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The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series written by Amy, a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.
Our family has been knocked out for the last week with the awful stomach bug. This thing was just plain evil, but we are on the upswing now. It made me realize that I don’t have a great contingency plan for eating healthy when we are all down for the count. Crackers and applesauce were key components of our diet and I’ve got to find a way to get electrolytes without drinking sports drinks. Suggestions, anyone?
But now, after two weeks of exploring what some of the potential problems are with conventional beef, let’s look at some alternatives. Is there a difference between grass-fed and organic beef? Are there any health benefits to eating grass-fed beef as opposed to corn-fed?
If you buy organic beef, what are you getting exactly? The USDA requires these things in order for beef to be organic. First, cows that are raised for beef (as opposed to dairy cows), must be treated under these regulations from the last third of their time in the womb. Their feed must be be free of pesticides and genetically modified substances. The cows may not be given antibiotics or hormones. All of that is pretty similar to chickens, but here is where it changes a bit. According to the USDA, “Ruminants must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, but for not less than 120 days. These animals must also receive at least 30 percent of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasture.” I had thought that organic beef did not guarantee that the cows were truly grass-fed, but from this requirement, we know that they are at least getting 30% of their nutrition from grass.
When I was looking into buying my first butchered cow (to be split between several families), I was clueless as to why people kept talking about making sure that the cow was grass-fed. Weren’t all cows fed grass? And if not, what was the problem with them eating grains? Proponents of feeding cows grass and hay (which is dried grass) say that this is the diet native to cows. Others say that up north supplementing a cow’s diet with some grain is helpful to fatten the cows up a bit to handle the cold. What I keep reading over and over again, though, is that if cows are given a choice they will go for the grass over the corn and grains. And honestly, it is pretty remarkable how their digestive systems work. The FDA has an article on how cow’s digest food and, while I didn’t fully grasp all of it (needing that science degree again!), I can greatly respect cows’ ability to get the nutrients that they need to grow and thrive from grass. Eat Wild shares about the importance of the kinds of grasses that the cows eat here:
“…in order for grass-fed beef to be succulent and tender, the cattle need to forage on high-quality grasses and legumes, especially in the months prior to slaughter. Providing this nutritious and natural diet requires healthy soil and careful pasture management so that the plants are maintained at an optimal stage of growth. Because high-quality pasture is the key to high-quality animal products, many pasture-based ranchers refer to themselves as ‘grassfarmers’ rather than ‘ranchers.’ They raise great grass; the animals do all the rest.”
Not only do cows purportedly like grass better, but their meat is much healthier than their feedlot counterparts. Eat Wild shares, “meat from grass-fed beef, bison, lamb and goats has less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. It also has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and a number of health-promoting fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and ‘conjugated linoleic acid,’ or CLA.” I can testify to this. Our grass-fed beef is incredibly lean which I notice especially when cooking ground beef. There is rarely any fat to drain when I’m done browning it.
For some people, this leaner meat is a negative. They want their meat fatty because it is more flavorful. I remember the first few months of cooking with our grass-fed beef it just smelled different to me. Many people say that it tastes different too; that it has a gamier taste. I think two things factor in here. One, there is a natural adjustment. Just like moving from high fructose corn syrup laden pancake syrup to maple syrup takes a while to adjust, so can going from conventional beef to grass-fed beef. The second thing depends a great deal on how the cow is raised. Different cows eating different grasses are going to taste different. If you are thinking of making the switch and are worried about not liking the way it tastes, maybe start with a smaller portion of meat instead of buying part of a cow. If you don’t like it, try a different farm. I think there is hope for everyone, though. We just have to let our taste buds adjust.
Yes, this is more expensive than conventional beef. However, White Oak Pastures explains the difference in price well, “We do not use hormone implants, confinement feeding, antibiotics, or high carbohydrate feeds. These are tools that science has developed to take costs out of producing beef. When a farmer ceases to use these cost reduction tools, the production costs are added back.” These farmers have to make a living, and thus, the cost for us rises. I think it’s helpful to remember there is cost associated with every choice.
Remember too, not all grass-fed beef is created equal. You still have to ask good questions about everything from pesticide use to antibiotics given. Hopefully you now have a good idea of what kind of beef you will want to purchase (if any!) Next week, we are going to talk about how to buy a cow as it is definitely the cheapest way to get grass-fed beef.