Grass Fed beef, or Natural Beef, or maybe even Organic Beef is the latest in niche marketing for the small farmer.  We are actually building up for a niche of that niche:  Scottish Highland “Highly Natural” Beef.  What the heck is “Highly Natural”?  It means that we don’t feed our cattle growth hormones, or fatten them on corn.  They live the virtually all of their lives out on pasture, spring, summer, fall, and winter.  We do supplement their feed in the winter with local hay, although my neighbors are amazed at how my highlands are trudging through the snow to find grass when many Angus are huddled around waiting for the next hay bale. We do train them using “Breeder Cubes” (a mix of corn, grain, salts, vitamins and minerals) for handling purposes – so they get a little bit of “cow candy”, but its not a staple part of their diet.  We also vaccinate the cows and will treat one if it gets ill with modern medicines, but they do not get antibiotics in their food or anything like that.  Doing so requires a bit of work, many of the “routine” feeds have growth enhancers, such as “Cattle Charge”, and antibiotics in things like free-choice spring minerals.  Oh, they also have (antibiotic free!) free access to salt and trace mineral blocks.

Hmmm, a bit of background might be in order:

For the small beef farmer, with anywhere from a few to perhaps a few hundred head, the routine in our neck of the woods goes as follows:

1)  Calves are born in spring.
2)  They are kept by their mothers side for 3-6 months.
3)  They are raised on pasture and sold either that fall (for less money/lb) or the following spring (for more money/lb but after being fed expensive hay all winter)
4)  They are taken to a finishing farm where they are fattened up on corn and then sent to the slaughterhouse.

So, every year, new calves are born and ~6-12 month year old calves are sold.  Fed Cattle Charge and the like, they grow quickly and provide a somewhat steady if not always profitable income to the farmer.  Each cow/calf pair, should be given about 4 acres of land to avoid overgrazing it.

Variations on this pattern exist of course.

Sadly, the 4 acre part seems to be abused by some.  We have one distant neighbors whose summer cows (who should be fat as can be) are literally skin and bones.  If they were horses, he would be sent to prison and/or they would be removed from his property as neglected.  Alas, they are “live stock” so no such laws exist.  In any case, their is hardly a blade of grass more than a 1/2″ tall in his fields.  Its very, very, sad.

Fortunately, most of our neighbors treat their cattle very well.

So what is different with Grass Fed Beef?  Well, for starters, it takes longer.  Instead of being “finished” (grown to full size) on corn and destroying the nutritional profile of the resulting beef, Grass Fed Beef are finished on, well, grass!  These means the farmer is likely to have his calves for 18-24 months instead of 6-12 months – a whole year more.  This also means he needs to have more land, since the older calves will need more to eat.  He is also guaranteed to need to feed them at least one winter.  Pretty clear why few are doing this!  If Grass Fed farmers took their beef to the “cattle barns” for sale along with the “Cattle Charge” cows half their age they would lose not only their shirts, but their reputation, and probably their farms.  Fortunately there is a growing niche for “Grass Feed Beef” for those farmers willing to direct sale their beef.  The GREAT news is that all of them I know are typically sold out.

OK, so what are we doing that is even less common?  We are raising Scottish Highland cattle.  My avatar is a young one.  These cattle grow even slower than grass fed Angus (the predominate breed of beef cattle in our area).  Where an Angus Grass fed will need to be kept 18-24 months, a Highland will need 30-36 months to reach full size.  Being older, the meat will be tougher.  Being Scottish Highland, the meat will be a lot leaner.  Being 30-36 months old, the flavor will be outstanding!  Aging the beef at the butchers for 3 weeks vs. 2 for Angus addresses a lot of the toughness issue.  Proper cooking helps prevent the leaner beef from burning or turning into shoe leather.  And… to my great surprise.. there seems to be a specialty market for Highland Beef!  How special?  A few weeks ago I got a call from a “Representative of the <insert name> family”.  He wanted to know if I could provide 20-40lbs of Highland Beef for his client every couple of weeks.  I don’t know of many Highland ranchers that could – most of us have a dozen or fewer animals, but the call was exciting!  I’ve also had a couple of small Russian food stores ask me if I could provide them with “real” meat and/or “real” eggs.  It was heartening.

OK, I promised a couple of book suggestions, so:

Its pretty oriented toward commercial operations but I found it a good read.

About more than cattle, but again all natural grass based.

And one of my favorites, which goes hand-in-hand with letting your cows go to their food (grass) instead of hauling unnatural food to them (corn):