Grass and Muscle

by Sarah West


In the early 2000’s, I was not long out of my childhood home, still new to shopping and cooking on my own. I’d been a bona fide vegetarian for four years, a habit I picked up while working at a small-town food coop that sold sometimes ragged but always fresh organic vegetables.

In college, I started having dreams about meat—juicy hamburgers hovered in my subconscious until I couldn’t take it any more and at a campus-wide picnic my junior year I just walked up to the grill and held out my plate. Meat found its way back into my diet, but as journalists and documentarians unveiled suspicions of the commercial meat industry into the mainstream, my coop conditioning predisposed me to listen.

The narrative they carved has become well known to foodies and locavores. Industrial meat production (i.e. cheap meat) relies on a paradigm shift: feeding grain to animals with stomachs that evolved to digest grass. In order to keep the cattle from getting sick on a food source that could literally kill them, they are treated with antibiotics. Such operations keep costs down by packing the animals into lots where they mill around in their own excrement and eat grain (whose price is kept artificially low through government subsidies) all day long.

Such measures become necessary in a country where the average person consumes over 75 pounds of red meat each year (a statistic that is deflated by the inclusion of babies and non-meat-eating populations—the actual statistic for meat eating adults is likely much higher). As urban populations put continued pressure on available rangeland and its resources, industrial meat (especially beef) has become an increasingly bad bargain, calorically speaking. The patty of a quarter-pounder requires almost seven pounds of feed, putting to question (as many have) the logic of a system that ties up farmland to produce grain to feed an animal that must be medicated to eat it whose digestion of it does not increase its protein (or nutritional) value.

Enter: grass. Well, pasture, actually, a blend of grasses, broadleaved plants known as forbs, and cereal grains (in their vegetative state). It’s what our ruminant companions have evolved to eat, whose stomachs, unlike ours, can convert it into protein and fatty acids. Pasture-raised cows produce what many consider to be healthier meat, but it takes longer and comes in smaller yields per acre than grain-fed cows (however, the acreage per cow is not so small in grain-fed operations if you take into account the acreage required to grow their feed).

In the infancy of its renaissance, grass-fed beef had a reputation for being tough and gamey. Producers had to relearn the intricacies of raising beef on pasture; older breeds, better adapted to a grass diet, needed reinforcing; consumers, used to always-tender high-fat beef, needed educating. High-quality grass-fed beef is not as simple as access to plentiful pasture. It requires (as does all good agriculture) attention to the soil, to land management, to incorporating diversity into the farm’s system from the pasture-mix on up to the grazers.

Several production techniques greatly influence the quality of grass-fed beef: dialing in the right combination of forage species and cattle breeds for your region, leaving the cows on dense pasture until they have put on the requisite fat (a process that can take twice as long as a grain-fed cow), and allowing the slaughtered cow to age (a method called “dry aging” that allows naturally present enzymes to tenderize the muscles).

No other food has saturated our cuisine and cultural identity as much as cattle. From steak, hamburgers, and hot dogs to cowboys and country music, a prominent brand of American identity is intimately bound to cows. The statistics don’t lie—we like our beef. So much so we sometimes dream about it. Yet, during the first years of my return to carnivorism, the meat aisle was always a challenge.

The problem for me was price, my eyes darting back and forth between the words and the numbers, the label claims and the level of financial burden purchasing the claims I felt good about would bestow. There’s no way around it: good meat is expensive, ethical good meat even more so.

In the future, we may find a world less accommodating to cattle—with the possibilities of drought, farmland degradation, super-bacteria, and food shortages looming, our fixation on beef may have to eventually wane. Ranchers that have transitioned to pasture are doing the hard work of building sustainable systems that could navigate the challenges ahead. Supporting them means eating some of the best meat out there (though likely you’ll be eating less of it). It also means investing in the next phase of cow culture—one with a focus on longevity over quantity.