Grass Fed Beef – The Amber Oaks Difference
We Americans like our beef with lots of marbling, tender, and juicy. But we also want it healthy and free of hormones, antibiotics, and saturated fats. The good news is – you can have your cake and eat it too.
It’s not easy to produce an excellent quality steak with a robust flavor that is also tender and juicy on grass alone. Two key factors contribute to this great product – Genetics, and Environment.
Genetics – Some cows just produce better meat than others. But more specifically, some cows do better on grass than others. There was a time when cows ate nothing but grass, but with modern agricultural practices and improvements in storage and transportation of grains, many cows have been genetically selected for the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) production model. They grow bigger and faster on grain. The ideal grass-fed cow is much smaller framed than what the CAFO is looking for, and is a grass conversion engine – It can turn grass into meat. Turning grass into meat requires a delicate balance of microbiotics in the rumen. When you feed a cow grain, you change this balance in the rumen (pH, bacteria, etc) and it has a negative impact on the cow’s nutrition – and ultimately the way it tastes
Environment – to produce tender, juicy beef on grass alone takes a very regimen feeding schedule that starts in the dirt. That’s right – the dirt. Good soil yields good grass. Soil needs to be high in organic matter and minerals, and teaming with microorganisms. The microorganisms’ breakdown the organic matter and minerals and make them bio-available to the plants. There is a symbiotic exchange between the plants and the microorganisms that benefit both species. When this happens, the grasses are full of proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals which the cows thrive on.
The soil is the foundation, but there’s more to it than that. A Cow’s nutritional requirements change throughout its life. A nursing mother cow needs high energy and high protein. A weanling calf needs a high protein diet to develop the body structure, but unlike his mother, his digestive track is small and fragile, so he needs tender succulent grasses that have high concentrations of nutrients. And once they are full grown, a steer needs lots of carbohydrates to develop that intermuscular fat. Managing the different types of grass through the cow’s lifecycle adds complexity and requires planning and skill on the part of the farmer.
At Amber Oaks Ranch, we calve in springtime when the perennial grasses are in the flush stage. This provides high protein grass for nursing mothers. At the beginning of Fall, we plant oats, wheat, and ryegrass. These grasses come in sequentially so the weaned calves always have a new growth of high protein grasses that are easily digestible in order to take them through the winter. The spring flush mentioned above is perfect for the 1yr olds and they really start growing fast during this phase. We plant clover & cowpeas to augment the perennial grasses to boost the protein content. As they enter their second winter, they get a combination of winter pasture and hay. Once they reach their second year, their frames are fully developed and can start to put on fat. That 2nd Summer we plant Sudan grass that is high in energy (carbohydrates). This really boosts their caloric intake and does a great job of “finishing” the animal on grass.
As you can imagine, with multi-generations of cattle on pasture year-round, management becomes critical. We can accomplish because we have multiple pastures for differing classes of animals, and by moving the cattle daily. Subdividing the pastures into daily rotations allows time for the grasses to recover and keeps them in a constant state of regrowth – thus ensuring maximum palatability and nutrition to the cattle.
Obviously, all this management is very labor intensive and costly. But we believe it is worth it. Cows get to be cows, and you get healthy meals for your family.