It seems lately I am receiving more and more questions on how we finish our Dexter beef. Usually people specifically ask "is your beef grass fed or grain fed?" In all honesty? Neither of those things mean what the general public thinks they mean. The "average Joe" on the street (or internet since that's how I get my questions lately) seemingly believe what they are told in various types of media, ie. Facebook, Instagram, online news publications, and so on.
What do these terms really mean and where do they come from? Well, that's a whole different can of worms. I might get a little "soapboxy" so just stick with me here.
The impression I get from the consumers that I come into contact with is that they think that “grass fed” is a regulated term by the USDA. It's not. The USDA dropped this distinction in 2016 opening a can of worms. The labeling for "grass fed" was originally regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the USDA, and today if you were to go onto their website and look for guidelines for "grass fed" you won't come up with any results. So now instead of a regulated label, you now are leaving the ambiguous labeling up to the individual producer and they can label their beef however they see fit. That being said, each producer is going to have a different take on what "grass-fed" actually means. As for this producer? In my years at Michigan State in the animal science and meats program, we were taught that grass fed was any animal that has eaten grass/forage, but that also doesn't mean that animal wasn't fed any grain. What I feel needs to be distinguished is the idea of either labeling that says "100% grass fed beef" or "grass-fed and finished beef." All cattle eat grass and forage for their food at some point or for the most of their lives. As ruminant animals (animals with 4 stomach compartments), they must have some variety of forage for their digestive system to work properly. Hay=grass and its seemingly forgotten by the public that things like hay, silage, and the like would fall into that category. The corn plant itself actually is classified as a grass.
Sometimes, depending on the vibe I get from the customer, I ask if they have ever had truly fully grass fed beef. A good portion of the time they either aren't sure or say no. I think there's just this idea out there at that grass fed is better. I will beg to differ. I've had both. I've looked at grass-finished carcasses in meat coolers and I've seen thousands of beef carcasses in general. The carcasses look different. Grass-fed has yellow external fat from the extra beta-carotene in their diets. Most of the time, the grass-fed carcasses are older. Age of carcasses can be determined by the ossification of the vertebrae as seen in the picture below. These are just some observations I've made over the years.
In general, it does takes longer for a grass finished animal to have adequate finish, aka fat cover, to quality grade where most consumers want, either USDA Choice or Prime. In a lot of cases, it can take up to a year longer to get to that stage because of lack of quality forages available during the winter/fall months. Forages during dry periods do not have as much nutrient values as during peak spring/summer grasses.
We aren't going to get into a nutrition lesson or a beef grading lesson, but I know I get asked quite often what our beef grades. Our beef is not graded by a USDA grader, but will be USDA inspected. Frankly there's quite a bit of beef in the stores that isn't graded either, but just has a USDA stamp of approval on it instead. So here's a little chart for your viewing pleasure on the different degrees of marbling that it takes for the quality grades of beef. Our beef has consistently been finished to grade average choice or better.
Now, nowhere am I saying that grass-fed isn't good, or grass-fed isn't quality. It's going to just be different than the average consumer is used to. Grass-finished beef is typically leaner and may not be as tender as grain finished beef. Yellow fat will have a stronger flavor as well as a stronger smell when cooking. The taste will be different as well, more of a gamey flavor because of all the forages they have consumed. Some people like the flavor and prefer it, some are turned off by it.
Terms we use and stick to?
Grass fed, grain finished- Animals that have been on grass/pasture for most of their lives but do get grain to supplement that marbling score as well as flavor profile.
The Dexter beef on its own already has a different flavor than any other beef you will find in the store. To this day, I haven't been able to put my finger on what that is. I have been told it has a sweeter flavor as well as a finer texture. Both of those things greatly impact the eating pleasure.
You won't have us telling you we have grass finished beef. We don't have the facilities to accommodate a fully forage diet nor do we have enough pasture land to grass finish steers to our liking on our summer pastures. With the rising costs of all inputs to raise livestock; hay, grain, land rent/lease, processing fees... it's just not in the cards for us to be able to provide fully grass finished beef.
However, we will continue to provide the beef you have come to enjoy from our farm. Always grass fed and grain finished.
At the end of the day, raise what you like or eat what you like but don't disparage others for their choices in raising livestock or the meats they consume. We are all in this together.
~Until Next Time