Down On The Grass-Fed Farm: The Beef May Be Better, But It's Still Damn Hard Work

Categories: Chewing the Fat
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Jayme Rutledge
Marguerite Robbins with her cattle.
Sweat pours down Marguerite's sun-baked face. She feels briars scratching through her dusty jeans. The buzzing and biting of mosquitoes is maddening. So is the old fence lining one of the back pastures. It's broken again.

Marguerite stops what she's doing. Why in the heck am I doing this? she asks herself.

Running the 142-acre east Texas cattle ranch she owns near Greenville with her husband Doug is back-breaking work. Marguerite, 55, does it mostly alone, but that doesn't deter her. "I don't actually mind it all that much," she says.

The Robbinses have been raising grass-finished cattle for five years. Ranches like theirs that raise grass-finished cattle make up a small fraction of the national beef industry, however. In Texas, the biggest cattle producing state in the country, most cattle at the 149,000 farms and ranches statewide are finished in feedlots and fattened on feed before being shipped to market. Grass-finished beef differs because cattle consume only their mother's milk, grass or hay from birth until market. They are never fed grain, or given hormones or antibiotics. It has surged in popularity over the last decade as demand for feedlot finished beef has fallen, taking prices with it.

Therein lies the struggle--the annual bout with prices and growth rates. In mid-August, the average price for beef cattle nationally was $80.30 per cwt (per hundredweight, or 100 lbs. in the U.S.), $15.50 lower than the same time last year. Prices in Texas have followed a similar pattern. According to Dr. David Anderson at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service, prices in southern Texas have dropped because drought is forcing ranchers to sell off cattle they can no longer support. But on the flip side, smaller herds could cause prices to soar once demand goes back up.

At least five dozen ranches in Texas naturally raise beef, poultry and pork for farmers and restaurants. Grass-finished beef is more expensive than beef purchased in most grocery stores because of the time and effort required to raise cattle naturally. Despite the price, sales for grass-finished beef have grown, riding the herd of consumers seeking healthier food choices.

Most calves eat grass for at least a few months, but mature cattle at feedlots eat grain, like corn, and hay along with vitamin and mineral supplements. Ear implants release small amounts of hormones to produce faster weight gain. As a result, feedlot cattle are ready for harvest much quicker than their grass-finished counterparts.

But the wait may be worth it. Many health professionals contend grass-finished cattle produce beef products with lower total fat and calories as well as higher Omega-3 levels, similar to those found in fish like salmon, trout and herring. The Food and Drug Administration says Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent coronary heart disease; other research suggests they may also prevent stroke and some cancers. All of which explains why hundreds of customers have bought from the My Rancher meat market since the store opened in May 2008.

Most of My Rancher's patrons live within a 50-mile radius of the Robbins' ranch, but around 10% of the business comes from the Internet. Before the 2008 summer Olympics, a former professional athlete expressed keen interest in the Robbins' hormone-free beef for athletes competing in Beijing. They turned down the opportunity, realizing they weren't equipped to process or ship an order of that size.

Standing behind the counter at the My Rancher store in Greenville, Doug is dressed like the businessman rancher he is: blue jeans, ostrich boots and a cowboy hat. Shelves along one wall are filled with a variety of canned goods with the My Rancher label. The rest of the small room is taken up by refrigerators packed with meat and specialty cheeses. Doug owned a chain of prime and top choice meat markets in the sixties and seventies. Now, thirty years later, he's come full circle.

Doug and Marguerite bought what was an old cotton farm five years ago intending to hobby ranch with a dozen head of cattle. Marguerite, a molecular biologist and chemist, found herself absorbed in ideas for improving the quality of the pastures. Soon the ideas sprouted into a plan. Working with the Noble Foundation, she developed her own grazing system that requires planting a smorgasbord of different grasses throughout the year. She nicknamed the technique the "salad bowl" effect: clover and Bermuda in the fall; rye, wheat, and turnips in the winter; tall fescue during the transition between seasons; and hay when it doesn't rain. Dining on these "salad bowls" all day long, Doug says, produces meat with a more pronounced flavor than beef from grain-fed cattle.

"Very few people actually, in this day and age, have ever had real, all-natural, grass, ranch-fed beef," says Doug.

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