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Grass-fed beef makes a comeback

Fri, May 14th, 2010
Posted in Agriculture

A variety of cattle graze on fresh grass at Hilltop Pastures Family Farm. Photo by Kirsten Zoellner

Step back a century ago and you'll find farming practices quite different from those in today's modern world. This is especially true when it comes to the raising of beef. While there were a handful of folks supplementing grain to the diets of their cattle as early as 1822, the majority of farmers ranged their cattle on grass and forages up until World War II. With the invention of self-propelled grain combines during that time, farmers began to see grain as an easy way to add value to their livestock production and by the mid 50s, feedlots became a common sight. Today, more than 22.8 billion pounds of beef is raised on confined animal feeding operations, while only 3.6 billion is raised strictly on grass. But that trend is changing.

Modern consumers are increasingly looking for a way to bridge the gap between production and consumption, with a more recent awareness on where their food comes from. The grass-fed movement is a return to former practices, but it hasn't come without scrutiny as some producers marketed their product as grass-fed, which it likely was between the first 6-12 months, only to have it finished in a feedlot.

To avoid misinterpretation of this claim, the USDA passed a grass-fed marketing claim and standard October 16th, 2007, to provide better understanding to producers and consumers alike. It defines grass-fed as having grass and forage as the only feed source consumed for the lifetime of a ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. This diet can include annual and perennial forage, forbs (such as legumes and Brassica), or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. By this standard, livestock can't be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. If there is incidental supplementation, the producer must fully document it, including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.

In addition, The American Grassfed Association (AGA), an organization of pasture-based ranchers, consumer groups, and researchers has defined an alternative label. To qualify for the three-tiered AGA label, livestock may not be confined or treated with hormones or antibiotics. The AGA believes this standard more closely matches the perception of "grass-fed."

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCF) Food and Environment Program also seeks to ensure that food is produced in a safe and sustainable manner. The program "strongly supports well-managed grass-fed and grass-finished cattle production systems in the United States." In fact, much of modern science is finding that grass-fed, as opposed to conventional operation, is generally better for the environment, the animal, the consumer, and perhaps the economy.

According to UCF, the majority of grass-fed farms use sophisticated land management practices to maximize both land and animal productivity without creating adverse effects for the soil, water, or air. They believe these methods are largely more cost-effective and environmentally friendly because they take advantage of grasses that typically require little supplemented water, and few, if any, fertilizers and pesticides.

Documentation shows that most of the grain produced in this country, including more than 70 percent of all corn, is fed to livestock. UCF believes that growing grains for feed has a substantial environmental impact. For example, corn production demands increasingly high levels of fertilizer. According to their studies, corn grown for cattle feed accounts for more than 40 percent of all commercial fertilizer and herbicides applied to U.S. crops. Fertilizer runoff from fields contributes to the problems of high nitrate levels into groundwater.

David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, warns that the feed for conventional operations also accounts for a "staggering amount of fossil fuel energy." Growing the corn used to feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn take vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will, in effect, consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime.

In contrast, a recent study by UCF documented at least ten major benefits to grass-fed operations. They include reduced water pollution, including sediment in waterways, decreased soil erosion and soil nutrient loss, as well as more opportunities for wildlife habitat. Also highlighted were reduced emissions of heat-trapping or greenhouse gases, increased carbon sequestration, and decreased energy use.

The German Karlsruhe Institute of Technology has agreed, noting nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, was considerably lower from grazed grasslands. What's more, they documented the belief that grass-fed animals actually benefit the environment. While grass-fed cattle actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis, it is known that because the animals' waste doesn't accumulate in large quantities, but rather replenishes nutrients to the soil in addition to not contributing to water and air pollution.

As for the animals themselves, UCS believes grass-fed operations to be far superior to the overall health of livestock. Cattle are ruminant animals that naturally eat grass and forage. Grain can allow fermentation acids to accumulate and this buildup can cause several issues, including diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease, acidosis, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal susceptible to other diseases.

Grass-fed producers also argue that the sometimes crowded, unsanitary, and stressful conditions at conventional operations may be dangerous to animal health. Such issues as dust-related respiratory conditions, metabolic diseases, and high use of antibiotics are simply not seen in most grass-fed operations.

