Noah Sheetz, photograph by Jane Feldman
If you’ve ever read the Omnivore’s Dilemma its hard to forget the image that Michael Pollan depicts of the modern midwestern feed lot – thousands of overcrowded cattle living in filthy conditions and being fed an extreme corn-based diet. But, while some large scale beef farms may be pushing grain feeding to an unethical extreme, perhaps its shortsighted to think that all “factory” farms are engaged in the reckless production practices that raised so many eyebrows among Pollan fans and grass-fed beef lovers. With an animal science degree and more than thirty years of experience raising cattle, Phil Trowbridge of Trowbridge Farms in Columbia County has dedicated his life to improving the quality of the angus breed.
“Most of the farmers who are raising cattle in the large scale feed lots in the mid-west are actually doing a humane and respectable job.”
Even if many of the beef cows that end up on our plates are likely eating corn at some point in their lives, you have to wonder: what else are they eating?
Cattle eat grass as their main staple. There are two common feeding systems for cattle in New York – grain feeding and finishing and grass feeding. Supplementing grain in the diet of cattle, and more intensively during the last three months of life (also known as the finishing period), produces less expensive, mature and market-ready beef faster than grass-feeding, where cattle are raised entirely on grass and silage. With both approaches, taste is a matter of preference. Some people prefer the flavor of grain-fed beef because of the higher degree of marbling (intra-muscular fat) that is produced, while others prefer the grassy flavor and leaner texture of grass-fed beef.
In recent years there has been some controversy surrounding the practice of grain-feeding and finishing. Because cattle are predisposed to living on a forage diet of grasses and legumes, a high concentration of grain in their diet can lead to health problems – abscess in the liver is common.
In New York State most grain-fed beef producers rarely push the percentage of grain during the life and finishing period – typically above 60 percent – to the degree that health issues become a concern (some people theorize that intensive grain-feeding is not common in New York because New York beef is not graded and there is not as much pressure for producers to achieve a high degree of marbling).
While cattle naturally thrive on a grass-fed diet, many consumers grew up on the fattier flavor of grain-fed beef. To enhance flavor and offset production costs, some farmers supplement a small amount of grain in the silage-based diet of their cattle. At Punsit Valley Farm, a 200 acre farm in Spencertown, angus cattle “strip graze” on pastures during the summer. The farm grows bails and stores all of the silage that feeds the cows during the winter months. Owners Mark and Karolyn supplement a small percentage (less than 25 percent) of the cows’ daily diets with a blend of grain.
While grain-feeding may develop a proportional amount of delicious fatty flavor, managed grazing techniques and genetics also play an important role in a finished beef product. Many beef experts believe that cattle breeds like the British White and the Belted Galloway are genetically disposed to being leaner than other breeds like Angus and Hereford, both of which display a high degree of marbling even when the breeds are grass-fed.
At Kinderhook Farm in Valatie, Virginia transplants Lee and Georgia Ranney are cattle experts that know the art of managed grazing techniques. They raise grass-fed beef on several hundred acres of pasture with rye grasses, clover and flowers. Lee has gained national notoriety as a “grass master” and is perhaps the leading authority in upstate New York on growing grass and grazing cattle. Most of the cattle at Kinderhook Farm are bred with a high amount of Devon, a cattle breed known for delicious thick marbling.
Raising entirely grass-fed cattle to slaughter weight takes up to two years and costs as much as one third more than grain fed and finished beef. Lee and Georgia promote the omega rich nutritional content of grass-fed beef and believe in raising their product as naturally as possible. Their beef is represented by the “terroire”, (a wine term used to describe the unique flavor characteristics of a particular region or area) that is unique to the grasses and forages that grow in their farm’s pastures.
The quality of Kinderhook beef is so divine it melts in your mouth. Tender cuts like porterhouse and rib-eye are well-marbled and tender, with a bold, gamey grass-fed flavor.
Kinderhook beef is managed naturally and carefully over a long growth period and, while the cost is significantly more than grain-fed and store-bought beef, should be appreciated for everything that it is – an extremely high quality product and culinary indulgence that should be savored with every bite.
Kinderhook Farm is designated as an Animal Welfare Approved farm, abiding by strict audits that certify high animal welfare standards for the beef, chickens and lamb that are raised on the farm.