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A Brief History of Grass-Fed Beef

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Photo by VirtualErn

A few months ago, there was a TV commercial that compared the driving experience in a high performance sports car to eating grass-fed beef. I’ve since forgotten the details about what kind of car it was, but the comparison was memorable and apt: being a producer (and consumer) of grass-fed beef has been quite a ride over the past few years.

To give the journey some perspective, here’s an example that dates back nearly twenty years. In the summer of 1985, some of my former college buddies and I decided to get together for a horseback trip into the mountains of Wyoming. Each of us was assigned a meal. As we sat down to lunch one day, one of the guys—an engineer and MBA—pulled out a couple cans of Argentine beef. There was another rancher there and we were both incredulous. What were we doing eating Argentine beef in the high mountains of the Cowboy State? The experience as pretty humorous, but the reality check was a little more serious.

Making the Case for Grass-Fed Beef

Even though the USA has long been a net exporter of beef, there has been a decades-long love affair in some areas for Argentine grass-fed beef. How could this be? Argentina is a long ways away. Here we are in a nation of giant feedlots, huge packing plants, a multitude of restaurants serving USDA prime or choice beef and there is still a demand for lean, stringy, grass-fed beef from half a world away? Why?

In short, here we are in 2011 finally realizing that our giant, conglomerated, subsidized, feedlot beef industry may not be the best model for clean, nutritious, healthy, flavorful, and enjoyable meat eating. Prior to 1950 or so, virtually all of our beef and lamb in this country was grass fed. Grain was too scarce and precious to feed to ruminant animals that were very capable of digesting grass and other forage as the main component of their diet. Beef and lamb were consumed near their point of origin and each area of the country had their regional preferences and flavors. With the rise of the feedlot industry, beef has become a homogenous product graded and specified by the government to fit a specific mold—and thus, losing the character it once had.

Back to Basics: Eating Our Grandparents’ Beef

At last, here we are finally getting “back to the future” with our beef eating. It’s kind of a rocky road as we re-learn the stuff our grandparents or great grandparents knew and took for granted. Things like the difference between an immature grass-fed animal and a mature grass-finished animal. How to cut and prepare the meat. How to age and hold the meat. The seasonal changes in flavors. The effects of animal husbandry practices on the environment. The effects on consumer health. The economics and sustainability of grass-fed meats. And even how the political climate affects our meat choices. In future articles, I’ll share insights into my experiences as a grass-fed beef producer with you, and I look forward to a lively discussion on these topics.

In the meantime, I implore you: enjoy the ride to your nearest purveyor of grass-fed beef and get on the “chuck” wagon of a trendy yet old-fashioned dining experience.

Editor’s Note: Hey, meat eaters! Can you tell the difference between grass-fed and corn-fed cattle? Chime in below!

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  • Slashbranch

    Yes, I can tell the dirrerence in our grass fed beef here at home as I cook our meals with beef right out of the freezer. Since there is discrimination against a “longhorn” looking calf at sale time, we eat the most marked up calves and sell our angus/longhorn cross calves that show less markings and more black. I have to add oil to the pan to cook ground meat, not drain off fat after. The meat is tender and has a great taste. As far as going to the local steakhouse and having a steak, I enjoy getting out with friends and having someone else do the cooking, but I cannot say that the meat is as good, tastewise.  

  • John Sowansky

    I can taste the difference between grass fed and ‘store bought’ beef.  But that is only half of the difference.  Can you older folks; like me; recall at what age puberty was when we were in school.  As I recall in was in 7th grade, or about 13 years old.  Now it’s closer to 10 years old. Hmmmm!  Of course, kids eating beef at home and at the fast food shops with bovine growth hormones and antibiotics have nothing to do with it.  That just makes the calves grow faster. (please say you got the sarcasm)

  • Trinity Land & Cattle Company

    I don’t know which feedlot you’re referring to, but I have worked in feedlots and antibiotics were not fed in low doses or otherwise to keep the cattle healthy. 
    There is a set of “hospital pens” where sick cattle are segregated and administered appropriate meds including but not exclusively antibiotics.  They went through a 3 day round of meds then were turned out in a larger “convelescent” area.  When it was determined that they were well, they were returned to the “general population”.  At that time there was a strict 45 day period between the last administration of drugs and slaughter date.  Nothing went to the packer before that period had passed.
    I agree whole-heartedly that grass fed beef is safer and more nutritious but get your fact right about feedlot practices before you make those general statements.

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John Brady is one of a now-rare breed of farmer-ranchers who comes from an unbroken chain of family farmers going back multiple generations. He is the third generation currently farming the same land in Idaho. After earning a degree in Agronomy and a Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics, borrowing money, and participating in USDA farm commodity programs during the 1970s, he has finally overcome most of that to be a maverick in doing things the “new old-fashioned” way, working with nature to raise beef the way it was intended: on grass, legumes and forage. Watch John move cows at, read the Brady’s Beef blog and keep up to date on all things Brady’s Beef on Twitter.