I recently met with a local farmer and his wife to take a tour of their property and learn a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes of a local farm. At Burgett Family Farm, they raise 100% grass-fed and finished beef, grain-fed beef, and pasture raised pork. When the pandemic first hit they dabbled in raising chickens, but have put a pause on this for now. I am so excited to share all the information they shared with me on our tour. It is amazing how little most consumers know about what goes into raising an animal and everything that had to happen before it ends up on our plates. My goal is to teach you more of what happens behind the scenes and hopefully help you to find a greater appreciation for local, quality meat.
The Burgett Family Farm
The Burgett Family Farm, which is made up of 80 acres, has been in the family for 111 years. Up until 5 years ago, the farm was mainly agricultural crops (i.e. soybeans, corn). With a shift in interest of grass-fed beef, came a shift in the direction of the farm. The Burgetts began turning crop fields into pastures to raise more cattle. They currently have 50 cattle, 40 grass-fed and 10 grain-fed.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef
Whether or not a cow was grass-fed or grain-fed, all beef offers essential nutrients into our diet, including protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and niacin. Like most foods, when consumed in moderation, beef can be a part a healthy, balanced diet.
All cows are are fed grass at some point in their life. But, when a cow is grass-fed for the entirety of it’s life, the meat ends up nutritionally superior. When you simply compare grass-fed ground beef to grain-fed, you can immediately see a difference in the fat content. Cows that only eat grass tend to be leaner due to the nutritional content of the grass and the fact that they get more movement from grazing pastures all day, everyday. This results in not only a leaner product, but a difference in the overall composition of fatty acids. See how it compares below.
- Grass-fed beef has less monounsaturated fat than grain-fed. Monounsaturated fats are a type of healthy, dietary fat.
- Grass-fed beef has similar amounts of omega-6 fats to grain-fed. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are another type of healthy, dietary fat.
- Grass-fed beef has much more omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed. Omega-3s are another polyunsaturated fat that Americans tend to not get enough of. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and help promote heart, lung, blood vessel, and immune health.
- Grass-fed beef has significantly more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed. CLA is a type of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. Limited research suggests that CLA can reduce body fat, improve insulin resistance, provide anticarcinogenic effects, reduce atherosclerosis, and improve lipid profiles.
Additionally, some studies show higher levels of antioxidants (α-tocopherol and β-carotene) within grass-fed beef vs grain-fed.
When you hear the term “grass-fed” you may just picture a field of regular grass and expect that to be what the cattle are grazing on. The reality is much more complex. The Burgetts explained to me that first, they have their soil tested and then determine an appropriate mixture of grasses from there. Similar to feed for grain-fed cows, blends are important for grass-fed cattle as each specific grass offers important nutrients for the cattle. Grass blends typically include clover, alfalfa, and chicory.
- Clover- a legume that provides protein and fiber for the cattle along with many micronutrients. It also help introduce nitrogen back into the soil.
- Alfalfa- another legume that provides protein, fiber, and micronutrients, especially calcium, for the cattle. It also helps improve soil nitrogen.
- Chicory- a drought and frost resistant herb that provides a great source of calories and minerals for cattle.
Grass blends are also important, as this way every season a different grass is growing and the cattle consistently have a source of food. The cows also need some additional supplementation, much like humans may benefit from a multivitamin! The Burgetts provide mineral tubs at each pasture for the cattle to essentially, help themselves to. These tubs contain calcium and phosphorus which are both nutrients that most pastures lack, even with proper fertilization. They also contain vitamins A, D, and E, and magnesium to prevent grass tetany. Lastly, they contain sodium bicarbonate which helps stabilize the pH in the cow’s rumen and help the cattle if they experience indigestion from their high-fiber grass diets. It amazes me that the cattle are smart enough to self-regulate with this supplementation!
There is not currently a label that will 100% promise a product in the grocery store was indeed grass-fed throughout the entirety of the animal’s life. Some call this “grass-finished”. So, be mindful of this when paying more for a grass-fed label at the grocery store. The USDA regulates the term “grass-fed”, but doesn’t necessarily enforce it. AKA pretty much any manufacturer can put this on their label since all cows are at some point grass-fed. This is why supporting local farmers and knowing how their animals are raised is the best way to know exactly what you are paying for.
You may be asking why aren’t all cattle grass-fed? Well, there are many factors that play into a farmers decision to grass or grain feed, but I imagine the overall business aspect to be the main reason why. The Burgetts explained to me that grass-fed cattle grow 2.5 lbs per day, compared to grain-fed that grow 3.5-4 lbs per day. Depending on breed, grain-fed cattle can be harvested at ~18 months while the grass-fed could take up to 22 months to be at an appropriate size for harvesting. This alone can make a big difference in terms of profit. The longer a cow needs to grow, the more supplies, time, and energy they require!
