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Live to Eat Newsletter by The Healthy Butcher

Making Bread

'Tis The Season To Eat Beef

by Mario Fiorucci

After a summer of dining on lush grass, Ontario pasture-raised beef is at its tastiest!  In this issue we provide a primer on how beef are raised, and how we define "grassfed" beef.

This article was first published in the Harvest 2011 issue of CityBites Magazine, available at fine retailers throughout the GTA.


City Bites Magazine

THANKSGIVING IS A WEEK AWAY!  Click here for our 2011 Thanksgiving Menu and Orderform.

Reserve early, we are on pace to sell out again this year!


Let us help you plan your feast and make your holiday time truly special.  This year we are featuring 3 types of turkeys: Naturally-Raised, Certified Organic, and our special feature Orlopp Bronze Turkey (pictured on left).


...and Shana Tova to all of our Jewish customers and readers! 


Video from our 2011 Top Butcher Competition - Click Here.  If you missed the 2010 competition, Click here.  Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube Channel and give the vids thumbs up!


Naturally Raised Foie Gras! Wonder of wonders... leave it to Canadians to find a better way!

Since opening The Healthy Butcher, Foie Gras has been strictly on our "never order" list of products because of how it is produced.  Rumours circled in our store of a farm in Quebec doing things differently... so Tara and Mario personally visited last week and were blown away.  Imagine ducks that are raised 100% on pasture, the process of gavage lasts only 2 weeks, and the small farmer feeds every duck a different amount depending on how big the duck is and how much they can handle.  We have always stood for bringing in the best food products, and we are going to import this quality foie gras on a preorder basis.  If you are interesting, please email and we will provide you with more details.

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'Tis The Season To Eat Beef  


If seasonal eating is your thing, then the time for grass-fed beef is now. Here’s a primer to help answer your questions. We’ll start with some fundamentals on how beef cows are raised, and what it means to be “grass-fed” — a term that is often thrown around without any definitive meaning.

How are beef conventionally raised?

Conventional beef production has three stages. The first is called “cow-calf.” Producers maintain herds of mature cows, mate them every 12 months and raise the calves to weaning age (about 6 months). Stage two is called “stocker” or “backgrounding.” The weaned calves are raised mainly on pasture, along with wheat or oats, for another 6 to 12 months. The beef can gain three pounds a day, reaching 750 pounds before the third stage. This is the “feedlot” stage, where beef are generally kept in confinement and fed mainly corn and grain until they reach the market weight of around 1,400 pounds.

It is an unfortunate reality that in addition to corn and grain (which on their own are not good feed for the beef, as we will discuss), industry byproducts are mixed into the feed to reduce the cost of production. For example: chicken feathers, chicken manure, stale bread, candy, salvaged pet food and other ungodly ingredients. A 1996 study published in the Journal of Animal Science concluded that stale chewing gum, still in its aluminum wrappers, “can safely replace at least 30 percent of growing or finishing diets without impairing feedlot performance or carcass quality.”

It is also an unfortunate reality that beef are moved from one location to another between each stage, sometimes far distances. And one final unfortunate reality of our conventional agricultural system is that about 2 percent of feedlots in North America account for over 80 percent of total beef production; just google “CAFO” for some shocking information and photos about the realities of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

What is grass-fed beef?

There is no universally accepted definition for the term “grass-fed beef.” Technically, you can walk into any butcher shop, ask for grass-fed beef, and be told, truthfully, that “all of our beef is grass-fed.” This is because grass is without a doubt a component of the feed during a beef’s lifetime. Is not telling the whole truth the same as lying? I don’t know, but that’s why I like to make the distinction by using the term “100% grass-fed beef” to signal that the beef have only consumed grasses, never a high-energy diet of corn and grains.

I am a huge proponent of the Certified Organic beef designation, but let’s lay the cards on the table: organic beef is not necessarily 100-percent grass-fed, nor should we assume it is. In order to achieve organic certification, farms must jump a lot of hurdles in terms of husbandry and humane treatment — and all feed must be organic. That means that any grains or corn fed to beef have been produced with no pesticides or herbicides or GMO seeds. And, of course, industry byproducts and antibiotics are forbidden. However, organic beef is generally also “finished” with a diet predominantly made up of corn or grains because this feed will bring the beef to market sooner and with more desirable “marbling” (we’ll get into that later).


