Thursday, December 07, 2006

Raising Organic Grass-Fed Beef for the people who like it

Searching for this topic brings up a recent post:

Cooking in Kansas City: Organic Grass Fed Beef: "The product comes from Golden Harvest Organic. The package says it is grass fed, USDA organic, no antibiotics or added hormones vacuum packed. It's fat content is 85/15 and come in 1 lb. packages. It says to enhance the flavor of organic beef, it is best cooked rare to medium rare. If you like well done cook at a low temperature in sauce to add moisture.

We have cooked with it twice. First in chili and then in the Sloppy Joe pizza. It does taste different than regular beef and smells different. It's hard to explain the difference, it's not bad, just different. The smell at first is a little funky though. But it cooks up just fine and works well in both the recipes we tested.

Beef is one of those things that I have trouble digesting. I love eating it, but my stomach hates me for it. Both times I eaten the organic, I have not had a stomach issue. I don't know if the reason is the difference in what the cattle eat, but it makes me think so. It is pricey, coming in at over $5.00 a pound. I will have to try out the steaks to see if they taste any different."

Interestingly, it is seemingly cheaper to raise grass-fed beef and to make your land organic. You see, most of the problems with raising row crops is that you have to get the competition (ie. weeds) eradicated. For organic farmers, this means a lot of cultivation (in your garden you do this with weeding, either by hand or by hoe), which means tractor fuel and maintenence parts. And fuel hasn't gone back down to where it was two years ago, which was high then.

When you grow a pasture, you essentially seed it once or every few years (to add more concentrated clover) and then let the cows harvest and fertilize it. If you cut it down early for hay, like alfalfa, then you need to fertilize it after that first cutting as it is able to do three or four (or more) cuttings each year - but you'll use up most of the soil nutrients if you don't, then your alfalfa will produce poorly and die off.

You have to keep your cows fed for two years before they have enough weight to take to market/slaughter. You have to manage your pastures so that you have enought for them to eat year 'round. The funny thing with most pastures is that they like to grow fast in the spring (unless you can afford to plant native prairie grasses, which take three years to establish and have much more expensive seed). Once they've seeded out, they put everything they have into that seed, which makes the stems into straw. Straw has very little nutrient content - cows will stay alive, but lose weight on this - not good, since cattle is sold by weight.

This means that your cattle will eat great in some pastures, but then will only find straw in the next ones as the year moves on. In winter, grass simply doesn't grow here in Missouri. The strategy here is to cut the grass before it goes to seed, which preserves the value of that grass as hay. It loses some value as it dries out, but by tightly compressing it into hay bales, a lot of this is preserved.

The grass, since it didn't get the chance to head out as seed, starts over to raise more shoots. (Some grass spreads by roots, some by both, but we won't talk about them here.) So you then get a second growth (or several, as alfalfa above). Here is where you let your cows do the harvesting on the second time around. While they eat, they spread manure as well. So they fertilize the pasture as they go.

Means you don't have to pay to fertilize it. Your equipment costs are just running over that ground about four times to cut, rake, bale, and collect the hay. Lots less expensive than amount of fuel needed to raise crops on the same acreage.

In our neck of the woods, we can barely get 100 bushel an acre for corn, compared to some lands north of us which produce over 200 bushel an acre. So raising corn isn't that smart of an option, since the fuel costs (and herbicides) are the same. We would need to use our entire corn crop to raise 20 calves.

The cheaper route is to figure if that land we have in corn could produce enough to feed those calves for the extra 6-8 months it takes to bring them up to weight for sale. The trick is in estimating how much grass you are going to produce from your land and how much you are going to need for the amount of cattle you are raising.

Now, to make organic pasture, you simply have to do nothing to it for three years - and keep records that you've don't nothing to it. Yes, it's that simple. You have to do the paperwork and pay to have someone certify your papers as correct. But that's your totality of investment. If you fertilize it, you have to use organic fertilizers. But actually, organic fertilizers for alfalfa are cheaper than for corn, which uses a lot of nitrogen derived from natural gas, among other things (which jacks its price up). Alfalfa becomes very stemmy if you use a lot of nitrogen. What makes organic fertilizers more expensive is that they have the certification expense to, as well as having lower demand for the overhead they incur.

Alfalfa is great for cattle as it is higher in protein, which enables them to gain more weight faster and keep it on in the winter. So you see cattle farmers raising alfalfa and haying it. It's not a native grass to this continent, but grows fine here - you just have to rip it up and replant it every three-five years. And it takes two crops in that field before you can plant it to alfalfa again.

I've kept this discussion simple so you can see what goes on in raising beef. Most commercial beef is raised on corn, with steroid implants to make sure they put on muscle fast. Corn is a high starch, low protein feed which makes the animals add fat between the muscles, called marbling. With this amount of fat, it is easier to cook beef, as it stays tender. If you feed this same beef cow only grass, she will take longer to get to market and so the meat can be tougher and have less marbling. So grass-fed beef has to be cooked with lower temperatures or is best marinaded (cooked in sauces).

Some cattle breeds (like Highland, and some others) actually do just as good on a grass diet. But the pure-blood Highland cow takes 2 1/2 years to get up to weight. Now an Angus/Highland cross has the best of both worlds, as that calf will gain fast and also do well on grass only, keeping good marbling and your high omega-3's which grass-fed beef is known for.

The overall scene with grass-fed beef is that it is cheaper to raise, but requires more land to do so. It's just as cheap to raise organic grass-fed beef as not. As long as grass-fed beef pays a higher premium, I'll continue to work out how to convert my small beef herd over to organic and ship them to KC for processing.
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