When we started raising livestock to feed our community six years ago, we made the decision to go grass-fed. Six years ago, grass-fed meat was still on the fringe of acceptability - both from a consumer perspective and from a producer perspective. Grain-fed beef and lamb was the norm - the proponents of grain-feeding had done an amazing job of equating a grain-based diet with a quality product.
Over the last six years, we've tried to educate our customers about the benefits of grass-fed meats (mostly lamb, in our case). Unlike some "grass-fed" producers in our community, we've made the decision that for us, grass-fed means that we don't feed any grain - ever - to the animals we raise for market (for more information, go to our website: http://flyingmulefarm.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/FMF_grass-fed.241143727.pdf). One of the biggest changes in the local marketplace has been our customer's awareness of the benefits of truly grass-fed meat.
In an article in the most recent issue of the Small Farmer's Journal (http://smallfarmersjournal.com/), Chad Chriestenson of Lafayette, Colorado, summarizes current nutritional and production-focused research into grass-meat. According to the article, research conducted by USDA and Clemson University has found grass-fed meats (compared to grain-fed) to be:
1. Lower in total fat.
2. Higher in beta-carotene.
3. Higher in Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).
4. Higher in B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.
5. Higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium.
6. Higher in total omega-3's.
7. Healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65:1 versus 4.84:1).
8. Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potential cancer fighter.
9. Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA).
10. Lower in the saturated fats linked with hear disease.
These nutritional benefits are an important part of why we chose a grass-based production system, but they aren't the only reasons. We feel that pasture-based livestock production has a number of environmental benefits, as well. We don't need to import grain grown in another region (often in another state) - we grow plenty of grass right here. Well managed pastures develop and maintain soil organic matter and enhance the water cycle. Healthy pastures sequester atmospheric carbon, too. Finally, we like the idea that we're raising animals that evolved to live on grass entirely on a diet of grass. Sheep are ideally suited to convert grass into milk, meat and wool.
A commitment to 100% grass-fed production means that we have to be patient. We have to wait for our animals to reach a finished condition (that is, we have to wait for them to put on enough fat to be "finished."). We have to educate our customers about the seasonality and variation in grass-fed production - every year is different. We have to pay extremely close attention to the condition of our pastures - we've found that only the healthiest pastures allow us to finish our animals entirely on grass. Some producers take the short cut of feeding grain for the last 10 or 20 percent of an animal's life - we don't.
We realize that not every eater will prefer the flavor of grass-fed meat - there's room for variation in production systems. However, we are proud of our commitment to a 100% grass-fed system, and we appreciate our customers' support of our efforts! We all need to be more educated about the sources of our food!