A grass-fed farm

A typical grass-fed farm in Ontario looks like what most of us picture a farm to be: cattle grazing on expansive pastures. But because our sunny season is relatively short, there is a lot of science behind successful pasture-farming in Ontario. Selecting the appropriate breeds and managing pastures are keys to success. Many of the breeds common in today’s beef industry, like Limousine, Hereford and Angus, have evolved — after generations and generations of selective breeding — to require high-energy diets of grain and corn. If those cattle suddenly go on a pasture-only diet, they will not gain weight fast enough to deem them “market worthy” (though certainly they will be healthier). So, farmers choose smaller breeds.

Dennis Starkey at Grass Roots Beef in Grey County went with Canadian Galloway after much research. “The Galloway is from the Scottish Highlands,” he explains, “and is genetically predisposed to eating grass.” Starkey’s pasture is made up of various grasses (such as Timothy and Reed Canary Grass) as well as legumes (including White Clover, Red Clover, Alfalfa and Trefoil). Dennis produces hay from the first cut when the pastures are mainly composed of grasses, and produces haylage from the second cut later in the season when the legumes have taken over. During the winter, Dennis feeds his animals a combination of hay with more fibrous grass and haylage with higher protein content from the legumes.

John Rogers at Rodavon Farms in Goderich believes in the Red Devon, an English breed with a long, documented history. His farm is a full cow-calf operation, meaning the calves are born and raised on his pastures. He mates Red Devon bulls with Murray Grey cows (an Australian breed). “Devon are the best-tasting beef around,” Rogers says. I’d have to agree, of all the grass-fed beef we’ve sold, his beef is always among the best. Rogers finishes the beef on a pasture planted solely with sorghum-sudan grass, which blooms a little later in the season and is higher in sugar.

All 100% grass-fed beef will be ready for market later in life compared to their grain-fed counterparts. Whereas the typical age at slaughter in the conventional industry is about 18 months, grass-fed beef are usually in the 24-30 month old range. They grow at nature’s pace.


Who cares about grass, anyway?

Cattle, along with bison, sheep, goat, deer and other grazing animals are ruminant animals. Their digestive system is very different from our own. Instead of having one stomach, they have four. A ruminant animal can break down grass and other coarse vegetation that animals with one stomach cannot digest. Many of the plants that grow on earth cannot be used directly by humans as food. But ruminants have the ability to convert these plants and residues into high-quality protein, in the form of meat and milk.


Full grown grass-fed beef heart vs. Conventionally raised veal heart


It is not just that ruminants can digest grasses, it’s more like they need to be digesting grasses to stay healthy. When cattle are fed a starchy diet made up of low-fibre grain and corn, a number of problems arise. One of the most common problems is called acidosis, which stems from lower pH in the digestive system. Other common problems associated with feedlots are liver abscesses, bloat, feedlot polio and dust pneumonia. The stress put on the cattle from its diet can lead to a wide range of problems from kicking at their own bellies, to eating dirt, to death. The conventional solution is to give cattle chemical additives along with a constant, low-level dose of antibiotics to prevent reactions from becoming fatal. The addition of antibiotics sub-therapeutically leads to other problems, such as antibiotic resistance in humans.  In the photo above taken last week, The Healthy Butcher's Executive Chef Jonathan Abrahams is holding a heart from a fully grown grass-fed; on the right is Jennifer McLagan author of several awesome books including the recent "Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal" - she is holding a heart form a conventionally raised young veal - obviously, the enlarged heart is compensating for something!


Wagyu vs. Grassfed Beef Fat
On the left is fat from a grain & corn fed beef cow; on the right is fat from a grass-fed fat beef cow.  The yellow colour results from high beta carotene. 
Further down the line, the nutritional value of beef finished on corn and grains is reduced substantially. From a health perspective, grass-fed beef offers fewer calories than grain-fed beef and is rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C. It also offers as much omega-3 fatty acid and conjugated linoleic acid (the stuff attributed to healthy hearts and brains, and reduced risks of cancer) as fish. And furthermore, grass-fed beef farmers don’t treat their animals with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs because the beef stay naturally healthy — they don’t need a drug fix!


What do grass-fed beef eat in winter?

