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!