Many people have asked me why grass-finished beef is so expensive. They don't understand how a cow, eating grass, could be more expensive than one that eats grains. I mean, it's just grass, right? Everyone can grow (and does grow) grass, so therefore grass-finished beef should be cheaper.
Me being me, I do a rather bad job of explaining the costs involved in raising grass-fed beef, mostly because it's pretty darn difficult to recite a cost-benefit analysis in anything less than a 10-minute, one-sided and extremely boring "talk-at-you-not-with-you" conversation. Snore.
It is at this point that my friend and marketing consultant, Angela, would wag her finger at me and tell me to not focus on production costs because people buy with their emotions, not their knowledge.
Well, I see her point. But it also makes me seem a little shifty and a lot shiesty when I answer the "I don't understand why it's so expensive" question with an "Ours cows are happy. Our land is happy. The environment is happy. We farmers are happy. That 12 oz. steak will cost you $25, thank you."
For the record, Angela did not advise me to say that. I came up with that hair-brained answer on my own.
But in all seriousness, I believe that people who truly want to know the "why" should get an honest answer, so I'm gonna try and list some of the costs involved in raising grass-finished beef. This list is surely not complete and only corresponds to the costs incurred in Irish Grove. Costs will be different for different farms.
Grass-fed beef cannot be confined to a small barnyard. They need pasture, and lots of it. The general rule of thumb is 1 acre of pasture per cow-calf pair (mama and babe) per year. Got 40 cows with calves? You'll need 40 acres of pasture, which means 40 acres of land that won't be planted to a cash crop.
Animals require two things that cash crops don't: fences and water. The investment we've made, so far, in fencing and water systems has cost us about $15,000. And that's after receiving an EQIP grant from the government. The beef cattle have to pay for this. And it shows up in your meat costs.
Quality beef requires high-quality pasture. Which means expensive seeds and fertilizer, specialized farm equipment, and lots of skill to properly manage the land. We also buy more-expensive organic seeds and organic-approved fertilizers to improve the health of our land. Imagine a good $10,000 to get a 40-acre field started. Then add $2000/year for fertilizers and reseed costs, if necessary. (Winter happens.)
You can't use just any old cow in a grass-fed beef operation. The cows must be medium-framed and finish well on grass, meaning they'll reach market weight by 20-22 months and marble well . This limits our sources of eligible calves, which makes it more practical to raise our own. Unfortunately, raising our own is more expensive because we not only have to feed the calf, but we have to maintain the mother and a bull as well.
Winter is the most expensive time of year to have cattle. We must have plenty of high-quality hay on hand during the winter because we can't supplement our cows' diets with grain. This means more land in hayground or it means we purchase hay from a local grower at market prices plus transport costs.
I'm sure there are a myriad of other things I've forgotten here, and by this time tomorrow I'll be kicking myself about another inefficient conversation, but you get the point. Grassfed beef is expensive to raise.
So why do it?
Cows raised on pasture are healthier, requiring less medication and veterinary calls. Cows are ruminants and are designed to eat grass only. Feeding cows grain is like feeding your children a diet of fruit snacks and Snicker bars. Sure, they'll grow and they'll certainly fatten up. But is it good for them?
We live in the Prairie State. Our natural landscape is prairie, otherwise known as grasslands. Grasslands are the natural habitat for large ruminants. Grass-fed beef is farming that mimicks nature--it improves and restores the land to its natural state, which in turn restores habitat for many threatened prairie animal and bird species.
While grassfed beef operations seem quite inefficient at first glance, in fact our land is sequestering carbon (grasses sequester more carbon dioxide than trees) and saving gallons and gallons of fossil fuels. Our cows harvest their own food, for goodness sakes, which translates to fewer tractors planting, spraying, harvesting, hauling and grinding feed. The cows even spread their own manure!
While our happiness may seem like our own responsibility, I would argue that it behooves all of us to have happy farmers who make a healthy living off of their farms as our neighbors. Happy farmers are more likely to preserve green space, care for their land and welcome you onto their farm in the spirit of transparency and community. They will show you what they produce, how they produce it, and then you can decide for yourself if that's a product you would buy. Try visiting a CAFO and see what reaction you'll get. (One that likely results in an escort service, if you know what I mean.) Most importantly in this day and age of sprawl, loss of open space, and a degradation of our rural culture and farming knowledge base, happy farmers are more likely to live on, work on and pass their farm on and into the hands of the next generation, not into the hands of that developer.
Hmmn. It looks like my happy cow sentence might not be that ridiculous afterall. I'll have to ask Angela what she thinks about it. In the meantime, do the costs of grass-fed beef still seem ridiculous? Hope not, 'cause I didn't even touch on the health benefits for eating grassfed meats.
Thankfully, some else has done that homework. For information regarding the health benefits of eating grass-fed versus grain-fed, check out Jo Robinson's website: www.eatwild.com
And if that's not enough for you, well then I give up already.