Remaking the North Texas Landscape
“I’ve wore out two or three farms in my lifetime…” (old Texas saying)
Generations ago, North Texas farmers turned prairies into row crops, changing our landscape for the worse. Today, a new breed of farmers is coaxing acres of farmed-out cotton fields back from dead brown to wavy green. Using organic methods, they raise livestock on grassy pastures, instead of dispatching them at the end of their lives to finish at feedlots filled with corn. This new breed markets its beef as local, grass-fed or grass-finished products and sells directly to the public.
Understandably, questions arise about this new way of farming. Is this marketing hype or justifiable hope for the small farmer, edged out by mega-farms in the 1980s? Is there any evidence that beef that comes from cows raised only on grass is better for humans and for the environment? Finally, how does the beef taste and how should it be prepared?
GRASS-FED, GRASS-FINISHED, AND GRASS-ONLY
The label grass-fed can be misleading. Grass is the natural diet of cows, sheep, and goats and all cattle are fed grass for at least part of their lives. The term grain-fed, on the other hand, describes meat that comes from animals that were fed grain, usually in confined feed lots, to fatten
them at the end of their lives prior to processing. The industrial process of finishing meat with grain was not developed until after World War II, and thinkers such as Michael Pollan credit the practice with causing many of the health and environmental challenges that we face today.1 The terms grass-finished or grass-only can be used more accurately to describe animals that are fed grass for their entire lives.
GRASS-FINISHED BEEF: BETTER FOR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT?
Most producers of grass-finished beef claim that the higher levels of good fats like omega-3 and CLA2 found in their products provide health benefits. To get an impartial perspective, we surveyed the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the American Heart Association (AHA). In 2006, the UCS reviewed the available scientific evidence and found mixed results.3 The environmental benefits of finishing cattle on grass were clear: reduced soil erosion, better soil fertility, and higher water quality. Also, the studies found strong evidence that the reduced use of antibiotics in raising grass-finished beef provided benefits to humans.
However, the data regarding health benefits from higher levels of omega-3 fat and CLA found in grass-finished beef are less conclusive. On one end of the spectrum, the USDA’s Robert Post states that the department has “no policy…” on the benefits of omega-3 fats in food “… because there’s no evidence.” The UCS study reported “At this point, the evidence supporting the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids … is mixed; the data are stronger for some fatty acids than for others.” The study went on to suggest that further evidence be gathered. On another note, Kristi Manning of the AHA states that although the organization has no position on the specific benefits of grass-finished beef, they do recommend diets rich in omega-3 fats (also found in fish) as being hearthealthy. Ms. Manning also stated that because grass-finished beef is lean, it is a better choice for heart health than varieties with more fat.
IS IT THE REAL THING?
Local Farmers Markets have erupted across the DFW Metroplex4. Although customers may feel good about buying from real farmers and ranchers, it is possible to be fooled by vendors who are really middlemen, selling products that are not cultivated as advertised, or are grown elsewhere. How do you know whether the meat you are buying is actually locally raised and grass-finished? The answer: get to know your farmers and ranchers. Go to your farmers market on a regular basis and ask questions. Ask to visit the farm or ranch. We approached two local farms run by young scions of Texas farm families, Rusty’s Grass-Finished Beef and Sloans Creek Farms, and asked them if we could visit. They accepted with enthusiasm.
RUSTY’S GRASS-FINISHED BEEF5
On Rusty Roth’s 1200-acre ranch near Como, Texas, the 900 cows outnumber the humans in town. Rusty comes from a family of farmers that moved to East Texas in 1989 to take advantage of the longer growing season for grass. No slaves to foodie fashion, they have produced grass-finished beef and dairy products for decades. Rusty, a tall, lanky bundle of voracious, crackling energy, not only produces beef, but in his spare time he’s a ballroom dancer, distributor of a local organic sorbet, budding wine connoisseur and a single dad.
Rusty holds Open Ranch events at his farm to give customers a chance to meet him, learn more about the farm operation, and sample his products. He tows a huge grill, smoker, and kitchen into the field, and the feed is on! There’s no charge; only a request that visitors buy one item before they leave.
I visited Rusty’s Open Ranch this year to see his operation firsthand. He raises mostly Angus and Chorales cows, which are familiar to customers and well-suited to East Texas conditions. I wandered over to the pasture to see the cows first-hand, just as the late spring skies lowered, and a watery wind combed through the grass. They gathered near, curious, but wary; they wouldn’t advance. A donkey hovered, protectively. I had the sense that these cows had figured it out; they’d had a taste of the sweet life, but they knew where it led. The smoky smell of beef wafting from Rusty’s grill nearby said it all. After awhile, I succumbed to my place in the food chain, turned, and walked away.
