Grassfed beef sales have been exploding over the last few years. Sales rose from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016! As we learn more about our health, many are seeking out grassfed beef over conventional. Yet much of the labeling of beef is inconsistent, and most of the grassfed beef we find comes from overseas.
Locally raised grassfed beef costs more than what you find at the supermarket. Is it worth it? Why should you seek out locally raised grassfed beef over cheaper options?
Conventional Beef Versus Grassfed Beef
To begin with, we need to recognize that all beef you find for sale has eaten grass. The difference between conventional and grassfed is that one is finished on grain and the other, allegedly, remains on pasture for its whole life.
All cows start out grazing on grass for four to six months. Conventionally raised cows are then moved to a feedlot to eat a grain based diet for 180 to 210 days. Around 14 to 16 months of age conventionally raised cattle are then slaughtered.
Cows are fed grain over grass to fatten them up faster. That means cattle can be raised much quicker, costing the farmer less money. Grassfed cows take an additional year to hit market weight, so their meat costs more. Grass is less energy dense than corn and other grains.
Unfortunately, cattle aren’t meant to eat cereal grains instead of grass. Their guts become acidic, so they are fed antibiotics to stop them from developing abscesses in their livers.
More people are seeking out grassfed beef because it tastes better, and has more nutrition. The grassfed cows are (hopefully) raised in a more natural way, and people believe that it is better for the environment, for the animals, and better for our health.
As demand for grassfed beef grows, more farms and companies are moving to the grassfed model. Even Perdue is trying to start up their own brand of American made grassfed beef. Unfortunately, the grassfed beef label isn’t well regulated, so unless you know your farmer, you might not be getting what you think you are.
Locally Raised Grassfed Beef
Back in 2016, Country of Origin Labeling requirements for beef were repealed. Now beef you find in the supermarkets has no labeling about where it comes from. In fact, most of our grassfed beef is imported.
About 75 to 80% of grassfed beef comes from Australia, New Zealand, and parts of South America. There they have a good climate to grow pastured beef year round.
Unfortunately, not all grassfed beef is the real thing. Farms are not inspected, instead they get the grassfed label through paperwork. Sixteen employees oversee half a million labels a year.
Grassfed labeling doesn’t require that animals live freely on pasture. Some of the grassfed beef you find in supermarkets come from cattle raised on grass feedlots. They are confined in pens and fed grass pellets. Other animals are labeled as grass-fed and grain-finished, which means conventionally raised.
Some grassfed beef producers choose to get the American Grassfed Association label. AGA’s requirements go beyond the USDA’s. They do unscheduled farm visits throughout the year, and ensure that the animals only eat grass or forage. They ensure the animals are not confined or given added hormones or unprescribed antibiotics.
There is only one AGA farm in Maryland. If you buy grassfed in the supermarket, seeking out the AGA certification will make sure what you are buying is really grassfed beef.
Buying locally grown grassfed beef is the best option to ensure you are getting a quality product, consistently. You can talk with the farmer, possibly visit the farm, and understand more about how the animals are raised. Locally grown grassfed beef is going to cost more, but it ensures you are getting a high quality product.
In addition, with a local farmer, you can talk with him about the best ways to cook your meat. And you can learn more about different beef cuts and request certain cuts. Different farms, with different forage, may have meat that tastes differently as well. You can try them all and decide which you prefer.
Health Benefits of Grassfed Beef
Conventional beef is considered a nutritious, healthy food for many. Yet grassfed beef is better for you, containing less fat, and higher levels of nutritious fats compared to conventional beef. Less antibiotics and pesticides in the meat helps as well.
Grassfed beef contains less monounsaturated fats, about the same amount of omega 6 fatty acids, yet five times the amount of omega 3s as conventional beef. More omega 3 fatty acids is a good thing, but ultimately the amounts present in beef are not as high as other sources like fish.
However, grassfed beef also has more than twice as much CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) as conventional beef. CLA is an omega 6 fatty acid found primarily in beef and dairy. Long term studies show people who eat more CLA have lower risks from diseases.
CLA can be found in supplements. Unfortunately, CLA supplements usually come from chemically altered vegetable oils, and are not the same thing as what you can get in beef and dairy.
Grassfed beef also contains more vitamin A and E, plus more antioxidants. In general, it is more nutritious, though regular beef also has many nutritional benefits. Local grassfed beef will also come from unstressed animals, who don’t eat lots of antibiotics to keep them healthy and growing.
