For most of the 20th century, one could easily find evidence of cattle ranchers harming prairie grasslands and the wildlife that depend on this ecosystem. Overgrazing, drought, chemicals, and loss of habitat have decimated birds that call Western grasslands their home. Damage to the prairies and pastures in my former home state of Colorado was evident from corner-to-corner and seemed to have no end.
But then, Audubon Society came to the rescue in 2017 with the Audubon Certified Beef Program, or ACB. Audubon recognized that to effect lasting positive change in the grasslands of the West, private landowners/cattle ranchers would need to be partners in the restoration. The trick was convincing cattle ranchers that by making significant changes in their practices to benefit birds, would also help cattle ranchers in the long run.
Newly enlisted ACB ranchers work with Audubon to keep cattle moving so grasslands flourish instead of suffer under the hooves of cows. Free technical assistance is provided to ranchers to manage cows in a way that mimics former buffalo herds — aka American Bison. Proper cattle ranching provides aeration of the soil from cow hooves, fertilization from cow pies, and stimulation of plant growth by the way herds feed on the move as buffalo did for thousands of years.
Ranchers who sign up for the Audubon Certified Ranch Program meet Habitat Management protocols that are tailored for each region. Other regulations in the program include animal health and welfare and environmental guidelines. Feedlots—the stinky scourge of the West — aren’t allowed, and consumers get a cleaner beef product because hormones and antibiotics are prohibited. Curtailing herbicides and pesticides are another benefit to the environment in the ACB program.
The good news for ranchers is the program is free to ranchers, and in most cases, 100 percent, grass-fed beef sells for a higher price. This program puts consumers in a place of power, voting with their dollars, rewarding ranchers taking care of the environment and its wildlife.
Tracking the benefits to the environment is carried out by third-party verification. Bird counts are held on participating ranches each year. The number of birds and types of birds showing up in bird counts is encouraging in this young program. So far, some 60 ranchers have signed up to provide consumers ACB products. Participants range from near Sacramento to Eastern Missouri, and south of Houston to North Eastern Montana and many points in between.
Why does the ACB program matter
If you’ve never heard a meadowlark sing its melodic song of the prairie, or seen a sage grouse burst out of the ground like a tornado, you might still have a chance thanks to ACB ranches. Many of the ACB members like Rafter Ranch in Colorado, invite customers to come to see how the cows and environment are treated. It’s not often you can go to the place of your food’s origin and take a look before you buy meat for your table. Take a walk and see a healthy pasture where meadowlarks, prairie dogs, badger, coyotes, antelope, rattlesnakes, insects, and numerous birds live in harmony.
Where to Buy Audubon-Certified Products
To find stores that carry Audubon Certified Beef, visit Audubon's "Where to Buy" page. Sadly, those of us living east of the Mississippi River will need to buy ACB beef online as this program only has ranches in the West at this point. On the Audubon website they write,
Industry experts state that growth in non-traditional beef has grown 25-30 percent annually over the past decade and predict that this growth will continue.
This change in consumer demand for clean, grass-fed beef bodes well for the environment and our health. In stores west of the Mississippi River, look for the green logo stating, Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land.
I buy my beef from sustainable ranches like Pop’s Old Place, a Maryland Century Farm where the owners are raising grass-fed heirloom Randall Lineback beef that’s humanely-treated, and easy on the environment. Check out their website to find a comparison of the health benefits of grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef.
Your local farmer’s market is also a great place to find grass-fed beef. Seek out those ranchers that eschew antibiotics, hormones, and grain to raise cattle. The environment and your health will most likely benefit from buying and eating grass-fed or grass-finished beef.
Please leave a comment on where you buy environmentally-friendly beef products that are free of growth hormones, antibiotics, and not finished on feedlots.
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after attending cook school in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his seventh year of container and raised-bed organic gardening in his backyard. For other published stories by Kurt, check out his travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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