The Grass-feeders Dilemma


By David Jessup

Time Magazine calls it the “next food frontier.”  Consumer demand for grass-fed beef is growing at a rate of 20% a year.  People are catching on that beef from grass-fed cattle is lower in saturated fat and higher in Omega-3 anti-oxidant vitamins than meat from their grain-stuffed, feedlot raised cousins. 

But there is a potential problem.  Grass-fed beef can sometimes be tough.  Some producers make this a virtue by labeling it “lean.”  But according to Alan Nation, the Johnny Appleseed of grass-fed beef, the product will never realize its potential until better quality and consistency is achieved. 

If we lived inFrance orArgentina, where people tend to slow-cook their meat, it might not be such a problem.  But here people like fast-cooked, seared meat.  Tender, juicy and well-marbled.  Is there a tradeoff between health and edibility? 

Grazing experts say you can have your steak and eat it too.  Grass-fed beef can be both healthy and tender.  It depends partly on genetics at birth, partly on processing after harvesting, and in between, how the cattle are raised.  As a cattle rancher in Colorado, I set out to discover the management practices that make for tender grass-fed beef.

It turns out there are three:  The age of the animal at harvesting, the type of forage eaten in the last 60 to 120 days before harvesting, and the cattle’s stress levels during this 2 to 4 month finishing period.

  • Age at Harvest.  The cows have to be old enough.  Before they mature, cows, like teenagers, turn most food into muscle and bone.  Only after they are around two years old does some of that food energy get turned into fat.  And even then, the bulk of the food energy gets used in body maintenance. 
  • Forage Quality.  The cows have to “finish” on high-quality pasture.  The rule of thumb is that an animal must gain at least 1.7 pounds per day during the last 60 days of its life in order to put on enough fat to become tender.  On perennial pasture, Spring is best, Fall is worst.  Maximum fattening comes from forage high in sugar and carbohydrates.  Spring and early summer grass contains highly digestible, soluble carbohydrates that produce good weight gains in mature cattle.  That’s one reason it’s best to calve in May and June.  The cows are just hitting their two-year-old maturity levels when the grass is best.
  • Low stress.  I was surprised to learn how much the experts emphasize low stress as important to meat quality.  According to Julius Ruechel, author of Grass-fed Cattle, calm animals gain weight more quickly, and their meat is more tender and flavorful.”  The key is calm, quiet routine.  “If [cattle] have to constantly figure out a changing routine or adjust to inconstant handling styles, they will become more alert and more attentive, which are manifestations of stress.  It can take weeks or even months to fully calm cattle after handling problems are corrected, and they’ll remain nervous long after a brief stressful event.”

Optimum age, good forage, low stress.  These things may not guarantee delicious and tender grass-fed beef.  But they greatly improve the chances that both humans and animals will benefit. 

David Jessup

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July 23, 2013