Grass-fed Beef

Bryn Athyn, PA – Cooperstown, NY – Chestnut Ridge, NY – Franklin Lakes, NJ – Long Island, NY – Parsippany, NJ –


Want to know more about how we raise grass-fed beef? Here are the details.

Feeding grasses and a wide variety of other pasture plants can impart amazing, wonderful flavors. It also can impart weird, gross, and off flavors. It is a complex topic, but apparently volatile compounds found in plants can be incorporated into the phosopholipid cell walls of animals that eat said plants. If the diet is almost all corn and beans it will be deficient in the complex bouquet of scents and tastes that are possible. Of course, if the complex scents and tastes are objectionable then the corn and bean ration avoids a potential problem, so there is sense to the madness that is corn finishing.
Grass quality makes all the difference for grass-fed meats. Grass quality begins with soil quality and properties. We are lucky that our soils are not severely deficient in any major minerals. We have room for improvement in our soil fertility, but cattle grow reasonably well on our pastures’ swards. Grass is a complex topic that requires its own section, but the cliff notes version is that sweet grass (high brix) makes for tasty meat.

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.

The final step of processing that our beef undergoes to set it apart from factory fare is called dry aging. With this the beef carcass is skinned, chilled, and hung in a giant refridgerator for a few weeks. This aging period allows enzymes naturally present in all muscle to begin breaking down some fibers, which softens the meat a little bit. The enzymes also begin releasing flavor compounds. Hanging like this also dehydrates the meat. Roughly 5%, sometimes a little more, of the weight of the carcass is lost as water weight. The dehydration makes the meat more intensely flavorful since there is less liquid to dilute the naturally present flavors.  Supposedly wet aging (wrapping cuts in plastic and sitting them in a refrigerator for a while) allows for some of these same processes to occur, but prevents the dehydration from occurring. This can make a pretty big difference to the seller’s bottom line if he has 5% or more “meat” to sell from every carcass. Even though the “more” is actually just water, most customers don’t know that it is this way. Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I like the old fashioned, time-tested method of hanging and aging, and that is what our butcher does.
Cattle are prey animals and as such they have flighty dispositions. The fight or flight response is strong in cattle, flight being the go-to option for most, excepting nasty bulls. They have what many humans would consider “hair triggers”. Hundreds of generations of domesticity has selected for more docile and less spooky cattle, but they have not forgotten their roots so to speak. Our cattle our used to us since we move them onto fresh grass every day. Usually all it takes for us to get them moving where we want is a clap of the hands and soft “go on”.

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.

The USDA instituted the marbling grading system in the early part of the 20th century when the FSIS made its debut. At that time almost all beef grew out on pastures and only a small subset of the beef market received significant grain rations prior to slaughter.  Under those conditions looking at marbling was a reasonably good proxy for quality of meat. It could never be 100% effective as the proof must be in the eating, but considering the speed at which slaughterhouses operate it was the only way to score a carcass quickly enough to keep up with the line. However, feeders soon began to game the system since fattening on corn is so effective at popping marbling in many breeds of cattle, and the payment structure from consumers and packers incentivized this consistency and lack of seasonality.

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.

We buy hay from neighbors and we have it “custom made” off our own fields. We have bought “small” square bales (40 lbs each), but typically we purchase huge 800+ pound round bales. We use both dry hay and “baleage”, which is super-tightly baled round bales that run through a big plastic wrapping machine.

hay(june)-normandyalden

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.

We inherited one woven wire fence when we purchased this farm. A previous owner installed it to contain his sheep and goats. It is a good fence, well built by a local fencing contractor, but we will never surround a significant area with such a fence. Woven wire is just plain too expensive to use as a perimeter on extensive areas. We might build some small sections of woven wire here or there, for specific purposes, but for the foreseeable future our fence of choice is multistrand high-tensile fence. We run 6 strand high tensile electric fence around the perimeter of our fields and brush lots we graze. Permanent subdivisions can be accomplished with 4 strands of wire, but more of our subdividing is done on a temporary basis with polywire hung on step in posts or skinny fiberglass poles and set the wire at roughly human hip height. Polywire is pretty marvelous stuff – it is a braid of UV stabilized plastic and narrow gauge wires. The wires conduct electricity and being braided, even if one snaps here or there they others carry the current past the individual break. The plastic lends strength to the whole. Having said that, polywire is a purely psychological barrier for animals. They learn what shocks feel like and then do their utmost to avoid repeat experiences. When our neighbor’s full grown holstein heifer jumped our woven wire fence she sprinted straight through the polywire paddock we’d been using to contain our herd. When the wire snapped it popped like the discharge of a small rifle.

