Black Angus Beauties
My breath was almost taken away by the beauty of the pastoral landscape with the rolling hills, picturesque ponds and green everywhere. I knew I was only 30 minutes from the Bourne Bridge, but my eyes kept seeing Vermont. The massive and curious Black Angus bulls walking toward me reminded me of my “locavore” mission. It turned out these black beauties were no ordinary bulls—they were the privileged studs chosen to improve the herd’s genetic makeup to produce more tender meat, complete with a $40,000 price tag.
The other cattle on the bucolic Allen Creek Farm, in Westport, were nowhere to be seen on this glorious day in early June. The search for the perfect salad of mixed greens had led them far away from the farm house and barn. The future of these steers will not be as lengthy as the studs’, but they are still among a growing number of cattle across the country remaining on grass throughout their lifetime—the way nature intended.
These Black Angus mature on carefully managed fields. They are not brought to a feedlot, to languish in an overcrowded manure yard, surrounded by a wretched stench and steel enclosures. The inhumanity of these commonplace feedlots not only affects the quality of a cow’s health—both mental and physical—it also affects its meat. These unfortunate animals are stressed from the unnatural surroundings they are placed in that flood their bodies with stress hormones and ultimately lead to unhealthy cows and tougher meat.
In Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser explains the common cow’s plight. In Colorado, ConAgra Beef Company operates the largest meat-packing facility in the U.S. Their two huge feedlots hold an amazing 200,000 head of cattle—a little less than the year round population of Barnstable County—in a greatly condensed area. Schlosser clearly paints the inhumane picture of these cesspool fields. “At times the animals are crowded so closely together it looks like a sea of cattle, a mooing, moving mass of brown and white fur that goes on for acres,” he writes. “These cattle don’t eat blue grama and buffalo grass off the prairie. During the three months before slaughter, they eat grain dumped into long concrete troughs that resemble highway dividers. The grain fattens the cattle quickly, aided by the anabolic steroids implanted in their ear. A typical steer will consume more than 3,000 pounds of grain during its stay at a feedlot, just to gain 400 pounds in weight.”
John Earle, Jr., who has managed Allen Creek Farm for over five years, is proud of his commitment to humanely raised, grass-fed cattle, under the brand name Wasontuxet. It was just two years ago that the owner of the farm, Peter Aresty, and he decided to make the switch. His small herd has been growing over the past few years, just like the demand for grass-fed beef. It has doubled within a year to a total of 66 heads of cattle. Last winter he added more than 180 acres to his field management, for a total of more than 350, on three different properties, including grazing land and hay fields. Some of this land is leased conservation land, which is a creative way to approach the shortage of farm land.
Locals might be surprised to know that naturally raised beef can be found so close to home. I have had frozen grass-fed meat shipped to me from as far away as Ohio, thinking there were no local options. But if one wants to eat more locally, this farm is just one example of how natural farming is starting to make a comeback in Massachusetts. However, a big increase in ranching in Southeastern Massachusetts is unlikely; land prices and limited economies of scale make it difficult to start raising cattle here. Earle says, “Unless it is a hobby for someone, for an average person to start raising beef, they can’t make any money at it. We spent $45,000 on fertilizer this year just for hay.” In addition to buying or leasing land, one needs a lot of equipment: tractors, mowers and balers. And this is even before buying any cattle and paying all the costs that come with them.
An additional challenge to raising steer in the Southeastern Massachusetts area, and one that might not easily come to mind, is finding a slaughterhouse. Recently many have closed or burned down, contributing to increased pricing and longer transport times. Some farmers have to go as far away as Groton to find the type of meat packer that meets their needs. This, of course, adds more to the final cost of the meat with the high price of gasoline. Some slaughterhouses are USDA inspected. In turn, they charge more since there is a full-time inspector on site. Others, which cater to hobby farm operations, are not USDA inspected. Surprisingly, these processing plants are not necessarily inferior. They can be run just as well, but individual cuts cannot be sold—only half or whole animals can be sold by the farmer.
With the good news comes the bad. Demand, even before this article hits the press, is exceeding supply. For example, the 50-year old, family run River Rock Farm, in Westport, owned and managed by Paul and Tina Schmid and Lisa and Joel Alvord, was sold out of beef last summer; even before their 15 animals went to slaughter in October. Tina Schmid did give me some good news, saying, “We sell direct, however, we have our ground beef for sale at How on Earth in Mattapoisett.” Which is great to know for those who want to give their organically raised, 100 percent grass-fed local beef a try, before committing to a minimum of a quarter of a cow.
When making a car trip to the western part of the state, Northern New England, upstate New York or Pennsylvania, check out what farms might be near your travels, and do not forget a big cooler. You might be surprised by the possibilities and pricing, since in these farming areas, land is generally abundant and less expensive, producing more competition. Of course, there are also places that ship straight to your door, too.
