“Where would we be without grass?” It’s a question posed in the video above, titled “Grass: The Big Story,” and released by the USDA circa 1950. Grass farming is emerging as necessary to rejuvenate the soil, produce high-quality food and remedy many of the environmental problems caused by industrial agriculture, but while it’s sometimes viewed as a trendy movement, its benefits have been known for decades.
It’s a prime example of “what’s old is new again,” in that raising cows on pasture has always been the best method of food production. “I don’t think anyone can stay in this business anymore without good pasture. And it makes farming easy all around,” one farmer said in the video. If more farmers had listened to this advice in the ’50s, the U.S. would likely be in a far different state, environmentally.
Even then, the benefits were clear. “I don’t have any weed problems anymore,” one farmer said after switching to grass. “Look how we brought back the soil,” another stated.
Prior to the 1950s, All Beef Was Grass Fed
While grass fed meat is considered a niche market in 2019, prior to the 1950s, all cattle were grass fed. It wasn’t until the post-WWII era that corn production increased, leading to the emergence of grain-fed (largely corn-fed) cattle. As PBS reported:1
“Before World War II, most Americans had never eaten corn-fed beef. Raised on pasture, cattle reared before the 1950s usually took two or three years to be ready for the slaughterhouse. Steers were fed grain only occasionally and in small quantities, and farmers tended to use corn as a supplement — not a staple — of their livestock’s diets.
But as American corn production skyrocketed in the post-War era, and as the economic boom of the 1950s prompted higher consumer demand for meat, farmers and ranchers turned to a new practice: fattening their cattle on corn.”
Corn fattened up cattle faster, allowing them to be ready for the market in about 15 months. It also led to the creation of feed lots, as cows no longer had to be moved from pasture to pasture. The cheap corn feed led to declines in beef prices, which in turn increased beef consumption among Americans.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which raise thousands of animals in confined spaces, were the inevitable outcome of grain-feeding cattle, as producers sought ways to maximize their profits using cheap feed and by raising the most animals possible in a finite space. As noted by the USDA:2
“Feedlots with less than 1,000-head of capacity compose the vast majority of U.S. feedlot operations, but market a relatively small share of the fed cattle. In contrast, lots with 1,000-head or greater capacity compose less than 5 percent of total feedlots, but market 80 to 85 percent of fed cattle. Feedlots with 32,000 head or more of capacity market around 40 percent of fed cattle.”
Problems With Grain-Fed Cattle
In exchange for cheap meat and dairy, we’re paying a hefty price, one that may be infinite in the damage it’s causing via pollution and damage to human health. Further, when cows eat corn and grain, not only does the quality of their milk degrade but they live in a state of chronic inflammation, which increases their risk of infection and disease.
Grass fed beef is better for you, too, with levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) increasing by two- to three-fold when cattle are grass finished as opposed to grain finished.3
This is a significant benefit, as CLA is associated with a lower risk of cancer and heart disease and optimized cholesterol levels. The ratio of dietary fats is also healthier in grass fed beef. According to Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef, a report produced by a collaboration between sustainable agriculture and ecological farming firms:4
“Although the exact physiologic mechanisms behind these benefits are not completely understood, grassfed beef (and dairy) can provide a steady dietary source of CLAs.
The optimal ratio of dietary omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is believed to be between 1-to-1 and 4-to-1. Seven studies that compared the overall fat content of different beef types found that grassfed beef had an average ratio of 1.53, while grain-fed beef had a less healthy average ratio of 7.6.
Grassfed meat also contains higher levels of antioxidants, including vitamins E and A, as well as superoxide dismutase and catalase, enzymes that scavenge free radicals that cause oxidation and spoilage. Higher antioxidants are better for meat quality (retarding spoilage from lipid peroxidation) and beneficial to the consumer.”
Grain is not a cow’s natural diet, and as such creates an acidic environment in the animal’s digestive tract, which encourages E. coli formation. At least 73% of large CAFOs also use low doses of antibiotics in their cattle feed, which promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.5
“In contrast, cattle raised on pasture do not need to consume subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to remain healthy. In a study that sampled over 300 packages of ground beef, grassfed beef was found to be three times less likely than conventional beef to contain multidrug-resistant bacteria,” Back to Grass explained.6
The Benefits of Rotational Grazing
Even in the 1950 video, farmers spoke about rotational grazing and the ease of farming according to the laws of nature instead of against them — plant pastures and “let the cows do the rest,” essentially. The need for synthetic fertilizer and pesticides is greatly reduced if not eliminated.
