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!
The most reputable ranchers always put a great deal of thought and care into their breeding programs. We have been carefully cultivating the genetics in our herd since the brothers originally began ranching twenty years ago. From selecting animals with desirable physical & temperamental traits to breed, to culling those animals with negative characteristics (for example, the fence jumpers or those overly defensive cows), every season requires attentiveness to continually improve the genetics of the herd. Quality breeding impacts so many aspects of the final beef product, but it also can impact the quality of life of both the ranchers and their animals.
Three-way vigour, or heterosis, is essentially the best result of animals bred to incorporate the best characteristics of three chosen breeds- ours being Black Angus, Red Angus and Charolais. Achieving this three-way vigour can improve fertility, longevity, maternal instincts, temperament and survivability of the calf, which are just a few of the traits we select for. Clearly the other piece of the genetic puzzle is improving the quality of the beef at the end of the day- improving marbling, red meat yield and consistency. This just means that building the genetics of a herd isn't something that can happen in a season or two. It is a long-range project- so take a moment to relish the fact that we have been cultivating our herd genetics for around two good decades now!
For the moment, though, we are right in the midst of calving season and they are coming at us fast! One of the most enjoyable parts of this hybridization is seeing the way those genetics play out on the physical side. It never fails to delight me to see such variety between cow and calf- but no more so than to see a little mini-me at a new mama's side.
We've also seen a surprising number of twins this year and there is no better way to see the evidence of the solid mix of genetics than to see a black white face cow give birth to both gray white face and red white face calves!
I must say that I personally fully appreciate the genetic progress so far as temperament is concerned. I am out working new calves with our team daily, which has us holding those new calves down to tag them, spray the umbilicus with iodine to prevent infection and give them a shot of vitamins and minerals to help prevent deficiency.
Mamas don't generally like whatever comes between them and their babies- some can get vocal or agitated, but most are just concerned and curious. Some stand patiently back, lowing gently for their baby to come. Many will step forward to sniff their calf while we work, sniff our coats or hands and just evaluate what intentions we have with their little ones. Although we are always on alert for any signs of agitation or aggression, we have yet to come across a cow that can't be calmed with a quiet, firm voice to bring her back down. I have heard enough stories from other ranchers to know to appreciate this characteristic whole-heartedly. These are big animals and it is so much easier to work with a large animal than to fight against one!
From beginning to end, both nurture and nature have a powerful impact on the life, productivity, workability and quality of the beef cattle a rancher produces- which in turn, I might add, impacts the life, productivity, workability and quality of the rancher as well. Ranching is not simply a job- it is a way of life. As always, it is our goal to continually improve the quality of every life in our care.
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.