Healthy Grassfed Beef
Two primary things are required for healthy grass fed beef: proper animal genetics and quality pastures.
Prior to WWII most beef in this nation was raised and finished on grass. During the war the American farmer was called upon to not only meet US food demand, but to also feed our allies, primarily England and Russia. The American farmer came through for the war effort, producing an abundance of grain. Due to the availability of inexpensive surplus grain following the war, the beef industry began searching for a cow that would consume a lot of corn in order to reach market weight fast. They began selecting genetics for those animals that were tall and big, just the opposite of what you need in an animal to finish it on grass. The Black Angus Association did a marvelous job of promoting Angus beef. Today almost all Angus cattle are large framed animals ideal for the feedlot industry – but not necessarily healthy beef.
This was the beginning of the feedlot era.
I wanted to find cattle with the correct genetics to finish on grass. The challenge was to find an animal that did not fit how beef are raised in a feedlot on GMO grain and antibiotics – all unhealthy for us to eat. This required extensive research since I was looking for genetics that prevailed before the advent of feedlots. My research led me to Devon cattle, a breed originally brought to America by the Pilgrims. This breed flourishes on a 100% grass diet.
In addition, I wanted a hardy breed, another reason I selected Red Devons because they develop a thick winter coat, shed in the summer and their red hide can tolerate the sun and withstand heat much better than a black hide animal. For more information on the Devon breed go to http://reddevonusa.com. It is not enough to have just the right genetics; quality pastures free from chemicals are also necessary for healthy and tasty meat.
The next big issue is the quality of the pastures. Pastures should have forage diversity, legumes, high organic matter or humus (nutrient dense soil) which is good for water retention.
Prior to the settlement of the United States, the best soil in the world was found under the feet of the American buffalo. The buffalo created a natural ecological system by grazing through a large midsection of our country on an annual basis, constantly moving into areas that had not been grazed for 6 months to a year. Grasses were tall - as tall as a man on horseback - with tremendous under growth. As the buffalo moved through the plains they ate, trampled and defecated, then left that area for six months or more, allowing the grasses to recover. This continuous movement of the buffalo herds created tremendous biological activity in the soil creating rich topsoil and diverse pastures.
At Abundant Green Pastures Ranch we replicate the buffalo by moving the herd every day. Our animals do not graze the same area more than twice a year. This creates a tall and thick stock of pasture, heavy in clover, timothy, rye and orchard grass – a pasture that make for healthy and tasty beef. The results have been spectacular. In addition, a native prairie grass, Eastern Gama Grass, is being established. For more information about this grass, go to http://www.beefmagazine.com/mag/beef_eastern_gamagrass_queen
Each year this grazing method returns fertility to the pastures. The animals create topsoil by combining the manure and residual grasses trampled into the ground where soil microbes go to work.
Our forage stand is dense and diverse. Our pastures can be 4-5 feet tall and all of that trampled forage reacts with the microbes in the soil and manure to enrich the soil and create new organic matter and topsoil. The water holding capacity of the soil has increased due both to the increase of organic matter and the mat of trampled grasses. This grazing method is called “mob grazing.” The number of animals per acre has doubled due to better soil productivity. It is as if someone gave us twice as many acres than when we started.
The pastures require sunshine and water.
While I cannot control sunshine, when Mother Nature does not provide rain I can provide water through our irrigation system. I have installed six ponds on the ranch in addition to a 15-acre lake. Through the use of 6-inch and 4-inch water lines I can irrigate the pastures if necessary and supply healthy water to the livestock. I have developed methods to supply water even when the ponds are frozen over since even in the winter the cows are on pasture and moved daily and the need for daily water still exists.
In the winter pastured grass is supplemented with home grown grass silage (grass stored in airtight conditions without first being dried). Unlike hay, which has 50% of the nutritional value of fresh grass, silage has 95% of the nutritional value of fresh grass, plus the added value of the fermentation process. The silage process is completed in one day, from start to finish, unlike hay, which takes three days. The grass is captured in a trailer and taken to a site where it is stacked in a pile with a vacuum hose underneath. It is then covered with plastic and the edges are sealed with dirt. Then a vacuum pump is run for three hours to evacuate the oxygen so the fermentation process can take place. Both the cattle and pigs love this grass silage.