The difference between bad and great grass-fed beef

Have you tried grass-fed beef and found it wanting? A slight (or not-so-slight) aftertaste of swamp water with a note of fish? Was it leathery? In order for 100% grass-fed beef to be good tasting, the animal has to have been fat. Eat grass-finished beef. Just make sure it’s grass-fat and delicious. Don’t settle for less.

If you didn’t enjoy it, you did not have excellent grass-fed beef. You likely had un-finished grass-fed beef. Do not give up, something really great awaits you if you find the right beef. We take a lot of care to fatten our animals on forage. This is life-changing food.

It’s also starting to be big news. The New York Times did yet another piece today on the carbon-sequestering impact of grass-fed beef. (Here is a better one.) Don’t be tossed to-and-fro with alternating hype and skepticism. The truth is very simple: Hoofed animals have been roaming the earth for millennia and doing a pretty great job of keeping their ecosystems in check.

Grass covers 2/3 of the world’s arable land mass, grows without oil inputs and needs only sunshine, rain and soil. We can’t eat the stuff, but ruminants can. The design is pretty simple. Let’s not even discuss drilling oil to plow into the earth to grow corn and beans to make a foodstuff that tastes like beef (“beyond meat”), which is even worse than desecrating the earth to feed those crops to cattle, our last-century delusion. Cows are supposed to eat grass. We are supposed to eat cows that eat grass.

One of my favorite books chronicles a years-long search for the perfect steak (the book is appropriately called, Steak). He ate beef all over the world, raised in all matter of ways, from the feedlots of Texas to the padilla grills of Argentina to the legendary Kobe beef of Japan — thousands of steaks. His perfect steak was from a 100% grass-fat 5-year-old heifer.

Notice I didn’t say “grass-fed.” I said “grass-fat.” Fat is where the flavor is. The fat of grain-fed animals has almost a metallic after-taste from the soybean meal (which is the byproduct of extracting high-dollar soy oil with hexane, an industrial solvent, for the processed food market and what’s left is a high-protein feed “stuff” that cattle get fat on). The fat of a properly grass-finished (aka “grass-fat”) animal is delectable.

The only grass-finished beef worth eating is from cattle who had a chance to get fat on grass.

Haven’t had great grass-fed beef? You just don’t know…

The best way to experience grass-fat awesome from our farm are the 1/8 Devon beef boxes. New Zealand Red Devons were brought to the U.S. by my friend Charles (everyone calls him “Doc”) and a group of friends who put cows, frozen embryos and straw of bull semen on a 747 — yes, they put cows on a 747 — and brought them across the ocean from NZ for one purpose: to start a herd of cattle that could fatten on grass.

Fat is flavor. Because fat is softer than muscle, fat is also tenderness. As the droplets of fat melt, the muscle fibers are lubricated, and so too are the teeth and tongue and the warm, wet cave that is the mouth, making for a moist and satisfying chew. Fat, furthermore, triggers salivation. A marbled steak goads the mouth into joining in the festival of juiciness.

Mark Schatzker, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef

Grass-fat beef is delicious — it shouldn’t taste like fish!

This should go without saying. Beef should not taste like fish.

There are folks out there trying to convince you that your taste buds are wrong, that your beef should taste like fish because it has omega 3’s in it. I’m not making this up — they even suggest squeezing a lemon over your grass-fed beef!

[warning: the quote you are about to read is untrue] “Wild fish taste fishy because of their high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.  All grass-fed meats taste fishy, grassy, or gamy because of their high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.”

NO! Grass-fed beef can taste like fishy swamp-water when the ratios between protein and interstitial fat are not right. I can’t believe that people are really in the business of telling their customers that food is supposed to be gross! Beef is not supposed to taste like fish! I shouldn’t have to say this.

Un-finished grass-fed beef doesn’t taste good.
You want only grass-fat, finished grass-fed beef.

