Featured Meat

What Else Are They Feeding Grass-Fed Beef?

March 17, 2017

Grass-fed beef was supposed to be the best. Cows eating grass, right? I mean, even within that category, ranchers even started calling their cattle “grass-finished” just to make sure we understood their cows ate grass from beginning to end. So then…what else are they feeding grass-fed beef?

Another One Bites the Dust

It’s more than a little frustrating to find out that most grass-finished cattle are finished on…you guessed it, not grass. Instead, most ranchers fatten them up for the last 4 or so months of their lives.

They do this by feeding cattle carb-y mixes of sugar beets, beet pulp, almond hulls, soybean hulls, and more. Why? Because there’s simply not enough knee-high grass (the type a cow likes to graze) to bring a cow up to slaughter weight. At least, not if you’re going to raise cattle for a living or do it as anything more than a hobby farm. Meanwhile, there are plenty of those commodity crop by-products (pulp from sugar beets, hulls of almonds and soybeans) to lean on as a supplement. 

Where is This Info Coming From?

If you google “What else are they feeding grass-finished beef?”, you won’t find much in regards to what I’m saying. That’s because most of the ranches doing this have built their reputation on feeding their animals only grass. The reality is that they’re simply not grain-finishing their cattle. 

A rancher with over 20 years of experience in the industry and intimate knowledge of cattle programs throughout California broke the harsh truth to me. I asked him if this was prevalent or just pertained to a handful of farms? He estimated that 90% of grass-finished cattle are raised this way.

Now, this is all anecdotal and just coming from one source, so it’s important to not get married to the accuracy of the number. But, what struck me more than that was the prevalence of the practice. It reminded me that instead of relying on food labels, buying directly from farmers and ranchers gives me the easiest path to making educated choices about my food.

Should Cattle Even Be Eating That Stuff?

It depends, but generally, it’s alright. The feeds I mentioned above are still carb-y. And they can fatten a cow up to slaughter size. But they are also immeasurably better for the animal’s digestive tract than corn and soy, which is what the conventional factory farms use. And grass-finished cattle operations tend to raise their animals in dramatically better conditions than industrial-scale operations.

If that’s the case, it represents a silver-lining concession of the slow food movement: compromising to a point, but moving the needle towards sustainability and away from our demonstrably unsustainable current food production system. It’s still a helpful designation if we’re buying our meat at the grocery store – choosing non-industrial meat remains a major win, even if we find out it’s not as perfect as hoped. And I continue to denounce factory farming of animals, in any form, on its well documented negative environmental, ethical, and health impacts.

I have so much respect for ranchers who are trying to raise cattle the right way, but this just feels deceptive. It’s honestly okay with me if cows eat some vegetable culls or some (non-corn and -soy) grain forage such as barley. I just wish ranchers would be transparent about that: label your stuff as pastured or whatever else, but don’t call it grass-finished if the animal spent the last 20% of its life eating something other than grass.

We Don’t Like Labels 

Like characters in a rom-com, I get frustrated by labels. And learning this kind of stuff reminds me not to be too militant about them. Not because the efforts are unworthy, but because the labels themselves tend to poorly capture what’s actually going on. Reality is complex. 

This is a huge reason why I’m so into buying directly. For example, I can ask “is your beef grass-finished” to a rancher and get an uninformative “yes/no” answer. And in the process I wouldn’t learn what they feed their animals, how their animals live, whether their feed is trucked in from across the country, how they acquire energy to run their ranch, whether they ship their animals to another state to be slaughtered, what the slaughter process is like, and so on.

By flipping our question into “How do you raise and feed your animals?”, we are poised to learn. When that happens, we don’t need a label – we can make up our own minds based on common sense and how their answer sits with us. And like most of us, I just want to know that folks on the production end of the food system are doing it responsibly. 

I think that’s important. There are plenty of small ranches out there that embody sustainability without labels. Many of them have been doing it for decades because it just made sense. Maybe they’re not organic, even though they use those practices. Maybe they feed their animals barley forage (a form of grain cows can tolerate), but grow and process it on the property. Perhaps their entire ranch runs on solar electricity or runs its own breeding program or slaughter program on site. Or all of these.

A Few Tips for Moving Forward

Right or not, learning the loopholes is frustrating. Just when you think you’re making a good choice (and coughing up your hard earned dollars to do so), the ground shifts underneath you. Still, it’s a good reminder. Our definitions of sustainability evolve. Which is why I suggest the following: worry less on labels. Think more deeply about the quality of the questions we ask and the depth of the answers we receive.

If we’re going to draw lines around something, be prepared for others to color within those lines in ways we didn’t expect. Getting too religious about any one category is dangerous and often misses the point. I prefer to think of ranchers the same way I think about politicians. It’s highly unlikely that they’re going to do things exactly the way I personally want. So I tend to pick ones who I believe are acting intelligently and thoughtfully (in this case, with regard to the land, the farm, and me).

Eating today is tremendously complicated, but doesn’t have to be. If we invest in ourselves as critical thinkers and good question askers, then buying food can return to a social and cultural exercise, rather than an academic one. When you’re having a conversation, you can count so much more heavily on common sense and gut reactions. And for the record, any reputable ranch will invite you to their property if you ask them. Or maybe their word is good enough. Or maybe their answer sucks, and you simply don’t shop with them. That’s the beauty of it.

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