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.tapegate1- normandyalden

The description of stockpile leads right into winter management since we typically graze right up to the official start of winter at the solstice.  As the snows start to fall we allocate pieces of stockpile until we run out or until the snowpack makes grazing impossible. wp_20161124_09_02_42_proOnce stockpiled pasture is gone we shift the herd to hay. We use large round bales of haylege (hay wrapped in plastic and fermented – plastic is removed before feeding). We stage these out for the cows to eat one at a time, and we strategically place them on the spots of our pasture that need a fertility boost. Winter feeding is a great way to get fertility spread onto places where the pasture is not meeting its productive potential.

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.

We have several water sources on our farm. Wells, springs, ponds, and two creeks. We developed a spring high on our hill to provide water for our homes, the red barn has a well, and the livestock mostly from the creeks, but not directly. Hooves can cause a lot of damage to stream banks so we fence the streams off for the most part. We tap the creeks at the high end of our property and then use gravity’s assist to pull the water down black poly pipes which ultimately feed into stock tanks. Using this system we can get water to our animals basically anywhere we have fence. Sometimes they have to walk back a few hundred feet to get to the water tank, but it’s never terribly far. I don’t worry about making animals walk for their water from an animal health perspective, they have legs, they should be able to use them. It can be a challenge to get water to the right place to keep hoof traffic under control and fences where we need them.

Our soils are old and since we live in a part of the world where precipitation generally exceeds evaporation, elements tend to leach away over time. Luckily only a few thousand years ago we had glaciers sitting on top of our farm site and the disturbance they wrought helped a little with soil fertility. The lower section of our farm is alluvial wash from former huge river off the melting ice. The centuries of leaching means our animals need some help finding all the minerals they require for full health. We give them salt, kelp, and a stock mineral mix. One of these days we’re going to upgrade to a multicompartment bin with each element by itself. I know people who have done this and swear the cattle like it better… so that it’s in the works.

Cows are the foundation of our herd. Our herd started out purebred Kerry cattle. Now we have an Angus bull so we have hybrid offspring entering the herd. I’m not a huge fan of purebred stock. There are pluses and minuses to pursuing registered stock. For many producers the costs involved are simply not worth the return (that proved to be the case for us).

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.

Calves come in the spring. We calve in the spring (and summer right now) for a bunch of reasons. The short story is that mother nature drops babies in the spring – think deer, turkeys, rabbits, etc. It is a propitious time of year for an herbivorous mammal to give birth. Forage is plentiful and high in quality. Temperatures are moderate so there is little risk of hypothermia in the newborn. Everyone else is giving brith too so predators are swamped. Mama cows can increase their grass intake by 40% or more when they start lactating. Timing this extra feed demand to coincide with the spring flush of pasture growth makes sense from a financial perspective and an animal health perspective.

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.

Interventions –

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.

Calves rejoin the cow herd in the spring when we want all cattle grazing all the time. When they rejoin the “calves” are really yearlings, as the new calf crop is close at hand. The year-old cattle graze through until winter and then spend their second winter with the cows. By 18-20 months when they go onto hay for the second time they’re still smaller than mature cows, but they’re certainly not small animals anymore.

Finishing refers to the final step of fattening a beef steer or heifer goes through before slaughter. For the meat to be at it’s very best the animal needs to be reasonably fat. It also is good if it is “on the gain” when slaughtered. On the gain means it is gaining weight every day up until it goes to the packing house. A finished steer should have a turgid look. The pin bones (either side of the tail) should jiggle when he walks. His skin should crease into heavy folds when he turns his head. His brisket (spot between the front legs)  should wobble like mad when he moves at all.

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.

Our cow herd is small enough we only use a single bull to breed. A good bull should be able to breed 50 cows within 45-60 days. With the way we manage our herd, keeping the cows all close together a good bull could breed 70 or more.

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.

Normandy AldenGrass-fed Beef