We’ve all seen the studies detailing how grass-fed beef is leaner and healthier for us. And who doesn’t support the idea of happy cows, contentedly chewing their way through their free-range days?
But for many of us who were raised on grain-fed beef, the flavor and texture of grass-fed beef can seem a little, well, off. At its best, lean, grass-fed beef will have a deeper, more beefy, and earthier flavor than grain-finished, but it may not be as tender as corn-finished beef. Other times the taste and texture can both be less than appealing. But that may have something to do with the quality of the grass-fed beef we’re eating. And the quality of grass that the cows are eating.
“Some farmers think that you have a cow over here and some grass over there, and you can just put them together,” says Dan Gibson of Grazin’ Angus Acres in Columbia County, New York. But the equation of cow plus grass does not immediately add up to quality beef. There are several factors that contribute to how grass-fed beef will taste.
Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia grew up in a ranching family whose grass-fed heritage breeds date back to 1866, but due to economic pressures his family was forced to switch over to the grain-finished methods that have become widespread in the U.S. since the 1950s. When they first switched back to raising grass-fed cattle, the results did not make for a great taste sensation. “I ground the entire animal up into ground beef,” says Harris. “We weren’t good at creating a good eating experience. But then we changed our genetics, changed our forage program, changed the way we slaughter and process. Now we sell steaks and roasts and get rave reviews.”
“Meat from grass-fed and corn-fed animals will taste different, and even grass-fed animals from different regions or different seasons can have a different flavor profile,” says Sean M. Hays, Chief Operating Officer of La Cense Beef, a Montana-based ranch specializing in grass-fed beef. At La Cense, the cattle are fed a combination of bluebunch wheatgrass, rye grass, and a little bit of alfalfa, along with a plethora of other plants. “The variety of grass on our ranch and in this region is the crux of the flavor profile we achieve,” he explains. “Seasonality can also change the flavor profile because the feed changes.” At La Cense, the slaughter is timed to when the cattle have been feeding on the tallest and most nutritious grasses.
“Cattle that will perform well in the hill country of Texas are not the same that will perform well in the Northeast,” says White Oak’s Harris. At his ranch, the cows graze on 100% organic native style grasses in the summer, including four species of Bermuda grass and three species of Bahai grass, but in the cool season White Oak cows are eating rye, rye grass, and clover.
While farmers in Texas and Montana need more acreage to get the grass their cattle needs, the East Coast is more efficient. “The Northeast is blessed with an incredible growing season,” said Grazin’ Angus’s Gibson. In the lush Columbia, New York countryside, cattle can chew grass all year long.
The goal is to get the best possible nutrition from the grass. It’s not something most people think about, but grass is filled with nutrients, including carbs and protein. Cows can get enough protein from grass, but they need high-quality grass for energy. “It was energy that drove the American farmer to grain,” Dan Gibson said. But by selecting the right grasses—high in sugar and carbohydrates, you get both the energy and a food that cows can digest well. Gibson uses a blend of three different rye grasses, orchard grass, and clover. The cows need sugar and carbohydrates to absorb the protein faster and to turn the excess into healthy omega-three laden fat, which results in marbling that rivals corn-fed beef.
“On good grass, you get more marbling in the meat,” asserts Wendy Taggart of Burgundy Pasture Beef in Grandview, Texas. “Some plants that an animal eats, such as wild onions, can have a distinct effect on the flavor. We find more earthy flavors in meats when the grasses are greener or more lush.”
Grass-fed or grain-fed? Tell us your preference in the comments.