A couple of years ago I had a guest post on sourcing beef from field to table. Food research and thoughts are always changing, so I’m excited to welcome Caryl Elzinga of Alderspring Ranch today to give a great overview of how to source beef for your family.
Sourcing The Best Beef
You want to be a good steward of your money and your family’s health. You know what you want when you buy beef. You want it grass fed, and to you that means the animal lived on pasture and ate pasture until it was processed. You also want beef that is free of man-made chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. In addition, you want to be sure that the animal you are consuming has been treated well and humanely throughout its life. Finally, you want to know that your food dollars are contributing to the stewardship of the earth as well as supporting a family farm.
Unfortunately, labels do not provide a great deal of confidence that you are purchasing what you actually think you are. Of the common beef labels — grass fed, pasture raised, pasture finished, grass finished, and organic — only organic is a regulated term (meaning you are supposed to get in trouble for using it fraudulently, but prosecutions are rare). The terms grass finished, pasture raised, and pasture- finished have no official definition and producers can use them however they want.
What’s in a Label?
The grass fed label is a little murkier. It is a label called “voluntary” by the USDA. A producer can chose to go through a verification process, including an inspection, and then carry the USDA source verified seal. But because it is a voluntary certification, a producer can use the term “grass fed” in labeling and marketing without following the USDA definition of grass fed, as long as the marketing is not blatantly fraudulent or misleading (again, prosecution is very rare). In addition, even the USDA “grass fed” might not be what you think it is. The regulations require:
- Lifetime feed after mother’s milk must be derived from forage (grass and forbs), but this does not limit crop waste and stubble or non-grain byproducts.
- Animals must have continuous access to pasture during the frost free months. This does not preclude situations where the animals have access to “pasture” but still get most of their feed from a feed bunk. In addition, during the non- frost -free months (here on Alderspring Ranch that would be 9 months out of the year) the animals may be confined to a feedlot.
- Inadvertent consumption of non-forage feedstuffs or supplementation to “ensure the animal’s well-being” are to be fully documented, but there is no penalty or action resulting from that documentation.
These regulations mean that the meat labelled “grass fed” may not have even followed USDA’s minimal definition. Even if the producer chooses to be source-verified (and carry the USDA shield) the “grass fed” animals may have been confined in a feedlot consuming a mishmash of GMO corn stalks and soy stubble, beet pulp waste (also GMO) and hay…and if it’s cold they don’t even have an open gate to enjoy some pasture “access.” This is hardly the picture consumers have of grass fed beef.
Business or Passion?
The good name and good image of grass fed beef, and the documented health benefits, originated 15-20 years ago, when the people growing grass fed beef were true believers (and considered crackpots by their neighbors), who raised “real” grass fed beef as a matter of conscience rather than of marketing and increased margins. Most of them were de-facto organic because of their ecological approach to farming and ranching. Now larger producers have jumped on the lucrative wagon and using the minimal definition are selling “grass fed beef” that is really no more than a slight tweak of the industrial beef raising model.
As someone who has grown grass fed beef for 20 years (before it was trendy) and has been certified organic for 10 years, as well as someone who controls serious autoimmune disease with a careful diet, this deception of the public makes me angry. I worry that people who are truly sick will not see the health benefits they hope for because they are not really eating what they think they are. I also grieve that the potential to actually transform the way we grow beef and treat animals in this country is being lost because people are unknowingly supporting the industrial model of animal agriculture.
How to Find a Local Farmer to Trust
If you can’t trust the label on the supermarket beef, what are you to do? My suggestion is to find a local farmer, and ask lots of questions. There are so many people out there doing things right. There are still a lot of “true believers.” And if you invest the time now to really scope out your supplier, you will have sourced your beef for years to come.
My goal here is to educate you so you get what you pay for! So, assuming you have a small enough supplier that you can actually ask questions, here are the ones to ask.
- Are you organic? The organic certification isn’t perfect, but it is pretty rigorous (Glenn just spent over a week working on records and meeting with inspectors). If a producer is certified organic, your answers to a bunch of other questions are already known — no hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, wormers, or GMOs. Lots of small producers will say they are “organic” they just don’t bother with the certification. Using the term “organic” in their labeling or marketing is illegal and is unfair to those of us who do the hard work (and pay money) to be certified organic. Enough said. But some of them will say that they follow growing practices similar to organic requirements. If so, dig deeper and ask more questions, but don’t just take their word for it.
