The Lean Myth
Our grass-fed beef is juicy, marbled and flavorful. Some grass-fed beef is not very good. Everything from how old an animal is, time of year at slaughter, its stress level and pasture quality can affect how meat tastes. We carefully control these variables to bring our discerning customers the highest quality meat. You won’t be disappointed.
What our customers say
“Your meat is so delicious and I love knowing that it is raised with care and integrity. You treat your animals with kindness and respect and I feel good about feeding my family your products.” – Kim in Cooperstown
“I want to thank you for the quality of the meats. Amazing. I already used up the ground beef and I would like to buy more.” – Adriana in Monsey, NY
“My friend said that the rib eyes and the top sirloin were probably the best steaks he had ever had – including a $100 steak he had recently had at one of NYC’s top steak houses. And I have to say that I agreed with him.” – Jamie in Cherry Valley, NY.
Grass is Greener
When it comes to what you put on your plate, grass really is greener. Raising cattle on permanent pastures keeps soil safe from erosion, and there is tantalizing research being done right now that demonstrates impressive amounts of carbon fixation deep into the soil under properly managed pastures.
We believe that humans more readily achieve vigorous health when meat, milk, and eggs constitute part of their diet. Grass-fed and pastured animal products carry a healthier balance of fats and greater mineral and flavanoid concentration than CAFO produced junk food. Our goal is to help our customers live well and in good health. The food we produce is one small piece of the larger wellness puzzle.
Grass-fed beef is undeniably better than feedlot, grain fattened beef from an animal welfare perspective. Cattle are made for harvesting their own feed in the form of forages. They benefit from the exercise and fresh air that come with living outside. They also live fuller lives when afforded the space necessary to fulfill their various instinct drives which include the occasional romp and kick of the heels. When forced to stand in feedlots their stomachs get upset and damaged by consuming large quantities of grain heavy rations. In addition the sickening stink they live in when many thousands of cattle cram into pens day after day for months during the fattening stage of life is terrible for both the animals and the humans who spend time in such places.
Want to know more about how we raise grass-fed beef? Here are the details.
- Quality of Pasture
- Dry Aging
Grazed too short pastures can be rich in nitrogen and short on fiber that ruminants need in order to perform their namesake activity. Pastures can be deficient in protein if the pasture lacks legumes or has been frozen, thawed, and rained on a number of times. Pastures can be overly mature and lignified, with not enough digestible nutrients to put a real bloom of health on a finishing animal. Too short, too much weather on stockpiled pasture, and too old all have the potential to negatively affect the flavor of beef that feeds on them. Of the three I’d say the first two are a toss up for which is worse, but I could work around the last pretty easily by allotting the herd more space and not forcing them to eat all of the available plant material before moving to the next piece of grass. Given a little bit of space cattle can pick and choose the plants on offer that best fit their nutritional needs. Accommodating this need can run counter to optimizing grass productivity, but again, see grass.
We still have room for improvement in our handling facility which is just a bunch of old gates cobbled together into a sorting pen of ramshackle appearance. It works reasonably well so long as we’re patient with the cattle as they work through it, but occasionally they get more agitated than I like to see. One day soon we will build a properly designed corral, but with the low number of animals we’ve had up to now we can’t justify the cost. Flavor comes into this because stress homones like cortisol can affect meat after butchering. If an animal experiences significant stress immediately before slaughter it can deplete its muscular glycogen stores and the meat then “cuts dark”, and it also negatively influences flavor. Unfortunately we can’t control everything about slaughtering our cattle because of the way the USDA regulates meat. The best case scenario would be to kill in the field so the slaughtered beeve wouldn’t even have the stress of walking through the sorting chute on the farm. As it is now, they have to be sorted on the farm, trucked to the slaughterhouse, wait at the slaughterhouse with other unfamiliar animals around, and then walk through new gates and chutes to the final room. We haven’t lost a carcass to dark cutting yet, but as they say in the financial world, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
It is a pervasive myth that grass-fed meat is leaner than grain finished. While it is true that many (most?) grass-fed operations don’t consistently get a good finish on their animals prior to slaughter, there are some that do. We raise cattle that are genetically prone to marbling and we manage them in such a way that allows this propensity to express itself. Having said that, marbling might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Little actual flavor is actually locked up in the marble, as mentioned in a previous section flavors tend to come from the cell walls of the whole cut of meat. I tend to think of marbling as insurance against over-cooking. The fat that marbling represents adds some succulence and moisture to a steak even when it stays too long on a hot grill.
By excluding air the mix of pasture plants ferments an little and then sits in a sort of stasis. So long as air doesn’t penetrate bales wrapped this way can retain good feed value for several years.
I’m on the fence about the how good it is for cattle to subsist on baleage for long stretches. On the one hand I think that cattle in the wild would never have access to fermented feeds, so from an evolutionary perspective it seems suspect. On the other hand, once hay hits the rumen it undergoes basically the same process that begins and then halts in making baleage. From the business point of view it makes a lot of sense to make baleage because our climate is often rainy during the summer and putting up dry hay can be a challenge many years. It’s a good feeling to know that one has all the feed needed to get through winter sitting on site.
Given a perfect world I’d probably opt for good quality hay over baleage most of the time because hay has more sugars in it (they haven’t fed the bacteria that do the pickling). Actually, in a perfect world we wouldn’t put out any stored feed at all. We’d stockpile enough pasture to get the cattle through winter grazing the whole time. But that is not reality in our neck of the woods. Maybe if global warming really kicks into gear we’ll be able to pull that off, but not right now.
To keep our fences “hot” we use a Kencove energizer. I’ve heard people say “buy the biggest and best energizer your budget allows,” and I have to say I agree with that advice. Quality units will shock through much more vegetation than will little cheapo units. They also are capable of keeping many more miles of fence hot.
