In the Pines: Accidentally Grass-fed
Last updated 6/28/2022 at Noon
The first time I tasted grass-fed beef, it came from an animal that I’d raised myself. Back then, “grass-fed beef” wasn’t a thing, as far as teenage-me knew. I bought a calf to raise. I worked with my dad to build fences, shovel manure, and castrate the young bull (ah yes, that’s a column for another day).
Sure, our cattle ate grass. Ours was a hobby farm, not a large-scale ranch. Dad was a heavy equipment parts salesman by day. We could never earn a living on our couple dozen head of cattle, our bountiful garden, the goats and eggs, and the outdoor shiitake mushroom farm.
In large-scale cattle operations, animals are shoved together, knee-deep in their own manure and mud, sucking down genetically modified corn. Maybe you’ve seen (and smelled) the feedlots, driving down I-5 in California.
We did feed our cattle grain sometimes, in the colder parts of winter and the last few months of their lives. Grain fattened them up.
Grain was just what you did, since about 1950. Most still do. CAFO culture — factory farming — had taken hold of American agriculture, a tight grip that lines the pockets of many a corporate fat cat.
It’s horrific for the animals and, some believe, for the humans who tend to them. Not to mention the humans who eat the beef. For the moment I will spare you my soliloquy on the health virtues of pastured meats.
Unlike those poor feedlot creatures, our cattle were free to roam our 80 acres. Sometimes we’d team up with other small producers and run cattle collectively over leased land with neighbors.
That was the situation one autumn when my grandma and her boyfriend, Jess, were visiting. Now, Jess might’ve been over 80 years old, but he was not going to let aging interfere with his driving (one word: terrifying). Nor would such a thing interfere with his insistence on helping round up the cattle, a herd that included my steer.
Some of us were on horseback, riding around maybe 200 acres, rounding up cattle. For me, this mostly consisted of staring off into space near the pond while my beautiful half-Arabian, half-Welsh pony Robbie tossed his gorgeously overgrown black mane and expertly dodged and weaved among cows and steers, when we could find some.
Robbie had been previously owned by someone who knew what the heck they were doing. Me? Not so much. I suppose a current teenager might spend the whole roundup on their phone. I see that on the trails around here.
Anyhoo, the hours passed slowly. Eventually the cattle made their way to Stauffers’ stables, where they were herded into the chute. It’s metal siding that a steer is gently herded into; once he’s in, he can’t turn around. Being snug in the close walls usually keeps him calm; he can’t see distracting or frightening things around him.
Coming out the other end of the chute, the steer would be checked by a veterinarian, treated for worms, separated into the right herd.
Well, my steer was not calm in the chute. He freaked out. He was a large animal, a Hereford, and in his violence he kicked wranglers and chute walls alike. Jess got hit in the head, a big bloody wound. Concerned that people and nearby animals would be seriously hurt, our neighbor quickly made the decision to put my steer down on the spot.
For those in the city, safely distanced from the chickens and cows and pigs whose products wind up on their plates, not knowing how many birds and bugs and gophers are killed to grow many of their vegan foods, this must seem brutal.
It was brutal, and sad, too. But here we were, with an unexpected steer to butcher. My dad explained that I might not make much money, because my steer hadn’t been grain-fattened — and, he said, we couldn’t charge the normal price for this range-fed beef. After all, it would taste different.
I argued against this cheapo pricing idea. Eventually we agreed on a compromise. We would sell half at a discount, warning buyers about the meat’s non-grain-fed status. The other half my family would eat at home.
And that is how I first tasted 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished beef. I was expecting it to taste bad. Instead — even to a kid spoiled by homemade goat’s milk ice cream and homegrown vegetables, even to a kid who had a fondness for the animal she had helped raise — it tasted extraordinary. Absolutely delicious.
Jess recovered from his injury. I didn’t buy another calf the following season, though I still helped out around the farm. Years later, I pay double the price for grass-fed, grass-finished, local meat. It’s still delicious.