Grass vs Grass
What goes into making high quality grass-fed beef?
Black Angus cattle grazing (Source: fineartamerica.com)
There are countless articles that wade into the debate of grain fed/feedlot beef versus grass-fed beef. For the most part these articles cover the benefits of grass-fed beef over grain fed/feedlot beef, how it is better for the environment, better for your health, and some say tastier.
We are sure you have come across some pretty sad looking pieces of beef on super market shelves labelled as grass-fed without one ribbon of marbling running through it, maybe except a thin fat strip on a striploin, or a small eye of fat in a piece of ribeye. You may have even bought it thinking “how bad can it be?”, and we are sure it was pretty bad for many who took that chance, giving rise to the reputation that grass-fed beef is tough and flavorless.
At Meat Co. we as self-professed meat nerds and specialists we take our meats seriously, some say too seriously. For our inaugural article we will delve into the science and the most important factors that go into making high quality and great tasting grass fed beef.
What Factors Make for Great Tasting Beef?
The first thing most look for when buying a steak is the marbling. While marbling does have a large part to play in how tender a piece of steak can be it does not account for the flavor all that much. In fact, sometimes a steak could be extremely well marbled but leaves a lot to be desired in the flavor department. In the natural course of a cattle’s life marble is developed only after the fat cap has formed. This has implications for grass-fed beef. What if the cattle do not have steady and easy access to grass? This would mean that marbling will not develop. With that being said however, there are varieties of grass-fed beef that are not all that marbled but yet remain tender and tasty. This leads us to the next factor.
pH and Temperature Levels.
pH and temperature for a cattle carcass is another important factor that influences the eating quality of beef. The pH level for live cattle is 7.1 and will decline to a level where it cannot decline further. For a carcass it should pass through pH 6.0 between 15°C and 35°C. The decline in pH and temperature must decline through this ideal window if not it will result in poor eating quality. If the pH decline is too slow while the temperature declines, cold shortening will occur and will result in extremely tough meat. If the pH decline is too fast while the temperature is too high, heat shortening will occur which can also lead to toughness, pale and watery meat, and result in denaturing enzymes that help in the ageing process that help to make meat tender. For the farmer, this ultimately means that farmers should at all times minimize the stress their cattle are placed under. Treating their animals well and practicing high animal welfare will help in ensuring their cattle achieve an ideal pH-temperature decline when they are sent for slaughter.
Another important factor in grading is called ossification, which measures the physiological maturity of cattle. As animals mature, cartilage present around bones fill with blood and develop into bone, and while as time passes an animal will naturally age, factors like nutrition and stress also affect ossification rates. The maturity of cattle plays an important part in eating quality. As cattle mature fibers in the meat become stronger and more rigid meaning that it will be tougher to break down while cooking resulting in tougher meat when it finally hits your plate. It is important to note that ossification cannot be reversed and farmers must take the utmost care over cattle nutrition and welfare. Again, when taking into account grass-fed cattle, giving them ample access to not only adequate pasture but the right kinds of grass will reduce stress and at the same time ensure optimum nutrition as well.
The three factors above are by no means the only three factors affecting the final eating quality of beef, be it grass or grain fed. What is clear is that cattle like any other animal require good care be it terms of nutrition or minimizing stress to result in the best eating quality, and it could be argued that grass-fed cattle farmers face more challenges compared to grain fed/feedlot farmers which will be covered below.
What if we told you that horrible experience with a grass-fed steak bought from a supermarket that made you swear off grass-fed beef for life was not entirely that supermarket’s fault? For many in the supply chain, beef is beef, not realizing that there are many options for great grass-fed beef.
But what many across the supply chain do not know is that the cheaper grass-fed option gets them cheaper cattle, which means lower quality. This cheaper beef – often referred to as commodity beef – comes from cattle that are just not able to produce the marbling that we are used to seeing in more expensive grass-fed and grain fed species.
Technically speaking, some cattle are just not genetically predisposed to converting grass into fat which is why some grass-fed beef has little to no marbling, and are also cheaper to breed and rear because farmers do not have to pay more for grain to feed these cattle. These cattle breeds which are leaner and less marbled include Brahman, Brangus, Gelbvieh and Braunvieh.
Brahman Cattle (Source: tomscattle.com)
So which breeds are more disposed to giving you a better marble at the end of the day? You have most probably heard of some them, Angus, Jersey, Hereford, Red Angus, Highlander, Murray Grey and Tarantaise, just to name a few. But wait you say, “I’ve definitely heard of Angus for sure, and in fact I usually hear of them being grain fed!”. This is where the pure economics of the cattle and beef industry comes into play.
