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The grass is finally growing again in vernal Wisconsin, but what has that to do with food? Plenty, if you like local, pasture-raised meat and dairy.

Grass-fed, grass-finished and pasture-raised food has gone mainstream in retail stores, usually at a premium price. But what does grass-fed actually mean and why does it cost more? Does it taste different? What about cooking methods?

For starters, let’s cut to the recent ballyhoo about Irish grass-fed butter. Everyone remain calm! There’s no need to hightail it to Illinois on a grass-fed butter run because there is plenty of local grass-fed butter, and other dairy products, in Wisconsin.

The availability of local grass-fed meat, however, can be limited, especially with independent Wisconsin farmers, as some have trouble meeting the growing demand.

With grass-fed meat or dairy, it seems even vegetarians and vegans are taking another look when it’s ethically pasture-raised.

“We’ve been told on numerous occasions that our pork is the best-tasting pork, ever,” said farmer Steve Deibele, who owns Golden Bear Farm in Kiel with his wife, Marie. “Currently, we have a waiting list for our 100%-grass-fed beef.

“We’ve had vegans and vegetarians who will begin eating meat again when they know that the source of their meat is humanely raised and cared for and that the quality of the meat is the finest available,” he added.

Grass farmers?

Grass itself is so important to Golden Bear Farm that the Deibeles consider themselves to be grass farmers in addition to livestock farmers. Their animals rotationally graze on organic grass fields.

Grass is the farm’s foundation. For herbivore ruminants (cud chewers) such as cattle, bison, goats and sheep, grass — not grain — is their natural food.

Pasture grass can include a diversity of grasses, legumes, herbs and wildflowers. The herbivore’s instinct to graze, along with the resulting manure, stimulates the grass, regenerates the soil, prevents erosion and improves the environment.

Steve prefers the terms “100%-grass-fed beef” and “pastured Berkshire pork” for his meats.

But let the food buyer beware. “Grass-fed” is an unregulated term with no standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This can add to the confusion for home cooks already trying to avoid getting hornswoggled by advertising claims (look what happened to the heavily-abused word “natural”).

Labels simply stating grass-fed do not necessarily indicate the animals exclusively ate grass and frolicked in verdant farm fields. It does not necessarily mean the food is organic. Even similar terms have no governmental standards at the moment.

A glossary may help

Grass-fed: While government agencies have no standard for this term, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) upholds it own requirements. AGA states their certified grass-fed meat and dairy ruminants have eaten nothing but grass and forage (no grain, animal parts or manure) from weaning to harvest. The animals are raised on pasture without fattening-up confinements in feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. The animals were born and raised on family farms in the U.S. Genetically-engineered or cloned animals are prohibited.

According to the local Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative (WGFB) of 161 farms, its calves are born on pasture, not on feedlots or cement-floored buildings. They are not fed a milk-replacer from a bottle, but instead are raised by their mothers, who teach them what to eat after weaning.

Keep in mind that the WGFB and AGA standards may or may not currently apply to uncertified food simply labeled grass-fed. WGFB sells its meat under the Wisconsin Meadows label. On AGA-certified food, look for its logo.

Grass-finished: Usually, most ruminants from conventional farms begin their lives at least partly on pasture. Then, they get sent to crowded feedlots for finishing (a hasty fattening up with grain). Grass-finished means the animals ate grass up until slaughter.

Pasture-raised: Similar terms include pastured, pasture-fed, meadow-raised, pasture-grazed, forage-based, regeneratively-grazed or rotationally-grazed.

Pigs or poultry (omnivores) are often labeled pasture-raised, rather than grass-fed. According to Hans Eisenbeis, media relations director for Organic Valley, their products are labeled “pasture-raised” or “pasture-fed,” as their USDA-certified organic cows are required to be on pasture at least 120 days a year with at least 30% of their feed coming from grasses and forage.

Typically, Organic Valley farmers exceed this pasture requirement and let their animals graze for as long as weather allows it, he added.

“Organic cows can be given grain rations, and most are,” he said. “Technically, all organic are ‘grass-fed,’ just not 100% grass-fed.”

100% grass-fed: This term usually indicates that no grains were fed to animals at any time. The Grassmilk products from Organic Valley are 100% grass-fed.

