Grass Is Good

For cow and chickens and for you, too.

The 21st century is already shaping up to be the century in which we discover that everything we thought we'd learned in the 20th century is wrong. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of food and nutrition. Unbearably goaded by health nuts and food faddists, scientists and dietitians have begun to grudgingly admit that just possibly the foods that human beings have co-evolved with over a few million years may be more healthy to eat than the latest miracles of modern science begot by Monsanto and ConAgra. My own particular "doh!" moment in this area came when I read Pasture Perfect (Vashon Island Press, $14.95 ), the latest of innumerable books by Vashon Island's personal-empowerment guru Jo Robinson. It take Robinson only about 100 pages to make crystal-clear why our current meat-producing regime is not only inefficient, polluting, and cruel but unhealthy as well—for you as well as the animals involved. Briefly, the argument goes as follows: Organisms evolve to take maximum advantage of the resources offered by their own particular environment. Predators like you and me in turn evolve to take advantage of the resources their prey have amassed. When, in the interest of great efficiency or profit, you change the diet of the prey species, you risk changing the nutritional value of the prey for the predator, too. For instance, when you switch cattle from their natural diet of grass to high-caloric grains, it unquestionably makes the animals grow fatter faster; it also makes them more feeble, not to mention flatulent, because a cow's multiple-stomach system is not "designed" to digest grain. Even more to the point, grain doesn't provide ruminants the right raw materials to produce the omega-3 fatty acids they—and we—need for health. People who are obsessive about their health and what they eat have been insisting on grass-fed beef for some time—long enough for the masters of marketing to figure out a way of claiming virtue while practicing vice. Virtually all cattle spend part of their lives eating grass, but their time in the feedlot being stuffed with grain rapidly diminishes their supply of omega-3s. So now vigilant consumers have to look for the label "grass-finished" or "pasture-finished" to be sure of what they're getting, and even then, "know your supplier" is a better guarantee than any label. Until recently, that's been fairly easy to do, because most grass-finished meat, eggs, and dairy are produced by smallholders who market their products directly to drive-up customers or through farmers markets—so successfully, on the whole, that the demand for their products has reliably exceeded supply for some years. You can find an exhaustive list of such producers on Robinson's Web site,, but finding one to buy from is not that simple, since most are committed to supplying their existing customers first. If grass-finished products are to break out of their tiny niche market, ways have to be found to increase the scale of production and the efficiency of marketing. One way of doing both while avoiding the pitfalls of more industrial production methods is the co-op model. It was a co-op that took the initiative in creating a USDA-approved mobile slaughterhouse in the north Puget Sound area, permitting farmers to slaughter on their own property and obviate the need to sell their cattle to feedlot operators for "finishing." A public-private group in Snohomish County has been meeting for months with a view to creating an integrated production-marketing-publicity machine for locally grown beef. The most heartening development to date in our area was the news that Puget Consumers Co-op has contracted with a rancher in George, Wash., to supply its seven stores with grass-finished beef from his herd of 600 Angus and shorthorn Herefords. Eric Williamson of Williamson Farms has been planning for such a venture for years, learning how it's done in Australia and New Zealand, where virtually all beef is grass-finished. One of the biggest impediments to wide public acceptance of grass-finished beef is a perception that it's tough, gamy, and too lean to taste good. For Williamson, all these objections can be avoided by an operation like his. "We have complete control over what the animal eats and how fast," he says. "We grow a lot of different products, and we deliberately plan to have a sequence of forages for the animals: pea vines, sweet corn, triticale, alfalfa hay when there's no forage, then in summer back to the perennial native grasses. What you want is a steady weight gain of a pound and a half per day, so that when they hit 1,200 pounds, you have just the right balance of muscle and fat." Drop by a PCC store soon and sample the product; it's never been easier in the Northwest to get grass-fed.

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