Very specific questions - like how is Grass-Fed Beef "Finished"?
A few years ago, I met with the same frustration. For the life of me, I couldn't wrap my head around why the concept of Grass-Fed and Finishing Beef was so hard to research. Even today, I hawk daily for nuggets of information regarding this totally foreign concept. Oh, I am not talking about the fake stuff imported from overseas and distributed by technology companies like "butcher box" in Massachusetts - I mean the real deal, real Ranchers who know how to grow cattle on grass and make them taste good. Guys and gals who understand ecology, care for our earth and have a soul-filled yearning for sustainably.
Why was the skill of Grass-Finishing Beef so rare? Why is it so hard to find good, talented and proficient Finishers in the industry? Why are large, supermarket supplying companies taking so many short-cuts, by feedlotting beef and calling it "grass-fed" because it had one blade of grass two years ago?
What could be so hard about this... isn't grass everywhere? Just let the Cows out and feed them...
To answer these and other questions, we must first lay some basic guidelines, define some essential terms and understand where we have come from, before knowing where we are going.
The conventional cattle industry is split into three main sections, delineated by time. These are "Cow-calf", "Stocker" and "Finisher" operations. They describe, loosely, the three stages of life; Birth and weaning for "Cow-calf", teenage years for "Stocker" and the final stage of life where the animal is fattened for slaughter - known as "Finishing". Each of these three stages are separate enterprises, meaning that companies own one stage, but rarely or never two or all three. Subsequently, they collect revenues when they sell or transfer their "crop" from one stage to the next. So, in essence, a "Cow-calf" operator's job is done when a "Stocker" operation purchase their calves and moves them to their facility for "stocking". This process is repeated until a "Finisher" sells a full-grown, fat beef to a slaughterhouse for processing and eventual shipment to the grocery store shelf.
Ok, so now you have that, right? Cow-Calf, Stocker and Finisher - three stages, all distinct, all separate.
This chain of events has been in existence for many years. Companies have learned to specialize in each segment. They have refined, honed and perfected their operations for profitably. The system works with modern, breathtaking efficiency, until it doesn't...
In recent years, mountains of evidence have been collected to prove that Grass-Finished Beef is healthier for the consumer than Conventional Beef. The same can be said for the environmental impacts, and for the health of the animals involved. All three of these precepts witness against the current, industrial, confined Beef growing operation - and with the introduction of the world wide web public opposition to them is gaining ground at an alarmingly fast rate.
The departure from conventional to Grass-Fed and Finished Beef comes just prior to the last stage. This last stage, known as "Finishing" is where the CAFOs or, Confined Area Feed Operations exist. These animal torture centers are the apex of cruelty. Activists rage at the mention of these facilities - and rightly so!
They are truly an abomination.
But, the industry sees them as necessary and functional. Only confined animals, allowed little movement and no other free choice of food will voluntarily consume large portions of grains and corn for fattening. This produces the intramuscular fats that the average American consumer desires on their plate - but it comes at a price. The obesity epidemic, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, that is now slightly larger than the state of New Jersey and the recent flooding of CAFOs resulting in the breech of manure ponds washing into rivers as this summer's hurricanes blew ashore are only a few of terrible consequences of this type of food production.
Not only does Grass Fed and Finished Beef not have these terrible consequences, but, to the contrary, pasture-based production systems enhance the environment, sequester carbon, produce a superior health product all while allowing the Farmers who care for them to sleep sound knowing that their animals are not being raised in a manner contrary to nature - like knee-deep in their own manure.
Conventional Beef cattle are fattened on grains and corn - all grown on the nicest farmland (called "class 1 & 2 soils"). These nutrients, in the form of harvest crops such as corn, are then transferred to a Finishing operation, or "feedlot" (commonly called a CAFO), by truck or train. Cattle are fed these feeds to fatten them quickly, often in as little as 180 days. This produces a "Finished" Beef in 18 to 21 months total time from birth to butcher.
Kinda gives a new meaning to the term "fast food" huh?
In contrast, true Grass-Finished beef is never sent to a feedlot or CAFO. These cattle are given the richest, fast growing, high carbohydrate grasses to add a layer of external and intermuscular fat to their bodies. This requires exceptional grass, soils and symbiotic, carefully planned cattle-to-grass management process. Producing this type of Beef, using only Grass, Sunlight, Water and Intuition is truly an art.
It is for this reason that commodity style, conventional Ranchers have always seen cattle as a way to add value to otherwise useless land - land that could not be developed, farmed in crops, etc.
With conventional, factory beef, at the finishing stage, the carbohydrate inputs (grains, corn) come from somewhere else, so the land is basically a "holding facility" for the cattle to be fed on while they eat. The land could be useless - they could use an old tennis court if needed. It would make no difference if grass was growing there or not. Conventional "Finishers" just need a place to feed.
Grass-Fed Finishing Ranches, such as ours are totally different. They see the land as adding value to cattle. In this way, we focus on soil to grow nutrient-dense grass. Then the cattle harvest that nutrient dense grass directly (without the use of petroleum intense equipment) and transfer that value, through nutrients, directly into the animal's tissue and fat for sale. This is an entirely new and different approach. It also takes an additional 10 months to "Grass-Finish" Beef.
And, in farming, like any other business enterprise, time is money!
So, then, why is Grass-Finishing so hard? Well, for one, no one teaches it. You need to learn it as you go, or as the old saying goes... "On the Job Training (o.j.t.) is the only Way". Overgraze your grass, an the beeves you are raising will be lean, flavorless and tough. Under Graze the grass and it will grow to maturity (giving it an off-taste to the cattle), lose nutrition and be useless. Grass Grazers are always walking a tightrope between over and under grazing while balancing the re-growth and biodiversity under their feet. We work tirelessly to manage the pressure on grass, in terms of foot lbs/acre - so as not to damage the soils, yet reinvigorate with proper manure dispersion. We time movements, to replicate what nature does with predators motivating a large herd of herbivores to move. And make darn sure the plants are pruned correctly, and rested between grazing rotations.
One thing can be sure. Grass-Finishers care about the grass, and subsequently about the soil. It is the resource base for their operation. If abused, their venture fails. It's that simple. You will never find a proficient Grass-Finisher who is not in some way, deeply concerned about the environment and the ecosystem he and his cattle are plugged into.
Now, perhaps, you see why is it so hard to find these folks - they are a rare breed indeed.
But, you may also see why Grass-Finishers are so interested in biodiversity, resilience and sustainability. Frankly, its our job - you try your hardest at work, right? We do too. It means more to the bottom line. It feels good to succeed. When we see plants flourishing, wild species working in conjunction with our large herbivores, and carbon being sequestered at twice the rate we are producing it - we feel good!
Come join us...