July 1, 2014 / Guest blog by Mike Peterson, Heritage Hollow Farms in Virginia
Mike Peterson is a fantastic chef who was having trouble sourcing product that met his standards. In order to get the quality of product he wanted, he began growing his own and found his life's passion... growing great grass-fed, grass-finished animals that are "real food, responsibly raised." The points in the blog below are something every beef producer and consumer needs to know. ENJOY! - Pam Holloway, Tourmaline Farms & Feed
What kind of question is that? Almost as crazy as me asking if tomatoes are in season. Wait a minute, that’s a valid question.
The tomato plant has a very short and specific growing season. As does grass. Is your lawn mowed year-round in Virginia, New York, or Illinois? How is it that grass finished beef should be available year round when grass is dormant from November through April? Granted, there are specific forages that can be planted to extend the grazing season beyond typical grass dormancy, but if we are truly expected to sustainably produce beef and lamb from forage alone, are we expected to produce them year round no matter the conditions? Or should we be raising and producing these animals with what would be as close to native forages that are available? I’m not sure, that’s why I’m asking.
I love the responsibility of year round work with these animals. I cannot describe how gratifying the feeling is to see a calf being born, put an ID tag in it’s ear, and be responsible for it over the next two years; and at that two year mark, be the one to load it onto the trailer and take it on it’s final walk off the trailer. I can’t imagine a closer bond with my food. We’re invested financially, emotionally, and physically into them. We work every day to ensure they have exactly what they need to continue to put on weight at a realistic pace when the growing conditions are right.
“When the growing conditions are right” –The quality difference between grass finished beef that is finished with intramuscular fat (marbling) and grass fed beef that has simply been harvested at 1000 pounds on run of the mill forage is exceptional. On Mount Vernon, I’ve seen a progression over the last several years as the quality of our soils and forage have increased, so too has the quality of our beef. There is still so much progress to be made, but our progression is coming. It’s a personal frustration when you, the consumer, have a bad experience with grassfed beef where no significant effort is made to actually finish the animal. They are simply removed from pasture at 1000# and processed. This is where grass fed beef gets a bad reputation.
To process an animal in February or August will have a dramatic difference from an animal that was finished in May, June, early July, and late fall. The quality and quantity of grass is crucial in finishing an animal. Genetics are just as important as the forage. Possessing genetics in a herd that have been proven over time to perform well on grass are very important. The holstein (Modern black and white dairy cow) is tall, large framed, and large boned would take an eternity to finish on grass. Ideally, grass based producers are looking for a small framed animal that can finish at 900-1100 pounds. They are small boned, low to the ground, and have a barrel-like mid section. More space to put on muscle directly from grass.
An average weight gain of over 3.5#/day over the last 90 days of the animals life is crucial to properly finishing a beef. Moreover an average daily gain of 1.7#/day over the course of the animals life will pay massive dividends on the plate. Significant weight loss or periods of little to no weight gain lead to gristle and a tough mouth feel.
In no way am I saying that every animal we’re producing is exactly consistent with the next, but we strive daily for consistency and excellence with the production of our food. Perhaps one can understand why freezing grass fed beef is as important as it is. It shouldn’t be available fresh year round in Virginia. The quality and consistency is simply not there. It’s the same concept as canning during the growing season. Preserving your harvest to consume during the off season. This is why we can eat grass fed beef during the off season as opposed to processing beef that is not finished and would be an inferior product.
Grazing planning is another key factor in finishing an animal. Getting them to the right spot at the right time for the right reasons. I’m able to plan where on the farm I want to finish, breed, and calve over the next 8 months. Taking into consideration grazing periods, recovery periods, water restrictions, and shade requirements during the summer months.
An informed consumer is a powerful consumer. Ask questions about your food as you have the right now know.