For consumers, it’s advantageous to vet food producers and ask questions. When in doubt, a website check can quickly reveal how transparent the farm or food company is.

Here’s the beef

Locally, grass-fed meat is widely available from specialty stores such as Kettle Range Meat Co. in Milwaukee, as well as grocery stores such as Sendik’s Food Markets and Metcalfe’s Markets in Wauwatosa and Madison.

Sendik’s communications director Nicholas Bandoch said their Sendik’s Pasture Premium beef line is 100% grass-fed and finished with cows born and raised in open pastures (never feedlots) on U.S. family farms, with no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Metcalfe’s features Wisconsin Meadows grass-fed meat from the Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative.

“Our best-selling item is the ground beef,” said Dan Ford, meat manager at the Metcalfe’s Madison Hilldale store. “However, we sell a wide variety of other cuts that seem to sell seasonally (roasts in the colder months, steak in the warmer months).”

Choices for grass-fed Wisconsin dairy products abound with Organic Valley, based in La Farge, along with crafters such as Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville and Landmark Creamery in Albany, who always uses fresh milk from pasture-grazed animals.

In fact, grass is so important to Landmark Creamery that one of their cheeses is named for it.

“We named the cheese Tallgrass Reserve simply because we wanted to pay homage to our farmer’syes, one farmer pastures,” said Landmark co-owner Anna Thomas Bates.  “It’s not the most efficient way to run a dairy farm, but it results in beautiful milk and cheese.”

Landmark labels its products pasture-grazed to “convey to consumers the animals were actually outdoors grazing in the meadow, as opposed to being fed some sort of dried grass or grass pellet indoors (which does happen),” Bates explained.

Cost of grass-fed

Grass-fed food does cost more. For example, conventional 85%-lean ground beef sells regularly for $4.99 a pound at Metcalfe's, vs. $7.99 for grass-fed. At Sendik's, conventional (80% lean) ground beef is $5.49 a pound, vs. $7.79 for grass-fed (86% lean, labeled Pasture Premium).

A number of factors contribute to the higher cost. According to American Grassfed Beef, grass-based farms are typically smaller and cannot take advantage of cost efficiency enjoyed by industrialized farms, especially when these industries often own granaries, feedlots and meatpacking facilities.

Time is another reason. Cattle fed grain such as government-subsidized corn or soy rapidly gain weight, making them ready for slaughter at 12 to 18 months of age. Grass-fed cattle can take twice that long.

According to Bates, Landmark’s goal is quality over quantity, while respecting the natural and seasonal nature of milk. The cows providing milk to Landmark are dried off in winter and allowed to rest rather than milked all year.

Steve Deibele from Golden Bear said benevolent principles guide his farm.

“We know that when we feed our livestock what they were intended by nature to eat, they are much healthier and happier and they grow at a natural rate, producing nutrient-dense meat.

“Our goal is to humanely and sustainably raise our animals to provide the healthiest meats possible while caring for the environment,” he said. “I think when people understand this about our farm, they feel compelled to . . . consume the best food they can afford.”

Taste the terroir

Grass-fed foods may taste different from their conventional counterparts. A little more, well, grassy and complex. Flavor and quality, however, can vary among brands and farms.

Plus, color is often more intense.

“The beta carotene in grass transfers to the milk, giving it a gorgeous golden color and a lot of flavor, commonly herbaceous, grassy and buttery notes,” said Landmark’s Bates.

Grass-fed food could be said to impart a terroir, a French term used to describe the characteristics in wine that reflect the soil and climate in which the grapes were grown. “That flavor can subtly change over the growing season as the foliage in the pasture changes, too,” Bates added.

That may be why farmer Marie Deibele prepares grass-fed meat as simply as possible for the table.

“We like to taste the flavor of our meat, so we don’t add much besides a little sea salt, black pepper and maybe some garlic,” she explained. “We’ll use a crock pot for our roasts, a grill pan for our steaks and burgers, and a baking pan for our bacon and chops.”

Most importantly, cooking times need to be reduced, according to Metcalfe’s Ford, because grass-fed meat is typically leaner.

“Grass-fed meats are better if they are (cooked) rare to medium- rare. If you like meat well done, a slow moist cooking method works best,” he said.

Jennifer Rude Klett is a freelance writer of history, food, and Midwestern life from southern Wisconsin.

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