Driving around the Hudson Valley, one is afforded a familiar and reassuring sight: herds of peaceful cattle grazing in verdant fields. It just seems so natural, looks so right. And, in fact, it is. Grass—an umbrella description for the hay, timothy, alfalfa, and weeds that cattle eat in fields—is exactly what cows are designed to eat. They have four stomachs that are ideally suited for processing large quantities of high fiber, low-nutrition grass. They eat lots of it, process it slowly, and generally lead a low-stress country life.
But this type of existence is in sharp contrast to how the vast majority of beef cattle in America are raised. The commercial meat industry sends cattle to feedlots for “finishing”—a super-quick fattening up. At these feedlots, where the cattle are jammed together in a very unherdlike manner, they are fed a diet of nutrient-rich grain and feed supplements (often made from ground up cattle parts), and even hormones to stimulate growth.
It’s a diet that they are ill-designed to digest, and this unnatural situation causes bovine health problems, including ulcers of the liver from the too-rich diet, and various infections that result from the ulcers and the unsanitary conditions created by too much manure in a confined place. So, in addition to hormones for growth, commercially raised cattle are routinely given antibiotics to fight these infections. In fact, these practices are so prevalent that more than half of both the bicarbonate of soda (to neutralize the ulcer-causing acid) and over 60 percent of the antibiotics produced in this country are fed to livestock.
The result is that most of the beef we buy in the supermarket contains lots of things we’d rather not get from our meat. Not to mention mad cow disease (technically known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or bse), which is found in nerve tissues that can find their way into commercially processed ground beef as well as into the supplements fed in feedlots.
What can the meat eaters among us do? Think back to those happily grazing local herds. The good news is that there are a growing number of farmers who raise and sell grass-fed beef. Not only is this pasture-raised meat a solution that’s healthy for the consumer, but it’s healthier for the cows and for the environment too.
Stephen Kaye’s Lithgow Cottage Farm in Millbrook, New York, is a prime example of this new/old type of farming. “We farm in the traditional way rather than on the industrial model,” Kaye explains. “The quality of the animal depends on the quality of the grass and forages that they are fed.” This quality does not go unnoticed; Lithgow Cottage Farm counts approximately 20 restaurants (locally and in New York City) as steady customers. Kaye says that the meat tastes better and smells better, and it seems that the chefs know it. “When I take this meat to the chefs, some of them just handle it and smell it because it’s so different from commercial meat.”
Jo Robinson is a vociferous proponent of pasture-raised meat. Her Web site, www.eatwild.com (subtitled “The Clearinghouse for Information about Pasture-Based Farming), has plenty of technical information about the benefits of grass-fed meat, all of which supports the contention that traditionally raised beef is better in many ways.
Robinson explains that because the habitat is more natural, there’s no need for antibiotics and steroids. Further, because pasture-raised beef is not fattened up (finished) in a feedlot, a grass-fed steak contains about half the fat found in grain-finished beef and has other valuable nutrients not found in commercially raised beef, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, and a variety of minerals.
The bottom line is that when animals are allowed to consume what they are designed to digest—gaining nutrients naturally—the benefit is passed along in their meat.
Traditional farming places much less stress on the environment as well. Animals exist in a more natural habitat, often making use of the symbiotic relationships that exist between different farm denizens—sheep graze where cows can’t; chickens clean up after cows, naturally spreading the manure to fertilize the hay fields.
There are also the conomic benefits; buying locally raised products supports the local economy.
More and more restaurants include pasture-raised meats on the menu. In addition to its superior nutritional value, chefs and farmers alike will tell you that pasture-raised meat is more flavorful and has richer color. The veal is actually rosy, the pork is not as white as we’ve come to expect, chickens taste like…well…chickens. And, because this meat is lower in fat, it often needs to be cooked more slowly to allow the connective tissues to soften and become tender. Several chefs cited this as a creative opportunity; grilling grass-fed meat is generally reserved for the traditional steak cuts such as sirloin or filet mignon.