Our family has been buying grass-fed beef and chicken at a premium from Grassfield’s Farm in Coopersville, MI for about 18 months now. When we began, I didn’t ask a zillion questions, simply because I knew enough trusted real foodies who went there and I knew they had good quality, organic, grassfed products.
Last Saturday the kids and I had an incredibly good time at the Local First “Fall on the Farm” family event hosted by Grassfield’s, and I had a lesson in always pursuing questions.
Local First put together an amazing event that was well worth the entry fee and beyond. We got to paint a full-sized pumpkin to take home, ride a horse, pet various farm animals, take a tractor-drawn wagon ride and tour of the farm, watch cheese being made, eat a locally-sourced lunch that was out of this world, and get a $2 bag of kettle corn that is already my son’s favorite part of the Farmer’ Market downtown. (The kids are the last photo on Local First’s Facebook page about the event here.)
For the $6 kids’ entry fee, I’m thinking we got at least $13 in value, and the lunch alone was worth the adult fee: locally made potato chips, Grassfield’s organic cheese, Mud Lake Farms organic greens, Creswick Farms pastured hot dogs, Grassfield’s burgers and BBQd chicken (divine!), Mrs. C’s spicy mustard, and Maggie’s cider donuts and cider. You could even go back for seconds!
It was on the farm tour that I personally got the most value, however.
I was surprised to hear the farmer explain that the dairy cows are fed about 10 pounds of grain a day, which makes about 20% of their 50 pounds of food. I immediately thought of one of my readers who claims vehemently that cows cannot survive and produce milk on grass alone. Our raw milk farm is 100% grassfed, though, and our milk is wonderful. Something wasn’t computing.
After a few more questions, I determined that the cows at Grassfields are Holsteins, the common breed of dairy cattle for a large farming operation. The older breeds of cattle like Jersey, and especially Guernsey, are more suited for grass alone, and that’s what our dairy farm raises.
I had assumed that the entire operation was organic and grassfed, but I was wrong.
Ask Questions, Always
Here’s what I learned on the farm tour with lots of questions:
MILK AND CHEESE
- Dairy cows consume 50 pounds of food and 50 gallons of water a day and produce 6 gallons of milk
- 100% certified organic (they even send milk to Organic Valley but also have raw milk shares); their cheese is raw and 100% certified organic
- 80% grassfed on site
- cows are Holsteins with a bit of Jersey mixed in; they get too thin on grass alone and production goes down
- Grassfield’s is always learning more about pasture management. For example, the length of the grass matters a great deal. What is on top mirrors the length of roots underneath, and cows really need to be eating rather long (a foot or so?) grass to get good fiber. It’s like a complete meal then, whereas shorter grass gives high energy but also the runs.
- The farms moves the cows to new pasture daily, sometimes multiple times per day in the summer. Cows won’t return to the same pasture for about a month to allow it to grow back.
- They need an acre per cow to maintain pasture; that’s 200 acres on site. They also manage another 400 acres on other farms.
I was surprised to find out that the beef cattle are not housed on the farm but raised elsewhere by another farmer.
- Beef cattle are 100% grassfed, but not certified organic. However, there aren’t any hormones or antibiotics used, and the grass isn’t sprayed, of course. There’s no guarantee that the mothers of the beef cattle were raised naturally, though.
- It would cost at least 1 1/2 times more for the eggs and beef to be certified organic.
- I mentioned I thought the fat content of the beef had changed in the last 18 months, and I wasn’t as happy with the quality of the stew meat or ground beef. They have changed the breed of beef cattle used in that time. The current breed is an Old English breed that is shorter and stockier, more suited for grass, and finishes in only 18 mos. instead of two years. They do have more fat than the previous breed.
- Interestingly enough, the stew meat and ground beef are from old dairy cows. Even among the meat, one really needs to ask tons of questions to figure out what you’re eating! That means the “grassfed beef” I most often buy is not 100% grassfed, but it IS certified organic. Confusing!