- Are your animals home-grown or sourced? If the latter, where do they get them? At what age? How much do they know about prior treatment? How long have the animals been in their care? If organic, they will have a paper trail on each animal, and each previous owner has to be certified organic as well. You are looking for a producer that raises animals from birth, or perhaps sources them as calves after weaning. You do not want someone who has only had the animals for a few months, or who knows very little about their history (sale barn animals).
- How old are the animals? You are looking for a cow that is under 30 months old.
- Are these animals beef or dairy? If dairy, they have probably been fed milk replacer; there are good milk replacers and there are others that are medicated and supplemented with blood plasma. Dairy animals are also much harder to finish on grass, so you may be disappointed with the meat quality.
- Are your animals always on pasture or do you confine them to a feedlot? While our growing season at Alderspring Ranch is technically only 3 months, our cattle are out on pasture 12 months a year. We supplement them with high-quality hay in the coldest months, but our late fall pasture grass, after the first frosts, is actually the very best grass of the year.
- Antibiotics? How are they tracked? What do you do with sick animals that need treatment? Do you feed sub-therapeutic antibiotics to increase weight gain?
- Hormones? Approximately 80% of U.S. beef cattle are given hormones to increase growth, typically by implant. Studies suggest that children and pregnant women are the most susceptible to the potential negative health effects of beef implanted with hormones.
- Do you use any pesticides or herbicides on your fields? Standard practices in grass/alfalfa pasture and hay ground include use of glyphosate (now that GMO alfalfa has been approved), other herbicides to control weeds like thistle, pesticides to kill alfalfa weevil, and herbicides to kill an existing stand of grass or alfalfa and allow easier replanting.
I think we will be hearing as much about glyphosate in the coming years as we did about DDT years ago. Grass fed no longer means GMO or glyphosate free, and it’s difficult for a person unfamiliar with agriculture to grasp how extensive and pervasive the use of glyphosate is in American agriculture. Here is an overview article with extensive references describing the potential interactions of glyphosate with human health
- Do you graze animals on corn, soy, or beet field waste? Over 90% of these crops in the U.S. are GMO. It is common practice to graze animals on post-harvest fields. These fields would have been treated with glyphosate.
- What kind of fly control do you use? After Glenn had a headache for 4 days after putting fly tags on cattle, we’ve never used fly tags again, not even the organic-approved ones. We now rely on cattle movement out of sync with fly hatches to control flies.
- Do you use wormer? Do you use pour-on wormer? These pour-ons are typically organophosphate chemicals that permeate through the skin (and the meat) to treat internal parasites.
- How often do you move your cattle? This is important for beef quality. During the active growing season cattle should be moving every day, or at least every few days. As pasture growth slows, the time between moves can increase. Cattle that live on the same pasture all year will be tough and not taste as good.
- Do you have a money back guarantee? A good producer should proudly stand behind their product.
- Can you give me the names of other customers I can call for a referral? This is a little tricky, because no one is going to give you the name of a disgruntled customer, but you can at least know the producer does have some satisfied customers.
- How is my beef split among other buyers? You are probably buying a half or quarter of a beef, and there are different ways to split it. Does your producer sell quarters by front and back quarters, or by halves of halves? Hind quarters usually are priced a little higher because of the leaness/cutability of hinds. On the other hand, a front quarter usually packs more flavor and you’ll also get what many consider the best cut of all, the ribeye. Most processors, however, package quarters as halves of halves. What that means is that the cuts are all laid out on the table from an entire half or side of beef, and each quarter owner gets equivalent amount (or nearly so) of every cut available on the half. This is our practice at Alderspring Ranch.
You can ask all these questions by email or phone, or often find the answers on the farm’s website. If the answers are satisfactory, you may want to visit the farm and take a little tour. You are looking for healthy clean calm animals, minimal corral infrastructure, and honest eyes. A good producer will be proud to show you around (although probably a little time-strapped).
Does this seem like a lot of work? It is, but remember you are making a valuable investment in sourcing your food that will pay off for years. You will develop a relationship with your producer, and be confident that you are serving your family the best beef.
Have you ever ordered a whole cow? Do you plan to?