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Ask Farmer Pete - Grass Fed vs. Pastured Beef

What does it mean for beef to be grass-fed?

I guess it’s kind of a broad topic. It could mean different things to different people. But for us, for it to be done successfully and for us to be producing and growing well, there has to be some type of rotational grazing method. In our area, most people don’t have the acreage to do anything else. Out west, they’re raising thousands of cattle on thousands of acres. Here we have to utilize what we have and work with it the best we can. I only have 100 acres and only 90 for beef. At our other property, I have even less land than that. It’s all about rotating the cattle.

I move ours at least daily, and sometimes twice a day. It increases your yield because you’re never overworking the forage. You’re never stressing it because the cattle are only on it for a short period of time. They aren’t stomping or eating it down too much. This encourages growth in the ground and life in the soil. The cows collect soil energy from the grass and then give it back in their waste.

So the grass-fed beef eats only grass?

They eat only grass and minerals. I’ve found that kelp meal is the best and they seem to like it. So they get only grass and minerals, no grain supplements. I like to call the nutritional grass “ice cream.” It’s about 8-12 inches tall and very palatable. The cows do a good job of eating it down pretty clean. So I’m constantly putting them on new “ice cream.”

The cows grow well on it, they get excited every day. They’re smart animals, they get used to the routine. All I have to do is call them and they’ll come straight into the next paddock. They’re literally kicking up their heels. You can tell they appreciate it. By working with these animals every day, you can tell that it’s unnatural for them to be in one area for a long period of time. In nature, they move and eat, move and eat. And out west, they’re able to do this on the big farms because they have the acreage. We try to simulate that here as best we can by using electric temporary fencing and moving them daily. You don’t realize how heavy these animals are. Just walking around works the grass. And when they compact the soil too much, that stresses the forage and the perennial grass won’t grow back.

We make the most out of what we have here, moving them as frequently as possible. The grass-fed are truly grass-fed. They get new grass every day, which also encourages the ecosystem on the farm. And you get a higher quality meat. All the way around, it’s eco-friendly, humane, ethical. It’s how the cows like to be raised.

What does it mean for beef to be pastured?

The pastured beef are grown on grain. This would be for people who want a fattier meat. We don’t sell quite as many of these as the grass-fed. The pastured beef are supplemented with hay or grain. They’re still on pasture, so they’re still getting fresh air and sunlight every day, but they aren’t being moved as frequently. They get everything they want - forage, grain, corn. It’s a fattier beef. Typically, they’re put out on pasture and they have a shelter where they come in to feed. There’s multiple paddocks, but they aren’t intensively grazed. Our neighbors raise our pastured beef right now. Tim has talked about doing it ourselves and that might be something we want to do down the line to get the best of both worlds.

Is there a difference when cooking these meats?

The grass-fed is leaner. So if you’re cooking a steak, you’re going to need to slow cook it. Somebody out there might have a good way of making it work on a grill, but I haven’t figured it out yet. As far as I know, the grass-fed beef doesn’t go on the grill. The pastured beef is fattier, so you can just throw it on the grill, sear it on both sides, and it’s ready to eat.

Which meat do you prefer?

I prefer the grass-fed. That may be because it’s what I grow and I know that my cows are spoiled. People think I’m crazy for raising them the way I do, but I love it. Nothing beats the taste of that grass-fed beef after it’s been slow-cooked for awhile.

Which method is more labor-intensive?

The grass-fed is pretty labor-intensive. The grain supplemented cows grow faster, so they’re ready in about a year. The grass-fed takes more like a year and a half to two years to fully mature, so you’re working with them longer. Actually, most of my work revolves around getting water where I need it. I have around 20 paddocks set up and all of them need water at some point. The cattle are well trained, so all I have to do is open the gate and they walk right in.

There’s always fence work to be done though. Deer tend to run through them pretty often. I have to maintain the electricity and make sure nothing is shorted out. I’ve used dummy wire a few times though and never had a problem. The cattle will start to know the paddock and they’ll stay inside. It’s the pigs who get out. The cattle come to know the lines and they don’t push them. They’re never hungry so they have no reason to try and get out.

Which meat do you think customers prefer?

We get a lot of customers asking about our grass-fed beef. It’s really a personal preference though. Some people were brought up to only eat the pastured beef. I try not to press people too hard either way. Some people come into the market and they’re really interested in the whole process. I always take the time to explain our methods if they’re interested. Then you get some other people who don’t care as much and they’re certainly entitled to that attitude. But if people come in asking about our meat, I love talking to them. It’s something that’s really fun for me and I enjoy sharing it with people.

It sounds like raising the cattle is a labor of love for you.

It definitely is. I love the way we raise beef. One of my favorite things to do in the morning is to go out and move the cattle. I play the harmonica and call to them and they call right back. They’ll come running over, make some thunder and stop at the gate. They go right in after I open it. I love that we’re supporting the entire ecosystem of the farm too. We’re building a solid soil structure and it shows. There’s a difference in the ground. Anywhere you dig in our pastures, there’s worms everywhere. The ground breeds well and tills well because we don’t overgraze it. We’re making the ground stronger every year. I’m constantly trying to build new pastures so I can move the cattle more frequently.

Mob grazing would be the goal. That would mean moving the cattle up to four or five times a day. But right now, I’m just trying to set the landscape. The gameplan is to use the living hedgerow as a barrier for the cattle because they won’t push it if they’re well-fed. It provides a place for more wildlife to mingle and the more life the better. We encourage all life on the farm. If we have more diversity, that only makes the ecosystem stronger. That’s why we have so many different types of livestock on the farm and multiple species getting rotated. That all makes it hard for a species-specific pathogen to target. We don’t give them medicine, growth stimulants or hormones. They’re healthy animals without any extra help and it really shows in our meat.

Are there any other farms around who raise cattle the way you do?

I don’t know many of them personally but there are other farms around here. I’m not sure of their methods. I know of at least one who raises them the same way I do. They’re around but a lot of farmers aren’t very good at marketing themselves. I’m definitely one of them. But I can talk all day about it if you ask me.

Any final thoughts on grass-fed and pastured beef?

Winter is the time to buy red meat. It’s warm food. We’re going to have plenty of beef ready for the winter, so buy now. You’ll have some of the freshest meat around, all winter long. Eat your cold mood foods. Red meat is one of the best.

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