One fact in the grass-fed debate that cannot be argued is the nutritional benefits. While most expensive cuts of meat are finished out on grain order to add fat marbling to the meat, which may also improve the tenderness and flavor, a comprehensive study, done in 2009 between the USDA and Clemson University, showcased the a number of benefits found in grass fed beef. These included higher total omega-3s, a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs. 4.84), vaccenic acid (a naturally occurring fat, which can be transformed into CLA), and lower saturated fats, which are linked with heart disease. In addition, the study showed the grass-fed beef offered higher beta-carotenes, vitamin E, B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, and minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

One particularly beneficial aspect of grass-fed beef is its higher concentrations of higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). According to Dr. Tilak Dhiman of Utah State University, one of North America's leading researchers on the relationship between CLA in meat and milk and human health, grass-fed food products are "not only preventative but regenerative as well."

Any article by The Stockman Grass Farmer highlighting Dr. Tilak's work shows that "current research with animals indicates that CLA not only reduces the incidence of cancer in animals but that it also suppresses the growth of cancer cells." The potential health benefits of CLA include being anti-carcinogenic, reductive in body fat, anti-diabetic, and anti-atherosclerosis (heart disease).

All of these factors have led to a growing number of producers being drawn to this type of production. Whether it be for their personal or environmental convictions or not, producers are finding some unexpected economic benefits as well. Grass-fed operations typically have far lower costs, including buildings, machinery, and veterinary, therefore generating more profit per animal than conventional operations. Most producers have been able to get premium prices for meat produced naturally and in a way that protects natural resources. Consumers are often willing to pay up to double the commodity beef prices.

Tom and Sara Austin, who operate Hilltop Pastures Family Farm, in rural Fountain, have certainly seen this trend take off. A small-scale, variety farm that produces 100 percent grass-fed beef, their mission is to offer consumers a healthier way of life by providing all natural, healthy meat and produce in an ecologically responsible environment. The Austins also support the local producers believing "when you buy locally grown, natural products, you take a positive step toward building community and establishing a healthy society."

Tom and Sara, along with their children, Shane, Sami, Caleb and Joshua, began their endeavor into farming quite recently. Having both grown up in the city, they may not embody your typical idea of farmers. However, they had both always wanted to live in the country. After reading a book from American farmer, lecturer, and author Joel Salatin, they thought, "We can do this for ourselves." They soon learned that all farming takes an intensive amount of time and patience, but they've found it's more than worth it.

Beginning in 2004, the couple selected a few head of English-breed cattle, based on genetics and a smaller frame, which is easier to finish off. Having had a successful first year, they expanded their farm with a 200-count poultry operation. They later reduced their poultry operation, but added pastured pork. Since then, their beef and pork demand has grown considerably and at this time, they simply can't keep up. Consumers consistently praise the meats noting its wonderful flavor and texture.

The farm operates through several venues including local farmer's markets and those in the twin cities. However, Sara says the family prefers a direct market avenue, getting to forge a personal connection with consumers. A majority of their business comes from their website, spring newsletter, on-the-farm store, and good, old-fashioned word of mouth. In addition, the farm supplies at least five local vendors in the Lanesboro area: Pedal Pushers Café, The Inn at Sacred Clay Farm B&B, The Scandinavian Inn, Hillcrest Hide-Away B&B, and Anna V's B&B.

This year, the Austins have expanded their operation once again, adding a CSA, or Consumer Supported Agriculture, program. Essentially, CSA allows consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. It offers a certain number of shares in either one or various products to the public. Interested buyers purchase a share, or membership, and in return receive a box of seasonal products throughout the farming season. There are several advantages of this system to both parties involved, but the biggest seems to be the opportunity to grow that personal relationship between production and consumption.

For more information on grass-fed beef, contact your local farmer's market, Lanesboro Local (www.lanesborolocal.org), or www.eatwild.org, a comprehensive directory of local producers. Hilltop Pastures Family Farm can be contacted directly at hpff@myclearwave.net or 507-867-0096.

Sources: usda.gov; ucsusa.org / Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating, that examines the potential nutrition benefits of grass-fed and grass-finished beef and dairy products / March 2006; www.foodrevolution.org.

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