As the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks comments on a pioneering grass-fed meat label, ranchers and retailers are increasingly thinking about the nuances of pasturing cattle, bison, goats, sheep and other ruminants.
The USDA is taking comments through Aug. 10 on a proposed rule that would limit the designation "grass-fed" to meat from animals that consume a minimum of 99 percent of their diet as grass and forage. Forage is dried plant stalks, such as hay, that are used for feed in winter climates where grass isn't available. The new USDA rule is a significant change from a 2002 proposed grass-fed claim for animals that dictated a diet of as little as 80 percent grass and forage.
If approved, the grass-fed meat program would be administered through the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and audited by the AMS Process Verification program.
Currently in the United States, many calves and other baby ruminants eat grass for six to seven months and then are fattened for slaughter on a grain and growth-hormone diet. According to David Carter, executive director of the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association, "grain finishing" a cow bulks it up quickly, and combined with growth hormones, allows the animal to be ready for slaughter when it's 14 months old. Cattle and bison that eat only grass or forage typically aren't ready for slaughter until they're 28 to 30 months old, Carter says.
Ranchers and nutritionists agree that feeding cattle the fibrous grass their digestive systems are designed to process is ultimately better for the cow, and oftentimes for the consumer. Pasture-raised cattle are able to exercise, aren't overcrowded and subsequently suffer less stress, which can contribute to disease and the need for antibiotics, says Jo Robinson, editor of eatwild.com and author of Why Grassfed is Best! (Vashon Island Press, 2000).
She also cites studies that show grass-fed meats are lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meats and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids. They also contain antioxidant vitamins and are less likely to carry E. coli, an organism that can cause gastrointestinal distress in humans and, in rare cases, death. A 1998 study published in Science magazine found 6.3 million E. coli cells per gram of meat in grain-fed animals versus 20,000 cells per gram in grass-fed meat.
Robinson says ranchers can get up to 100 percent more money for grass-fed beef and points out that pastureland not only promotes environmental diversity, but also serves as open space for wildlife. Despite these benefits, Robinson estimates that only about 1 percent of all beef sold in the United States comes from cattle fed grass throughout their lives, although grass-fed meat sales have doubled each year since 2000. For ranchers used to sticking a cow in a feedlot and stuffing it with grain, raising a grass-finished cow can be a challenge. "It's very management-intensive, and each rancher needs to understand how to do it," she says. For instance, Bent Tree Farms in Alabama—the home of the U.S. Grass Fed Society—has fields planted with six to seven different kinds of grass, and the cattle are rotated among them.
"If we just turned the cattle out on a great big pasture, they would eat what they like best, which is clover, but too much of that causes gas to form in their systems and they bloat," says Bent Tree Farms rancher David Roberts. Only 30 percent of a cow's diet should be clover, Roberts says, so to prevent gorging, Bent Tree's cattle are moved between different grass pastures as often as once a day. In winter, their diets are augmented with grapefruit and orange pulp. Roberts estimates each of Bent Tree's cows needs about an acre of pasture for an adequate diet.
Carter says about half of all bison meat sold in the United States is grass-fed, along with most of the goat and sheep meat.
Another problem associated with grass-fed beef is that because grass-fed cattle are slaughtered at a later age, their meat tends to be more muscled and less tender than their grain-finished counterparts. But some ranchers have figured out how to shorten the life cycle of grass-fed beef. Western Grasslands of Vina, Calif., raises naturally fast-growing Angus cattle that, despite being fed only grass and forage, are still big enough to be slaughtered between 14 and 18 months of age.
"By carefully controlling the genetics of our cattle, we can raise them primarily on pasture and guarantee the customer a tender, flavorful, grass-fed steak," says Western Grasslands Chief Executive Mack Graves.
Grass-fed beef also tends to be seasonal. Carter says typically, "The animal carries the flavor of whatever it was eating before it was harvested, so you like to have the animal come off fresh and growing grass. That's why a lot of ranchers slaughter in September or October and freeze the meat so it can be sold year-round."
Robinson believes this problem can be partially solved by limiting grass-fed beef production to areas of the country like the West Coast or the South, where winters are mild, summers are long and grass grows easily. Most of the grass-fed beef she sees comes from those areas or New England—parts of the country that produce what she calls "ice-cream forage," or "high-energy forage grass like clover or alfalfa at exactly the right growing stage, where it's knee deep to the cattle."
"You can only grow great wine in certain parts of the country," she adds. "I think we need to concentrate on areas that do grass-fed beef well; otherwise you have bad grass-fed that is marketed before its time as a very lean animal, or might be three to four years of age and lose its tender muscle fiber."
Robinson suggests other designations to complement the proposed USDA grass-fed label and reward ranchers who raise cattle in parts of the country not as well suited to grass-fed production. "I think there's another designation like 'short-fed,' where an animal is fed two to three months of grain to supplement its diet," she says. "[The] 99 percent [designation] rewards people who do a superior product very well."
Carter believes in Robinson's wine analogy, but with a different emphasis: "Merlot and cabernet both taste really good, but they taste different. It would be great if there is a way we could peek over the fence at the wine industry and see how they distinguish regional flavor and characteristics."
Carter thinks cattle and bison raised on the blue stem and buffalo grass of the arid West can be just as delicious as those raised in Southern fields of clover. "It's just a case of managing your pasture very carefully and learning which breeds flourish in your area," he says.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 7/p. 30