A Brief History of Grass-Fed Beef
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!