Is Grassfed Beef Better for the Environment?
Science is mixed when it comes to environmental benefits of grassfed over conventional beef. Cows emit a lot of methane, more if they take longer to grow. Yet grassfed cows, managed well, can improve soil and pasture health, sequestering more carbon.
When looking at grassfed versus conventional beef, if you only consider greenhouse gases, conventional beef is the clear winner. Yet a recent Environmental Research Letter claims that methane emissions would only increase 8% if we switched from conventional cattle to all grassfed cattle in the US.
About 10% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the US come from methane. The majority of it comes from agriculture, with 28% from animal emissions, and 10% from stored manure. Pastured raised animals may live longer and emit more, but they don’t have manure storage emissions.
Another 28% of methane comes from natural gas and petroleum, and 17% from landfills. Though not eating animal products will certainly lower your personal methane footprint, you can also lower it by using less energy and certainly by lowering your own food waste.
In addition, plants do not exist in a vacuum. They need inputs of fertilizers, and well managed pastures can allow for animals and plants to work together to produce both animal and plants that need less outside inputs and are raised more sustainably.
With the increases in grassfed beef productions, more studies are being done to compare environmental benefits between conventional and grassfed cattle. One such study is showing that properly raised, grassfed beef can help mitigate climate change impacts of conventional beef.
In addition, soil and water health improves with pasture raised animals over a feedlot system. There is less runoff of manure and other chemicals into our soil and water.
The inputs to grow the grains and corn that we feed to conventional cattle require more inputs of water, pesticides and fertilizers. This often leads to soil erosion and desertification. It also requires transportation of those grains to the animals, creating more greenhouse gases.
Ultimately, it is easy to argue that eating beef is bad for the environment, whether you eat conventional or locally grown grassfed beef. Yet sustainably raised beef can improve the soil, can increase plant growth, and many believe is important for sustainable agriculture as a whole.
As with so many climate change debates, cows are not the only polluters out there. Lower your waste and your energy usage, and you may just offset the methane that those cows produce. Seek out sustainably raised, locally grown grassfed beef if you want to eat beef.
How does Grassfed Beef Taste?
Grain finished beef became more widespread in the 1950s and has become what we are accustomed to when eating beef. Conventional beef, fattened on grains, usually has more fat (seen as marbling), is more tender, and has a milder flavor.
In comparison, grassfed beef is leaner, can be tougher, and has more flavor than conventional beef. Since most of us grew up eating and cooking conventional beef, you may need to change your cooking techniques for grassfed beef.
The taste of grassfed beef can change based on what it ate and where it was raised. Sticking with a local farmer can mean that the taste you like can be more consistent.
Grassfed beef has been described as gamier, beefier, more like meat. The texture can be chewier, but it depends on how it was cooked. Though there is less fat, that fat has more flavor than conventional steak.
For me, personally, I never used to like hamburgers. Once I learned to cook grassfed beef hamburgers, I couldn’t get enough. I really enjoy the taste of grassfed over conventional, and believe you will too.
Cooking Grassfed Beef
Since grassfed beef has less fat, it may cook up to 30% faster. Add fat to the pan when searing, and keep it at rare to medium rare temperatures.
For roasts and larger cuts, cooking low and slow is ideal. Larger roasts benefit from the slow cooker, while stew meat or short ribs may work better covered in a stew.
Steaks should also be cooked at a lower temperature. They will take less time, so invest in a meat thermometer to ensure your steak is not overcooked. The goal should be to reach 10 degrees of your ideal temperature and allow the steak to rest for ten minutes so it comes to the right temperature.
If you find your meat tougher than you like, you can try tenderizing or ageing it before you cook it. Tenderizing can be done physically (with a mallet), or chemically (with a marinade or salting). There are some great tips from a farm in Georgia about making your beef more tender.
Where to Buy Locally Raised Grassfed Beef
There are over forty farms selling beef in our Baltimore Foodshed. Finding locally grown grassfed beef starts with the map at Baltimore Foodshed. Visit the farm webpages and learn where to buy their products. Contact them to see if grassfed is what they offer.
I recommend starting with hamburger and making some of the most delicious burgers you’ve ever tasted. I also recommend making your own buns to go with them, but just the patties alone with a salad are fabulous. If you have trouble cooking your grassfed beef, talk with your farmer to learn more about how to do it!