The definition of grass-fed is not regulated in Alberta or Canada. Confusing the matter even more is the possible difference between the terms “grass-fed” and “grass finished” beef. Essentially, any animal that has spent a portion of its life on grass could logically be labeled as a grass-fed animal — at least at some point in its life. Whereas grass finished implies an animal has actually been fattened on grass prior to slaughter. On TK Ranch, the terms grass-fed and grass finished mean the same thing — but to many Alberta producers they don’t.
It is imperative for consumers to educate themselves about what grass-fed means to them and what they are willing to accept. There are many high profile producers in the Alberta marketplace today that state they are selling grass-fed beef to consumers, when they are actually selling grain finished beef. So as an informed consumer you must ask if an animal gets grain in its finishing ration. We believe that producers who sell grass-fed beef who do not openly disclose they are finishing their animals on grain, are lying by omission.
Recently we have heard from several customers who have been asking natural and organic beef producers at farmers markets in Alberta about grass-fed beef. In almost every instance they were told that grass-fed beef was tough, gamey and overall unpleasant to eat. This is how these producers justified grain finishing their animals. What we have found is that many producers tried to grass finish their animals in the same time frame as they would a grain finished animal. This is because it is very expensive to keep and feed an animal through two Alberta winters. If most Alberta Ranchers calve on April 1st with the goal of grass finishing their cattle (no grain ever in the ration) and processing them in September the following year, the animals are only 17 months of age. With the right type of cattle (smaller) they might be able to achieve this, but many will not. If they slaughter an animal off the grass and it is not properly finished the meat will most likely be tough and unpleasant to eat (sit down hungry, get up tired).
We understand how to raise and grass finish cattle without grain. In most instances we have to keep our animals through two Alberta winters and this is an expensive process. But taking the extra time to properly grass finish an animal adds tremendous flavour and quality to our beef — most of it grades AAA — almost unheard of in the organic, natural or grass-fed beef marketplace. But this added time means that our products are generally more expensive than other “grass-fed” beef that has actually been grain finished. So make sure when you are shopping for grass-fed beef you are comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges
Feeding cattle grain dramatically affects the health benefits of the beef. Many studies have been done on how grain finishing changes beneficial omega 3 fatty acids. The Eat Wild website has a tremendous amount of information about grass-fed meats, and summarizes:
Meat from grass-fed animals has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. Omega-3s are called "good fats" because they play a vital role in every cell and system in your body. For example, of all the fats, they are the most heart-friendly. Another benefit of omega-3s is that they may reduce your risk of cancer. In animal studies, these essential fats have slowed the growth of a wide array of cancers and also kept them from spreading.
The longer a beef animal is in a feedlot being fed grain the lower the amount of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids found in the meat. The following table shows how quickly this happens in the feedlot:
On TK Ranch we are keenly aware of the health benefits of grass-fed beef and strive to give our customers not only the best eating experience, but nutrient dense protein as well.
We fully believe that nutrient dense foods, such as grass-fed beef, offer people a diet that supports good health and a strong immune system. On TK Ranch we use the pasture model from birth to slaughter. This means that our animals are born, raised and fed outside on large pastures.
Producing quality grass-fed beef year round in Alberta can be difficult due to our colder climate. An animal has to be receiving enough calories in their ration to gain weight as well as maintain healthy body function. When it is minus 40C in Alberta it is almost impossible to grass finish an animal without some supplementation — there aren't enough calories in most hay to keep them warm and gaining. This is why most cattle producers supplement their cattle with grain during the winter.
On TK Ranch we bring our cattle home when the snow gets too deep to graze through. We moved our cows home in January of this year, the photo is at right. The snow was so deep they followed our tire tracks.
Adjacent to our yard we have 320 acres of haylands where we bale graze our cows (portion out 10 round bales per day with an electric fence) all winter. This is allows our animals free access to large outdoor areas, with shelter from the winter wind in the form of portable wind breaks. We have also installed energy efficient waterers on the east end of these haylands so our animals have a constant supply of fresh water in the cold winter months. The other benefit of bale grazing is the controlled deposit of manure on these lands — this significantly increases our hay yields in the summer so we don't need chemicals to get better production.
During the colder months we also supplement our feeder cattle (animals being finished for meat) with barley sprouts — a nutritious and clean by-product of the malting industry. When barley is malted it is soaked in water and then placed in a warm room until it grows a half-inch sprout and rootlet. Once sprouted, the grain is dried and the sprouts and rootlets are broken off and separated. The malted barley (the grain part) is then sold to breweries to make beer. These sprouts are not grain and do not affect the pH balance of an animal's rumen so acidosis is not a problem. They are clean (have never been sprayed), high in energy and nutrients and provide the calories our animals need to keep warm in the winter. As a result our cattle stay healthy and contented while being finished properly. As soon as the snow cover is gone in the spring we turn our animals back out onto native pastures and put the sprouts away for next winter. Our native northern fescue grasses are very high in protein and nutrition, and unlike tame grasses, maintain their quality when dried. These wild grasses sustained the buffalo for millennia and we are very fortunate to have them available for our cattle.
A picture of the Northern Fescue Grasslands in full bloom on TK Ranch