The Amazing Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Eating grass-fed beef isn't just some affectation. The meat is healthier, and the perennial pastures on which cows feed build better soil and have lower carbon emissions than conventional cropland.

| April/May 2009

I have been fascinated by the permanence and healing power of grassland for 15 years now. If we respect the great original wisdom of the prairies, I’m convinced we can heal the wounds inflicted on the American landscape by industrial agriculture.

But in America, the question is always does it scale up? This is the critical test of any potential solution to a major environmental problem. Is a given practice feasible, and are there mechanisms for spreading it to cover a whole landscape?

I first had a hint as to how this might work for America’s farms when a friend explained to me why he chose to raise bison for slaughter, marketing the meat with the guarantee the animals had eaten nothing but native grasses. He thought if he could make such a model pay on his own land, he could do more to save native landscapes than any amount of activism, litigation, or regulation. Profitable solutions self-replicate. Like viruses, they creep from one farm to the next, eventually exploding in exponential growth. They scale up.

Now there is big news on this front. A diverse collection of pioneers across the nation are raising not bison, but mostly grass-fed beef and dairy — an enterprise that can scale up quickly. They have a working model. It is not unrealistic to expect that we as a nation could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs that cannot currently be used for grazing) to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the bargain.

Doing so would have many benefits. It would give us a more humane livestock system, a healthier human diet, less deadly E. coli, elimination of feedlots, a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide, enormous savings in energy, virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on those lands, elimination of catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin, and most intriguingly, a dramatic reduction in global warming gases.

The Grass-Fed Beef Boom

The best evidence of this potential meat production revolution is a label that began showing up on packages of grass-fed beef across the nation early in 2009. The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. The label certifies the beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots; received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed; and were humanely raised and handled. It signals the emergence of a marketing network that already has placed grass-fed products in virtually every region of the nation in co-ops, health food stores and, in the case of the Southeast, in Publix Super Markets, a chain of more than 900 stores. The grass-fed label is evidence that the idea has reached critical mass. It’s been a long time coming, but what is driving it is profit, plain and simple.

Todd Churchill runs Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, MN, which buys about 1,000 head a year from local producers, then processes and sells them to natural foods stores, restaurants, and three colleges in the Twin Cities area. He says demand for his product always exceeds supply, and he sees no leveling for its growth curve.

Steve Souza_2
6/9/2010 4:25:53 PM

NOT ON land in federal conservation areas! Bajeebus, WTF R U thinking? Lakes and streams are RUINED throughout the USA from Cattle grazing!

Samantha Phelps
2/14/2010 7:22:01 AM

Interesting comments on grass raised beef. However I believe that Bare BF and Stephen Grant are looking at the "commerical world" of raising beef and need to have a broader view of how smaller farms raise their animals. I can respect both of their oppinions, but feel their comment generalize farmers and ranchers. Many small farms raise grass fed beef and we treat our beef cows with kindness and respect. My cows wander green pastures and drink from mountain stream. Many of them live 16+ years. They are fenced in, with a combination of electric fence and barbed wire. This is really for my cows protection, not only from vehicle traffic but from cruel humans. My cows are not branded, dehorned, raped, or confined in small spaces. Each pasture for rotation has many acres for them to graze on. My brood cows are not "baby factories" they are bred logically, by a bull in the pasture when they are mature enough to produce offspring. They are not tortured or treated "in-humanely" while being raised and when it is time to "go to market" we thank them. Not a single animal on my farm suffers from our hands. Before you put myself and other small farmers into the "big bad world of commercial raised beef" you need to take a walk in my pastures and have view of my world. I think you would have a slightly different oppinion on how some grass fed beef is raised.

5/11/2009 3:14:32 PM

Mr. Manning, Thanks for wrapping the whole thing together into one package. A very informative article for me. Using your rough CO2 emissions and 160 million acres planted with corn or soy in the U.S., I get a swing of 81 million tons CO2 if half of the planted land goes to pasture, or of order 1% of U.S. total emissions -- a significant fraction of the U.S. share of needed reductions. Nothing to sneeze at. But I can't figure out the 144 trillion pounds, which is more than the total annual U.S. production, 7.2 billion tons (EIA). I suspect a trillion/billion mistake...

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