Grass can be preserved in two ways: dry hay and haylage. Hay is the general name for a number of dried grasses, legumes and flowers. A farmer will cut a field of grass at a specific maturity, generally just before the flowering stage, and leave the grass to dry on the ground for several days. Then it is gathered up by a baler and shaped into rectangular or cylindrical bales held together by wire. The nutritional content of hay is far less than that of fresh grass.

The second method of preserving grass uses fermentation. Essentially, grass is cut, collected, then wrapped in large bales with a plastic film. The grass undergoes anaerobic fermentation which converts sugars to acids and exhausts any oxygen present in the crop material. The resulting product is haylage. If the grass is chopped and placed in a silo instead, the result is called silage. Haylage or silage retain a larger proportion of nutrients than merely dried hay.

Since hay and haylage are not as nutrient-rich as fresh grass, grass-fed beef typically maintain or lose weight in winter. This is why grass-fed beef is a seasonal product, available mainly late-summer to early winter.

The Taste Test

The flavour, smell, and texture of grass-fed beef differs vastly from grain-fed beef. By far the biggest difference is as a result of the intramuscular fat, or “marbling.” In the 1920s, the beef industry created a voluntary grading system. The grading of beef in Canada to be either Canada A, Canada AA, Canada AAA, or Canada Prime is perhaps one of the biggest scams in the industry; all as a result of feedlots stuffing their beef with cheap corn to gain ginormous amounts of saturated fat. The reason I believe grading to be a scam is because of the association that has been created in the mind of consumers that more fat means better quality. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that any poll of random individuals will show that people believe the grading to be a measure of quality, i.e. people believe that a Prime steak is of higher quality than a AA steak, but that is wrong – a Prime steak only has more fat. The grade names, in my opinion, should really be “lean”, “moderately fat”, “fat”, and “really fat”.

To clarify, I’m not in any way saying that more fat in a steak doesn’t increase the level of juiciness or enjoyment. But there is a difference between “quality” and “juiciness.” For that matter, by far, bar none, the best steak I have ever tasted was from an Ontario-raised, 100-percent grass-fed beef that graded a mere AA. I believe that flavour comes more from the food the beef ate, not the amount of fat. I would even go as far as to say fat hides the true flavour by masking it in juiciness. I love fat. I practically drink olive oil, I eat full-fat yogurt, the creamier the cheese the better — and, of course, good marbling in a cut of meat is essential to ultimate enjoyment. However, we must keep in mind that moderation is the key to health. To demand AAA and Prime marbling year-round is a direct route to a bad heart and a meal of cholesterol pills. The flavour profile of Ontario 100-percent grass-fed beef when it’s in season, from a farmer who carefully selects breeds and grasses, is far more complex than grain-finished beef and should be enjoyed just like any other seasonal food.

I have had to wipe down my keyboard three times as I wrote this article (August 15, 2011). That’s because I have enjoyed eating four juicy, perfectly ripe, sweet Ontario peaches. Sure, our generation has become accustomed to the availability of virtually any type of fruit, vegetable, meat or fish, year-round. But without a doubt, this bowl of Ontario peaches in front of me is superior to any peaches shipped from California in the middle of winter. The same goes for Ontario 100-percent grass-fed beef, or for that matter, any 100-percent pasture-raised animal in Ontario, be it elk, deer, bison or lamb.

Pasture-raised animals produce meat with benefits. The animals, Mother Nature and consumers are happier and healthier. Enjoy the season while it lasts.



Corn Fed vs. Grass Fed Beef

Beef Finished on Corn or Grain

  • Taste is largely a result of higher fat content, with less complex flavour profile. (Flavour of fat overwhelms other flavours.)
  • Tasting descriptors of good-quality grain- finished beef: juicy, tender.
  • Produces heavier carcass weight with more fat.
  • Higher in saturated fats
  • Less tasty, but more juicy due to higher marbling.
  • Consistent taste because the formula of feed and breed are set from the outset. 
Beef Fed Only Grass
  •  Less fat requires careful cooking to ensure steaks do not dry out.
  •  Variable taste from year-to-year and farmer-to-farmer, because of the differences in breeds, types of grasses and weather
  •  Common tasting notes: pure, beefy, earthy
  • Higher in omega-3s; excellent ratio of omega 6-to-omega 3. Higher antioxidant conent
  •  Higher in beta-carotene, vitamen E, thiamin, riboflavin, and B-vitamins, as well as minerals, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.


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