resources and systems to better provide for their well-being.
This is what we mean when we say our beef is hand-finished.