By Dr. Mercola
Grass-fed beef accounts for just 0.5 percent of all retail beef sold, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association…1 but it's a growing niche. White Oak Pastures, the largest organic farm in Georgia, produces about 8,000 pounds of grass-fed ground beef daily.
Grass-fed beef is just one of the farm's products. It also raises nine other species of free-ranging animals. In 2014, the farm, which was recently featured by the New York Times, brought in about $28 million in sales.2
The farm's owner, William Harris III, is a rancher, once of the conventional kind. But he grew disenchanted with the way the business worked, and he was suffering financially. As he made positive changes toward more natural farming, his hard work and perseverance paid off.
Solving the Slaughterhouse Problem
Unbeknownst to many Americans, access to slaughterhouses is one hurdle that keeps many small farmers from ultimately succeeding. All farmers must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and laws place special restrictions on grass-fed slaughtering. If a grass-fed rancher doesn't have access to a slaughterhouse, he cannot stay in business.
This shrewd strategy effectively maintains the status quo of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), because grass-fed ranchers are often forced to ship their cattle hundreds of miles for "processing" – a move that's both costly and stressful. Large slaughterhouses can also refuse smaller jobs, as they—just like CAFOs—operate on economy of scale. As explained by The Carnivore's Dilemma:3
"At harvest time, small family farmers are forced to transport their animals to the nearest legal 'processing plant' that will accept their animals. These plants often do not conform to the high standards farmers have for their animals' welfare, but the farmers have no choice.
Basically, there may be plenty of demand for grass-fed beef, and plenty of supply, but USDA rules and regulations prevent the American-bred supply from ever reaching the customer...
Across the US, smaller slaughterhouses catering to grass-fed ranchers have been closing up shop, pushed out by larger processors, adding to the shortage of processing facilities to choose from. As reported in the New York Times regarding White Oak Pastures:4
"Watching his calves get loaded onto an 18-wheeler for the drive west to a feed lot and slaughterhouse helped convince Mr. Harris that maybe he should stop raising cattle the way his father did.
He knew that his animals would spend sometimes 30 hours on those trucks, with the ones on the bottom getting covered in feces and urine. 'It's like raising your daughter to be a princess and then sending her to the whorehouse,' he said."
Harris has been able to grow White Oak Pastures so successfully, in part, because it has its own slaughterhouse. In fact, it's the only farm in the country with federally approved slaughterhouses for both poultry and mammals.5
Switching to Grass-Fed Farming Took Business to the Next Level
Harris' tale is an inspiring one, especially for farmers considering a switch. It shows that making the switch from conventional to grass-fed can be done. Harris did have to borrow money and use government and industry grants to get started, but the business took off to the next level. The New York Times reported:6
"That trip [to the slaughterhouse] was just one factor that prompted him to reconsider his operations in the 1990s. His cattle monoculture wasn't doing that well financially, and it was becoming less satisfying.
He stopped some practices, like putting hormone pellets into his cows' ears. Mr. Harris also noticed an emerging market, one in which people were willing to pay more money for beef that was raised differently.
By 2000, he stopped using chemical fertilizers on his pasture… By 2006, he got his beef into Whole Foods… A year later, his sales had jumped to half a million dollars."
Our food system is in dire need of change in order to protect human health, but it's a system that is difficult to change. It's not impossible, however, and you can still make a difference even if you have nothing to do with farming – by supporting the farmers who are raising food responsibly.
Most Grass-Fed Beef Sold in the US Is Imported
As more people change their shopping habits, it will help to drive up demand and encourage more US ranchers to make the switch to grass-fed. As it stands, most of the grass-fed beef sold in the US is actually imported from Australia and New Zealand.
Chipotle is one of the latest companies to turn to Australian ranchers to meet demand for grass-fed beef, as American suppliers are falling short, and/or cannot compete with Australia's lower prices. In a Huffington Post op-ed published last year, Chipotle founder Steve Ells said:7
"Over the years, we have had great success serving the premium beef we call Responsibly Raised... Nevertheless, sometimes the existing supply of the premium meats we serve is unable to meet our growing demand...
Rather than serve conventionally raised steak, we recently began sourcing some steak from ranches in Southern Australia, which is among the very best places in the world for raising beef cattle entirely on grass.
The meat produced by these ranchers is 'grass-fed' in the truest sense of the term: The cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pastures or rangelands, eating only grass or forages... In the short-run, the grass-fed beef purchased from Australia will continue to supplement the premium Responsibly Raised beef we have long purchased from across the U.S.
But over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product."
Grass-Fed Meat and Dairy Are Better for You
People have many reasons for switching to grass-fed products – the health benefits, the ramifications for the environment, the humane treatment of animals, or all of the above.
A joint effort between the USDA and Clemson University researchers determined a total of 10 key areas where grass-fed is better than grain-fed beef for human health.8 In a side-by-side comparison, they determined that grass-fed beef was:
Lower in total fat ||Higher in beta-carotene||Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
|Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin||Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium||Higher in total omega-3s
|A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)||Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter||Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
To be clear, there's a lot of confusion about the term "grass-fed," and in many cases, it's an abused term like the word "natural." Some producers of beef will misuse this term because the rules around it are still somewhat undefined. Most all calves are fed grass for a certain amount of time.
