Grass vs. grain: which is best?

Correction: April 16, 2013 – The original version of this story erroneously referred to Keith Everts as president of Diamond Willow Certified Organic Beef. Everts is the former president of that company, which is now known as Diamond Willow Organics 2012 Ltd. with Kevin Wilkie as president and general manager. The company is not a co-operative and does not have members, nor does it utilize custom feedlots for its beef supply. It emphasizes support for family farms and grass-fed beef.

OLDS, Alta. — Personal taste often determines whether people choose grain or grass fed beef.

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“It depends what people are used to,” said meat scientist Mike Dugan of Agriculture Canada.

Some like the finely textured marbled beef resulting from a grain based diet while others want grass fed, believing it has greater health or environmental attributes.

Grass fed may be a misnomer, said Keith Everts, former president of what is now known as Diamond Willow Organics 2012 Ltd. The original company comprised a group of seven producers who have built a successful market for their branded product in Western Canada.

Fresh grass fed beef from Canada is not available year round, so the cattle receive hay and other forages when the grass is gone.

It should be called a forage based diet, he said.

“If we get the consumers to think they can have fresh organic, grass fed beef all year, let’s make sure we are telling them what it is,” he told a recent Alberta Organic conference in Olds, Alta.

Diamond Willow producers were grass ranchers in southern Alberta who were selling five or six head a week. However, they had to increase production when the business took off in 2005.

The producers, who wanted to make more money and put more beef into the system, had to decide whether to finish cattle on grain for 100 days or on grass for 200 days.

They also wanted a more consistent product, and their large customer base demanded year round supplies.

Everts said people think grass feeding is cheaper, but the bottom line has to be analyzed after the beef is sold.

“You’ve got to know before you get into it what your end dollars are,” he said. “You have to know if you can do it.”

The company developed a specialized calculator to determine break-even prices and profits. Variables entered into the calculator include cattle weights and gains and the cost of feed and buying cattle.

Everts said he appreciates the commitment some producers have to organic grass fed production, but there’s a danger of losing customers because of variable quality product or lack of supply.

The overall goal should be to encourage people to buy more beef, he added.

For Don Ruzicka of Killam, Alta., the commitment to organic grass fed livestock is strong: he has not fed grain to his livestock since 1998. However, he said it took time to produce a desirable product.

“The beef was good, sometimes bad. There was no consistency,” he said.

He markets his products under his brand name Sunrise Farms.

He said not all breeds are suited to a grass program, and producers need to select cattle that produce consistent quality. He started with Angus and Galloway but recently added Red Polls.

He uses holistic management to finish cattle, hogs and chickens on 800 acres. He stockpiles forage for the winter on 200 acres of native pasture and relies on bale grazing when the snow is too deep. Alfalfa pellets are offered during cold snaps.

His management plan is to rebuild his local ecosystem, but he also decided to try grass finished beef because he has Crohn’s disease. He wanted a diet with more essential fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid and omega 3 and 6, which are found in grass finished beef.

Getting those nutrients in the proper balance is the trick, said Dugan, who studies lipids at Agriculture Canada’s research centre near Lacombe, Alta.

Lipids are one of the three main classes of food besides carbohydrates and proteins. They are responsible for storing energy that animals do not immediately need.

Research from Australia shows non-fish eating populations can derive a significant amount of beneficial fats by eating beef that contains long chain fatty acids.

The fatty acid profile depends on the maturity of the grass. The profiles are greater than mature season forage if the grass is green and lush because of the amount of chlorophyll in green grass.

Cattle manufacture the essential fats as part of their digestive process in the rumen.

Polyunsaturated fats are toxic to rumen bacteria, so they hydrogenate them to produce CLA.

“When you forage finish or grass finish an animal, the bacterial population likes to produce a good trans fatty acid, but when you grain finish they don’t produce high levels of the good trans fatty acid. They produce some other isomers,” Dugan said.

A person needs 300 milligrams of omega 3 per serving to get health benefits. It is difficult to achieve that level in beef and pork muscle cuts, but increased levels could be found in sausage or ground product.

Tenderness ratings between grass fed and grain fed are also held up as a major difference.

Dugan said tenderness depends on age and breed. An animal’s meat contains more connective tissue as it matures, which is associated with toughness.

Grass finishing may create toughness because the meat did not develop in the same way as grain finished. There is more starch in grain, and it makes more sugar in the muscle. The grass finished beef contains glycogen, which breaks down into lactic acid and creates different pH profiles that affect toughness.

Handling carcasses in the cooler can also affect tenderness, he said.

The top 10 Canadian menu trends consumers will see in restaurants this year:

  1. Locally produced food (top item for the fourth year in a row)
  2. Gluten-free/food allergy conscious
  3. Sustainability
  4. Farm/estate-branded ingredients
  5. Food trucks/street food
  6. Ethnic/street food inspired appetizers, such as tempura and taquitos.
  7. Greek yogurt
  8. Simplicity/back-to-basics
  9. Non-wheat noodles or pasta, such as quinoa, rice and buckwheat
  10. Ancient grains such as kamut, spelt and amaranth

The top 10 up & comers in 2013:

  1. Red rice
  2. Digital menus
  3. Goat
  4. House-made soft drinks
  5. African cuisine
  6. Gluten-free beer
  7. Kid-friendly versions of adult dining options
  8. Underused fish such as mackerel, bluefish and redfish
  9. Drinkable desserts
  10. Black/forbidden rice

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