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Fatter, firmer, tastier? August 20, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , , , ,

Grassfed beef stymies your average cook. Grill a steak or braise a shoulder the way you’re used to, and it comes out all tough and gamey. This presents a challenge to ranchers who’ve bet the farm (so to speak) on selling grassfed beef. They can’t make a living by just raising the damn animals and getting them to market. Now they have to teach people how to cook too.

Supposedly if you do it right you can get wonderful results with grassfed beef. Myself, I stick to the stuff you can’t mess up: hamburger. I leave preparing the more delicate cuts to the experts, like JD Fratzke at The Strip Club in St. Paul, who wowed me with a New York Strip years ago.  (Let it be noted that I can mess up just about anything in the kitchen, including frozen pizza. Perhaps the beef is not the problem.)

Culinary confessions aside, though, a little irony occurred to me as I was thinking about the health and flavor benefits that reportedly accrue to grassfed beef. Because grassfed cattle follow their natural diet and typically have the freedom to graze, grassfed beef is leaner than grain-finished beef, which comes from cows that get less exercise and more cheap calories. That’s supposed to be good for us healthwise, because there’s less fat in grassfed beef than in the conventional grain-finished product. And it’s supposed to taste better if you manage to cook it right – more earthy, more robust, more, well, beefy.

Funnily enough, it’s the exact opposite for pork. Pastured pork (there is no such thing as grassfed pork, since pigs can’t survive on grass) usually has more fat and calories than conventional pork. That’s because the breeds chosen for conventional pork production are super-lean, allowing pork to market itself as a healthy option and “the other white meat.” In contrast, pastured pork producers use a variety of breeds that are hardy enough for outdoor living and have higher fat percentages.

So grassfed beef is relatively lean while pastured pork is relatively fatty. Yet both grassfed beef and pastured pork are marketed as tastier than their conventional counterparts. And on the pork side, I’d have to agree. Conventional pork chops rank right up there with conventional chicken breasts and conventional Styrofoam cups in terms of flavor profile, but pastured pork can be just heavenly!



1. Jonathan Coleman - August 26, 2012

I must say though that grass fed beef is not that. Cows that forage in the field, which is the largest majority of cattle, eat more than just grass. They do eat many types of hay, leaves, natural grains, and corn, etc. I am a strong supporter of cattle being fed corn, however not at feed lots. In my area in Virginia, cattle are pastured and fed grain on a limited basis along side hay in the winter months. Mostly calves are fed grain to increase weight therefore production, but still on grass 90% of the time. There seems to be no happy medium with farmers and activists. Just as there is no happy medium between vegans and meat consumers or democrats and republicans. Both sides are wrong. We need to stop this over feeding of corn to animals and stop overcrowding in production farms, however we do need corn to produce a tasty and healthy meat.
I must ask why is corn the devil to activist when a large percentage of grain fed is oats, barley, and wheat? That is grain but not what the activist groups base their claims on.

Your thoughts.

Jonathan Coleman

Angelique - August 30, 2012

Hi Jonathan, thanks for commenting. It’s funny, your thoughts remind me of a conversation I had with Todd Churchill, the founder of Thousand Hills Cattle Company, which is a 100% grassfed beef operation. I asked him what was wrong with feeding cattle a little bit of grain on the side, if they were still grazing. And he said that if it’s something easily digested (like oats) he had no problem with it at all. The issue isn’t a welfare issue, it’s a marketing issue. He asked, how do you market something to the consumer as “just a little bit of grain?” How much grain is too much? How do you differentiate yourself from those who overfeed grain? So he went with the 100% grassfed strategy for that reason. I have eaten beef from cattle who were pastured but had a little grain, from a farm that was able to tell its story selling through a specialty food co-op. Without that kind of knowledge, though, I’d go with 100% grassfed just to be safe.

2. sustainablefarminginwi - August 30, 2012

I agree, there is no pig that can be 100% grass fed but some come a lot closer than others. Kune Kune breeders claim their pigs can fatten on grass, although I have yet to try it personally as I don’t own the breed. I do own American Guinea Hogs and grass can be a major part of their diet. They are a lard hog and the biggest concern with them is actually making sure they don’t gain to much weight(fat)! Ours are pastured and they get kitchen scraps, and a very small amount of grain in the morning and they are gaining weight perfectly. They are a heritage breed of pigs, and a personal favorite of mine.

3. sustainablefarminginwi - August 30, 2012

I should also say, I very much understand what you mean about “just a little grain” but grain is a lot like candy with children. There are multiple ways to get an animal or child to do something, but the quickest fastest way is often with food rewards. When the neighbors start spraying the field unannounced with toxic chemicals I don’t have time to herd, and beg and plead with the sheep to come inside the barn. I rattle the bucket and they are in there instantly. Also, as my ewes get older some are not able to keep on weight the way they once did. Supplementing with grain can help keep them at a normal,healthy weight. If they could not keep up weight they would not be able to be breed, and would need to be culled(not necessary killed, but removed from my flock), which seems a shame to me if a few handfuls of grain now and again can get them where they need to be. I understand what you are saying about marketing and stores, but then I also think people need to start buying at farms and not stores, as many aspects of farming can be marketed in a better or worse light when they are just a product on a shelf.

Jonathan Coleman - September 1, 2012

Excellent insight. I could not agree more. I will creep feed my young steers and heifers as calves since we are usually very dry in the summer months and you are correct that a bucket of grain works wonders when you have to move cattle and goats. I would much rather see though, more consumer information and education regarding most farming practices as well as more local community support for those that want to raise and sell local grown meats and products.

Jonathan Coleman

sustainablefarminginwi - September 4, 2012


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