We will say it again…
Pasture Makes Perfect!
Raising cattle – both our Jerseys and their beef calves – is a huge commitment for a farm of our scale. Nonetheless, we’ve chosen to have cattle because ruminants are a critical part of our 3R’s: regeneration, resilience and relationships. When cattle are grass-fed and rotationally grazed they help build soil, which leads to carbon storage and clean water. Not to mention that they provide us all with a nutritious, flavourful source of real food, and are gracious souls on the farm.
It is truly amazing that the sun powers plants, which cattle eat to feed the microbes in their rumens; these microbes in turn produce fatty acids and vitamins to feed the animal. All because of grass.
100% grass-fed beef is nutrient-dense as a result of a diet of grass (fresh and dry grasses, forbs and legumes). Compared to cattle that is fed grain, eating only grass produces meat that has:
- Less total fat (reference)
- More heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids (reference)
- More conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks (reference)
- More antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E (reference)
At Three Ridges Ecological Farm, our cattle eat only grass: fresh pasture in the growing season and hay in the colder months. They also sometimes graze the pasture in the winter, if there’s a stockpile of forage on the ground. We make some hay ourselves; the remaining hay we buy from a neighbour who grows the hay using organic methods. Calves have access to mother’s milk until they are many months old – or self wean; and all cattle always have access to high quality salts, and often have access to kelp and high quality minerals to self-select as needed.
100% grass-fed is better for the cattle
Feeding cattle only grass is better for them because, as ruminants, they have evolved to have four stomachs to process forage. Think of them as amazing fermentation chambers with four legs.
As cattle graze, they chew just enough to swallow the grass. The undigested forage travels to their first two stomaches, the rumen and reticulum, where it is stored until later. When the animal has filled herself with forage, she rests and ruminates. This is why you often see cattle lying or standing still – seemingly not doing anything.
After a while, she coughs or regurgitates up a bit of undigested food called cud and masticates it completely by chewing, and chewing, and chewing. This is why you also often see cattle lying or standing still, and rotating their jaws constantly, blissed out. They then re-salivate the cud and re-swallow it, where it goes to the last two stomachs, the omasum and the abomasum. Chewing the cud breaks the grass down in order for microbes in the omasum and abomasum to ferment and release volatile fatty acids, which is cattle’s main energy source, and vitamins and essential amino acids. In calves, milk bypasses the rumen and directly enters the abomasum to be absorbed; rumen development occurs following the introduction of grazing, which leads to microbial growth. (For detailed information on rumination, visit this link.)
Feeding grain disrupts this amazing dance among the four stomachs because grain does not need to be chewed like forage. Even more, it disrupts the microbial community within the cattle’s stomach and changes its pH to produce a stomach environment that is more susceptible to pathogens. This leads to bloating and illness that, in turn, leads to antibiotics and other drugs.
Digestion is not the only reason why feeding only grass to cattle is good for them. As cattle rotate on lush pasture eating fresh forage, they are acting out their instincts to roam the plains as a herd. The more an animal acts out its natural behaviours, the less stressed it is.
All of this comes with a very important caveat that makes it very hard to be a consumer! Some 100% grass-fed beef is fed mostly hay (and/or sprouts) in a barn or feedlot. Similarly, some 100% grass-fed beef comes from cattle that live outside on unmanaged or continuously grazed pasture. Both of these situations aren’t ideal for the animal and can lead to stress. They also don’t have any of the ecological benefits associated with rotational grazing, which we discuss below.
100% grass-fed beef is better for the soil (and water)
Rotational grazing, also known as adaptive multi-paddock grazing or managed grazing, is a practice whereby animals are moved around the pasture to control where they graze.
The key to well-managed rotational grazing is short grazing periods followed by long rest periods.
The short grazing period (12 hours – 3 days or even a week, depending on the farm) gives the animals a chance to clip some of the forage by grazing and trample some of the forage by stomping. Clipping stimulates plant roots to exude sugars, which feed soil microbes and leads to carbon storage! Trampling results in dead plant biomass on the soil surface, which helps protect the soil and feed other soil organisms. If the animals are left too long in a paddock, however, the pasture will be overgrazed. Overgrazing stresses the plants and doesn’t leave them enough to continue photosynthesizing and re-grow. Similarly, the long rest period (30-50 days) is important so plants can completely re-grow from the last grazing event. Re-grazing before the plants are ready also stresses the plant and inhibits growth.
This is the general premise of rotational grazing; of course, there are many nuances and minutia – and it is often easier described than done! Nonetheless, you tell that a farm rotationally grazes by the fencing. You want to see lots of fences, with temporary fences that are put up and taken down as the animals move around.
At Three Ridges Ecological Farm, we’ve rotated our small cattle herd around the pasture since we moved here in 2015 and our grazing practice improves each year: we are able to move the animals in smaller paddocks for shorter periods and allow full recovery. Sure, there are times that dry spells mid-summer slow down the pastures and we let the cattle back into a paddock a bit earlier than ideal. Even so, we’ve seen huge improvements in our pasture growth in just a few years! We will re-test our soil next year and anticipate seeing an increase in soil carbon too!
A bit more about the carbon-beef debate. Within the scientific and environmental communities, there’s still much debate about the environmental benefits of 100% grass-fed beef. Does it really lead to net carbon storage or carbon emissions? Can it help mitigate climate change or is it part of the problem?
If you account for the full cost of raising beef on grain, including growing and transporting the grain to the feed lot, grain-fed beef emits less greenhouse gasses than 100% grass-fed beef. This is because 100% grass-fed beef take longer to finish than grain feed beef and, thus, produce more methane (a greenhouse gas) over their lifetime.
If you also account for the full benefit of rotational grazing to raise 100% grass-fed beef, then 100% grass-fed beef comes out ahead as a mitigation strategy – the methane produced is outweighed by the carbon stored by managed grazing. The key, therefore, here is how the beef are managed on the land (reference).
For our house, this means we go for quality over quantity when it comes to meat. Eating less meat – but meat that is ecologically raised – seems like the best thing for our health and the planet’s.