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Grass-fed beef is hot

When Tom German began managing his family's Iowa farm eight years ago, he looked at his 40 beef cows as ideal no-till farming tools.

German is the third generation to farm the 350 acres near Holstein. Rather than investing in specialized conservation equipment, German and his wife, Kristi, converted the entire farm into a grass-fed beef operation.

"It made sense for our farm, and it fit our lifestyle," says German. He and Kristi have three school-age children. The Germans now finish 400 cattle a year without feeding grain. They sell about 25 head directly to consumers, and the rest are marketed to packers specializing in grass-fed beef.

They didn't rush the conversion. It took from 1999 to 2002 to completely eliminate grain from the rations. During those years, they fed grain during the last 60 days prior to finishing but isolated a few calves as prototypes for grass finishing. That way they could make sure the meat rated well on their own table.

"I didn't sell anyone any grass-fed beef until I ate the first one," says German.

Although miniscule in the country's 30 million-head finished beef market, grass-fed production is on the rise. About 60,000 grass-fed cattle were marketed in the U.S. in 2006, compared to 5,000 head in 2000, says Allen Williams, a former Mississippi State University beef specialist who now serves as chief operating officer for Tallgrass Beef Company in Sedan, Kansas. Tallgrass is a grass-fed beef marketer that represents about 200 ranches in the Upper Midwest.

There is no official definition for grass-fed beef, so the government doesn't keep statistics on it like it does for organic meat. That may change. In 2006, the USDA proposed a definition stipulating animals be fed grass (not necessarily in a pasture) 99% of the time from weaning to slaughter. The definition generated debate and thousands of comments. A revised definition is expected this year.

In the meantime, Tallgrass Beef holds its suppliers accountable in their contracts. Producers must agree to source identification from birth to sale; keep any feeds other than grass, hay, or stored forage feeds and approved supplements out of the rations; use no subtherapeutic antibiotics, hormones, feed-grade fly control, ionophores or beta-agonists; and follow animal-handling practices developed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

In addition, all Tallgrass suppliers must ultrasound cattle, and the cattle must meet weight, fat, ribeye area and shape, plus tenderness parameters.

The demand for the specialty meat comes mainly from urban and suburban consumers who are health conscious and interested in how animals are raised, says Williams.

Shoppers at stores like Whole Foods Market want to know how animals are handled and housed, what the cattle eat, and whether or not hormones and antibiotics are used, he says.

"They are driving demand by asking for certain things, and they are specifically asking for grass-fed beef," Williams says.

Williams urges producers to think of themselves as artisans, like wine and cheese makers. "Consumers want to be able to pick and choose a flavor of beef, not unlike they choose a merlot for one meal or a chardonnay for another."

When Tom German began managing his family's Iowa farm eight years ago, he looked at his 40 beef cows as ideal no-till farming tools.

Success in raising tasty and tender grass-fed beef means more than sticking calves out to graze and selling them when they reach a certain weight, says Williams. "You have to understand how to truly finish cattle just like you would finish grain-fed cattle."

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