Maybe you tried grass-fed beef, and it was not great. It was not very tender, and tasted bland with a note of fish? Well, that sounds like the beef we produced 10 years ago. We just did not know any better.
By now, lots of people know that beef must be finished to taste good.
But unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about what finished means.
In essence, a beef is finished when it is ready to be slaughtered and eaten. Since tenderness and taste vastly improve with intramuscular fat deposits, to finish a beef simply means to get it fat enough.
It has long been established that beef tastes best when it has more intramuscular fat.
Liveweight, adjusted for frame score (expected finished height) and gender, can predict such ‘finish’ with great accuracy.
For the consumer, a general rule based on carcass weigh is more useful. Since almost all beeves finish at carcass weighs between 700-900 lbs, simply look for farmers that sell carcasses in that weight range. Males from larger breeds or lineages will finish at the upper end of this spectrum, females from smaller breeds at the lower end.
Age is not a good indicator as grass-fed beef will finish at a later age (but the same weight) than grain-finished because grass has a lower caloric density than grain.
In the US, where most cows are Angus, the USDA uses marbling to grade quality. However, marbling depends mostly on breed. Continental breeds like limousine or Charolais hardly marble at all, but finish by depositing microscopic fat instead.
A beef will continue to grow (and marble) long after it is finished, but once past the optimal weight, it will grow overly fat and no longer build much muscle, so yield grade percentage will suffer. While nowadays, the trend is towards slightly fattier beef with extra marbling, over-finishing beef is costly, time-consuming and may not be very sustainable.
Likewise, one can eat smaller beeves. A beef carcass at 500-650 lbs is semi-finished and will not taste great*. We used to call them baby beeves. When we started farming, we were convinced that grass-fed beef was intrinsically less fat, and that omega-3 fatty acids would inevitably lead to a gamey taste with a note of fish. In fact, these are quality defects of unfinished beef.
On the other hand, well-finished grass-fed beef does not taste, feel, look or smell different from well-finished grain-fed beef. However, the fat, vitamin and nutrient composition may be different and the implications of raising beef this way may differ.
Now that we know that finished beef has a specific meaning, we can define grass-finished as: beeves (1) with carcass weight between 700-900 lbs and (2) that ate (only) grass all their lives’.
Beware that many producers conveniently omit the first part of the definition since finishing on grass is notoriously difficult. Grass has a low caloric density (it is a very bulky form of energy) and beeves require tremendous amounts of energy for maintenance. A lot of energy is lost when making hay for the winter and cows burn even more energy just to keep warm on a cold day.
Slow or erratic growth can be problematic from an organisational, economical and sustainability perspective as well as for beef quality. Beeves that are growing too slow or lost body condition before slaughter can be less tender, lose marbling and exhibit yellow fat.
So, there is a lot of inferior grass-fed beef out there. Lots of good-natured and well-intentioned folks are taking conventional calves and move them around like crazy on huge swaths of godforsaken and abused pastures with acidic soils, that hardly grow any grass, only to fanatically upsell them as grass-fed (but unfinished) beef in the fall.
It is easy to get excited by the promises of regenerative agriculture, and it may be comforting to subscribe to its principles and dogmatically follow popular techniques or practitioners in the unwavering conviction that one is turning the ship around while producing a great product and making a profit.
Yet, producing great beef, and providing consumers with accurate information that transcends marketing, while living off the farm is quite another thing.
In this article, we argued how carcass weight is a good indicator for beef quality for consumers. Moreover, we can also measure or predict the impact on climate change, the environment, animal welfare, workload, and farm finances, consumer health and so on.
We do not have enough space to go into details here, but it is safe to say that the biggest economic, environmental, and social costs of raising beef are incurred by keeping the mother cow. Since it takes 105 cows (assume 5% calving and other problems) to produce about 80 000 lbs of finished beef, or about 140 cows to produce 80 000 lbs of baby beeves at 600 lbs, there is little doubt that finishing beeves is more sustainable overall. It obviously takes more energy to keep 35 more cows around for a year than to put 200 lbs of weight on 100 beeves, especially if it is done judiciously.
Selling or buying baby beef (even if it is erroneously called finished beef) is simply not sustainable.
*However some females from very small breeds like Scottish Highland or Galloway may be finished at these low weights.