If you can see the many benefits of ground beef, you will have a better chance at buying grass-fed beef. Not only is ground beef more abundant than cuts like Porterhouse, it also costs much less. The cooking options are endless: meatloaf, meatballs, chili, hamburger, meat sauce, shepherd’s pie and sloppy Joes, for starters. Ground beef has all of the same health benefits as more expensive cuts, but it goes farther, dollar for dollar. Of course, at roughly $6.00 per pound, grass-fed ground beef might be considered pricey, compared to grocery store beef, but the health benefits derived from a free-range steer cannot be ignored. You need to ask yourself, ‘Why is grocery store beef so cheap?’ not ‘Why is grass-fed beef so expensive?’ The answer brings you to the government’s agricultural subsidies, which we pay for through taxes.
Some might think that feeding government subsidized corn and soy instead of grass might be a good band-aid for our lack of local farm land, but Michael Pollan, in his New York Times best seller, The Ominvore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals explains many of its traps. The practice contributes to the rise of grain prices, eats up fossil fuels in transportation and adds even more corn and soy to our over saturated, high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy bean oil diets.
An even bigger threat is the change that occurs to a cow’s rumen when it eats this modern and unnatural diet of grains, in lieu of grass. Cows’ guts naturally have a neutral pH. Our acidic one, until recently, had been able to kill off any E. coli that might find its way into our food. Today, however, with grain being the food du jour in feedlots, cows’ rumens are now acidic and certain strains of E. coli have grown resistant to an acidic bath, which means we have lost our natural defense against this killer.
Pollan says there is a simple solution to the problem. “Jim Russell, a USDA microbiologist on the faculty at Cornell, has found that switching a cow’s diet from corn to grass or hay for a few days prior to slaughter reduces the population of E. coli 0157:H7 in the animal’s gut by as much as 80 percent. But such a solution (grass?!) is considered wildly impractical by the cattle industry and (therefore) by the USDA. Their preferred solution for dealing with bacterial contamination is irradiation—essentially, to try to sterilize the manure getting into the meat.” Instead of overhauling the whole meat industry with a simple and natural solution of grass feeding, the USDA prefers to put more band-aids on a broken system.
The health benefits of a grass diet are many. It not only gives the animal a better life, but it helps the meat to more closely resemble wild game in its nutritional make up. It also imparts a mildly different taste, depending on the grasses the animal eats. The meat is leaner with more omega-3 fatty acids, which are excellent for brain development, among a litany of other benefits. Pollan writes, “Pastured animals also contain conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that some recent studies indicate may help reduce weight and prevent cancer, and which is absent from feedlot animals.” We are doing the cattle a disservice by feeding them grain, but also ourselves, nutritionally speaking.
Regardless of the cut, you expect a tender, juicy piece of meat, which comes down to the breeding of the steer. Earle has spent as much as $20,000 obtaining the perfect Angus stud. He states, “Most people are cross breeding with the Angus to gain the marbling of the meat.” This is what makes the meat tender. The grass fed diet takes longer to put the back fat on an animal than the modern diet of corn and soy. Earle prefers a shorter-framed, traditional Aberdeen Angus still found in Scotland, since it is easier to fill out. When the animal reaches the goal weight of 1600 pounds, it is ready for slaughter at about 18 to 19 months versus 16 months at a feedlot.
Whenever I write about the omnivore’s diet, I am mindful of the vegetarians who are in the audience. So I acknowledge that this form of farm management might seem like a diminution of our current nightmarish food system. But for meat-eating “locavores” this type of pastoral setting is a godsend. Ultimately, regardless of what you choose to eat, it is important to be conscious of what you are eating. Knowing the farmer supplying your food and understanding where it comes from is the first step.
It is wonderful to know that we have options. We do not have to support a system that is inhumane and broken. We must be willing to pay more for our food upfront, as opposed to blindly supporting government subsidized corn and soy, as we currently do through our taxes. We need to support local farms and farmers so they can thrive physically and financially. We must value the life of the cow enough to insist it stays on grass for its own health and in turn our own. Like a good symbiotic relationship, grass-fed cattle taken care of properly, take care of us with more tender, leaner, nourishing meat that ultimately is better for our planet.
As I was literally getting ready to send this article off electronically for editorial review, I received a phone call from a local farmer. He prefers to remain anonymous at this time for fear of being figuratively trampled with enthusiasm, but he said there is a good possibility, in the near future he will be starting a CSA (community sustainable agriculture) for organically raised, grass-fed beef and chicken in our own backyard of Cape Cod. With this encouraging news, I continue to be impressed how more people are getting “it,” both farmer and eater, and how it is making a world of difference, locally and beyond.
Allen Creek Farm, Westport 508-636-5557
River Rock Farm, Westport 508-636-5586
Eatwild.com is a great resource to search for all types of grass-fed meats.