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"When beef is marketed as 'grass fed beef,' doesn't that automatically imply that the cattle were raised using a pasture-based production strategy?"
In this article I am going to answer another of the frequently asked questions I get from farmers and beef consumers about grass fed beef.
From a marketing standpoint, "Grass-fed beef" simply means that the beef was produced on a diet primarily consisting of grass and was finished without grain. That's it.
However, this marketing label is not restricted to a single 'one-size-fits-all' farming strategy that must be used by all farmers to produce grass-fed beef.
When the USDA developed their marketing standard for what it means for beef to qualify as "grass fed", they intentionally did not address HOW to produce it, because they recognize that there will be many different farming strategies used to produce grass fed beef.
This broad definition is a good thing, because it allows farmers the freedom to innovate and find more efficient and cost-effective ways to produce beef for the grass fed market, which ultimately benefits both consumers and farmers alike.
However, it also sets up the potential for confusion as both consumers and farmers may imagine a very different picture of how cattle are raised for the grass fed beef market than what is actually used by different farmers.
Update: On January 16th, 2016, the USDA made the decision to withdraw their Grass Fed Marketing Claim standard.
There is no one single 'right' way to produce grass fed beef - there are many possible strategies all leading to the same destination.
The pasture-based grass fed farming strategies discussed in my book and on my website are simply one way to produce grass fed beef. They are based on my experiences and are designed to harness as many ecological advantages as possible as a way of reducing costs and creating a seamless and cohesive production strategy.
But they are certainly not the only way to produce a marketable grass fed product.
There will be many other innovative grass fed farming strategies - and I encourage other farmers to share their successful strategies via the contact form.
Some of these strategies will benefit everyone in the industry, regardless of climate or geographic location. Others may be more regional, climate specific, or only tailored to very specific producers. And some strategies may surprise you because they may look nothing like the picture that you may have in your mind about how grass-fed beef should be produced.
As surprising as it may seem, grass fed beef CAN even be produced by confining cattle in a feedlot and feeding them any grass or legume diet that does not contain any grain, such as hay, silage, or even freshly-cut grass delivered to the cattle daily. This is not a fictional example - some farmers really do use this strategy to produce grassfed beef.
Beef produced in these grass fed feedlots would still be considered grass fed according to the USDA definition. And it would still contain all the health benefits of choosing a grass fed instead of a grain fed beef product.
Yet many readers will take issue with beef produced in a 'grass-fed feedlot' because it conflicts with their idea of what grass fed beef is all about.
Nor are these grass fed feedlots able to take advantage of all the potential cost-savings of using pasture-based grass fed production strategies, such as letting the cattle harvest their own feed in a daily pasture rotation.
But that is the point - the USDA grass fed marketing label is about the diet that the cattle are on, not whether the cattle are standing in a pasture or feed pen. Nor is it about whether the cattle graze the grass themselves or whether a forage harvester and feed wagon brings it to the cattle feed bunk.
If we, as consumers, want beef to be produced in a specific production system, then it is our responsibility to ask our farmers about the details of their production strategy.
Creating rules for a single 'standardized' grass fed beef farming strategy in addition to the USDA marketing definition is neither feasible, nor desirable.
First of all, how do you realistically draw the line between one farmer's winter feed pen and another farmer's grass fed feedlot?
Some pasture-based strategies, like year-round grazing (i.e. winter grazing), are not right for everyone. So it certainly would not be right to exclude beef which is fed an all-forage diet in a feed pen just because the climate or farmer's experience levels or the farm's business structure are not set up for winter grazing.
And from a nutritional standpoint, it is unlikely that the beef from cattle that graze through deep snow in a dormant winter pasture is going to be nutritionally distinct from beef from cattle that are fed hay and silage during the winter. Nor is it likely that pasture-finished beef is going to be nutritionally different than beef from cattle that are fattened in a grass fed feedlot on a diet of fresh grass delivered daily in their feed bunk. These different farming strategies will affect the farmers' production costs (BIG TIME!), but not the beef consumer since either choice will have the health benefits of choosing grass fed instead of a grainfed beef product.
Besides, do we really want to give someone - presumably some politician - the task of standardizing the strategies that can be used for grass fed production, while stifling all the innovation and experimentation that grass fed farmers use every day to find cheaper better ways of producing beef for us? The resulting rule-book would be based on political/ideological biases, climate and geographic presumptions, lobbyist connections, and how those rules would sound to the media when they report them to the voting public.
"Be careful what you ask for - you just might get it good and hard…"
I prefer the USDA's broad generic marketing standard for grass fed beef combined with the freedom for consumers to ask their own questions and choose the farmers whose farmers strategies fit their personal visions of what grass-fed beef means to them.
Competition and the freedom to experiment, not rigid rules, is what will drive this industry forward.
By leaving room in the 'grass fed beef' marking label for a wide range of production strategies - including grass fed feedlots - we give our farmers the freedom to find innovative ways to improve production efficiency on their grass fed cattle farms, which will help increase the supply of grass fed beef on the market while reducing costs to consumers.
By cultivating a spirit of openness towards a wide range of grass fed farming strategies - including grass fed feedlots - it ensures that farmers are proud and eager to share with both customers and other farmers what they are doing on their farms - no matter how different it may look at first glance to what another farmer is doing. This leaves consumers with the freedom to choose for themselves what product will be right for them. And it ensures that farmers can learn from one another - after all, the greater the differences between farming strategies, the more there is to learn from one another.
So, the short answer is that grass-fed beef is the end product, but that there are many paths to reach that end product.
While it may be tempting to try to create a standardized 'grass-fed production system', I firmly believe that both consumers and the industry as a whole will benefit far more by encouraging innovation and competition and by retaining the freedom to produce grass fed beef in many different ways, even if that means that some grassfed beef offered for sale has not been produced in a pasture-based farming system that fits your vision of what grass-fed beef is all about.
Instead, celebrate that we have the freedom of choice in what we buy, and take pleasure in asking for more details about where and how your beef was produced. Dig deeper than the label and find out the steps your farmer used to produce your beef.
And when you're ready to start planning your cattle farm, check out my book: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef