Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Grass-fed and Finished

This week we get to go to the fun stuff.
I arrived early enough to catch them in bed! One year old steer in the foreground.  This year's calf, a cow, and our bull, Mr. Winchester in are in the back.

Grass-fed meat is all the rage right now, and for good reason.  I read recently the grass-fed segment of the beef market is booming while the rest of the beef market stagnates.  The authors of the article attribute the consumer popularity of grass-fed to concerns about the wholesomeness of the meat fed in big feedlots, as well as for animal welfare and the environment.  I believe in my heart of hearts that grass-fed meat can be the best on all fronts - healthy meat, contented animals, and more fertile soils.  But as with grain finishing, just because something can be a certain way doesn't mean it is that way all the time.

The term grass-fed encompasses a huge spread of management intensivities.  Some producers put a perimeter fence around a piece of land and turn the herd loose.  Some producers have a few large paddocks they slowly rotate the their cattle through every few months.  Others, like us, use both perimeter and portable electric fencing to allocate a small amount of pasture at a time and then move the herd onto fresh grass every day or so (see photos below).  Daily moving allows adequate rest periods for the grass to recover between grazing events, thus the more palatable species of plants are not munched to death by hovering grazers.  It promotes taller and healthier pasture plants that can tap deeper nutrients in the sub-soil.  It supposedly sequesters carbon into the soil as organic matter much faster than say forests or ungrazed grass.  It keeps the herd clear of its own waste until enough time has elapsed for the manure to reincorporate into the soil.  It reduces erosion since the grass sward is denser and more vigorous, and there is no plowing for the finishing feeds.  It reduces the need for fossil fuels since growing grain requires a lot of diesel for tractors, combines, and trucks for hauling the harvest.

Frequent (more than once per week) moves generally allow for a higher average plane of nutrition in the paddocks the herd has access to every day.  Better nutrition allows cattle to express their genes fully and those that are suitable for grass finishing come to the fore.  Good genes under good management makes for exceptional meat.  Good genes under lax management e.g. turning the herd loose for the entire year in a single large pasture, does not.  Cattle unsuited to grass production will never grow great beef, even under the best management regime.  Management can help the marginally suitable animal achieve full health, and therefore be reasonably tasty on the table.

The take away lesson here is this - the term "grass-fed" does not guarantee a great steak.  In fact, there are plenty of average and even sub-par grass-fed products chasing the price premium it offers.  The best tasting is always grass-fed though, and when one factors in the social, environmental, and animal welfare components of grass vs grain it becomes a no brainer.

Grass farm pastures should not look like golf course fairways.  If they do the animals and the pasture are not going to express their full potential.  Depending on the time of year and most recent cut, hayfields can have a fairly uniform even appearance.

It is hard to judge distances in the photo, but this first image shows one day's worth of grazing.  Look closely and you can see white pigtail posts on both sides of the picture.  This is early morning and I've just moved the cattle into their fresh "break" of grass.  To the left of the herd you can see the effect that 24 hours of animal impact has on a patch of pasture.
The camera flattens the topography.  Here I'm looking up a moderately steep hill toward the cattle.

Getting closer, and a better look at the portable electric fence used to contain the cattle.

Here is another image of impact. We're looking at the ground in the area the animals just finished. Note the mat of grass pushed against the soil, this protects from erosion and feeds worms and microbes.

Here is pasture after roughly a week of regrowth.  That shaggy look is a good thing when it comes to pasture.

Finally, don't forget water.  We buried a line in this pasture and use gravity to pull water where we need it.  That's a 40 gallon plastic tank that is light enough for one person to move easily.

That's it for this week.  I have a little more to say about beef, but I'm going to wrap up in the next week or two.


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