Care About Grass-Fed Beef? Befriend Your Freezer

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July is the best time to kill a grass-fed beef cow, if you ask me. The animal has been fattened on months of neon-green spring forage. Such a cow won't be as big in July as it would have been in October, but spring grass-finished meat has a cleaner, sweeter taste, and is dripping with yummy fat.

March, on the other hand, is probably the worst time to slaughter a grass-fed beef cow. At the end of a long winter spent chewing nothing but hay, the animal's fat content, body weight, and spirits are down. The meat is no longer what it was last July, or what it will be again next July.

This seasonal variation makes life hard for ranchers attempting to make a living off grass-fed beef, because most Americans are stuck in the habit of buying fresh meat rather than frozen. To supply that fresh meat year-round, animals must be slaughtered year-round. In winter, this gives feedlot operations a serious advantage over grass-fed operations, because the feedlots can keep the animals big and fat by controlling diet. The grass-fed cattle, meanwhile, start to waste away in winter. It sounds unpleasant, but it's natural, and this lifestyle is responsible for grass-fed beef's superior nutritional profile.

Consumers want to eat grass-fed beef, and ranchers want to raise it. But until American shopping habits change and consumers are ready to accept frozen meat,
grass-fed beef will probably remain a niche market.

If buying frozen meat were more widely accepted, ranchers could run their operations more efficiently and more comfortably. Rather than trying to squeeze a steer through a second winter in order to slaughter it for the fresh market in March, the rancher could have slaughtered and frozen that same animal the previous July. That would have resulted in tastier, healthier flesh from an animal that required eight fewer months of tending. This is an example of a better product that's cheaper and easier to produce.

Keeping meat fresh is more labor- and energy-intensive, and presents more opportunities for errors that could compromise food safety or quality. Nonetheless, consumers readily pay more for fresh meat against their own best interest.

Grass-fed beef is an entirely different animal than grain-fed, in terms of nutritional value, environmental footprint, and the animal's quality of life. Consumers want to eat grass-fed beef, and ranchers want to raise it. But until American shopping habits change and consumers are ready to accept frozen meat, grass-fed beef will probably remain a niche market.

A change in American shopping habits would have to parallel changes at home. Most families don't have big chest freezers, and aren't used to transferring hunks of frozen meat to the fridge, earmarked for tomorrow's supper.

But frozen meat is usually cheaper, and buying in bulk can drop the price even more. Paying hundreds in a single purchase takes a little getting used to, but in the long run getting into the bulk, frozen meat rhythm is a smart financial decision that will pay dividends for years after the freezer is paid for. If you play your cards right you can end up eating amazing meat for a reasonable price.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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