Grass fed vs. Grain fed – A Suburban Homesteaders Dilemma

Sunday, March 29, 2015

PastureLivestock Feed

Staunch disagreements sweep across the country debating the benefits and economics of grass fed animals versus grain fed. Pasture raised meat might be better for you, but that could depend on the quality of the pasture they are raised on. And, when it comes to the taste and tenderness of the meat the grass vs. grain could bring a whole different story to light.

 Grass vs. grain is an added dilemma, especially for suburban homesteaders or those trying to live a self-sufficient life on a parcel too small to pasture large meat animals successfully. This has always been our challenge…wanting to raise quality meat and process it humanely, but not having the space for them to roam as we’d like.

Our dream may be of wide open spaces, rolling grasslands dotted with livestock, but our reality is not that grand. For us, our reality is a 1/3-acre lot at the edge of town, with pens large enough for animals to roam around and laze in the sun, and sheltered areas so they can come in from the rain.

Old-time farmers and leather-faced cowboys may scoff at the idea of raising a hog or lamb in a few months on feed store grains. They may prefer the aged taste of hogs raised mostly on acorns, or beef raised on the range. My late father-in-law had a way with meat, whether it came from the range, the barn, the grocery store or was hunted. He had his special mixes of herbs and spices and rubs. He was particular about how to rub the meat, whether to inject brine into a turkey or lamb before cooking. And, of course, there was the wood he used for smoking; hickory for hams, cedar for fish and citrus for lamb and poultry. He was very specific that each wood gave the meat a distinct flavor. But his steadfast rule, the one he never altered from, was that to get a moist, juicy and tender piece of meat you must cook it low and slow. That was his motto.

Over the years, I have raised animals on pasture while living on a 700 acre farm and in smaller accommodations now that I live on a 1/3-acre suburban homestead. I have followed the principles of good nutrition, given my animals plenty of water, fresh air and sunshine. And, I’ve tried to follow my father-in-laws instructions on how to cook meat. His work was magic that was not pasted down, though.

I have butchered year old rams raised on pasture, 6-month old freezer lambs raised on grain and hay, and 7-week old chickens, rabbits and ducks raised on our suburban homestead. I have developed my own style of cooking, not so similar to his, but one that is all my own. But, the real reason our meats tastes so good is not because it was raised on grass or grain, but because I became a better cook over time.

Tonight I enjoyed a lamb shank dinner. It’s a cheaper cut of meat that can be tough whether raised in a factory, on a farm or on a suburban homestead. I dredged it in flour and seasoned it with salt and pepper before searing it to seal in the juices, but that was just the beginning of creating an entrée that would end up falling off the bone and so tender it would almost melt in your mouth.

The magic was in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar; the spices, wine, garlic, and herbs that I have learned to use from fellow sheep breeders, cooks and fine epicurean magazines. Out came a shank as luscious as any rack of lamb, leg or loin produced by a 5-star restaurant.

Even a cheap chicken wing can taste like manna from heaven if you use the right seasonings and the best southern frying methods. You can even make cardboard taste good with the right seasonings and cooking techniques.

I think the taste of our chickens today is influence somewhat by their ability to grub around in the dirt, and the way in which we butcher, cool and freeze them, and I know that our home-raised lambs taste a lot different than what I’ve eaten in restaurants, but the real difference is in the art of the kitchen. My chickens taste just as great whether they are raised on feed store grains or kitchen scrapes, worms and bugs.

So…what’s the point of my story?

Just this…

Don’t get hung up on whether you have rolling pastures for grazing or a round pen on a suburban lot for grain-fed. The bigger issue, the bigger point is that you are raising something on your own, for your own family. You are learning about animal husbandry, processing livestock and stocking up; taking one step closer to being as self-sufficient as you choose to be. And that in itself makes a great end product. That’s the magic!

Leave a Reply