Back to Grass featured a profile of the James Ranch near Durango, Colorado, where 150 cattle are raised on 340 acres of pasture, featuring a “quick rotational grazing” system. Every one to three days, the animals are rotated onto a fresh area of grass and clover. No artificial fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides are used.
“As they move quickly from one pasture to another, the cattle invigorate the plant root systems and fertilize pastures with manure, simulating the grazing patterns of ancient herds that maintain natural balance in grasslands,” according to Back to Grass, and herein lies the beauty of grass fed farming.7
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive.
This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil’s fertility.
Regenerative Agriculture to the Rescue
Raising cattle on pasture wasn’t known as regenerative agriculture in the 1950s, but the principles remain the same. A two-crop planting cycle of corn and soybeans, along with CAFOs that raise one type of meat and rely on the intensively produced corn and soy for feed, has become the dominant agricultural model in the U.S. Midwest, thanks to the federal farm policy that subsidizes these crops, with devastating consequences to human health and the environment.
However, slowly some farmers are taking a hint from the ’50s and are exploring other options, including rotational grazing, helping to protect the environment while allowing them to bring in premium prices for their meat by catering to customers who are looking for food raised via natural, environmentally friendly and humane methods.
The James Ranch, for instance, attracts customers willing to pay a high premium for the grass fed meat, which is also sold directly to customers via its farm stand.
So while the business is small, it’s profitable and beneficial to the surrounding community (the opposite of CAFOs, which are typically large and damaging to their communities).8 Additional principles of regenerative agriculture, as described by Joyce Farms in North Carolina:9
• Build soil health — By farming without harsh chemicals and tilling, regenerative agriculture allows microbes in the soil to thrive. These microbes are essential for preventing runoff and nourishing plant growth. “Soil doesn’t work without microbes,” they say, as soil should be alive, not dead. “Dead soil cannot hold carbon, so it is released into the atmosphere as CO2.”
• Diverse cover crops and plant life — Planting a diverse variety of plants increases microbial populations and organic matter in the soil, while also covering and protecting the earth. “By introducing a diverse variety of plants to the soil, the microbial population in the soil becomes stronger. With soil life, ecosystems thrive,” they say.
• No till — Tilling destroys soil structure and reduces soil organic matter while increasing weeds and the release of CO2.
• No chemical inputs — The use of chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides kill off beneficial species like pollinators, and pollute waterways with chemical runoff. It’s also a relatively recent practice that traditionally was not part of farming.
“For hundreds of years chemicals where not needed or used in farming because, sensibly, chemical inputs aren’t needed when you are working with (not against) the systems Mother Nature already has in place,” Joyce Farms explains.
• Livestock integration — Rather than housing livestock separately from other animals and crops, livestock is integrated into a symbiotic, complementary system that mimics the way nature works.
“The way we do this at Joyce Farms is by mimicking the dense herds of grazing ruminants that used to roam across America, grazing and trampling plants into the soil. This trampling provides an armor of plant life for the soil and feeds the soil microbes.”
Where to Find Grass Fed Meat
Demand for grass fed beef is growing, but it still makes up just 4% of the U.S. beef market.10 Two hurdles for grass fed farmers include CAFOs, which have access to more efficient supply chains and slaughterhouses, and imports of grass fed beef, but despite this, the Back to Grass analysis suggests there is enough land in the U.S. to support “a massive scaling up of grassfed beef.”11
Buying grass fed or pastured animal products, including beef, bison, chicken, milk and eggs, is an excellent start to support both your health and regenerative farming methods that are protecting, not polluting, the planet — the same ones that have been touted since the 1950s.
You can look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, which lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Another option is to seek out biodynamic products, as biodynamic farms are, by nature, grass fed farms. In the U.S., Demeter USA is the only certifier for biodynamic farms and products. You may also be able to find grass fed meats at local farmers markets — just get to know the farmers who are using this superior method of food production.
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