Swamp-water grass-fed beef is what we call “unfinished.” In order for 100% grass-fed beef to be good tasting, the animal has to have been fat.

Fattening an animal on grass is challenging, and the skills to do it well are not yet wide-spread. Grass is much lower in energy than corn and soybeans, which is what feedlot cattle are stuffed full of (literally) in the last few months of their life so they will grade prime or choice.

Getting a large animal sufficient energy on grass alone is really difficult, because the animal has to meet her own energy needs for basic life processes before she can contribute any extra for you or her calf (meat/milk), and larger animals have higher energy needs. (And it’s why those new to raising animals on rotated pastures do better to start with pigs, chickens, sheep and maybe goats, who present their own challenges…)

It takes us two or three years of daily giving our cattle fresh grass twice per day to get them to be sufficiently fat on grass to make outstanding beef. Our cows have giant bellies to hold all the forage they want to eat.

How about some pig blood, chicken poop and candy in your steak? You’re not into that? Better skip the store.

Corn and beans change everything, and short circuit the process by just making the animal fat fast. Do you really want to eat the flesh of an animal who got fat eating candy? (Yes, candy is a routine cattle feedstuff, with the wrappers on, mind you, along with stale bread, pig blood, chicken poop and a host of other delicacies!)

The entire cattle industry has been geared towards flat-sided feeder cattle. They have small stomachs so they want to eat often, because in order to get fat on sugar (which is what corn is — starch is really sugar), they need to eat often, and one way to eat often is to have a small capacity for storing forage. But a cow is supposed to eat lots of bulky grass. She’s designed to store massive amounts of low-density fiber (itself mostly water) in her giant rumen and process that food through her four stomaches slowly while she sits and chews her cud. She can turn sunshine into meat and milk. What’s your superpower?

Feedlot cows get fat without chewing

Feedlot cows don’t chew their cud much, because they need the long-stem fiber of grass to ruminate. The lack of saliva (a cow is supposed to produce 5-10 gallons of saliva a day) from the lack of chewing — because there is nothing to chew in ground cereal — causes feedlot cattle to frequently have a condition called acidosis, because saliva raises the pH of their stomaches.

This is a feed price chart in a dairy trade publication. The same things are fed to beef cattle (and much of the beef supply comes from spent dairy cows anyway.)
Progressive Dairy, Feb. 7, 2021

The low pH in the stomach of a corn-fed animal creates an environment where pathogenic bacteria can grow (because the acid-drenched stomaches of corn-fed cattle breed bacteria that are not susceptible to our acid-stomach defenses), and that’s where we get e. Coli 0157:H7. This nasty and deadly bug now contaminates everything from spinach to lettuce to almonds. It’s presence in the food supply has justified the Food and Drug Administration creating draconian regulations that disproportionally affect small farms. The pathogen was unknown until the 1980s.

Entire fields in California are routinely wiped out of perfectly good vegetables if an animal such as a deer or bunny crosses the field out of fear of this and other pathogens, so guess what is happening to all the bunnies and deer on the California vegetable plantations, er, farms? Mass annihilation. So much for cruelty-free carrots. But I digress.

Great grass-fat beef requires the right genetics

Virtually the entire gene pool of beef animals in the U.S. has been bred to eat corn. When you take one of these animals and you put them on grass, even well-managed rotated pastures, they don’t do well. Why? Because they don’t have enough stomach capacity to hold a lot of forage and they are so large that their body maintenance requirements exceed their daily calorie intake on grass. Hence the cows on the 747. Lots of folks are now breeding cows to thrive on grass (and that’s what we are doing with milk cows in our Grazing Jersey program), and the gene pool of grass-fed cattle is expanding.

Yet, in the meantime, there is a lot of inferior grass-fed beef out there. Good-natured folks are taking what amount to industrial feeder cattle and moving them around on forsaken and abused pastures with inactive mineral, carbon and water cycles (read: acid soils) and trying to turn this ship around by selling you “grass-fed” beef. It’s a worthy cause. We have to start somewhere. But the first step in the revolution is taste. Don’t settle.

