Branding Better Beef
Is there a difference between “grass-fed” and “grain-finished” beef?
James Patrick Kelly takes us to a few Northwest cattle operations in an effort to corral the facts.
The branding of beef products—and I don’t mean with a scorching iron!—includes labels such as “grass-fed,” “organic,” “grain-finished,” and “natural.” But what do these terms mean? And more importantly, does beef have to be corn-fed to be flavorful?
When I was younger, I remember seeing stout Black Angus dotting the verdant pastures of Washington’s Kittitas Valley, as my family drove through Ellensburg on summer vacations.
In many ways, the cattle ranching industry in the Northwest hasn’t changed much since those days—except for a new philosophical bent that has taken hold. Nowadays, more importance is given to how cattle get treated, stewardship of the rangelands, and marketing to consumers who increasingly demand antibiotic- and growth hormone-free meat products, if not completely organic.
In short, diners weren’t as discerning then as they are now.
It used to be when you ordered a steak in a restaurant you generally were served beef from a corn-fed steer that undoubtedly spent its
entire life on a feedlot somewhere in the Midwest. Subsequently, the American palate got accustomed to the mild and buttery flavor of corn-fed beef.
Therein lies the quandary for marketing grass-fed beef, or beef that’s been lightly finished with grain: the pronounced “green” taste puts off some people who grew up eating the familiar feedlot variety.
“There’s definitely a stronger flavor with range cattle. But that’s what makes it so good; you can actually taste some grass, not just grain,” states Lorin Hodge, quality control manager for Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef in John Day, Oregon.
Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef’s herd of more than 700 Black and Red Angus (British breeds known for their excellent flavor and girth; a full-grown steer weighs 1,200-1,400 pounds) graze in the remote canyons and pastures near 9,000-foot-tall Strawberry Mountain in the Blue Mountain range.
“I don’t go have coffee with the cattle or anything, but we treat them really well. I mean, what a great place to live!” Hodge exclaims, doing a panoramic wave toward a herd of Angus grazing in a far-off pasture.
The company culls its cattle from more than 20 family-run ranches in Grant County, Oregon. Steers are butchered at around 20 months; the meat is then dry-aged for two weeks and fabricated into 264 cuts of beef that is sold to restaurants and markets as fresh—not frozen, in most cases—natural beef.
But this is where it gets tricky, at least semantically. Even though Strawberry Mountain’s cattle mostly eat natural grasses and locally grown alfalfa and hay, the product is actually considered “grain-finished” not “grass-fed” beef—because the animals are given barley and wheat for the last 90 or so days of their lives. The company believes this feeding technique helps to mellow the flavor and add intramuscular fat, commonly known as “marbling.”
“The flavor development of Strawberry Mountain’s beef is great. They have found the right balance between grain-fed and grass-fed,” declares Dustin Clark, executive chef at Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, who currently uses Strawberry Mountain’s rib-eye steaks and tri-tip for making pastrami. “They also know exactly where their beef comes from, down to the individual animal. I want to know that information.”
In order for their cattle to be designated “natural,” ranchers who contract with Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef must adhere to stringent company guidelines for feeding and caring for the animals, meaning they can’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, and the cattle are given a strict vegetarian diet containing no artificial ingredients. Total traceability of the animals is a big priority for the company, as well.
“Whether it’s a ranch that produces 10 head of cattle or 500, they are important to us. We have a close working relationship with our ranchers,” says Darrel Holliday, owner of Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef, as he watches his crew cut alfalfa on a warm summer day.
Eastern Oregon’s predominantly high desert terrain and mountainous landscape are distinguished by its vast rangeland. Yet open-range ranching has been a contentious issue with environmental groups that claim cattle excessively trample public land, causing erosion and loss of natural grasses. Cattle ranchers in this region face the challenges of striking a balance between stewardship and over-usage.
“Environmentally speaking, if ranchers are not careful, we eventually will have no land to take our cattle,” states Don McNab, owner of Home on the Range Beef, who ranges his herd of Texas Longhorns on private land near Burns, Oregon.
The Texas Longhorn breed is known for its extremely lean meat and prominent horns. But they don’t get as big as McNab would like, so he is starting to breed them with Black Angus in order to build a heavier steer.
The McNab family operates their small cattle ranch near Crane, Oregon, about 30 miles east of Burns, in the shadow of looming Steens Mountain. McNab recently switched to a 100-percent grass-fed program after years of finishing his cattle with various grains. His cattle, a herd of 75 that graze on locally grown, chemical-free hay during the winter months, are never given growth hormones or antibiotics.
“Most cattle are grass-fed. It’s how they are finished that makes the difference. This is where some people are stretching the meaning a bit. Unless it’s organic, there are no strict rules,” McNab says.
