Not all Grass-Fed Beef is Created Equal

Today more than ever consumers are asking thoughtful questions about the food they eat and feed their families. There are countless choices and the labels can get seriously overwhelming. From grass-fed to pasture-raised, it’s hard to know what you are buying sometimes.

When it comes to beef, it’s not enough to simply find a package that says grass-fed on the label. Unfortunately, this term has been applied to meat from animals who were eventually fed grain at the end of their lives to fatten them, misleading consumers about the product. Although the USDA has the authority to regulate labeling for meat products, it hasn’t done much to provide consumers with clarification about whether meat labeled as grass-fed can also be fed grain.

For consumers committed to purchasing 100% grass-fed beef, the best answer is to seek out brands that they can trust. Traceability programs are extremely difficult to adopt especially when a brand sources animals from different suppliers. It creates a lot of information, paperwork, and data to manage. But for Teton Waters Ranch, the extra effort is worth it to ensure that consumers can be confident in the products they are getting. 

“The foundation of Teton Waters Ranch cattle supply is traceability: 100% of the cattle we source are traceable to birth,” Ian Chamberlain, director of procurement at TWR, said. “Having traceability allows us to confirm that the standards we require for cattle are met.”

Those standards include:

  • 100% grass-fed and grass-finished, i.e., no grain
  • The animals are always on pasture and never in a feedlot
  • The animals are not given antibiotics or hormones 
  • The farmer supplier has a Certified Humane verification

To become a Teton Waters Ranch supplier, a farmer has to go through a lengthy review process that includes an initial audit and an annual audit renewal to ensure that everything is still up to its standards. The brand works with farmers of all different types of farmers owning a few hundred acres to some who own nearly a million. This demonstrates Teton Waters Ranch’s dedication to sourcing only the best 100% grass-fed, pasture-raised beef for its products.

Beef that goes beyond grass-fed

For consumers committed to a healthy eating lifestyle, that commitment often goes well beyond thinking about what the animal ate. Many consumers in this category also care about how the animals they eat were treated and whether the farmers who raised them considered the environmental impacts of their management decisions.

Even for beef at the supermarket that hasn’t been fed grain, there’s no guarantee as to how that animal was treated throughout its life or how the farm where it’s from was managed. If a beef producer in the US sells to the conventional market, it’s almost certain that the animal was finished in a feedlot for a period of months where it was fed things like grain and upcycled food products that humans cannot eat.

Feedlots also create issues when it comes to the safe handling, storing, and disposal of animal waste and welfare conditions for the livestock including heat exposure to digestive problems from eating too much grain. 

Farmers who produce for Teton Waters Ranch never confine animals to feedlots. This includes feedlots that finish animals on a forage-based diet.

Teton Waters Ranch doesn’t just require that its cattle are 100% grass-fed, it also requires its farmer suppliers to provide a high level of welfare for the animals. The Certified Humane standard requires recipient farmers to use specific animal welfare practices that provide a low-stress and respectful environment for the animal. On top of being the right thing to do, the low-stress environment helps ensure the highest quality meat. Animals under stress suffer physiological issues that can impact the quality and flavor of the meat. 

The Certified Humane standards also provide requirements about low-stress ways to wean calves, limiting the use of toxic substances in handling facilities, and ensuring that recipients understand that good welfare also includes providing a species-appropriate diet.

“We source from a global network of producers and depending on where they are geographically they will have different management practices,” Ian said. “One thing they all have in common is working to create a healthier food system that is better for the animal and the planet.”

The management practices that are right for an individual farm vary depending on where the farm is located, the type of forage and terrain it has, and its unique environmental considerations. Ranches located along riverways or located in areas where wildlife are known to migrate have unique considerations to take into account when developing a grazing plan for example.

One thing that is true for all farmers and ranchers, however, is that ruminant animals like cattle can be a critical tool in improving the environment and restoring vitality to ecosystems. Instead of confining livestock to a feedlot or letting them roam a ranch and graze anywhere they want, the carefully managed grazing of cattle can restore balance to an ecosystem. 

There are many different names for the practice of managed grazing like rotational grazing, holistic grazing, or adaptive grazing, but at the heart of each approach is limiting cattle’s access to pasture and moving them to fresh forage at an appropriate pace. So many variables go into timing the rotations like weather, the season, the type of forage growing, and the unique environmental concerns for each piece of land.

As cattle move through each pasture, they graze forages more evenly and efficiently, deposit manure, urine, and saliva, and trample the forage back into the soil. Then, the pastures are allowed adequate time to rest and regrow. During the rest period, the manure, saliva, and trampled forage residue feed the microbes in the soil and lead to healthier plants that can sequester more carbon through their long, healthy root systems.

“We’ve worked hard to create a global network of like-minded, high integrity suppliers that meet our standards and will continue to add to this network.” says Chamberlain. “The level of awareness around conventional cattle production and the negative impacts it has on the animals and the environment is on the rise. We want to give consumers an option to make better choices for themselves and their families while supporting hard-working ranchers that are striving to make a positive impact to their planet through good management practices and a commitment to growing great beef while making the world a better place.”

 

About the author:

Lauren is an advocate for better meat, responsible livestock production, and passionate about consumer education. Experienced journalist covering the intersection of food system change, agriculture, technology, and regenerative production methodologies.She is also a farmer raising grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, lamb, and goat.