Finishing SteersTexas Bred And Grass Fed:
Beef That's As Pure Now As It Was Back Then
Ask Debbie Davis why she and her husband Don started raising longhorns, and the short answer is because they both graduated from the University of Texas. "It started out as just kind of a hobby, a weekend thing," she explains. "We bought our first cattle just for fun, a few longhorns (the UT mascot) to have for laughs and it just grew from there."
That was 1991. Since 2003, the Davises have owned Bandera Grasslands, one of a growing number of Texas ranches raising strictly grass-fed cattle. It's a time-honored and, according to Davis, better way of turning grass into steak.
Modern beef production calls for yearling calves to be moved to feedlots where they gorge on grain to pack on weight as quickly as possible before being processed. A curious chain of events led to the development of today's high-density feedlots.
It all grew out of WWII.
As the war wound down, munitions factories in America were scrambling to come up with jobs for the thousands of GI's coming home from Europe and the Pacific.
Ranchers quickly realized grain-fed cattle gained weight quicker and turned a profit more easily than those raised on grass. Feedlots sprang up around the country, eager to satisfy the American craving for the beef that had been rationed during the war.
Not only did cattle production change, so did the American landscape. Instead of grazing cattle for two years until they reached their optimum weight, ranchers could move each year'p of yearlings to a feedlot to make room for the new calves. Herd size shrunk by a third and so did the need for pastureland.
The new grain-instead-of-grass diet, according to Davis, has impacted the beef most Americans eat today. "There are nutritional differences between grain-fed and grass-fed beef. Herbivores were evolved to eat grass. Goats, sheep, cows—they were never intended to have a diet of solid grain. The microbes in their rumins act by digesting lignin, which is in grass and sticks and all that kind of stuff. They're designed to eat that kind of stuff and break it down and turn it into a useable protein. "When you feed them grain, particularly corn, because it's very high in energy, the ph in their rumins must become more acidic to be able to digest that. And in doing so it changes the entire nutrient density of the muscles."
Davis explains that the balance of omega 3 with omega 6 fatty acids is thrown off and the high levels of conjugated linelinic acid (CLA), a cancer fighter found in grass-fed beef, is reduced.
"And that imbalance can cause cancer in people who consume the meat. So we're hurting ourselves through the convenience of putting all these animals in a feedlot instead of leaving them on pasture like nature intended."
And it's not just the nutritional value of the beef that's changed by grain-feeding. It affects the taste as well.
"Years ago, when we first went into business, we compared grain-fed with grass-fed. In my opinion, the grain-fed has a more generic, watered-down flavor than the grass-fed.
"It's like honey. What the bees eat flavors the honey. We truly are what we eat."
Instead of sending her weanlings to a feedlot, Davis keeps her 50 cows with their calves as long as possible on her 1,900-acre spread. "We have about 50 calves a year and about half of those are bulls which is what we use for the beef program. So we have last year's crop of yearlings and this year's crop of calves, so that's about 100 head all together."
That's down considerably from the volume Bandera Grassland did in the past when the Davises were raising their own stock and buying calves from other ranchers. "When we started our business, we were much larger than we are now. We had other longhorn producers who were producing cattle for us and we were buying their cattle as well as raising our own.
"We were supplying restaurants every two weeks with fresh beef, and we were supplying grocery stores every two weeks, and then I was also selling at a farmers market and we had an Internet business. We did that for about three years and I was worn out, so we decided to stop buying other people's cattle and only market what we can raise and finish out here on our own property, so we no longer sell to restaurants and grocery stores."
Another concern to Davis was the fact that restaurants and grocery stores only wanted certain cuts of beef. Part of her philosophy is to let nothing go to waste. Today, she only sells segments of her cattle; either halves, quarters or eighths.
"Because of that, the price is actually less to the consumer. If they buy in bulk they're getting steaks for the same price they're getting their hamburger."
As might be expected, raising cattle on grass rather than in feedlots is more expensive and that price, along with the higher nutritional value and better flavor of the meat, is passed on to consumers.
"Grass-fed beef is more expensive," admits Davis. "I'm not going to say the business is not as profitable as grain-fed, but your profit is delayed. We must charge more because of the time it takes to get our cattle to full growth. But so far people are more than willing to pay that because you get what you pay for, you get a good product."
Davis hopes grass-fed beef will once again become the industry standard in the coming years. "I don't see a lot of future in the big, industrial agriculture as far as food production for this country. The educated consumer is moving away from that. It's just not as nutritious, it's not as safe, it's not as environmentally sound or humane for the animals. We're hoping we can set an example other people will follow. We'll just keep plugging along with the number of animals we can carry on this ranch and probably never grow much from there.'
At Bandera Grasslands, it's about class, not mass.
Naylene's Carne Guisada TacosFrom Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer, owner/chef Mac & Ernie's Roadside Eatery, Tarpley, Texas
Remove meat from pan and brown onion and garlic in drippings. Place meat back into pot with beef broth, vinegar, and tomato paste. Cover and cook on stovetop over low heat for 3 hours (or 6 hours in crock pot).
About 30 minutes before serving, season to taste (more chili powder, tomato paste, cumin, salt as needed) Serve in warm flour tortillas with roasted salsa, shredded cabbage and grated cheese.
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