Friday, February 19, 2010

A Chef Contemplates Cows And The Grass They Eat

Cows are ruminant animals. Generically speaking this means they are animals who eat grass and then regurgitate what is known as 'cud'. The cud is then swallowed and moves through the four chambers in the cows stomachs. Grass is mostly cellulose and because of a cows natural design it is able to convert that cellulose into energy and protein that the cow needs to survive. The different chambers in the stomachs of cows allow the grass to slowly pass through while billions of naturally present micro organisms break it down into useable fuel. As the grass is broken down great things begin to happen for the health of the cow which carries over to the nutritional benefits in the rib eye steak on your plate. Grass fed cow meat contains higher levels of Omega 3's (which disappear in feed lots), vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid. These are indisputable facts in the case for grass fed beef. It is healthier for the animal and the human, period.

As a Chef, one must make a conscious decision to serve only the best available products to guests.

All cows are on a pasture at some point during their life. Many will remain there until the day they are 'harvested' however an enormous amount will be loaded up into trailers and sold at auction. Cows are docile animals and raising them to sell at auction is like a Chef who cooks green beans out of a #10 can. There is no craft involved. Once sold at auction the cows are then trucked to feed lots all over the country, some right here in Virginia.

Feed lots are horrendous expanses of cows confined shoulder to shoulder where they are 'finished' on a diet of corn, soy, grain and God knows what else. Because cows are not designed to digest LARGE amounts of grain and corn kernals, the acid levels rise in their stomachs and cause them all sorts of problems and distress. When this becomes apparent, the 'farmers' up the doses of antibiotics in their diets, which ends up right where those Omega 3's once were. These cows are often harvested at only 18 months of age with the last 6 months of their life spent fighting for food and water, knee deep in mud and fecal matter, on the verge of certain death. A cow doesn't spend all that much time in a feed lot because the conditions aren't conducive to life itself. By the time a cow is harvested it wouldn't have been able live much longer either way, as the amount of hormones and antibiotics has taken it's toll, and dead cows in feed lots doesn't look good for big agriculture.

A Chef should know what he or she is serving at all times. Before service Chef's are tasting all the sauces/purees to make sure they are seasoned correctly, checking the chef de parties station to make sure they aren't serving something they shouldn't be. It all seems kind of lame if one compares the passion of making food just look and taste good without any REAL regard of its origin. Spare the guests of the names like White Marble Farms because it sounds local or 'farmy' too. The movement of 'farm to table' or what ever one may call it isn't becoming watered down, it has been flooded already. It's up to the Chef to make the call. The fact that it is deemed trendy to use local product does more to hurt the cause of feeding your village first than it does any good what so ever.

Beef is one of these things that make it hard to walk this line as a Chef.

In Southwest Virginia there are pastures a plenty and they are full of fescue grass, just like the grass on a front lawn. It's thought that soil nutrients don't affect the nutrient qualities of the grass growing on it. And the animals wouldn't know a difference either way. Fescue is a cold climate loving grass, drought resistant and easy to grow. It's doesn't translate into very much flavor for a cow however. By disposition a grass fed cow will be leaner and contain less intramuscular marbling than a feed lot cow and if its on a pasture of mostly fescue it becomes a hard sell to the general dining public. While the meat is exponentially better for the human body, many diners who have grown up eating regular old American beef, cannot get over the smell and/or the lack of fat in a true grass finished piece of beef. For those who appreciate the nuisances of pure grass fed beef there may still be a noticeable difference in the flavor of beef raised mostly on fescue rather than in conjunction with legumes such as clover, alfalfa etc. which do not grow in abundance in certain areas of the US.

Some farmers such as Bill Niman of Niman Ranch fame humanely raised cattle on pasture and then sent them to feed lots. The feed lots designated for Niman Ranch were closely monitored when he was a part of the business. Strict guidelines were followed concerning the transportation of the cows and they were not slaughtered with other farmers cattle. The cows were finished on a grain diet but were not given antibiotics or hormones and if they were they were pulled from the Niman program. It seems as if Mr. Niman has begun a similiar practice with BN Ranch, his new venture, as he has split from the company that still bears his name.

Animal Welfare Approved designates great guidelines to help Chefs source sustainable beef that is raised humanely. While pure grass finished beef can walk a radical line it does have the ethical appeal to raise awareness of the bigger problem: feed lots. Under the AWA label a farmer can finish an animal on grain up to a certain percentage of the total diet. This may even take place in the true green pasture itself, the cow eating only as much of the grain supplement as it wants. This makes complete sense. That can't be done in a feed lot...there's no grass in a feed lot. By supplementing a cow on a small amount of grain, sometimes grown on the farm or by a neighbor, the intramuscular fat content is increased and the health benefits remain. There is no need for antibiotics nor hormones either. If so the animal is not sold for consumption. Amazing. To save or ease the pain of the animal it is treated but it is NOT sold. The level of antibiotic administered just to make sure the animal remains safe and healthy is astoundingly low compared to the levels administered just to keep a cow alive in a feed lot. Hmmm.

What breeds of cattle can be raised in Southwest Virginia besides Angus that have been bred through the years to have great intramuscular fat? Are you raising a breed that you are proud of? We'd like to hear from you!

1 comment:

  1. Tru it is too bad that a simple word like trendy can turn so many people off. That's the society we live in at the moment. Love what your doing in its fullness. Up with positive trends and pop-culture.