Angus Cattle (Source: angusaustralia.com.au)
Taking Angus as an example, while it is a breed that is predisposed to converting grass into fat and therefore giving way to better marbling, many farmers and feedlots choose not to rear them on grass throughout their lives. In fact, all grain fed/feed lot and 100% grass fed cattle start their lives on grass.
But grain fed/feedlot cattle towards the end of their lives are fed a diet of corn and other grains to “supercharge” their growth giving rise to intense marbling and large carcass sizes. Typically, grain fed/feedlot cattle are between 22 to 24 months at slaughter with an average carcass weight of 620KG. Compare this to 100% grass-fed cattle which are usually 28 to 32 months at slaughter with an average carcass weight of 550KG. Thus, for many breeders and meatpackers it makes more economic sense to grain feed, getting their cattle to a heavier slaughter weight faster.
What About The Grass?
As the age old saying goes, you are what you eat. This definitely applies to cattle as well. We know that it is possible to get marbling as intense if not more intense than grain fed beef, it will take more time, patience and the correct breed of cattle. Another piece of the puzzle is the quality of grass the cattle get access to.
Without getting too technical. Growing and maintaining the right kind of grass for the season is very important, some grass species thrive during the spring and some in the summer, while most grass species are dormant during the winter. Experienced farmers will grow different species of grass at the same time and rotate their cattle to maximize grazing periods. Another important note on rotation is that cattle cannot graze too much on one field which may deplete the length of grass too much which will result in lower grass yields once winter has passed.
Baleage ready for storage for cattle feed during the winter. (Source: http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu)
A disadvantage for 100% grass-fed beef is during the winter season where cattle are smaller because of limited or no access to quality grass. During this period, farmers usually supplement cattle diets through other forms of grass feed like hay or baleage, which is fermented, high-moisture grass.
This seasonal disadvantage of rearing grass-fed cattle should point to the dedication that farmers of grass-fed cattle have toward their craft, risking unsteady incomes during the winter months. Furthermore, as winter sets in and grass goes dormant, it is harder for grass-fed herds to access pasture and thus develop marbling and at times face difficulty developing an adequate fat cap. This is compared to the grain fed/feedlot producers who have access to grain year-round to feed their herds. Furthermore, compared to grass-fed farmers who have to contend with seasonal changes to do with the environment, grain fed/feedlot farmers are able to control their cattle herd environments more closely nullifying many of the challenges that grass-fed farmers face.
Another thing to note is that different species of grass have different periods when they are optimal for grazing. Allowing cattle to graze too early or too late on certain species of grass can result in health problems for cattle, like prussic acid poisoning, bloat, or atypical pneumonia to name a few.
All of this points to the care and attention that cattle need, while it may sound daunting this should only point to the expertise and ability of experienced cattle farmers who produce high quality and great tasting grass-fed beef. Furthermore, we must not forget that cattle traditionally are animals that are supposed to feed on grass in the first place which leads us to the next section animal welfare.
Cattle Health and Grass Feeding
One of the main reasons for grain feeding cattle is purely economic – farmers get more bang for their buck in a shorter amount of rearing time. But there are other advantages for grass feeding cattle, their welfare. You may wonder why cattle need antibiotics, more so for the grain fed ones, the reasoning behind this is quite simple – Cattle were never meant to eat grain.
Cattle feeding on lush open pastures.
The digestive systems of cattle are made to digest grass and they have a tough time digesting grain. One of the main reasons for such high anti-biotic use in the grain fed cattle industry is because of the grain they are fed. On a standard feedlot diet 20% or more of the cattle tend to develop liver abscesses which is where the antibiotics come in to reduce this number. This means that cattle are suffering from diseases and conditions that are directly related to being grain fed.
Give Grass Another Chance
Three different grass-fed ribeye varieties.
Why not give grass-fed beef another chance and taste the dedication grass-fed farmers put into their cattle herds. As one can see from the photo above, the upper left ribeye is probably the sort you purchased before that left a bad taste in your mouth, literally. The upper right ribeye comes from older grass-fed cattle, and the one on the bottom with a lighter red color comes from younger grass-fed cattle.
If you are looking for a beefier tasting, juicy, and tender steak give us a ring and you will not be disappointed. Our range of high-quality grass-fed beef is sure to make you a convert. We even have a range of fully grass-fed wagyu in stock. Our specialists will be glad to help you in any way!