Finally, ingress and egress from fenced lots requires gates. It is amazing how expensive gates can get, especially if one wants to have a wide opening. In general more gates on a pasture makes for a better life for the farmer. To save money on gates we build tape (polytape, it’s wider than polywire) gates, which are a modern incarnation of an age old fencing technique. The older neighbors in our valley who still have ancient barbwire fences and gates use this same basic design, but instead of electrified polytape they use barbed wire strands.
Some people worry about cattle getting cold being outside during a New York winter. Cows are not people. They are very, very different. For one, they grow extra thick hair when it starts getting cold. The internal temperature of a cow is 103.5 degrees F. Another difference – digestive physiology. Cattle have the equivalent of a small compost pile inside their bellies burning away all the time. Have you ever stuck your hand into a compost pile? They can get hot enough to burn. Obviously the rumen contents don’t get that hot inside an animal or it would die, it just releases more slowly over a longer time. The point is, a substantial amount of heat is released during the digestion of roughage. Another differnce – shape and size – cattle are much bigger than humans. The ratio of surface area to mass decreases as size increases, so there is less and less relative area for heat to escape. Shape plays a role too. Humans have narrow torsos and long limbs. Cattle are barrel shaped with relatively short legs. Their shape is much more conducive to heat retention than humans are.
We give our cattle access to areas where they can escape the wind since it can be quite chilling, and while I admit I still have nights when I worry about their comfort I have yet to regret the decision to keep them outside in the fresh air and winter sun. Many health problems can be caused by damp, dank, dark barns that rob the inhabitants of any chance at endogenous vitamin D production and promote respiratory diseases.
The thing I hate most about the end of winter is the mud. The cattle need hay for a few weeks while they wait for the grass to begin growing. It gets too warm for the ground to stay frozen and their hooves tear up the ground. They make quite a mess of whatever patch of ground we give them. We try to strike a balance between giving them enough area to lie down on unchurned ground and not letting them ruin huge swaths of pasture. If any issue prompts us to build some sort of winter housing, this will be it. We haven’t yet, but it is certainly under consideration.
Kerrys and Angus are both solid black, so our cows are always black. Angus are polled (hornless), and its a dominant trait which means our herd is gradually going to be fully hornless. I just don’t think the risk of injury to other livestock and to humans is worth that beauty. They make a careless toss of the cow’s head into a dangerous act. We dehorned two of our cows early on and it was not a good experience for us or the cow.
It costs a lot of hay to and time to get a heifer calf up to the age and time she can give birth. So the breakeven turnaround on retaining cattle is something like 5 or 6 years since the costs of raising a cow have to be amortized over several calves. This big upfront cost makes longevity very important to the viability of our cattle herd. Hybrid vigor is valuable on the longevity front too, which is another good reason for farms in positions like mine to use breed crosses for the foundation cow herd.
Our calving period is currently way too wide. Our first calves come in April and the last in July. Long term I want our calving to start the last week of April and run until the first day of June. That means each cow would be bred within 42 days of the bull’s entrance on the scene.
Castration – We do castrate bull calves when they’re a few months old. Testosterone does wonders for making animals more aggressive and bulls make a lot of testosterone. Also, it reduces intramuscular fat, a.k.a. marbling.
Dehorning – hit or miss, we have not done this for all our calves. These days we use naturally polled bulls, so all their offspring are hornless throughout life.
Vaccination – currently we have not been vaccinating. I’m not deeply opposed to doing so, but we haven’t been doing it.
Hoof trimming – no. We cull rather than trim a hoof.
Chemical Wormers – no.
Antibiotics – no
We wean the calves in the fall. We’ve try fenceline weaning, but they sometimes push through the electric line to get with mama. After they pull a rejoining stunt the calves go into a secure spot like a barn to eat hay and the cows stay out on pasture. We prefer fenceline weaning because it is lower stress for all the animals involved including the humans who don’t have to listen to bellowing cows and bawling calves. No matter what the ultimate steps after about a week the cows dry off and even if the two groups reunite not much suckling occurs.
Calves spend the winter in a barn with occasional hits of higher quality hay to keep them growing.
Finishing while exclusively grazing in our climate is fairly simple if the animal is old enough. Too young and it will physiologically still be trying to grow and get bigger rather than max out on fat stores for the winter and for reproduction. The other factor is the amount of sugar in the grasses the herd grazes. In May, June, and July there is enough sugar in the pasture to keep our animals gaining day in and day out. August is hit or miss, and September onward our cattle tend to lose a little weight (there are ways to extend the finishing season). So we’ve been sending our cattle to the slaughterhouse in June and July. May is good for gaining weight, but more weeks of good grazing let them get a little bigger. Also, the more head of cattle we have on the farm in May and June the better we can keep up with pasture growth and maximise our grass harvested.
Artificial insemination is also an option but so far we haven’t chosen to go that route. It would be nice to not feed a bull through the winter. But AI requires liquid nitrogen in a can, purchasing and keeping track of semen straws, and then actually inseminating cows at the height of fertility. It is A LOT easier to keep a bull who really, really wants to take care of his sperm and get it where it belongs at the absolute best time. More than once if the cow is willing. It would be nice to not have a big testosterone laden beast on the farm every day of the year (though we have only had mannerly bulls so far, and would get rid of any bull that scared us). Still, they’re dangerous animals.
Keeping a bull is not without risk on the breeding front though. Our bull broke his, umm, “manhood”. We didn’t catch it because we’d taken to moving the cattle near mid-day and most breeding activity in cattle takes place at dawn and dusk. This made for an expensive and frustrating lesson when no calves arrived in the spring when we expected them.