If you let yourself get close enough, really close, you can hear it. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.” At the right time of the year, the grass is tall enough in some of the pastures on Bob and Beth Van De Boom’s farm that the cattle won’t see you.
Lying there, you can listen to the sound that cattle have made for centuries, in pastures the world over. It’s as pleasant as the birds calling from the trees that form the windbreaks on the Van De Boom’s Delavan farm. Besides that, you don’t hear much else out there.
Why would you want to lie on the ground, within spitting distance of a small herd of cattle? Well, this is an organic pasture, so why not? There are no chemical sprays here, and the only fertilizer to be found is what the cattle leave behind – and those you can spot pretty easily. So, keep an eye out for the inevitable and have a seat. This is how grass-fed beef is made.
Bob and Beth belong to the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative. The co-op, which sells its beef under the Wisconsin Meadows label, is a group of nearly 100 like-minded farmers who raise beef differently, foregoing the corn and grain mix that is the standard diet for most beef cattle in this country.
“Our pastures have anywhere from three to seven different types of grass, three to four different types of legumes, (it’s) kind of like a smorgasbord for cattle to eat and graze,” Bob says. “It’s just natural for cattle to be out in the sunshine grazing, which is their natural ability.”
Farmers in the co-op, like the Van De Booms, have small herds. Most of the beef farmers in Wisconsin co-op have herds of 20-30 head. That’s a challenging number: too many to direct market themselves, but not enough to consistently supply even one restaurant or grocery store.
By forming the cooperative and agreeing to a set of standards, farmers like the Van De Booms pool their cattle and share in the needed infrastructure – including sales, delivery, accounting, etc. – to supply a state-wide market.
And that market continues to grow. With food scares, animal welfare concerns and a growing interest in locally produced foods, grass-fed beef is popular, even at a premium.
Rod Ofte, the co-op’s sales manager, is a fourth generation farmer in Vernon County. He could go on about the myriad benefits he and his fellow co-op members see in grass-fed beef. There are environmental benefits, Rod says, including fewer inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and less tilling. And there are benefits to the local economy, he says, like helping smaller producers continue to farm.
As for the taste, well, Rod wasn’t sold on it, initially. It was such a change.
The taste of grass-fed beef, producers say, can vary based on what the animals eat. The changing seasons and a farm’s location can also play a role. That’s usually the first thing consumers notice, the difference in taste from the more common grain-fed beef they’re used to eating.
“The texture is much more interesting. A grass-fed beef hamburger is like chewing a steak,” Rod says. “The only marketing we do is sampling. I could talk all day about the benefits, when people try the stuff you just see it in their eyes, they’re like, ‘Holy cow, that’s amazing’.”
However, the biggest reason consumers first seek out grass-fed beef is health-related, he says. They’ve read somewhere or heard from someone that it’s healthier. And there does seem to be some science to suggest that grass-fed beef offers some health benefits over grain-fed beef.
Some studies have shown that grass-fed beef may contain more of vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower both cholesterol and blood pressure and decrease the risk of diabetes and cancer.
Whatever the reasons, whether economic, taste or health, interest in grass-fed beef continues to grow. But it’s still a risky venture for farmers. It can take almost two years to get grass-fed beef to market, which can make it difficult to nail down a steady price.
For this co-op of farmers in particular, they’re trying to win over converts one taste at a time.
“Anyone can tell a good one-time story, but we’re not going to stay in business if people don’t come back and buy again,” Rod says.
Grass-FEd Steak 101
If you haven’t cooked a grass-fed steak, there are a few things you should know before you fire up the grill. Because grass-fed beef is lower in fat, it cooks a little differently than corn-fed beef.
We asked Eric Shneyder, a recent graduate of Milwaukee Area Technical College’s culinary arts program, for a little help.
We settled on a Wisconsin Meadow’s rib eye from the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative. Eric said the most important thing is not to overcook it, as grass-fed beef has high protein and low fat levels. The leaner meat cooks in about 30 percent less time.
Grass-fed Grilling Basics
- Don’t cook the steak right out of the fridge. Bring it to room temperature.
- Season early and/or marinate. Rib eyes have a lot of natural flavor, so season sparingly. Since grass-fed beef is low in fat, coat with oil.
- Light the grill and make sure it’s hot.
- Oil the grill. Sear the meat quickly over a high heat on each side to seal in natural juices and then reduce the heat to medium or low to finish the cooking process.
- It will take anywhere from 4 to 11 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Check with a thermometer to determine doneness (rare, 120-125 degrees; medium, 140-145 degrees; well, 160 degrees).
- Take the steak off the grill about 10 degrees before the desired temperature. Grass-fed beef will continue to cook when removed from heat.
- Brush the steak with butter or oil, cover it and let sit for 2 to 3 minutes.
You can serve the steak with whatever you want. We kept things simple and grilled some corn to go with ours.
Source: Graze, Summer 2012