Three things are immediately apparent when you meet Mike Stevenson of Coburg. One, he is very tall. Two, your hand disappears into his grip when he greets you. Three, he is passionate about raising free-range, grass-fed, hormone-, and antibiotic-free beef cattle.
Stevenson’s family presides over Knee Deep Cattle Company, a ranch that his grandfather and father bought in 1954. Its 1,240 acres rises out of the Willamette Valley floor into verdant, grassy pasture land butting up against the Coburg Hills.
Over the years, there have been a lot of changes in ranch operations, but none so dramatic as Stevenson’s decision four years ago to start producing grass-fed beef. “In the 50-year history here, this is a new transition,” he said.
Grass-fed beef provides a different experience than the traditional grain-fed beef found in local grocery stores and markets. It is leaner, has a slightly more prominent taste, and leaves your mouth with a cleaner, less greasy feeling. On the flip side, it can also be less juicy.
Stevenson is part of a small but growing group of ranchers producing beef cattle that are raised in the pasture their entire lives. Nationally, grain-fed beef accounts for only a small part of the beef market in the United states. According to Jo Robinson, author of The Omega Diet and principal writer for the eatwild.com Web site, “Grass-pastured beef makes up less than 1 percent of the market. Growth has been exponential, but from a very small base.”
Look beyond the label
Stevenson’s decision to strike out into new territory runs counter to the prevailing practices of the industry. The vast majority of cattle raised in the United States are pasture-fed for about 10 to 12 months. The cattle are then transported to feed lots where they are confined in corrals for three to four months and fattened on a diet of grain. The feed, usually rich in corn, adds layers of fat to the tissue to create the familiar marbleized steak found in the market.
That’s why labeling in the beef industry can be confusing. Some ranchers call their beef “pasture raised,” even though this beef may have been fattened on grain. Even organic beef can be raised on grain, Robinson says.
That’s not the case at Knee Deep and a handful of other Oregon ranches were cattle spend their entire lives munching on forage.
“Cattle in our grass-feed program don’t eat any grain,” Stevenson said, who labels his beef “free-range, grass-fed.”
There is a lot more to raising grass-fed beef than turning animals out to pasture, Stevenson and his wife, Alvina Butti, discovered that when they went to Chile and Argentina years back to study cattle ranching.
“Grass-fed beef is the norm there,” Stevenson said. “We were studying how they were able to raise this type of cattle for such a good eating experience.”
The skinny on fat
The U. S. cattle industry used to rely on grass-fed animals. Food scientist Harold McGee, author of “On food and Cooking,” writes that our national obsession with marbleized beef was pushed in the 1920’s by cattlemen from the Midwest and East who wanted to boost demand for their fat, corn-fed animals. They convinced the secretary of agriculture to offer free quality-grading based on the amount of visible fat marbling. A few years later, according to McGee, government funded studies found that heavy marbling does not guarantee either tender or flavorful beef.
Beef: Proper preparation the key to best possible flavor
Grass-fed beef has benefits that go well beyond the contentment of an animal that spends its last days roaming the range rather than standing in pens with hundreds of other animals.
Don Nelson, extension beef specialist at Washington State University, says the meat is more healthful.
“Beef from pasture-raised cattle has less fat and fewer calories than feed-lot beef.” He said. In addition, grass-fed beef has essential fatty acids Omega-3, Omega-, and CLA. Omega-3 is often promoted as part of the “heart healthy diet.” CLA has been shown to be protective against cancer in experiments on animals, Nelson says.
“The essential fatty acids come from grass that is growing in the pasture,” Nelson says. “Once you cut the grass, the concentration drops considerably.”
But it’s not just the health benefits that make grass-fed beef a good choice. It’s also good eating, says Mike Wooley from Long’s Meat Market, who’s been selling Knee Deep beef for two years.
“I was skeptical at first. I was cutting steaks for two months before I even tried it,” he recalls. “Then I had a top sirloin that had the consistency of tenderloin.”
“The coals or pan should be as hot as it will get. Cook a 1-inch-thick steak three minutes or less on each side. Cook it rarer than you would a grain-fed steak. When you pull it off the grill, let it cool for five minutes. It will become medium-rare.”