From the time they’re born until they reach full maturity, the cows on Jeff Boyst’s 100-year-old farm, BN Acres, graze on nothing but grass. Depending on the season, the herd of about fifty Charolais cattle enjoy a rotating crop of rye, millet, fescue, orchard grass, and sorghum-sudan grass.
“If you take care of the pasture you’re going to have good animals,” says Boyst, who took charge, after his grandfather’s passing in 2007, of the farmland at BN Acres. “It’s a delicate process to make sure we’re giving them the right grass for the right end product.”
Despite the careful attention given to his fields, Boyst said the meat his cows produce will still vary in taste based on several factors. “It depends on how sensitive your palate is. Grass-fed beef might be called gamey or wild, depending on what the animal has been eating and what foods they’re eating at different times of year. In the fall they may eat more leaves and in the springtime they might get into wild onions or garlic and you might taste that in the beef.”
Beyond the subtle flavor differences caused by a wild diet, the most notable distinction between grass- and grain-fed meat has to do with fat content and composition.
Marbling refers to the amount of fat appearing in a cut of meat and is the basis for the United States Department of Agriculture’s grading system. Prime meat has the highest marbling content while Choice and Select meats have decreasing amounts of marbling, respectively. “A grain-fed product will have very white marbling. [Grass-fed cows] are naturally a leaner animal with a different type of fat deposit that tends to be more yellow due to the chlorophyll in plants,” said Boyst.
Proponents of grass-feeding tend to place less emphasis on this traditional system for measuring quality, preferring instead to focus on the perceived health benefits of a leaner product with increased Omega-3 fatty acids, lower levels of HDL (bad cholesterol), and higher levels of LDL (good cholesterol).
“We have a niche market, but it’s a good market,” explained Beth Phelps—she and her brother, Jeff Perryman, co-own Buck Creek Farm in Midway, N.C. “A lot of people don’t raise all grass-fed beef because it takes longer for the cows to mature (two years versus sixteen months for a grain-fed cow) and raising them is more labor intensive.”
“The extra time and effort is worth it,” Phelps said, “because there are always going to be people looking for a healthier option. We started this farm just for our family, not intending to sell products to other people.” She hopes to increase processing from around five Angus and Belted Galloway cattle a year to processing twenty cattle a year.
“Grass-fed beef may only be about fifteen percent of the meat market, but it will always be there because people will always choose it,” said Boyst, acknowledging that grass-fed will likely never overtake the grain-fed beef market due to
profit margins. “[But] people who are health conscious will find us and seek us out. We continue to choose grass-fed products because we want to offer something the market doesn’t typically offer.”
The jury’s out on whether or not grass-fed totally trumps grain-fed finished beef. Most knowledgeable farmers and consumers are more interested in leaving it to personal preference than preaching about a superior product. “I’m a true believer that all beef is good,” said Chris Yokeley of Yokeley Farms in Wallburg, N.C. “My goal is to give people the best eating experience they can have.”
Yokeley started raising cattle when he inherited his father’s herd of Red Angus. His father ran Yokeley Seeding Company. Yokeley’s herd currently consists of about thirty Red Angus, Shorthorn, and Durham Red cattle (a cross between Red Angus and Shorthorn). They spend their entire lives in an open pasture eating grass, only receiving supplemental hay and corn for the last few months before they’re harvested. “We make all the hay we feed them; we raise all the corn and grind it ourselves,” said Yokeley.
“We wanted to expand to something a little different than just Red Angus, so we started researching by taste. I tried some Shorthorn filets on the grill with just salt and pepper. When I bit into the Shorthorn filet it just melted in my mouth. I knew from that moment, that was where we were going,” said
Yokeley. He began crossing breeds for the Durham Red—“I truly think that breed is the best of both worlds.”
Dan Kurtz of Cedar Creek Ranch raises Holstein cattle, which are typically used in dairy production. Like Yokeley, he does not strictly grass-feed his cattle, but he does emphasize the humane treatment of his animals. His calves are bottle-fed and then given free reign of a pasture for the duration of their lives.
Kurtz believes that knowing where your food comes from is more important than a grass-fed
label. “One-hundred-twenty years ago everyone knew what agriculture was. They understood where things came from. Now we’ve got four to six generations removed from agriculture. If people read on a label that the product came from some place close to them, it makes them feel better.” Yokeley agreed, “You ought to know your farmer … visit farms and ask questions.”
“I don’t see competitors,” said Boyst. “When we run into each other at the store, we trade information. We network and work together. Our desire is to provide a good product to our community.”
As Yokeley says, “I don’t see the local food movement as a fad. It’s not going away. I think people are tired of preservatives and chemicals. People want to eat clean and feel good about what they’re eating, whether it’s produce, poultry, or beef. It’s just a great feeling knowing that when I sit down with a plate of food, everything on it came from a farm!”