The Ancient Roots of Grass-Fed Beef

17 Jun, 2012

Grassfed beefJo Robinson is a champion of grass-fed beef. She has built and maintains Eatwild.com, the website that is, for many, the “go-to” site for sourcing grass-fed beef. But it took her over 12 years of in-depth research, and she now shares with the world—at her own expense—the information she pieced together.

Originally an investigative journalist by trade, it all began for Robinson with information she obtained about an ancient diet. “I attended a conference in Greece in 2000 that explored the health benefits of the hunter-gatherer diet,” Robinson told Organic Connections. “This is the diet that all human beings existed on for maybe 200,000 years, and it consisted of wild game and wild plants. I did a little research about the meat of wild game and found out that it was very different from our modern feedlot meat—it was almost as if it were a different species. It is much lower in total fat and higher in healthy fat—omega 3 fatty acids. It is also higher in antioxidants, and in particular beta-carotene.

“Then I learned that pasture alone turned out to be the native diet of cattle. I was able to see a few studies about the nutritional profile of grass-fed cattle, and it was very similar to wild game. It was at that point I realized that if you feed animals their native diets, then the meat and milk that they produce is very similar to our native diet.”

The practice of cramping beef cattle into feedlots is a recent “innovation.” “This whole feedlot phenomenon is a 1950s–’60s invention,” Robinson explained. “This is where they take one-year-old calves, put them in a vacant lot and feed them a 90 percent grain and soy diet. This is nothing like their native diet and is actually not good for them. If we didn’t slaughter them so young they probably wouldn’t live very long, because it is so contrary to the way their gastrointestinal system works. The four stomachs of a ruminant are designed to take low-fat, high-protein bulky plant material and convert it into a complete meal. When you feed them this dense, higher-in-fat, non-roughage diet, they develop health problems and have to be given antibiotics and other feed additives in order to perform well. It’s amazing to think that we’ve taken them off their natural diet so that we can have this super-fatty meat from animals that mature two or three times faster than they
used to.”

In her research, Robinson discovered how the feedlot methods have affected our collective health. “A lot of health problems seem to be traced to red meat, and beef in particular,” she continued. “But hunter-gatherers ate large amounts of red meat; some say 60 percent of their calories might have come from it. They did not have any of the health problems that trace to meat today. They did not have cancer, they did not have cardiovascular disease, yet they were eating lots of red meat. So it’s not the meat itself; it’s what they’ve done to the meat.”

As part of her mission, Robinson challenges the most common myths about grass-fed beef. “A lot of people think that grass-fed beef is gamey, tough, dry and too lean,” she said. “This is because many years ago few people were raising animals just on grass. They did not know how to do it well and so the animals were in fact extremely lean. The meat was tough, the animals were old, and we called it locker beef; people bought it to save money. That’s the only example that people had to compare it with.

“But these new grass farmers the world over are perfecting the art of raising meat with ample amounts of fat, and getting animals to mature while they are still young by developing really rich pastures. Because of this the animals can be marketed as early as a year and a half or two years. They’re young, the meat is tender, and there’s plenty of fat for flavor and for good quality. I’ve eaten some 100 percent grass-fed animals that were the best beef I have ever tasted. Some suppliers are incredibly good
at it.”

As demonstrated by grazing pioneers such as Joel Salatin, the way the animals are fed has much to do with the quality of the beef. “The quality of forage is essential,” Robinson said. “First of all, if you have poor quality grass or not enough grass, you’re going to have animals that are rooting around and denuding the land, which cattle certainly can do. You need to have them confined so that you can control their grazing, which is what grass farmers do. They have all of their pasture divided into what they call paddocks, and they let the cattle into an area that’s flush with grass. They move them when the grass is about six inches high to the next pasture that is also flush with grass. The pasture becomes richer and the soil becomes richer. You can’t just let cattle out in poor areas and have good meat or do anything right for the environment. So you need dedicated farmers who pay attention to details.”

Grassfed beef

The Eatwild website came about so that Robinson could share the information she had found, as well as sources of grass-fed beef—which at the time was not easily done. “When I started talking about the benefits of grass-fed meat, these were not generally known at all. I had to look for studies from all over the world, and I had to go back in time. I pieced together maybe 50 or 60 studies that showed clear benefits and began lecturing about it. I was talking up this great alternative, but there were very few suppliers. When I started the website in 2001 so that I could point people to suppliers, I only found 50 producers in the entire country.”

But as her work continued and the word spread, so did producers and consumers. “I made a big splash with my lectures and articles and this little book that I wrote,” Robinson said. “I was interviewed by major media around the world, including all the big ones in this country—Time, the New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal; there’s a great fascination in the media about this as well. As more people learned about the benefits, people who were producing meat conventionally started thinking, ‘Well, here’s a way we can get out of that commodity market, where we’re not making any money, and raise animals in a way that is healthy for them, healthy for us and healthy for the planet.’ Now we have thousands of suppliers, hundreds per state. You can go to our website and click on your state, and you’ll find all of the producers close to you and information about what they grow and how to contact them.”

Eatwild.com is the result of all of Robinson’s research—and is a complete labor of love. “We don’t advertise; we don’t do self-promotion,” Robinson concluded. “We don’t have any outside funding. It’s really been a volunteer effort and I’ve mostly funded it with my own money. It has turned out to be a highly effective way of spreading the news—I think we have had as many as 18,000 people a day going there, shopping for grass-fed products.

“If you go to our bookstore, you’ll also find the best books on how to raise pasture-fed beef. The fact that I’m not making any money on this makes me a really avid promoter. I don’t have to hold back; this is for everybody’s good.”

For more information, and to find grass-fed suppliers near you, please visit www.eatwild.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/Live_Plate LivePlate

    Thank you for this article.. it explains a lot!!

  • http://twitter.com/amazinglyhealth John Howieson

    Whilst I’ll agree that cattle are principally “foraging” (grass) animals, I would suggest that 90% grain in a diet is somewhat exaggerated. I ran a dairy farm for 25 years, and in the peak of it we had cows producing over 100 Lbs per day. At this stage of lactation, we were feeding a 60/40 grain to forage ratio. As the cow went through her 10 month lactation, her grain intake was reduced to 80/20 forage to grain, and during 2 months of dry period, 100% good quality grass hay with some clover or alfalfa.

    Now, thinking back on it all, if I were to do it all over again, I would reduce that 60% grain at her peak (early lactation) considerably, or even eliminate it. First off she wouldn’t “peek” as high (never 100 Lbs!) but would have a more even production level throughout her 10 months. Also, cows who are fed even 60% at peek, usually burn out (can’t get bred back, end up with frequent problems such as mastitis (ie staph-aureus) and typically last about 4 lactations. Without the huge grain factor, a cow used to last 12 to 15 lactations! Imagine getting her bred back repeatedly, and producing all those calves! How efficient that would be :-)