Farmers who are raising animals on pasture face numerous challenges, not the least of which is how to distinguish their product in the marketplace. The USDA is working on standardizing terms for “grass-fed” and “pastured” for poultry and beef. Unfortunately, it appears that the big players have already co-opted those terms, making them useless for the farmers who are committed to raising their animals on grass, outside, from birth to death (or, as it is euphemistically called, “harvest.”) Much of the “grass-fed” beef (and bison) comes from animals that were on pasture for only a few months, and then finished with grain.
It’s not easy and it’s not cheap to raise a steer on grass, and only grass. You have to have a lot of land. You have to be able to rotate pasture. You have to have enough rainfall, but not too much. You can’t be under several feet of snow for months. And then you have to be able to slaughter and package and ship it.
Last week, I got to taste true grass-fed beef, raised by Burgundy Pasture Beef, owned by the Taggart family, who ranch in Texas. I tasted their steak in a blind taste test; the other product was corn-fed beef. Neither was tough (as grass-fed is often accused of), but the grass-fed had wonderful flavor – beefy but not gamey. The corn-fed beef was boring.
The Taggarts have worked hard to get a consistent product. Raising beef like this isn’t simply a matter of letting animals stay outdoors. The Taggarts pay close attention to the quality of grass in their fields; they don’t overgraze. They use a cattle breed that produces the sort of beef they want. Their animals are slaughtered much later than grain-fed beef, so that the meat gets a layer of fat and marbling. They also cut and age the meat themselves in a state-of-the art facility. The taste I had was exceptionally good.
Although they don’t have the economies of scale and the quick turnover that the feedlot producers have, Wendy Taggart pointed out that they are also not at the mercy of rising grain and fuel costs. In the long run, they, and their customers, should do just fine.