Most of the cattle raised in the Great Lakes region spend their lives in a feedlot, fattening up on corn and other grains before becoming dinner themselves… but there’s a growing number of organic farmers looking at putting their cows in the pasture. They say grass-fed beef is a healthy alternative. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder has more:
Most of the cattle raised in the Great Lakes region spend their lives in a feedlot, fattening up on
corn and other grains before becoming dinner themselves. But there’s a growing number of
organic farmers looking at putting their cows in the pasture. They say grass-fed beef is a healthy
alternative. Brad Linder has more:
(Sound of cows mooing)
Here on Natural Acres Farm in Millersburg, in Central Pennsylvania, 120 cows have their heads
to the ground. They’re chewing on tender shoots of grass instead of ground corn or some mixture
of grain feed.
Steve Shelley is in charge of marketing beef for Natural Acres. He says cows are designed to eat
grass, but most farmers today find it cheaper and easier to buy commercial feed made from grains
“You know farmers nowadays. Well that’s the way their dads did it, so they’re doing the same
thing. It’s much easier to go out and dump a bucket of feed into a pen for that animal to eat than
it is for that animal to be out, to get the best benefit from the soil.”
And Shelley says another reason most farmers use grain feed is that it takes longer to raise cattle
on grass. Grain-fed cows are ready for slaughter within a year, but Natural Acres cows can take
six months to a year longer to reach the same size.
But Shelley says that convenience for the farmer comes at a cost to the cattle. Shelley says cows
raised on corn get sick more often than grass-fed cattle. As preventative measures, cows
traditionally have antibiotics mixed in with their feed and require frequent visits from the
Cows on organic farms are naturally healthier. And since Shelley’s marketing his product to
consumers interested in “healthier meat,” the animals also don’t receive growth hormones or other
chemicals often found in commercial beef.
Natural Acres runs an organic foods shop on-site. But Shelley says the market for such products
is pretty small in rural Central Pennsylvania. Most of the beef isn’t sold here. Instead, much of it
is shipped to restaurants and stores, where people are willing to pay premium prices.
“In a grocery store, you may pay anywhere from a $1.75/pound to $2.00 for a pound of beef.
Retail, we get $4.09.”
Being able to charge more for beef is only one of the perks to raising cattle on grass. The farmers
who raise grass-fed beef don’t have to pay as much to the veterinarian.
“The animals rarely get sick. And I have talked to hundreds of people who raise animals on
Jo Robinson is author of the book, “Why Grass Fed is Best.” She also runs the website
‘eatwild.com,’ which compiles research on grass-fed cattle.
“The big surprise, I think – and this wasn’t known until about 1998 – is that an animal raised on
pasture has five times the amount of cancer fighting fat called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA.”
Robinson says CLA helps prevent cows from developing tumors. There is some evidence
suggesting CLA has the same effect on humans, but it’s not yet clear if eating grass-fed beef is a
way for people to fight off cancer.
Robinson does point out that CLA is just one of the reasons there’s a growing demand for grass-
“Some people gravitate towards pasture finished meat because it’s free of hormones and
antibiotics. Some people are aware of the nutritional benefits. They like the fact that it’s lower in
saturated fat, higher in omega 3 fatty acids, higher in vitamin E, and a number of other
substances. It’s simply a healthier product all around.”
Robinson says she first started looking for American grass-farmers in 1997, and only found about
sixty. Now, she says, the market has grown to include at least ten times that number, which still
only represents a small portion of the American Beef Industry.
Paul Slayton is director of the Pennsylvania Beef Council, the non-profit organization charged
with promoting the state’s beef industry. Slayton says less than 1% of the state’s beef production
comes from grass farms. But he says those farms do fill an important role.
“I see it being a very viable part of our production in this part of the country, because we have
such an eclectic consumer group. And there are some consumers that just won’t eat anything else
but organic. And somebody’s going to be providing their food.”
As the beef industry is recovering from public concern over mad cow disease and e. coli bacteria,
Slayton says anything that convinces people meat is safe is fine by him.
And as for the taste of grass-fed beef, Steve Shelley from Natural Acres Farm says it might be
more familiar than many people think.
“Many times when I go and do a taste test at a store or something, a lot of the older people, when
they try it, make the comment: ‘This tastes like beef used to taste.'”
Shelley says the meat is leaner and can be tougher if cows aren’t fed a little grain before slaughter.
But Natural Acres is experimenting with different types of grass that might lend a more
consumer-friendly texture to the beef.
Shelley says it’s a combination of taste and nutrition that gets most people interested, even some
people who had given up on commercial beef altogether. Shelley tells one story about a man
who’s wife had banned meat from their house for five years.
“So he bought a hamburger and finally got her to try it, and at the end of the day, he gave me a high five, and he said, ‘I can eat beef
again! She’s given me permission to bring beef into the house!’ Well, that really makes you feel
So grass-fed beef is entering households that hadn’t seen any beef in a while for environmental
reasons or because of health concerns. While the beef might be a taste of days gone by, organic
farmers are getting better prices for their meat than even in the best of days past.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.