There is a lot of buzz these days about “Grass-Fed” meat, and even many conventional supermarkets are starting to carry grass-fed beef or lamb. A number of popular books and movies have highlighted the problems with the commodity meat system in America, and a growing consciousness around personal health and environmental impacts has inspired consumers to seek out more grass-fed meat. But what does “Grass-fed” mean, really?
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that almost all beef cattle, lambs and goats eat some grass or forage during their life. Forage is often the lowest-cost food option, and because of that, most cattle and sheep spend significant portions of their life out on pasture. For many beef animals, it is only in the later part of their life that they are shipped to feedlots to be fattened, or “finished.” It is the finishing stage in the process that is the most centralized and industrialized, and is concentrated in grain-growing areas because of the corn and soybean rations that are fed to cattle while they are at the feedlots. Some producers that finish their own animals with grain while on pasture describe their meat as grass-fed, and it must be admitted, these animals are fed with grass. This inspired some producers that are trying to promote the exclusive feeding of grass or forage, even through the finishing stage, to label their products as “grass-fed and finished.”
In October of 2007, the USDA put out a statement of what “Grass-fed” means when used on meat labels.
Grass (Forage) Fed – Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
In summary, meats labeled grass fed should be from animals that received only grass, hay or other forage, and not just some grass. Besides the USDA, there are a few other organizations that provide more detailed standards, as well as third-party certification such as the American Grassfed Association.
There are a number of benefits gained from solely feeding sheep and cattle grass and forage. It reduces the need for conventionally grown soybeans and corn, which take fossil fuels and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to grow. The industrial raising of these grains is a major cause of soil erosion and fertilizer run-off in the middle of America. Creating an animal agriculture which does not need feedlots avoids the pollution and animal treatment concerns that have been raised about these institutions. It also reduces the need to ship animals long distances to feedlots, and allows the animals to finish their life without the antibiotics and growth hormones standard in industrial feedlots. Grass-fed advocates such as Jo Robinson and the Weston Price Foundation also cite health benefits for the consumer from eating grass-fed meats.
But doesn’t grain-finished beef and lamb taste better? In a word: No. Good tasting meat is a combination of flavor, tenderness and fats. Longer finishing times give grass-fed steers plenty of time to develop flavor. With proper finishing, grass-fed animals can be just as tender and develop sufficient fat as well. Of course, if you slaughter any animal before it is ready, or expose them to nutritional or environmental stress, you can wind up with tough meat. But grass and forage is the time-tested feed for sheep and cattle, and with careful management, it can produce fine meat. A common mistake that can turn people off to grass-fed meat is cooking the meat to too high a temperature. For tips about cooking grass-fed meat, check out: www.sustainabletable.org/features/articles/grassfedbeef
If you are interested in finding out more about grass-fed meats, or finding local producers, you can visit Jo Robinson’s website: www.eatwild.com
Owen O’Connor runs Awesome Farm, ltd with his partner KayCee Wimbish. They raise and sell grass-fed lamb and beef in Red Hook, NY. Owen grew up in Clinton Corners, and was working in organic vegetable farms before he and KayCee started their own project. In this continuing column, Owen offers his reflections on starting and running a livestock farm in the Hudson Valley.