Grass Fed Beef
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What is old becomes new again. Grass Fed Beef is a good example. Though high quality Grass Fed beef is having a renaissance, corn feeding is actually the newer method and in the past it was forage (grass) that fattened cattle. In the 1800’s, in America, beef was one way to monetize the great beckoning prairie of the frontier, which was essentially one huge pasture. The sun and water fed the grass and expanding herds of cattle harvested it by grazing and ultimately becoming beef for sale. According to the USDA, as late as 1935, only 5% of cattle were fattened on grain, (and not much grain by today’s standards), before sale.

Although the modern cattle industry all but ignores it, the reciprocal relationship between cows and grass is one of nature's under appreciated wonders,” is how Michael Pollan describes grazing in power steer his 2002, New York Times Magazine article that followed steer #534, from birth to steak. Pollan continues, “For the grasses, the cow maintains their habitat by preventing trees and shrubs from gaining a foothold; the animal also spreads grass seed, planting it with its hoofs and fertilizing it. In exchange for these services, the grasses offer the ruminants a plentiful, exclusive meal. For cows, sheep and other grazers have the unique ability to convert grass -- which single-stomached creatures like us can't digest -- into high-quality protein. They can do this because they possess a rumen, a 45-gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria turns grass into metabolically useful organic acids and protein.”

Historically, cattlemen have not been paid to raise delicious cattle. They’ve been paid for marbling (tenderness) and by the pound, and since marbled beef commanded a better price per pound, the beef business got very good at using grain to produce quantities of marbled beef more efficiently. Blander beef flavor and fatter cuts resulted.

Some specific cattlemen (those with a reputation for quality and taste) are being paid a premium to raise beefier tasting, healthier cattle. Some of the most reputable Grass Fed Beef Producers even ship directly to consumers.

Production

In the new Millenium, Grass-Fed Beef is making a comeback for environmental, health and taste reasons but not all Grass-Fed beef is created equal. As with wine, the Terroir and the skill of the producer matters. Raising a great steak, marbled with fat, on grass requires passion and skill. Anything from stress, to a noxious weed on the range, to inadequate fat and Marbling, to improper aging can ruin the flavor of a Grass-Fed bovine making their meat "gamey" tasting or worse. And it is not an easy job to finish them to comparable fat levels as Grain Finished Beef on grass alone. Consequently, most Grass-Fed beef, is harvested in the fall when the grasses go dormant, and is less richly marbled than comparable grain fed beef. Many ranchers choose not to have USDA Graded Beef for their Grass-Fed cattle because the grading system favors heavily marbled beef.

The best Grass-Fed ranchers have their cattle feed on tall grass (10” usually) because the grass tops contain the most nutrients. Once the tops are grazed off the cattle are moved to a new pasture while the grass in the original pasture grows back. It takes about 20 days during the growing season for grass to grow back, meaning a single pasture can be grazed 5-6 times a season. During the winter grazing is restricted to valley or lowland pastures.

Purchasing

Grass-Fed Beef is often described as “beefier” tasting than Grain-Fed Beef and it is more nutritious as well. Typically, grass-fed cattle are not fed genetically modified grains, growth hormones or prophylactic antibiotics. 

Beef from cattle that just graze and mow the prairie, instead of consuming all-you-can-eat quantities of expensive corn and grains, is, illogically, typically more expensive than beef from grain fed cattle. Hopefully the economics will reverse but because of the expense and the heightened flavor you may want to consider small-to-moderate (3-6 ounce) portions which should be handled and cooked carefully.

If you are considering Grass-Fed Beef it can be found in your local natural foods market, like Whole Foods or at a Specialty Grocers. More mainstream grocers are beginning to carry it as well.

If you are interested in Grass-Fed beef, be aware that Grass-Fed beef will cost more, be a bit tougher (the use their muscles to walk for their forage) and may have a slightly sweeter, herbaceous flavor that may be an acquired taste. It pays to become familiar with the specific cattlemen or brands that produce superior beef that pleases your palate.

Culinary Uses

Grass-fed beef has a lower fat content and can get tough when overcooked, so sear the outside very quickly, then cook low (about 50° F lower than normal) and slow (though it cooks about 30% faster) to preserve juiciness. You may also consider Tenderizing it before beginning the cooking process. For best results, cook it to no more than Medium Rare.

Often, the meat from Grass-Fed Beef is mixed with meat from Grain-Fed Beef to achieve leaner mixes of Hamburger or Ground Beef, like for example 85% lean burgers. Also, Grass-Fed beef cooks more quickly than Grain Finished Beef so if you are cooking Grass-Fed beef, watch it closely until you have a feel for it.

Nutrition

Also Grass-fed Beef has superior nutritional qualities. It is high in antioxidants like beta-carotene, which help with the immune system, and CoQ10, an enzyme that supports heart and circulatory-system health while being lower in fat overall than Grain-Fed Beef with a better percentage of good Omega-3 fats. You will also find Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which is important for the immune system, regulating blood sugar and burning fat, in Grass Fed Beef.  Meat from grass-fed cattle has up to four times the amount of Vitamin E than feedlot meat. Finally, it’s also higher in zinc and vitamin B12 and is a good source of other B vitamins.