Barley Finished Beef

I wondered: Could we do pasture-raised even better ?

Posted on Aug 22, 2019 by Jack McCann
Tags: Newsletter

In this article:

  • Could we do pasture-raised even better?
  • Some comparison photos showing our barley-finished beef experiment
  • How to try it for yourself

Always looking to be even better

Anyone who knows me is aware of my diligent pursuit of idealistically raised food. We are constantly adjusting our practices, learning every year and keep working to get better.

For a decade, I believed that the only way to have healthy and respectfully raised beef was to be 100% grass fed and rotationally grazed. As I've written in the past, a lot of 'grass fed' beef in the store appears to be raised on feedlots and frequently fed all sorts of sugar or other industrial food waste. Yuk - we didn't want any of that!

Rotationally grazed, pasture raised, and 100% grass fed beef was a way to have our food:

  • be scientifically proven net negative greenhouse gas emissions
  • be the healthiest possible
  • come from animals that live a long, respectful life.

Lauren inspecting our grass-fed herd

What is the most idealistic?

While all that is true, the reality of our Minnesota climate is also a challenge. I struggle with seeing things as simply "good or "bad". The ideal option isn't crystal clear.

Sometimes, there are multiple ways to look at the same challenge (see my comments about our first offering of Cornish Cross chickens last year)

I always pay careful attention to each animal coming into TC Farm. I get photos of the steaks - I even used to taste a steak from every steer!

With all that attention to detail, I noticed it was hard to consistently have the perfect steak. One might be fantastic and the next simply "OK".

Over time I realized: Some years the winter is simply too cold for the steers to thrive on even the highest quality hay. Other years there is so much rain in the spring that they can't get quite the energy from the grasses that would result in the tastiest steak.

(And you wonder why farmers are always watching the weather!)

Perhaps you think worrying about the flavor or texture of the beef shouldn't be a primary concern. I guess that might be true. However, anything that causes even mild stress on our steers is something we strive to minimize. In crazy cold weather, they could really benefit from a small amount of extra energy to get them through the winter.

The cows love being out in the snow on a sunny day

Shawn and the grass-fed British whites

Corn - Soy Feedlot Problems

The two biggest concerns I have with feedlot corn-fed/soy-fed beef are:

  1. Overfeeding results in unhealthy animals and unhealthy food
  2. Feedlots of any sort are terrible for the environment and animal welfare

Corn is an overly-high energy food. That combined with the soy used means conventional beef are just straight up unhealthy.

Pushing animals to their limits to get the cheapest food isn't good for anyone or anything.

It doesn't matter why the USDA allows this beef to be labeled "grass fed", raising it on a terrible feedlot shouldn't be an option.

Yeah - nobody wants to actually see how they make regular beef do they?

Enter Our Barley Beef

We decided to provide a very small amount of organic barley and peas to five of our steers this year. Small grains like barley are a very natural food if offered in moderate quantity.

The steers were hand fed each day, starting off at just 2 pounds of grain per day (feedlot beef would be fed 25 pounds of higher energy grains while limiting the amount of hay (or sawdust) to just a puny few pounds.

Of course we were still rotationally grazing our steers on lush green pasture as their primary feed source, but the barley offered a small boost to ensure they always had the energy their bodies needed.

I like to think of it like how I bring dried fruit along on family day trips, in case my kids are hungry in-between lunch and dinner. That just makes everyone happier - good idea, right?!?

Lauren and Shawn offer some organic barley to our Devons

Small grains like barley are really just grass seeds that any cow or sheep would quickly pick off the top of any grass they find in a pasture - a very natural food if offered in moderate quantity.

The Results

After seeing the results, I am convinced this is a better approach to managing the challenges of 100% grass fed beef I mentioned above.

The reality is that the common alternative to ensure consistently marbled steaks is the "grass-fed" beef from the grocery. But: their solution is often feeding all kinds of sugar and other waste on a feedlot.

That just is gross and SO not the point. Not to mention that it is highly unethical from an animal welfare and customer deception perspective.

We will always raise 100% grass fed beef for the many customers who want to know they have a zero grain and no feedlot option. However, I think the more TC Farm members learn about and try our barley beef, they will like the health, environmental and taste benefits it offers.

There isn't a "perfect" answer, but I am excited to offer this new option and can't wait for your feedback!

Compare Steaks

So, excuse the quality of these pictures, these photos weren't taken as marketing material. These are images that we get from each steer so we can compare finish and figure out what genetics and practices are working well and which aren't ideal. We've seen dramatic differences between different bulls from side-by-side comparisons and that helps us make a decision on what genetics to use in the future.

This also gives us an indication of how the weather is impacting our overall quality. Check out the examples below.

2017 Grass Fed 

In 2017, the pasture and the weather resulted in a nice set of steaks from most of our steers. This is an image of what I'd consider an 'average' 2017 steak. It was fairly tender and tasty!

Again, the image quality isn't ideal - I never thought these pictures would end up in a blog post! - but you get the idea: good marbling and nice color.

For a truly pasture-raised and 100% grass fed steak, this is darn good.

2018 Grass Fed

2018 brought some challenges. The winter was a bit rough and once spring started, there was a TON of rain. Rain, Rain, Rain.

We had a LOT of lush pasture, but the moisture content was so high it bulked up the grass and prevented the steers from getting 'full' -- their bellies were just too full of water to get an ideal amount of energy out of the grasses.

Furthermore, the forage itself grew so fast and the continual rain meant that it wasn't as ideal hay. This impacted us into 2019 since the hay that winter wasn't our usual super high quality.

The steak from 2018 is from the same genetics and management as the 2017 steak.

Check out the complete lack of marbling on this one! I remember being nervous to taste test them. I think they needed to be cooked a bit higher temp than I was used to and sliced thinner, but the flavor was really quite nice.

Still, the resulting inconsistency is an issue for our group - members might have a hard time knowing exactly how to adjust their steak preparation based on how much rain we had that spring!

2019 Barley Finished

Above is a sample photo from one of the ribeyes off of our barley beef. Not every steak is quite this marbled, but they were all pretty nice.

The 2019 grass fed steaks were mostly better than 2018's, but still behind 2017's quality. This we believe was due to the difficulty in getting the super high quality hay we need for our Minnesota winters.

Check out the difference! We believe this tiny boost of energy, along with a fantastic pasture, provides a more consistent and tasty product.

I think there is an argument that this minor supplementation reduces stress on the animals as they grow and would result in at least as healthy, if not more healthy, food. It is nothing like the overfeeding that we read about on feedlots which causes all the health issues we know about.

I also believe there is an argument that this type of production would sequester MORE greenhouse gas emissions than our 100% grass fed beef, but that's a topic for another post.

How to try our barley beef for yourself

We have a very limited amount of barley beef available since it was an experiment with just five special steers. If you'd like to try some, please add the items to your cart below (be sure you're logged in first) or if you are NOT currently a member, add these to your cart now and checkout.

The one thing I ask is that if you do get some, please send us feedback on what you think. We need to decide if we want to offer this again in 2020 and if so, how much barley beef to raise for you.

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