“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines” is not just an expression.
What it means is that when you are blessed with sunny, dry conditions in June, you cut hay like there is no tomorrow. Actually, you cut hay either way. Because it’s grown, and your animals will need to eat come winter.
This is all kind of new to me, the city girl. But as I set out to interview farmers who are raising grass-finished beef and meat in Bucks County, I learned the hard way. Everyone was knee-deep in the stuff and almost too busy to talk. So when a farmer says his animals are grass-fed, I now know it’s the truth.
But what does “grass-fed” mean? There is a lot of interest these days in eating healthier meat and “grass-fed,” “grass-finished,” “pastured,” and “antibiotic-free” and “hormone-free” are terms being thrown around.
Let’s start at the beginning. Most cattle in this country are grass-fed for the first months of their lives. Then it’s off to huge feedlots, where the cattle are crammed in, creating unsanitary and stressful conditions for the animals. Antibiotics are used prophylactically to discourage disease and to promote faster growth. Hormones are used to fatten the cattle faster. The animals are fed a diet of mostly grain, soy and other supplements (even animal by-products), which is difficult for them to digest. Faster, fatter cattle means faster to market and more profit for everyone in that industrial food chain. But is it good for us, the consumers?
Most say, no. There is increasing concern that this widespread use of drugs (which farmers can buy over-the-counter, not approved by a veterinarian) is creating resistance to antibiotics in the overall population. On June 28th, US Food and Drug Administration issued a draft proposal for a guidance on the use of antibiotics in the industry (a “guidance” is not binding but represents the FDA’s “current thinking” on the topic, and may indicate stronger, more binding regulations in the future). In this proposal, the FDA calls the widespread use of antibiotics in healthy animals to boost growth and production “injudicious” (Nature.com). The European Union banned the use of antibiotics for these purposes in 2006.
And steroids. If it’s not good in our athletes, why are we feeding them to the animals we eat? “Cows are designed to eat grass,” says Nevada Mease, who raises grass-finished beef at his family’s Meadow Brook Farm in Springtown (Upper Bucks). “Growth promotents (steroids/added hormones) are designed to maximize weight gain, and put it on faster. Along with a grain fed diet, this can create more marbling, or fat, but it’s not always the kind of fats we should be eating.”
According to a study earlier this year in the Nutrition Journal, grass-finished beef tends to be “lower in overall fat content” and has lower levels of dietary cholesterol. It’s also higher in Omega-3 fatty acids (which are better for cardiovascular health), Vitamin A and E. The report also found that grass-fed beef had twice the levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, isomers, which may have cancer fighting properties.
Fortunately, there are a number of farms raising “grass-finished” meat in Bucks County, meaning the animals are fed mostly, if not all, grass/hay. Beef, bison, pork – are all available at local markets, farmers’ markets and direct from the farm. Poultry and lambs too, but we’ll save that for another day.
What about “organic?” That’s a bit trickier. It’s hard to raise good “grass” completely pesticide-free. Sometimes economics get in the way (like a local rancher who depends on selling good quality hay – without other species mixed in – to local horse farms as his main source of income). Or sometimes it’s just a matter of not having organic certification, an expensive and complicated process that many small family farms forego. “We call it ‘organic on a handshake’” says Marc Michini, who with his wife, Joanna, raise pork, lamb, chickens, turkeys and rabbits at Purely Farm in Pipersville. “We try to stay within the Pennsylvania Certified Organic guidelines,” adds Marc, “in fact we often go beyond.” The real key, say many local farmers, is getting to know the producer of your food. “We encourage customers to ask questions, to even come visit the farm, to get to know us,” says Joanna, “then make your own decisions on what is most important to you.”
Grass-finished beef tends to be more lean, and often requires a slower cooking time. But it’s nothing that a marinade, or a meat tenderizer can’t handle, as my husband and I learned cooking a Meadow Brook Farm sirloin one summer evening, when we thawed the steak late in the day. We used our favorite meat rub then grilled it. It was wonderful. In fact, my husband, who is a big-thick-steak kind of guy, was duly impressed, and I think I can now bring him along on my mission for healthier – and local – meat in our house.
Here’s where you can get grass-fed, pastured beef, bison, lamb and pork in Bucks County:
Backyard Bison (Coopersburg). American Plains buffalo raised “on pasture as much as possible” without use of hormones, steroids, or antibiotics, USDA inspected. Sold from own farm store.
Birchwood Farms (Upper Makefield/Newtown). Raw organic dairy store selling own grass-only-fed beef, pork, veal, pastured eggs, bison, and lamb.
Hendricks Farm & Dairy (Telford). A grass-fed, natural raw milk dairy producing fine farmstead cheeses, grass-fed beef, lamb, rose veal, and cured meats.
Hillside Farms (Telford). American bison. Sold from own farm store.
Maximuck’s (Doylestown). Own beef, raised on the farm. No hormones.
Meadow Brook Farms (Springtown). Free-range, vegetarian-fed and grass-finished Black Angus beef. Raised without antibiotics or added hormones. Available at the Springtown Farmers’ Market, Tabora Farm Market and Rick’s Eggs.
Naturally @ Holben Valley Farm (New Tripoli) Although this producer of grass-fed and pasture-raised Black Angus beef is not in Bucks, they come to the Wrightstown Farmers’ Market each week. No antibiotics or growth hormones.
None Such Farm Market (Buckingham). Their beef is raised on their farm across the street, mostly pastured and fed with some grain grown on the farm. No hormones, no antibiotics.
Purely Farm’s Pastured Meats (Pipersville). Pastured pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and rabbit. Reach Marc and Joanna at 215.317.0889 or email at email@example.com, or at the Stockton or Wrightstown Farmers’ Markets.
Sunnyslope Farm (New Hope). Grass-fed beef, free-range organic chickens, turkey and organic eggs. Phone: 215.598.7838, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tussock Sedge Farm (Blooming Glen). Completely grass-fed beef. Order online.
This article was originally written for and published by Bucks County Woman magazine in the August/September 2010 issue.