How Grass-Fed Beef is Changing Agriculture

01 Feb, 2013

by Christopher Weber, via Grist.org

Grass-fed beefBartlett Durand is the rare local-food entrepreneur who has no trouble turning a profit: Durand’s Black Earth Meats processes and sells grass-fed beef, and these days grass-fed beef sells like crazy.

Located near Madison, Wis., Black Earth is an abattoir, an old-fashioned butchery containing everything from a slaughterhouse to a retail store. Its sales have doubled in four out of the last five years. Durand expects them to jump again this year, from $6 million to $10 million. Orders have poured in so swiftly that, in addition to artisan butchers, Black Earth had to hire a “chef liaison” to translate orders into cow anatomy.

“Chefs have been trained in the box beef codes and don’t always know where the meat comes from on the animal,” Durand explains. “A chef will say, ‘I want a filet de round.’ My butcher will say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Grass-fed beef, like “filet de round,” is a concept that eludes people outside the beef industry. So a little background is in order.

In the months after birth, a calf drinks the rich milk of its mother. Once weaned, it might be lucky enough to follow mom around the pasture for a little while, munching grass — but sooner or later, it is customarily sent to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, a process somewhat like tossing an animal on a full-tilt assembly line. Cows left to fatten in the field are the ones that become “grass-fed beef.” They gain the same weight, but more slowly, taking up to 14 months more, and yield a leaner beef. Some farmers of grass-fed beef are purists and leave the cow in the pasture till the day it dies. Others “cheat” by giving the cow a month or two of grain at the end, but in the comfort of the barnyard, not a 10,000-head feedlot. Durand sells both kinds.

Durand is a trim 45-year-old who has deep roots in agriculture. His grandfather was a geographer who studied milksheds. “I was a vegetarian in college because of how meat was raised and handled,” Durand recalls. When he married into a farm family, he started helping out and ultimately quit his job as a lawyer to pursue food full time.

In the $79-billion beef industry, his company is miniscule. Four giant companies control 80 percent of the beef market. “A really big kill for us would be 50 cows in one day,” says Durand. “A small packinghouse processes 1,500 to 3,000 a day.”

Yet his business has the customers to grow. Black Earth buys cows from 78 farmers. To keep up with demand, Durand must convince them to raise more cows on grass alone. He must also lure new farmers to the field. And farmers, though intrigued, are justifiably wary. Is grass-fed beef a fad among chefs and yuppies destined to peter out, or a major new market?

Folks like Durand are betting on the latter. They believe that grass-fed beef — which cuts out both feedlots and the resource-intensive practice of raising grain just to feed cows — can catalyze a great change in American agriculture.

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