Grass-fed beef sees increased popularity

Farm Forum

The popularity of grass-fed beef is on the rise as many consumers are becoming more health conscious in choosing their food items.

At K Creek Ranch in Gary, manager Jessica Kruse said there are certain breeds of cattle that create flavorful, grass-fed beef.

“The thing with grass-fed beef is you need to have the right genetics to get the right flavor. With some breeds, they’re not getting enough (feed) to grow. I have Angus, Hereford, Galloway, Irish Black, British White and Salers,” Kruse said.

The right breeding paired with the right feeding techniques produce a top-notch product, Kruse said.

“We do 100 percent grass-fed. We don’t do any kind of grain substitute. We’re grazing the cattle throughout the grazing season. It’s all based on grasses and legumes. We also do no added hormones or antibiotics as well. You’re going to get a little bit stronger beef flavor with grass-fed beef, it’s really a rich deep flavor,” she said.

In order to be certified as grass-fed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.

“Animals certified under this program cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season,” according to the USDA website.

There’s a premium on grass-fed beef because of the consistent cost it takes to feed the cattle, Kruse said.

“The grass-fed market — the prices that it takes to make them — doesn’t change the way grain-fed does. It doesn’t rely on the prices of commodities. Land value is fairly consistent,” she said.

Kruse said there’s an increasing supply of grass-fed beef in the Midwest — more so than there is in the east. There’s a greater supply of the needed feed in the Midwest, she said.

“We started this just a few years ago. We raised corn-fed beef close to four or five years ago. When we first started, it was hard to move to grass-fed beef,” Kruse said.

But as more information on the health benefits of grass-fed beef has become available, there’s been more consumer demand, she said.

“We had to create that consumer education. We don’t have to put in near as much effort to sell the beef. People are coming to us now, and we’ve actually increased our supply,” she said.

Kruse said about 60 beef cattle are finished each year at K Creek Ranch.

Holly Swee, director of nutrition and consumer education for the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, said both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle have health benefits that consumers can choose from to cater to their liking.

“The thing to remember is that if you have those feeding practices — whether it’s grass-fed or grain-finished — if you feed that animal a little bit more grain, you actually increase the monounsaturated fatty acid, which is great for heart health. If you feed that animal more grass during the finishing phase, you get an uptick of omega-3 fatty acids. Both products are good,” she said.

Swee said there are some differences in the fat content of grass-fed and grain-fed cattle.

“It all comes down to the animal. Generally speaking, grass-fed is a small amount leaner — not a significant amount,” Swee said.

Shannon Sand, the livestock business manager at the Aberdeen Regional Extension Center, said there has been an increase in demand for value-added and niche market beef in recent years.

“My guess is it’s due in large part due to health concerns among U.S. consumers,” she said.

Although Kruse said raising grass-fed beef is associated with more consistent input costs, Sand said it’s not cheaper than raising grain-fed beef.

“Raising grass-fed beef, it’s not cheaper … as you generally have to keep the animal longer in order to finish it out, so there is additional time and cost involved as well as the grass-fed certifications, which have to be kept up,” Sand said.

That is reflected at the grocery store, as customers pay more — often considerably more — for grass-fed beef than for traditional grain-fed beef.

For Matt Ochsner, owner of Concord Farms just west of Aberdeen, the decision to raise grass-fed beef was not made because of consumer trends, rather because of the soil health benefits.

“We try to stay no-till and keep the soil covered with cover crops,” Ochsner said.

“Here is the kind of thing that I believe in with cover crop — a nature conservancy group that owns pasture up by Leola bought about 2,200 acres in Illinois and turned it back into native prairie. Well, about seven years after they turned it into native prairie, they had noxious weeds come up. They couldn’t figure out why. They had come to find out that they needed some form of livestock or buffalo. So they actually went out and got 15 buffalo from Custer and let them free roam this pasture. All the organic stuff that was coming up, it was beautiful, but it needed something to lay it on the ground so the earthworms and insects could get to it,” Ochsner explained.

He said he believes a grass-fed animal is a healthier animal than one fed grain, even if it has less meat on its bones.

“With a grass-fed animal, you’re only going to gain a pound or two and a half a day. Your grain-fed animal is going to gain about five on that. One thing that we have to understand is when we feed a grass-fed animal, we base that diet upon mega-calories. A true grass-fed animal gets hay and alfalfa and maybe a little bit of silage,” Ochsner said.

The number of mega-calories in hay, alfalfa and silage is much lower than in grains, he said.

A mega calorie is equal to 1,000 food calories, he said.

Ochsner said it’s healthier if an animal is getting proper exercise when it’s being fed so many calories. Some feedlot animals don’t get that needed exercise, he said.

“You can go into a feedlot and you can see a healthy animal and you can see a very pushed animal. When we calve-out cows in the spring, if they don’t walk 2 miles a day, they have to leave. They have to walk 2 miles a day to be strong enough to give birth or else they won’t be able to push the calf out. It’s just the rule of the land,” Ochsner said.

Processing the meat is a little more difficult for grass-fed beef producers, he added.

“Grass-fed beef always has to go first in the day because the grinder is cleaned out and you have to know that you’re product is the only product within it. There’s not a lot of small-kill plants that are USDA-inspected,” Ochsner said.

But that doesn’t change the consumer demand for grass-fed beef, which Ochsner feels is increasing.

“The industry is changing in how people want their food,” he said.

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