Grain versus grass

Agriculture can be divided into two separate entities; one is growing commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, vegetables or fruit for human consumption; the other is growing grass.

Agriculture can be divided into two separate entities; one is growing commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, vegetables or fruit for human consumption; the other is growing grass. All agriculture is a business of capturing free solar energy in a food product.  This can be done one of two ways either you grow a carrot in your garden, pull it out of the ground and eat it, buy some wheat, grind it and make bread or you send an animal out to gather this solar energy and then you eat the eggs, drink the milk or eat the meat produced.

Grass is not a commodity it cannot easily be traded, transported or stored.  It cannot be broke down into parts and pieces and reassembled into value-added products. Its quality varies from region to region, season to season, even farm to farm. Grass has to be run through an animal and converted into meat, eggs or milk to be edible to humans. Growing grass in not nearly as efficient as growing commodity crops but much of the arable land is not suitable for anything but growing grass and hence we have grass farmers. Some grass farmers even go so far as to call themselves sun farmers, as the grass is just a way of capturing solar energy through photosynthesis (remember your biology).

A cow for example grazing on grass is not only eating a plant grown by converting carbon dioxide into sugars by using the sun, a plant a human cannot digest, at the same time she is looking after her habitat by preventing trees and shrubs from overtaking the grassland, she is also spreading grass seeds with her hooves and fertilizing the grass with her manure. She is converting the grass which is otherwise unusable to us, into a high quality protein we can use.  She is a sustainable, solar-powered food chain producing food by transforming sunlight into protein.

Grass fed beef is becoming a popular marketing slogan but what does “grass fed” mean.  The first misconception regarding “grass” is that it does not necessarily refer to grass growing on the ground that the animal grazes; grass refers to any forage, and the definition of forage is “plant material eaten by livestock either directly or processed into hay or silage”.  It is probably easier to say what grass fed isn’t and that is it is not large amounts of kernels of grain, but if the entire grain plant were harvested into hay or silage it would be considered forage”.

This is interesting because regardless of if beef is considered “grass fed” or not the reality is most of the life cycle of that animal does still consist of eating forage or it has been “grass fed”.  The difference lies in the last few months of preparing that animal for “finishing” (ready for the table); typically a large amount of grain (usually corn or barley) is fed to an animal to quickly put on fat and muscle which leads to a tender marbled meat product which pleases the taste buds but is high in saturated fats.

 

Grass fed on the other hand replaces the large amount of grain with a continued forage ration; sometimes smaller rations of grain may still be fed in the winter when the colder weather means extra energy needed. Unfortunately cattle raised on grass take longer to reach slaughter weight than cattle raised on high grain finishing ration.  Instead of reaching a finishing weight at about 15 months they will more likely be closer to 24 months and sometimes longer.  This slower finish costs more mostly because of the extra time required and the end product has a different taste and texture which may or may not appeal to everyone, but the saturated fat level is lower and it is considered a greener more natural product because there is less reliance on large quantities of grain.

 

 

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