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Do Your Cows Eat Grass? - Modern Alternative KitchenModern Alternative Kitchen

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If you are striving to follow a real food lifestyle, at some point you need to address where your animal foods are coming from. Before I knew much about healthy eating, I remember thinking, meat is meat and butter is butter and eggs are eggs. It doesn’t matter if I get them from Walmart or a farmer down the road: food is food.

It turns out I was wrong about that. The nutritional profile of animal foods changes drastically depending on how the animals were raised. And when it comes to cows, grass is best.

Before we dive in, let’s get some things straight. “Grass-fed” is for cows, as well as sheep, bison, and other ruminants. If we were talking poultry, we’d say “pastured,” because chickens eat grass, bugs, and usually some kind of supplemental feed (ideally organic sans soy). If we were talking pork, we’d likely say “foraged” because pigs eat grass, grains, food scraps, and whatever else they can get their snouts on. Find out more about healthy poultry here, and healthy pork here.

Now back to the cows.

Why “Grass-Fed” Matters

Perhaps these questions are at the tip of your tongue: “Why does it matter where my animal foods come from?”  “Why does it matter what cows eat?” “Is it really worth going out of my way and paying more?”

In short, raising, producing, buying, and eating grass-fed beef and milk products is better for cows, the earth, farmers, and you. And it’s totally worth it. Here’s why.

It’s Better for Cows

Cows are ruminants. Their impressive four-part stomachs are perfectly designed for digesting grass. When cows are cooped up and fed corn, soy, and industrial by-products (that’s 90% of the cows in this country), they get sick. But when they are out on pasture, soaking in the sunshine, and grazing to their hearts content, they are healthy, and don’t need to be pumped full of antibiotics just to stay alive. Some fun facts:

  • Grass-fed dairy cows live through eight to ten cycles of birth and lactation. Corn-fed cows live through an average of 1.8. (source)
  • Grass-fed cows get to stand around all day in…grass. CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) cows stand on cement that is covered in their manure. Comfy.
  • Want to know what happens in the stomachs of corn-fed cows? Check out this post by MAK contributor Lori from Laurel of Leaves. Scary stuff!

Yes I know we are eating these animals, but I’d love to know that while they lived, they were not confined to a stinking feedlot, pumped full of antibiotics and hormones. That they were healthy cows, living as cows should: on the land.

It’s Better for the Earth

I was shocked and amazed when I first read Michael Pollen’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and “met” Joel Salatin, the “Lunatic Farmer” of Polyface Farms. Pollen wrote about how through hard work and wise farming techniques, the Salatins turned neglected, eroded farmland into a fertile, productive, beautiful place. What an idea! Here’s how good farming can improve the land:

  • Raising grass-fed animals can add an inch of fertile topsoil every year, whereas growing corn to feed CAFO cows contributes to a loss of up to 6 inches of topsoil a year. (source)
  • Manure from grass-fed cows nourishes the soil; manure runoff from industrial farms causes serious environmental problems.
  • Growing grass doesn’t require fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, or GMOs. Corn and soy do.
  • Grass-based farming promotes biodiversity. I love this video of Joel Salatin showing many of the different plants the cows on his farm eat. How beautiful! A cornfield may look beautiful, but I’ll take those pastures any day.

It’s Better for Farmers

I’m no farmer, but here are a few ways I’d venture to guess that grass-based farming benefits farming families.

  • Less exposure to toxic chemicals. If they are spraying it, they are breathing it.
  • Farms that don’t stink. In this comparison of a CAFO farm and a grass-based farm, one of the most notable differences was that one stunk, and the other didn’t. You can guess which one stunk.
  • Healthier families and lower medical bills (for their cows and themselves!). Less exposure to toxins will result in less health problems, and grass-based farmers get the health perk of eating the nourishing food their land produces. Which brings me to my next point…

It’s Better for You

Let’s be honest. All that cow/earth/farmer stuff is well and good, but you want to know if it’s actually better for you, right?

Good news! It is! Grass-fed beef:

  • Has a lower ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 Fatty Acids. In grass-fed meat, it’s about 2 to 1. In grain-fed, it’s 14 to 1! When these fatty acids get out of balance, your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression, and auto- immune diseases increases. (source)
  • Is much higher in CLA. Consuming a diet high in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) reduces your risk of cancer, diabetes, and atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries). (source)
  • Has higher amounts of vitamins A, D, E and K2. (Ever noticed how yellow grass-fed butter is?)
  • Has a much lower chance of contamination. Healthier, cleaner animals have less pathogens in their digestive tracts. Here is some more information about the safety of grass-fed animal products.

“But it’s So Expensive!”

I’m reading your mind, right? If you have a limited budget, like I do (can you say “Husband in grad school?”), the cost of grass-fed meat and dairy is hard to swallow. With some creativity, we’ve made it work. Here are a few tips for fitting it into your budget.

  • Set priorities. If you can’t afford it all right away, choose the thing your family eats the most of. Big milk drinkers? Find a source for grass-fed raw milk. Do your dinners tend to center around meat? Make finding grass-fed beef a priority.
  • Buy a big hunk o’ cow. Many local, grass-based farms allow you to pre-order a whole, half, or quarter of an animal. The price is usually significantly lower that way, but do your research to make your sure you’re getting a good deal. And make sure to ask for bones and organ meats, which they often throw in for free!
  • Eat less of it. Yeah, you heard me. If good quality meat is too expensive, cut back. Go meatless a couple nights a week. Stretch soups and chili by adding more beans.
  • Stick with ground beef. If you aren’t buying a hunk of cow, this is the cheapest way to go, and it’s easy to stretch, too. There are plenty of delicious meals you can make with ground meat, so save that steak for a special occasion.
  • Compromise. We can’t afford organic, grass-fed cheese all the time. And we don’t get enough raw milk each week to make yogurt, so I buy organic (but not grass-fed) yogurt from the grocery store. Someday that will change, I hope, but for know I know I’m doing the best I can do. And that’s okay.
  • Be Adventurous. MAK contributor Kristel @ Healthy Frugalista scored some grass-fed venison for free. Want to know how?

Are grass-fed animal products a priority for you? How do you fit into in your budget?

**This post has been entered into Fat Tuesday, Whole Foods Wednesday, Real Foods Wednesday, Fresh Foods Link Up #18, and Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #52.**


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  1. yes! of course they are. i simply get too grossed out by all the crap in mass produced beef. it isn’t a compromise for me – it just has to happen. like brushing my teeth. it just gets fit into the budget. i.e. – to solidify happy meat in my diet, i cancelled my cable….which i can watch for free via my laptop and for minimal fees via Itunes. Even if I factor in the extra cost of the meat, I still save 50 to 60 dollars a month for my entire monthly budget compared to buying grocery store meat and still having cable.

    like you said – it’s priorities.

    p.s. this post would fit right in at the Wednesday Fresh Foods Link Up – we go live in a few hours (when Wednesday hits – weird, right?)… i’d love it if you wanted to share this (or any other seasonal or real food posts). hope to see you there. xo, kristy


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