CONVENTIONAL BEEF v PASTURE RAISED v VELD GRAZED (GRASS FED)
CONVENTIONALLY PRODUCED BEEF
Over 80% of beef commercially produced in South Africa is made in large feedlots. This is the product known to consumers buying in the large supermarkets, restaurants and fast food outlets. Feedlot production has become known as conventional because it has by far the largest share of the market.
Most feedlots buy in weaner calves at around 7 months of age. The weaners have grown on mother’s milk and grass. They are prepared for the feedlots with a stringent medication program and in many instances growth stimulants.
In the feedlots the calves stand at feed troughs and eat a mixed ration of mostly grains, maize and soya. In the most efficient feedlot systems the animals will double in weight over a 4 to 6 month period and be ready for slaughter at about 12 months of age.
The feedlot diet of grains is very different to what cattle would naturally eat but with intensive management, growth is rapid and large carcasses can be economically produced in a short space of time.
As the animals reach an economical size at a very early age they deliver tender meat which is in high demand by the consumer.
Feedlots can keep a large number of animals in a small space and as the animals do not walk around, most of the feed intake is converted into fast grown meat. This all contributes to keeping prices down and profits high.
PASTURE RAISED BEEF
Pasture raised beef differs from feedlot in that the animals are accommodated on pastures which can be naturally occurring or planted pastures or a combination. Pastures may be fertilized and the animals can be fed rations including grains and GMO’s whilst on pasture.
Pasture raised can refer to a system which is close to natural production or very similar to a feedlot in terms of space, movement and feed.
Generally pasture raised animals will eat a diet which includes grass but this could be a small part of their entire feed intake.
VELD GRAZED / GRASS FED
Grass fed beef should be beef which has been fed grass, the natural diet of cattle. Much of the beef which is marketed as grass fed refers to animals which have had access to grass for part of their life. Some supermarkets sell grass fed beef and clarify it by stating that the animals have been fed on a diet which includes grass. Animals in a feedlot environment that have had a diet including grass are thus referred to as grass fed. Buyer beware, if animals have been fed some grass, they may be marketed to consumers as grass fed. The producer need not mention what else the animal may have been fed.
It is unclear as to whether feedlot animals that have had a diet including some grass produce beef any different from those on a conventional feedlot ration.
Tinderbox Farm raises veld grazed animals. These animals are free to roam large tracts of the farm and graze on natural veld. There are no planted grasses or grains on the farm. The animals select what they want to eat and walk long distances on steep slopes. Water is provided by free flowing mountain streams. The animals grow slowly and very seldom get ill. The exercise helps to spread fat throughout the muscles and results in lean well marbled meat.
Veld grazed animals are market ready from 33 months of age and are generally smaller than feedlot animals.
Beef from veld grazed animals is generally leaner than feedlot animals and the fat is spread through the meat. Veld grazed beef fat ranges from pale yellow to orange due to the beta carotene found in the veld grass. As the colour of grass varies with the seasons so does the colour of the fat. Yellow fat melts at a much lower temperature than the white fat typical of grain fed animals. The yellow fat has been found to have several health benefits over the hard white fat.
As the muscles of veld grazed cattle work harder than those raised in feedlots, the meat has a coarser texture and certain cuts from the large muscles benefit from slow aging in order to improve tenderness and flavour development.
Tinderbox Farm beef carcasses hang for at least 7 days prior to being cut and processed. After cutting all meat is vacuum packed without preservative gasses. Steaks in particular benefit from wet ageing in the vacuum packs for up to 6 weeks.
As veld grazed beef grows slowly it benefits from slow and gentle cooking in order to deliver best flavour and texture.