Forgive me for being a bit redundant with some of the content of my entries, but today I want to speak again about the art of farming. In particular, the art of raising grass-fed beef. Until recently, I thought raising grass-fed beef was just a matter of sending the heifers and steers out to pasture every day and pitching hay to them at night in the barn. Well, friends, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Yes, you can raise grass-fed beef exactly as I just described above, but you won’t be too pleased with the final steak that comes from your ‘hard work’. The diet of grass-fed beef is so much more complicated for the farmer, but mastery of balancing this diet, among other things, is the difference between commodity farming and craftsmanship.
I don’t want to get too technical here so I will summarize what I understand about grass-fed beef farming as best as I can. There are essentially four types of food a farmer can feed grass-fed cattle. grasses, legumes, dry hay (made from legumes and/or grasses) and wet hay (made from legumes and/or grasses). Each of these ‘food groups’ has a different nutrient and fiber profile. Additionally, the farmer has to keep the cattle happy while at the same time making sure they get just the right balance of these foods. Too much protein, too many carbs, too much of one or more vitamins AND disappointed cattle can affect the beef produced by these cattle. Two main problems can be identified in the steak on your plate. Marbling of the beef which produces tenderness and off-flavors, usually the result of a lopsided use of the aforementioned food groups.
As you can see, this goes well beyond science since the farmer isn’t studying the chemical composition of samples taken from his food sources. All the farmer can judge is the final taste and tenderness of the beef his cattle produce. If he isn’t 100% satisfied he starts tweaking that diet the next day of the cattle still getting up to size. And these changes don’t happen overnight. It takes 18 – 27 months to raise beef cattle to a proper size, approximately 900+ lbs live weight, and getting it wrong with today’s herd isn’t corrected for a year or two.
Finally, I mentioned above something about disappointed cattle. The farmer and cattle have a very close relationship and a communication of sorts takes place between them every day. Cattle always want to go to new pasture where the grasses and legumes are most tender. But too much green produces too much protein, resulting in those off-flavors. Keeping the cattle happy enough so they won’t have a hunger strike is just as important as balancing that diet of theirs.
So the next time you consider buying grass-fed beef, keep in mind you are buying a hand-made craft. Like hand-made fresh pasta, a $20.00 truffle or a one-of-a-kind cupcake from a trendy shop in NY City, grass-fed beef should be considered a delicacy backed up by a good farmer’s craftsmanship.