Anyone who's seen Food Inc. or felt startled at the prospect of E. coli finding its way into your hamburger should care about the origins of your beef.
Beef, as we most often raise it today, is a high-impact food -- about as high-impact as you can get. Food is one of the leading contributors to global warming, primarily because of livestock -- the fossil fuels used to fertilize grain crops and make pesticides, the deforestation to make way for grazing or feedlots and everyone's favorite: cow belches.
Grass-fed beef is a lower-impact option for those who are concerned about the environmental or health consequences of a meaty diet, but who can't give up meat.
We asked Brian Kenny, manager of the Hearst Ranch, to flesh out the details about why grass-fed beef is better. Is there a conflict of interest here? Sure, but I wouldn't put it on the scale of an "agribusiness in the back pocket of Midwest Congressmen" conflict: Both the Hearst Ranch and The Daily Green are owned by the same company (and the meat-eaters on staff have enjoyed Hearst Ranch beef in our office cafe). Kenny came to us with information just like many other companies do, and we told him what we tell a lot of companies: We're interested, and if you can prove it to us, we'll tell our audience. Well, here you go:
Most beef cows in America are raised for a short time on grass and then "finished" in confined feeding areas with a diet of grain that is unnatural to them, which boosts E. coli counts in their guts, and which encourages the spread of disease. Grass-fed beef cows eat grass their entire lives, as cows evolved to do. Because their lifecycle isn't accelerated with hormones, animals mature in the spring when forage is bursting with new growth, seeds and nutrients. Those nutrients end up in the meat and result in a healthy and delicious product.
Some research suggests grass-fed beef has more nutrients as a result -- as much as 10 times more beta-carotene, three times more Vitamin E and three-times more omega-3 fatty acids.
Scientists haven't quantified the benefits of clean water, fresh air and freedom to roam in terms of human health, but it adds up to a happier, healthier herd.
There is an old cowboy saying that we abide by at the Hearst Ranches: "go slow, get there faster."
This means that if you dont push cows too hard, but rather allow them to find their natural way at their natural pace youll be more successful. Forcing them to go your way and at your pace will sometimes cause fatigue for the cattle and always make more work for the cowboy, his horses and his dogs.
This is the way beef is supposed to taste. In the wine industry, the word terroir refers to the flavor imparted to the wine by the entirety of the property upon which the grapes are grown. Same goes for beef, which takes on distinct flavors based on the terrain, weather, soil and water. Our cattle literally eat the terroir, therefore, they are the ultimate expression of the terroir of our ranches.
It takes a lot of land to raise beef naturally. The vast grasslands of the Hearst ranches host an unusually complex mosaic of vegetation. By rotating the animals through various pastures through the seasons, we preserve native biodiversity, improve soil fertility and eliminate the waste-management issues associated with confined animal feedlots (a major source of water pollution at conventional farms).
Thanks to digger weirdralph for pointing out that the original posting featured a photo of dairy cows, not beef cows. That's been corrected.
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