Sunday, May 6, 2007

Pasture raised Beef - True Natural Beef for the Consumer

EATING LOCALLY

Grass fit for beef
At Betsy Ross' ranch near Granger the restored land produces natural munchies that make for tasty beef
By Patrick Beach

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

GRANGER — On the subjects of nematodes, microbes and the ever-popular saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi, Betsy Ross sounds positively evangelical. They're the reason, she says, her beef tastes so good.

Ross, her sister, son and daughter-in-law run some 150 head of cattle a year through their operation near here, along the San Gabriel River, and once the cattle are weaned they're placed on a novel diet: grass. Rye grass, clover, Bermuda, alfalfa and native prairie grasses, grazing on 500 acres divided into 100 paddocks. They eat what, in other words, they were built to eat — as opposed to grain. Some of the cattle are sold to other producers; the rest wind up as about 20,000 pounds of packaged beef annually.

Betsy Ross beef, sold as frozen steaks, roasts and ground beef, is available at all the People's Pharmacies in Austin and, Ross says, should soon be stocked at the downtown Whole Foods Market.

Ross and a handful of other livestock producers in Texas and nationwide are no threat to conventional operations that raise huge numbers of cattle on corn: According to the Texas Beef Council, there are 140,000 beef producers in Texas alone. By comparison, Eatwild.com, a site for "grass-fed food and facts," lists just 42 grass-fed beef producers in the state. (Ross believes the number to be closer to 100.) But with the obesity epidemic, food safety scares (contaminated spinach?) and books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" raising public consciousness about what we put in our bodies, there are signs the movement is growing, albeit not at the rate of a pound a day as Ross' cross-bred cattle do.

The argument that Pollan and other believers make is that it's not necessarily our food that's making us sick, but what we feed our food. And when we raise cattle on corn, pump them full of antibiotics and fatten them to market weight rapidly, what winds up on a hamburger bun is invariably unhealthy.

And, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that fat equals flavor, a lot of folks say the leaner grass-fed cow actually tastes better, too. It does. Really. A couple of years of personal eating research confirms a meatier, slightly stronger taste, but enough fat to keep the meat from being too dry or tough.

"People are connecting the dots," Ross says. "I mean, come on — people are having to drink bottled water."

Not that it didn't take Ross herself a while to connect the dots. After a career in Austin real estate and retiring as the Web master for the Texas Department of Insurance, this former West Texas ranch girl wanted to get back to the land. Ross' brother, Joe David Ross, had owned the former cotton farm 13 miles north of Taylor since 1975, and Ross and her elder sister, Kathryn, a retired geologist, moved there around the turn of the new century. They were feeding the cattle a lot of corn when they had to, Ross recalls. Not coincidentally, to her mind, they also kept a refrigerator full of antibiotics.

Her change of heart came when a grandson was born prematurely and she was worried about what the boy would eat.

"I wanted to give him some good meat," she said. "But I didn't know what that meant, either."

After perusing a booklet from the Soil and Water Conservation Society called "Soil Biology Primer" (carbon sequestration, anyone?), she was off to Oregon State University to study under Elaine Ingham, an authority on healthy soils.

The idea is simple: "Soil organisms decompose organic compounds, including manure, plant residue and pesticides, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants," according to the booklet. "They store nitrogen and other nutrients that might otherwise enter ground water, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants."

That means that nitrogen fertilizer, which is dumped onto farms and ranches by the barrel in conventional agricultural operations, is produced naturally.

As a result of switching to grass in the mid-'90s, Ross is known in some circles as "the crazy lady with the green pastures." But she doesn't seem to mind.

"This is sweet clover!" she exclaims in one of the paddocks. "This is just free! We're finding the old seed bank is still here. This is an old cotton farm that's been chemicaled to death. But Momma Nature is powerful. It took us 10 to 12 years to quit fighting nature. All of this is Old World knowledge that people have brought to the front again. The movement of people wanting to rehabilitate their land is moving right along with the good food movement."

She points to another section: "That's an alfalfa patch right there. They told us we can't grow alfalfa in this part of the country. It's not easy to rebuild this whole system. All grass is not equal. Until we found the soil biology, we really didn't have the cattle humming."

But all this requires a fundamental shift in thinking, summed up by Ross' son, J.R. Builta, who works the ranch with his wife, Kim Builta:

"What a row farmer considers a weed, we consider food," Builta says.

It also requires careful management vastly different from conventional farming. Each paddock, containing different warm- and cool-weather grasses, is grazed seven or eight times a year and rested otherwise. Natural nitrogen is being slowly released into the soil.

Ross likens it to conducting a symphony.

"Once the biology is in there, it has its own community," she says. "These are live critters. When you come in with a tractor (and a disc) four or five times a year, you kill the community. This is spotted clover. This is free clover! I didn't have to plant it."
Jimmie's Comment: (This clover is an example of 'free clover', both planted and sustained by nature's work.)

On the other side of the road from the clover, a calf born hours earlier is beginning to nurse while its mother eats the placenta. And next to an outbuilding there's a huge compost pile, another critical part of the operation. Running the compost through an extractor with water can produce 3,000 gallons an hour of organism-rich — 25,000 species per teaspoon — of irrigable water. (Ross is also founder and co-owner of Sustainable Growth Texas, which uses liquid compost to fertilize homes and agricultural operations.)

Ross now laughs at the memory of what her brother said when he paid a visit years ago: "Whatever you do, don't go organic." The operation follows organic principles but the beef is not certified organic. ("We just don't see any sense in it right now," Ross says of the rigid certification process.) Nonetheless, Ross says again, there's evidence the end product of all this work is better for you — less fat and better fats, including Omega-3s and no hormones or antibiotics.

No hormones also means it takes longer to raise a beef to slaughter weight: A conventionally raised animal is ready in about 14 months to 16 months; Ross' can take as long as 29 months. (That means from pregnancy to finish, it takes three and one-half years to make money on a beef.) And if the animals have to be treated with antibiotics or fail to gain weight on schedule, they're sent to the sale barn.

The market-ready animals — what Ross calls "a block of butter with four little legs" — are harvested humanely at Readfield's in Bryan. Then the cuts are aged 14 days, cut, wrapped in Cryovac and hard-frozen. In addition to People's in Austin, Old Thyme Garden, an organic nursery in Taylor, sells the meat, and Ross is partnering with Whole Foods' producers alliance to get their products into Austin's flagship store. They also do a mail-order business and will deliver if it's to a nearby destination.

Because grass-fed operations tend to be small, they can't hope to achieve the economies of scale of so-called factory farms and that translates into higher prices, even though it costs eight times as much to feed a cow out of a sack as on grass: A 12-ounce to 18-ounce bone-in Betsy Ross ribeye is $13.50 per pound, New York strips $14.25 and ground meat $5, a good bit north of supermarket prices.

But customers say the meat doesn't evaporate when it hits the grill and the more flavorful product — there's more than just texture to this cow — often means it takes less meat to feed a crowd. Ross and her sister usually split a single-serving sirloin.

There's often a three-month wait for tenderloins.

Their customers come looking for them.

They don't want economies of scale.

They want to make food that's good for you and, not to get too high-falutin', reflects the web of life.

"There's more than one way of doing things," Betsy Ross says. (And yes, that's really her name.) "Nothing sits alone. We're all so connected."

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

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