by James Norton
Food Editor at the Growler Magazine
Diet matters. You don’t need to be an Olympian or a mountaineer to know that what goes into your body has a profound impact on everything that follows. It’s true for people, and it’s true for animals as well. The quickly evolving sectors of grass-fed meat and grass-fed dairy are based on the idea that because cattle have evolved to forage from pastureland, there are real advantages to reconnecting them with that diet and lifestyle.
The impact of pasture-grazed dairy and meat is remarkably profound. Dairy farmers and ranchers who abandon the modern feedlot and consciously and extensively graze their animals in a traditional manner are changing the basic building block of their animals and transforming every part of the land-to-animalto- consumer system. The animals, who have evolved to eat grass outdoors, are returning to their roots and gaining health and stamina in the process.
“Giving cows grass is true to the animal’s evolution,” says cheesemaker and co-owner Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Company in southern Wisconsin. “That’s made manifest in our very low vet bills, and our excellent retention rate for cows. We keep cows healthy for many years longer than would happen in a confinement situation…Our fertility rates are much higher. The animals and the pasture are the foundation of everything we do.”
The land makes the animals healthier; the animals return the favor by enhancing the land’s fertility. And the people who dine on grass-fed dairy and meat are eating food that is different, in an essential and quantifiable way, from mass-produced dairy and meat products from animals fed on grain.
“When you talk about [grass] versus grain, grain is the same thing every day,” says Matt Maier, the Clearwater, MNbased owner of Thousand Hills Farm and Thousand Hills Cattle Company. “It’s a high-carb diet. It’s similar to if we were to eat doughnuts every day for every meal. How healthy would we be and what would we look like?”
The grazing environment, Maier says, opens up a variety of plants to cattle to choose from, with roots at different depths, each offering a distinct array of nutrients. “Cattle are smart enough to choose what they need and on top of that they’re getting diversity,” he says. “It could be from tree leaves, or legumes, or grasses…their health is amazingly better, so much so that we don’t have to give them antibiotics to keep them healthy like in a feedlot.”
Cheesemaker Andy Hatch explains that a diversity of input is a deliberate throwback to traditional Alpine methods of cheesemaking and is what gives his internationally award-winning cheeses their depth of flavor.
But more than that, the practice of pasture-feeding his cows has an impact on the land itself. “When you keep your field in perennial pasture as we do, you are disturbing the soil structure less, you are applying less pesticide and herbicide or none at all,” Hatch says. “You are burning less diesel and running tractors over the land less often, and you are less subject to soil erosion which is of particular concern in the steep hills of the Driftless [Region].”
Maier credits the practice with restoring health to soil. “We’ve learned that when you have what’s called higher density cattle grazing in a controlled fashion, you can build topsoilway faster than they thought you ever could,” he says. “You can literally double and triple your organic matter in your topsoil in 3–5 years and you can build topsoil — the amount of topsoil you can build in 3–5 years is what they used to say would take 50 years to do.”
Soil fertility and healthier animals are two tangible benefits of grass-fed practices. The ultimate benefit, however, may be a salutary effect on the health of the people who consume grass-fed products.
“Consumers have a general sense that they feel like the products are healthier for them in a holistic sense,” says milk and cream brand manager Eric Snowdeal of Organic Valley. “We have actual science — this is published research — to prove that our pasture-based milk and our Grassmilk both have higher omega-3s and lower omega-6s than conventional milks. Grassmilk has 147% higher omega-3s than conventional milk.”
Organic Valley’s Grassmilk brand, which is built around a promise that its cows are fed 100% grass (and never fed grain) was a revolutionary idea when it was launched in 2012. Since its introduction, the concept has connected with consumers: “We’re the #1 grass-fed dairy brand in the market,” says Snowdeal. “It’s the fastest growing milk segment in all of dairy, organic or conventional. It’s exciting that we pioneered becoming a national brand, and we’re happy to bring that product to market and to have hundreds of farms that are now part of the Grassmilk program.”
A critical component of products like Grassmilk, including other grass-fed dairy products and grass-fed meats, is the marketplace that helps connect the consumers to the companies that raise their animals on pasture. Grass-fed products are more expensive — diminished vet bills notwithstanding, their farmers and ranchers require more land and more time to bring their products to market. Most grass-fed cheeses are aged out and packaged with care, and fetch a premium price. All of these factors mean that grass-fed products require more education (for consumers) and more thoughtful display, packaging, and marketing (on the part of companies and markets).
Grocery cooperatives are perfectly poised to bridge the gap; their teams incorporate education and advocacy for products like grass-fed meat and cheese into their daily routines, and their customers are used to asking questions about what they eat and making decisions to spend more money to obtain a greater benefit, whether that’s health, flavor, environmental peace of mind, or a combination of all three. When your store has a people-driven mission, it makes sense to carry and promote grassfed meat and dairy products — the care and mindfulness of the practice touches every person (and animal) involved and leaves them better off for it.
Across the country, more work is being done to implement grassfed practices and study their benefits. As industrial and corporate agriculture look for new ways to connect with values-driven consumers, grassfed meat and dairy practices seem sure to continue their growth, enriching the health of consumers, farmers, land, and animals alike.
Thousand Hills Cattle Co.
100% Grass-Fed Ground Beef
Sale runs Tuesday, Oct. 16- Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018