Even before grass-fed beef was cool, the cattle at Elmwood Stock Farm ate very little grain. The cattle that the Bell kids took to shows locally and regionally were fed grain to give them the benefit of an extra-slick coat and a layer of fat for the show ring, and sometimes calves would get a small grain ration to give them a leg-up on their growth. As of 2008, though, the cattle at Elmwood Stock Farm have been fed purely grass and hay.
Now we think grass-fed beef is not just cool but necessary, too, given the nutritional studies and the environmental impact of feeding grains to ruminants. If you read Mac Stone’s article, “Push Me, Pull You,” in the e-newsletter last week, you already know about some of the human-health benefits of consuming grass-fed beef, including higher levels of vitamins A and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and cancer-fighting antioxidants.
It’s not just luck that creates a more nutritious meat. Ruminant animals (those with four stomachs, like cattle and sheep) are naturally designed to digest forages, not grains. Feeding these animals grains puts undue stresses on their digestive systems, creating acidic environments in their stomachs and altering their digestive-system functioning.
Aside from the human-nutrition and animal-health considerations, there’s the environmental consideration that comes with feeding grain, too.
“If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, reported in 1997. With only grass-fed livestock, Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance of meat and dairy protein, according to his report, “Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment.”
All of that grain eaten by cattle requires a lot of water to grow. According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, all livestock (not just cattle) drink about 2 billion gallons of water per day—that’s less than 1 percent of the total freshwater used each day. Crop irrigation (for all crops), on the other hand, uses 115 billion gallons of water per day, and 85 percent of that is in the 17 arid, western states where much of the row crops are grown.
David Pimentel’s report also found that on lands where feed grain is produced, soil loss averages 5.26 tons per acre per year versus less than half of that lost on pasture—and proper organic pasture-management actually builds soil.
We’ve been long convinced that 100-percent grass-fed beef production is the healthiest thing for our farm, for our customers and for our cattle. More and more, we are being presented with the science to back it up.