He’s right, to a certain degree. Until last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) didn’t have much to say about the standards for natural or grass-fed beef. Government officials recently (and, I would add, loosely) addressed these branding terms with the implementation of “USDA Process Verified Programs,” which allow companies to make marketing claims associated with cattle characteristics—these include age, source, feeding practices, or other raising and processing claims—and market themselves with the use of the “USDA Process Verified” shield. Under this shield, some critics contend, there remains a lot of room for interpretation, like whether or not antibiotics can be used and how much time animals actually spend on pastures.
McNab believes there is a solution to this problem: consumers should go out and meet the people who raise cattle and ask specific questions. He makes himself available during the farmers market season in Bend, Oregon, where he twice-weekly takes his flash-frozen, fabricated cuts of beef in a trailer made from a converted delivery truck.
Health-savvy consumers aren’t just looking for beef raised on an organic diet, though, as evidenced by the recent spike in popularity of grass-fed beef. Doctors and medical researchers claim that the omega-3 fatty acids (as opposed to the artery-clogging omega-6 fatty acids common in feedlot beef) and antioxidants found in grass-fed beef are highly beneficial for vascular health and can thwart the severity of some medical conditions, such as heart disease and epilepsy.
Cory Carman, of Carman Ranch in Wallowa, Oregon, has seen her sales go up in recent years, to the point where she now has a waiting list for her 100-percent grass-fed beef, free of chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.
“People are becoming more interested about the beef they consume,” she says. “I’m starting to see lots of young families get together and buy their beef in bulk. They want healthier meat, and they want to know how the animals get treated.”
Carman and her husband, David Flynn, tend a herd of more than 200 Hereford and Angus cattle in picturesque Wallowa Valley, on the same piece of land where Carman’s family has ranched for four generations. Customers technically buy the animal live and the ranch arranges to have it butchered in northeastern Oregon, where it gets dry-aged, flash-frozen, and packaged in bulk parcels of fabricated cuts.
Standard practices for grass-fed cattle ranching, in general, aren’t much different than organic cattle ranching, except the USDA has precise guidelines for operations that earn the organic certification. For instance, cattle under the “organic” label must be fed fertilizer- and pesticide-free grasses, herbs, and feed. And, as a fundamental tenet, organic cattle ranchers must never treat the animals with antibiotics or growth hormones.
George and Eiko Vojkovich, owners of Skagit River Ranch, have a thriving organic farm in Sedro Woolley, Washington.
“It basically takes five to seven years for sustainability to take over,” remarks George, speaking about the special grass, legume, and herb pastures that he planted a few years back at his farm in the foothills of the North Cascades. He also balances the livestock’s diet with sea kelp and organic mineral supplements.
The Vojkoviches, with the help of their teenage daughter and a small crew, have become a tour de force of organic foodstuffs in western Washington, offering Angus beef, pork, chicken, and eggs to an increasingly more informed public.
“People used to ask me, ‘What’s grass-fed beef?’ Now they ask, ‘Is this 100-percent grass-fed beef?’” George emphatically states about conversations he’s had at Seattle-area farmers markets.
Collectively, on average in the United States, we still eat more chicken than beef, but it appears that people are starting to care more about the quality of the beef they consume, looking beyond labels for the real nuances.
From the March/April 2009 issue
Boise, Idaho-based food writer James Patrick Kelly is a frequent contributor to Northwest Palate.
Where to Find the Beef:
You can buy directly from Carman Ranch, and they also deliver bulk beef to the Portland area.
Skagit River Ranch
Sedro Woolley, WA
Skagit River Ranch beef can be found at Seattle-area restaurants such as Tilth, Ray’s Boathouse, and Earth & Ocean, and the natural foods cooperative, Madison Market. You can also find it at Seattle-area farmers markets—Ballard Farmers Market, University District Farmers Market, and Bellevue Farmers Market—and you can buy directly from the farm on Saturdays from 10am to 6pm.
Home on the Range Beef
You can buy directly from Home on the Range Beef, and the ranch sells its products at two farmers markets in Bend: Downtown and St. Charles Medical Center.
Snake River FarmsBoise, ID
Snake River Farms’ Kobe-style beef can be found on menus at restaurants worldwide: in the Northwest, the menu at Rogue Ales brewpubs prominently features their signature burgers and “haute” dogs made with Snake River Farms’ American Kobe-style beef. You can purchase their products on their website as well as at Metropolitan Market (Seattle and Tacoma locations).
Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef
John Day, OR
Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef primarily sells to distributors in Portland, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and you can purchase beef at the company’s offices in John Day. A short list of restaurants that sell Strawberry Mountain Natural Beef includes Wildwood (Portland), Serratto (Portland), Urban Farmer (Portland), Monsoon (Seattle), Harvest Vine (Seattle), and Smash Wine Bar and Bistro (Seattle).