I can cook but I’m no chef. Don’t tell my chef friends, but I broke the sauce. 🙂

Don’t let a bad taste in your mouth prevent you from enjoying the life-giving experience of good grass-fed beef

The promise of good grass-fed beef is world changing. Properly managed cattle may be our last, best hope for a climate we can live with. And grass-fat beef is certainly one of the best things you can do for your health. Eating good meat can improve your mood, because it changes the chemistry of your brain and your whole body.

There are two things that I don’t live without every day: my morning omelette and my grass-fat Devon burger for lunch. If I eat those two things every day, what I have for dinner (usually soup) matters less, because I’ve gotten the building blocks of a sound mind and a healthy body all wrapped up by lunch.

Eat grass-finished beef. Just make sure it’s grass-fat and delicious. Don’t settle for less. Invest in your health, favor and beautiful landscapes. And buy only really great grass-fed beef.

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  • Chance Cook

    I am glad grass-fed beef is delicious and doesn’t taste like fish. I hate fish. So that would ruin beef for me.

  • Amy Saunders

    Hi there! Oh wow, when you mentioned that grass-finished beef has better quality due to the abundance of nutrients in it, it really caught my interest. My aunt owns a farm and lately she has been thinking of adding more livestock there. I’ll ask her to consider this option so she’ll make more profit soon.

  • Ed Cooley

    Great article. Your covered it all. We have been raising and selling grass-fat locker beef for over 20 years. We have more satisfied repeat customers than we can handle. It’s not easy getting everything together to make that fat steer. Some people around here in western Oregon get their cattle grass-fat in 16 months. I’ve never tried to do that. We get them fat in 26 months, but the best ones are the ones that are 3-year-olds. We buy our bulls from a guy that raises grass-fat beef, so I think we are getting the right genetics.

  • Ed Cooley

    I didn’t see any discussion in your article about processing. We do what’s known as farm kills. That is when a mobile slaughter company comes to the farm and returns to the butcher shop with hanging carcasses to by chilled and cut up after an appropriate hanging time. I like our method better than the alternative of hauling the live animals to a slaughter house. My cattle have never been in a truck or trailer, and so the trip and the unfamiliar surroundings would be stressful and unkind. In our state there are rules governing what can and can’t be done with meat from this kind of operation so there are limitations for sure.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you for your kind remarks. We aspire to do on-farm slaughter at some point. We agree 100% that animal shouldn’t have to go in a trailer to give their lives. We want to have every moment of their lives be peaceful. We have looked into a mobile abattoir but the cost was prohibitively high because the infrastructure doesn’t exist in our state. We are hoping to build a way to do this from scratch… we just need to get some more fences in the ground! I’m so glad you found the blog and our farms seem like kindred spirits.

  • Munna Hossen

    Wow! Love this post! Happy I found such a nice post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rachael

    I disagree that a grass finished thin cow is what makes beef taste fishy. I finished a heifer that was bred just for grass finishing and she was so fat at butcher she looked pregnant. The breeding was impressive to fatten a beef like that in 20 month on grass alone. The beef was amazing and prime grade. However, the outside fat tasted fishy. You just had to cut it off, the burgers tasted amazing everything else was amazing except the steak outside fat. I think the theory is this is just what grass finished taste like is true could also be her breeding. I finished a dairy steer on grass and his wasn’t fishy, but had a totally different rich flavor that was very unique and pungent, grass finished is very flavorful, and sometimes that flavor is a little fishy, but I found that all the flavor is all in that outside, fat that you can easily cut off or cook off like with burger.

  • Barb

    Do you do shipping? I didn’t see any information except about pick up. I live in Florida panhandle. If you don’t, do you know any other farms that follow your example, have the same ethics that you do near me. Thank you and God bless.

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