- We could see the egg laying chickens running around literally all over the place, so it was pretty clear that they were “free range”!
- Chickens are fed non-organic, local feed made up of corn and soy, as well as kelp for minerals and sometimes egg shells to make the new eggs have harder shells.
- Each chicken lays about 5 eggs per week.
- I asked about the corn and soy and the genetic modification issue. The farmer admitted that they come from local grain elevators, so they are grown by any number of farmers.
- Later he said: “You kn0w, you really got me thinking. Why couldn’t we find one farmer who raises non-GMO corn and soy and contract with them for all our chicken feed?” Now THAT is the best reason why any conversation with your farmer is an important conversation! The passage of information needs to go both ways, and I truly appreciated the dialogue that afternoon.
- The meat chickens are apparently much more “dumb” than the hens, so they are kept mainly inside, although in a structure that is moved day to day to various parts of the pasture. They are certainly free range and get to feast on good things, but they also get non-organic corn and soy.
Ultimately the chickens and eggs become a question in what is more important: organic, non-GMO feed, or the ability to eat grubs out of the cow plops?
We threw our apple cores off the wagon to the pigs, to the delight of all the children. They looked like happy pigs who were definitely allowed to root in the soil and act like the pigs they are.
- The pigs are also not fed organic feed. Pigs may be called “grassfed” on some local restaurant menus, but “pastured” would be a better term as pigs could never survive eating just grass.
- The star quality of Grassfield’s pork is that all the whey from the cheese-making process is piped over to the pigs, where they get greedy milk mustaches lapping it all up with delight! I had to ask that question when we watched the cheese-making process. If I were Grassfield’s Farm, I would shout far and wide that they have whey-fed pork, as people would come running for that!
What to do with my new knowledge?
For now, I’ll still be getting beef from Grassfield’s. For my budget, getting almost grassfed and/or organic and all hormone and antibiotic free beef at Grassfield’s is the best choice. Now I understand, however, why other farms like Crane Dance might have more expensive meat if they’re 100% organic or 100% grassfed.
I literally made the decision just last week to spend the 75 cents more for Grassfield’s eggs over the compromise eggs from Rakowski’s, but now I realize that the diets are awfully similar. The Grassfield’s eggs definitely have a thicker shell and deeper colored yolks, but they’re still not organic, and Rakowski claims that their feed is non-GMO.
I will probably buy a lot more split chicken breast from our local butcher who sells organic birds instead of always seeking the whole birds from Grassfield’s. While I appreciate being able to talk to the farmer himself about growing/raising practices, it’s more practical for me to visit the butcher shop than drive to the farm, and I now feel like I’m getting a very similar if not superior product there.
You can find all these resources and more at my Local Grand Rapids Real Food Farm Resources page…which needs an update to include this post!
Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Beef: What’s the Real Story?
The real question that is bugging me now is the bottom line: is grassfed healthier? I recently read this article by a real scientist who, although he has no problem with grassfed beef, wishes to dispel myths about it. He claims that grass-fed cattle actually cause a bigger negative impact on the environment than factory farmed cattle because of overall carbon emissions, and he claims that the CLA and omega-3 benefits of grass-fed beef are null and void once cooked. I haven’t done any research into his research, but I’m definitely curious to hear what others think.
Join the conversation after reading his article. Is grassfed beef worth the premium price? Is organic necessary?
Other related articles:
- 10 Questions to Ask Your Farmer
- Michael Pollan on “Can Grassfed Feed the World?”
- The List: What to Eat, What to Avoid, How to Compromise
- Do you know how to find healthy eggs?
- Do you know what kind of milk you should buy?
- Kelly the Kitchen Kop on CAFOs and grassfed meat
See my full disclosure statement here.
All photos from Local First’s Facebook page.
Entered in Life as MOM”s Frugal Friday.