Rusty’s smoker and grill were loaded with beef and lamb—relatives and neighbors of the cows nearby. His beef sausages include an international tour of flavors including German, Polish, Chorizo, and Italian. The sausages were seasoned in a balanced way, highlighted with the characteristic rich and flavorful taste of grass-finished beef. The roast and brisket were tender and succulent and I feasted on meat after meat without a green vegetable in sight (well, unless you count the grass). I left feeling fat and sassy.
SLOANS CREEK FARM6
The “A” students are back on the farm. According to organic farmer Joel Salatin, typically “You’ve got a lot of D students left on the farm today….The guidance counselors encouraged all the A students to leave home and go to college…”7 A visit with Nathan and Ellen Melson of Sloans Creek Farm suggests that times are changing. The couple is brimming with information on everything from grass species native to the Texas Blackland Prairie, to compost-producing toilets, to bottle-feeding baby lambs, and they are learning more every day. Nathan is working on his PhD at Texas A&M and Ellen is finishing her BS in Agricultural Science there.
Nathan‘s family has farmed in Texas since the 1870s. He helped his family make the transition from traditional farming methods to an organic, pasture-based system while he was still a college student back in the late 1990s. He simply ran the numbers and found that his small family farm could no longer afford to produce livestock in the conventional way, using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, ge- 6 www.sloanscreekfarm.com 7 Joel Salatin www.polyfacefarms.com as quoted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, page 220. netically modified feed, proprietary seed, and feedlots. Nathan tried something new by returning to something old.
The Melsons explain that their farm is located at the northern edge of what’s called the Texas Blackland Prairie, an area of Texas that includes Dallas8. The area is noted for the black clay soil and although a bane of today’s gardeners, it once supported miles and miles of prairie grasses, flowers, bison, and grassland birds. Nathan and Ellen now grow native grasses such as switchgrass and buffalo grass, along with wild peas, to feed their livestock, covering land that Nathan’s grandfather planted in grain sorghum and other row crops. During a 2006 drought, the switchgrass, with roots that extend 30 feet deep, provided the sole spot of green on the Melson’s farm.
The bison native to the Blackland Prairie may be long gone, but in their place on Sloans Creek Farm roam heritage breeds of cows such as Red Poll, Murray Gray, and Irish Dexter9. To avoid overgrazing, the Melsons use a rotational system, moving the animals from pasture to pasture, usually on a weekly basis. Family dogs Aidenne and Tirzah along with Sue, the bottle-fed lamb, patrol the pastures daily with the Melsons on their spunky little Kubota tractor, looking for problems and checking the livestock. The Melsons’ operation is small, diverse and ambitious, with about 50 cows, 35 goats, 50 pigs, and 80 sheep and lambs, all on around 200 acres. Future plans are to establish a raw milk dairy when Ellen graduates from A&M at the end of this year.
FLAVOR AND COOKING
Grass-finished beef is leaner than grain-finished beef, so cooking procedures differ. The Melsons provide cooking tips on their website such as defrosting the meat slowly, then cooking it to a rare or medium doneness, rather than well-done. Rusty suggests using a low temperature. Those who haven’t tried grass-finished beef before can make the transition to this leaner, stronger-tasting beef by starting out with cuts that are high in fat, such as sausage, ground beef, or rib-eye steak. The sausage’s seasonings should complement and provide a counterpoint to the stronger flavor of the beef. The ground beef is a wonderful substitute for veal in a rich Bolognese sauce and rib eyes cooked “low and slow” are a good first choice in the steak department.
Deep in the heart of Texas, there’s an evolution going on as farmers reintroduce us to the tastes of our land. With a little bit of education and a willingness to try something new, buyers can expand their taste horizons beyond meat trapped in cellophane and styrofoam. The possibilities are as big as the Texas sky.
- In An Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan proposes that our agricultural processes were revolutionized by the insecticides and fertilizers created as byproducts of ammunition and poisons left over after WWII. (Michael Pollan, An Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: 2007)).
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid
- www.ucsusa.org No follow-up study has been initiated to date according to Jenn Palembas of the UCS.
- A list of local farmers markets can be found at www.edibledfw.com
- Joel Salatin www.polyfacefarms.com as quoted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, page 220.
- A re-creation of this prairie environment that once covered 6.5% of Texas can be found at Parkhill Prairie in Collin County www.co.collin.tx.us
- Heritage breeds of livestock are those that have a long history and may be in danger of extinction.