I was driving through a bison pasture in Colorado a couple of weeks ago as the late afternoon sun painted a golden hue across the tall grass nurtured by the late-summer rains. A virtual sea of seed heads on the grasses rippled gently in a symphony of light and shadow.
Looking across the pasture my thoughts turned to grain…well, grass…actually, the grass vs. grain controversy dominating the discussion among ranchers and consumers alike these days.
Up until a decade ago, grain ruled the kingdom in meat production. Corn-fed beef was the gold standard in red meat quality.
Then, a few voices started to tout the benefits of grass-fed meat. Lower fat, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and less feedlot-intensive finishing became the battle cries of these voices. When Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, New York Times Food Editor Marion Burros, and some notable chefs began to pick up the message, the shift to grass-fed meat became a stampede.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Grassfed Association have even developed separate verified marketing labels for grass-fed meat. These standards are designed to assure that no kernel of grain ever passes through the digestive tract of a ruminant animal. Consumers are embracing this claim because, after all, grazing animals are meant to eat only grass, right?
If only it were that simple.
That sea of seed heads shimmering in the late afternoon sun is grain. Grazing animals have been putting on fat for thousands of years with these natural grains.
It’s an amazing part of nature’s cycle. The grain in the ripe seed heads adds fat to the bodies of cattle, bison, antelope and other grazing animals in the fall to equip those animals to survive the winter. Native Americans, who needed extra fat to survive the winter as well, stocked up on this naturally grain-finished meat as the days grew shorter each season. Even today, grass-fed meat harvested in the fall tends to carry more fat and flavor than the meat from animals processed in other seasons.
The U.S. livestock feeding industry co-opted this natural process after World War II as an ever-increasing output of corn provided a cheap source of grain to fatten cattle quickly and cheaply. This grain-finishing resulted in meat that had a consistent flavor and texture, regardless of the season. So, the conventional thinking went, if a little grain is good, a lot of grain must be better.
Feedlots and slaughter plants moved into the American Corn Belt. Cattle were genetically selected based upon their ability to finish on grain. Calves were moved to feedlots immediately after weaning. And, universities and biotech companies developed new strains of corn specifically designed for cattle-feeding. Many of the problems associated with eating meat today are related to this grain-intensive system.
The voices touting the benefits of grass-fed meat have provided a much-needed wake-up call regarding the excess of the grain-finished livestock system. The pendulum is swinging back.
That’s a good thing.
Just remember, Mother Nature’s feeding regimen always included just a touch of grain.