This is one factor that allows less scrupulous producers to get away with calling their beef grass-fed. The key to a truly grass-fed product is actually the finishing. Optimal beef is both grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Of course, it's not only beef that's ideally grass-fed. Chickens fare better when raised on pasture, as do dairy cows. Milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has also been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats omega-3 and CLA. Unfortunately, only about 22 percent of US dairy cows have access to pasture, and even then access tends to be very limited.9
Soil-Conservation Farming Is on the Rise
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As we're seeing a growing interest in healthier ways to raise food, like out on the pasture instead of confined in a factory-like environment, more farmers are seeking out "agricultural production systems that model nature." Among them is soil-conservation farming, which involves a number of methods to enhance soil, like leaving fields untilled and using "green manures."10 The New York Times reported:11
"Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers' profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. [Gabe] Brown… has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000-acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding. He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. 'Nature can heal if we give her the chance,' Mr. Brown said."
Gabe Brown and other regenerative farmers are basically just mimicking nature, to the best of their ability. They don't till and try to minimize the disturbance of the soil as much as possible. They also pay great attention to diversity, using cover crops such as native grasses. Tilling is probably one of the most destructive aspects of modern-day industrial agriculture, as it disrupts and destroys soil biology. Using the following five tenets of soil regeneration, you may be able to add an inch of topsoil in a five-year period:
- No-tillage. This prevents soil erosion and also allows soil microbes to thrive.
- Plant diversity and rotation
- Multispecies cover-cropping. While home gardeners can add crop cover like mulch or wood chips, large-scale operations can achieve the same results by planting cover crops. Gabe grows cover crops on every acre of cropland each year. The cover crops may be grown before a cash crop, along with a cash crop, or after.
But it's the cover crops that provide the carbon that becomes that all-important "armor" on the soil surface. Cover crops also act as insulation, so the soil doesn't get as hot or cold as it would if bare. This allows microbes to thrive longer. Also, the soil biology heats up the soil, which can extend your overall growing season in colder areas
- Maintaining living roots in the soil year-round. It's important to have living plant roots in the soil as long as possible throughout the year. To accomplish this, use cover crops when not growing a cash crop.
- Livestock integration and diversification
Cleaning Up with Compost
It's estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.12 Carbon farming is a simple solution that involves applying compost to farmland, which traps carbon dioxide in the ground (for decades, centuries or more) while also absorbing it from the air. The process, known as "carbon sequestration," will help:
Regenerate the soil ||Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
|Increase crop yields ||Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time
|Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels ||Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers
As reported by the Press Democrat:13
"Advocates say if compost was applied to just 5 percent of California's grazing lands, the soil could capture a year's worth of greenhouse gas emissions from the state's farm and forestry industries… Research conducted in Marin County and in the Sierra foothills revealed that a single dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil's carbon storage for at least 30 years.
But there are significant hurdles to expanding the practice, including the cost of purchasing and transporting compost to farms. About 30 million tons of organic material ends up in California's landfills, said Torri Estrada, director of policy at the Carbon Cycle Institute. He envisions a network of regional facilities producing compost or farmers and ranchers doing so themselves on-site."
Where to Find High-Quality Grass-Fed Products
The grass-fed market only makes up about 3 percent of the US beef ranchers. Fortunately, that number is growing. Overall, grass-fed beef sales have been increasing by about 20 percent a year for the last six years. It's the only growing segment of the beef industry as a whole. As Gabe Brown said, one of the best ways to drive continued change is to vote with your pocketbook:
"I've come to the realization that we need to educate the consumers and the consumers need to drive the change through their purchasing dollars. Let me tell you of this movement... My son and I started [a grass-fed beef] business in March, and we have zero advertising dollars. We've just been going to local farmers' markets. We already have over 650 repeat customers. We can't keep up with the demand right now. That goes to show you that if that's happening in a rural state such as North Dakota, what's happening in more urban areas?"
Now that you know why it's worth switching over to grass-fed beef and other animal products, the question becomes, where do you find them? Fortunately, it's becoming increasingly easy to find these, and many other organic foods.
- Grass-fed beef: Many grocery chains are now responding to customer demand, and will provide at least a small assortment of grass-fed meats. If your local grocer still doesn't carry any, go ahead and ask the purchasing manager to consider adding it. Some stores, like Publix, will even stock specialty items requested by a single customer. The least expensive way to obtain authentic grass-fed beef is to find a local rancher you can trust, and buy it directly from the farm. Alternatively, you can now purchase grass-fed beef from organic ranchers online, if you don't have access to a local source.
- Raw organic, grass-fed dairy products: Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm or co-op is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high-quality milk. You can locate a raw milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk Website. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.
- Organic, free-range eggs: To locate a free-range pasture farm, try asking your local health food store, or check out the following web listings: