There’s more to beef than what you’d think

Published 12:04 pm Monday, October 10, 2011

When we bought this farm in 2005 we bought a beautiful old house, but what to do with the land? My husband started researching.

Being more a horticulturist, he looked at grapes/wine (“Do you realize that takes a few million?” said our son who was at the time an architect designing wineries in Sonoma, Calif.), starting a nursery (The book So You Want to Own a Nursery soon discouraged that.) a market garden (too much work), growing truffles (the land isn’t right). The land was in pasture. Why not use it for that? Pasture what? Chickens need daily attention; sheep die too easily; goats would eat the privet encroaching on the pasture, but then they climb trees and fences. Cattle? What kind?

Research first led us to Pineywoods. Covington County even has one of the few herds left, but a visit I made to a sale, and a comment by Covington County Extension Agent Chuck Simon, who said that they are only good for hamburger led us in a different direction. We found the North American Devon Association, founded only in 2006, promoting Devon for grass fed beef. We read and went to the meetings and became convinced that grass fed (finished) beef is healthier, and Devons are the best on grass.

One producer of grass fed beef (albeit not Devon) notes, “It is a healthy alternative to grain fed beef, lower in fat and calories, and also higher in body beneficial Omega-3s and Beta Carotene.” We have been led to believe we need to eat vegetables (which we do) and forgo red meat. A more enlightened version is eat the right red meat – grass fed.

I know somebody is thinking; “Aren’t all cows fed grass?” The catch comes when the calves are sent to the feedlots to be finished on grain. This all began after WWII when we had surplus corn and cheap fuel and cheap fertilizer. The farmers and ranchers chased this model to their, and to our detriment. Grain finished beef is marbled and tasty but not healthy. And we are learning that buying fertilizer, equipment to spread it on the fields, equipment to cut hay and fuel to do it, the fuel and hauling fees to someplace far away to finish the cattle on the corn (also expensive to produce with fertilizer to grow, fuel to plant, harvest and haul) and then hauling the cattle again to a packing plant and hauling the beef to the supermarket is labor and fuel intensive. (That was a long convoluted sentence and that is the idea.) And the product produced is not as healthy. I read this morning that two-thirds of fruits and vegetables sold in the supermarket are from abroad.

Devon is an old breed, recorded in 23 BC in Devon in England, possibly brought to England from North Africa. The first Devon in America came on the ship Charity with the Pilgrims. Three Devon heifers and a Devon bull were sent to Edward Winslow, the agent for the Plymouth Colony in 1623, from Devonshire. The breed was dual purpose: providing milk and meat, and the steers were the oxen work force for the farm. They prospered.

As interest in breeds increased in the late 19th century the American Devon Cattle Club was founded in 1884 and the official herd book was begun. Devon did well until the grain-finishing model began in earnest in the later part of the 20th century. Devon did not do well in feedlots and the breed began to decline and presently there are fewer than 3,000 registered Devon in the entire country, although they are prominent in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and England. With the scarcity of stock, the registered Devons are being used to add Devon genetics to commercial herds.

We were fortunate to get a start with some registered Devon at reasonable prices. And this past summer an old doctor outside Vicksburg was selling out – a pure bred Devon herd of 15. We now plan to be one of the few who can sell grass fed Devon to eat.

What about taste? I’ve heard the complaint that grass fed is tougher. Not necessarily! A recent study in Argentina noted that when age at slaughter is similar and a minimum fattening target is reached, objective tenderness (shear force) is not related to the finishing system. Therefore, grass fed beef is not likely to be less tender than grain fed beef as is commonly thought in North America. Actually, they found a far greater influence of animal genetics and animal chronic stress on meat toughness than any other factor, including age. They noted the major problems with grass fed beef comes when it is not finished (fattened) before harvest and is sold too lean echoing what the President of North American Devon told us when we visited his farm is southern Georgia (east on Hwy 84) this past summer. Grass fed fat will always be at least slightly yellower than grain fed. This denotes more carotenes and antioxidant lipid soluble compounds – good. I also thought interesting in the Argentine study, among North Americans, the ones who selected flavor as the most relevant fact to beef choice often selected against pasture finished beef because of excessive beef flavor! And younger people preferred the blander, less flavored beef. They have grown up eating our bland antibiotic, hormone enhanced factory farmed chicken, beef and pork. What do we expect?

Organic is good but it is not grass fed. Finding grass fed beef and pastured pork, chicken and eggs and milk is difficult. Some stores do sell grass fed beef but to most it is only available by order from a distant provider. We have access to some grass fed at a couple of farmer’s markets and Whole Foods. When talking with the butcher we learned that Whole Foods is now getting its grass fed beef from Texas as opposed to New Zealand when we last asked. If there is a demand, more stores will carry these healthier products. Healthier food is more expensive but may help save on all those drugs we buy to counteract our poor living and eating habits.

From Claire MacDonald’s Scotland, the Best of Scottish Food and Drink:

Meatballs with Tomato and Pimiento Sauce

Serves 8

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 onions, finely chopped

2 ½ lbs. of minced (ground round) beef

1 1/3 cups fresh white breadcrumbs

2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sunflower or olive oil for frying

Tomato and Pimiento Sauce

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 sweet red pepper, core and seed removed, chopped

1 large garlic clove, peeled and chopped

12 fresh ripe tomatoes, halved, or two 14 oz. cans

Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

For the meatballs, heat the oil in a wide saucepan and cook the finely chopped onions for about five minutes. Let the onions cool completely before mixing with the meatball ingredients. Form into small balls, the size of a walnut and put the balls on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. These can be frozen.

To make the sauce, heat the oil and add the chopped onion and red pepper. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped garlic, tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce gently for 25-30 minutes. Liquidize and sieve the sauce and reheat when ready to serve.

To cook the meatballs, heat the oil in a frying pan to a depth of ¼ in. Fry the meatballs until they are well browned all over. As they are cooked keep warm on a kitchen paper on a serving dish in a low oven.

For this dish the ground grass fed beef will be cheaper than other cuts. Maybe you can even find some of the local Covington County Pineywoods.

Claire MacDonald recommends serving with mashed potatoes and a stir-fried green vegetable.