Just because a cow is not grass-fed for the entirety of it’s life, does not mean it won’t provide a nutritious product. In no way am I wanting to bash grain-fed in this blog post. Grain-fed beef may be a preference to some due to the lower cost and a more tender product from the higher fat content. I personally enjoy both grass-fed and grain-fed beef in my diet. The Burgetts have some grain-fed cattle and taught me more about what “grain-fed” really means. Similar to the grass-fed blends, grain blends are important for the animal’s health. The Burgetts use a special blend of corn, protein pellets, soy pellets, calcium, yeast, and molasses to ensure a balanced diet for the cattle.
Along with the quality of the beef, many people are interested in the quality of the animals’ lives. Customers often ask about how the animals are raised. On our tour, it was very apparent to me how much the Burgetts care about their animals. From quickly being corrected to using the term “harvest” vs “slaughter”, to talking about how that day never gets easier for them, these animals are clearly a vital part of their family. They even told me a story about how they had to quickly end a date night to rush back to the farm for a live birth! The Burgetts spend hours everyday (after their regular 9-5s) to ensure proper care of their animals. You would never know the backstory to where your meat comes from like this, if you only ever purchased from the grocery store.
The Weaning Process
Did you know that a cow’s gestational period is 9 months just like ours?! When it is time to pull the calf from it’s mother, this is called weaning. The Burgetts do their weaning process a little differently to ensure a less stressful experience for both the baby and the mother. After 6 months with the mother, the baby is pulled to a conjoining pasture where they can still have nose to nose contact. This is called “fence-line weaning”. Babies that are weaned this way only cry for 3 days, compared to 1.5-3 weeks when the baby is taken away without any contact with the mother. By weaning the cattle this way, The Burgetts report less stress and stronger immune systems for their newer cattle.
A hot topic for any farmer is always antibiotic use. You will often see “no antibiotics ever” printed on packaging. Companies know that this marketing is a big money maker. Consumers believe this results in a superior product and are typically willing to spend more on something labeled like this. From previous dairy farm tours, I knew dairy cows are not allowed to be milked until the antibiotics are completely out of their system. If any antibiotics are found in a milk tank, the entire tank has to be dumped. Keep in mind, most dairy tanks contain hundreds to thousands of gallons of milk. No farmer would ever want this to happen! I wondered what this was like in terms of beef cattle and the answer was fairly similar. The Burgetts report every antibiotic has a designated time period for when the drug leaves the animal’s system. No cow can be harvested until that antibiotic is completely out of it’s system. The Burgetts voiced concerns regarding labels that say no antibiotics used. They asked me if I would rather eat an animal that suffered from an illness without treatment or an animal that was treated promptly and had time to ensure the antibiotic was completely out of it’s system. This was a really interesting point and something that had me stop and think for a while. Most farmers will not use antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
Sustainability In Farming
As a third generation farmer, Mr. Burgett is making many changes to his farm to reduce his carbon footprint. He mentions having a tank heater that uses geothermal heat- no electricity- to keep the animal’s water supply from freezing in the winter months. In each pasture of his, you can also find a water jug that is 8 feet into the ground. This also helps to keep the water warm in colder months and reduces the need for tractors to move around heavy containers of fresh water. Even the mineral tubs are made to be easily picked up by hand and moved from pasture to pasture to reduce the need for a tractor. Along with reducing tractor use and thus CO2 emissions, the method of grazing and grass-feeding the cattle encourages new growth while working manure and other natural fertilizers into the soil. These cattle help to restore soil microbial diversity, making the land more resilient to flooding and drought. For their grain-fed cattle, the Burgetts use yeast from a local brewery once they are done using it to make their craft beer. Instead of the yeast going to waste, most breweries are happy to give these away to farmers. This is a really cool way to up-cycle what would otherwise be a waste product!
How To Find A Local Farmer Near You
Before my farm tour, I asked questions on my Instagram stories to see if you had ever purchased meat/eggs from a local farmer. For those of you that had not before, you stated that the main reason you hadn’t is because you do not know of any to go through. My first recommendation would be to try your local farmers market or even search their directory if you do not have time to attend in person. If you are looking for grass-fed beef specifically, you can try searching your state on eatwild.com or americangrassfed.org. I also recommend searching farms near you on Google, as not all are going to be in farmers markets or on these directories! I know that getting your meat somewhere different from the grocery store is not as convenient, but you may be surprised at how much you enjoy supporting those in your community and how much more connected you are to what is on your plate when you see first-hand where it came from.
Grass-Fed Cooking Tips
If you have never cooked with grass-fed meat before, you may want to review some resources on how to best prepare the meat. The lower fat content in grass-fed meats can result in a tougher piece of meat, if not prepared properly. The American Grass Fed Association has some great tips listed here.
I hope you have found this blog post both informative and inspiring. I personally felt inspired and eager to support local farmers near me after my farm tour. I would like to thank the Burgetts for having me on their farm and teaching me more about everything that goes into raising beef. If you would like to support the Burgett Family Farm, you can check out their Facebook page here or call 317-509-1348. Please note that they do not currently ship their meats. If you are local to Indianapolis, they occasionally will meet you farther north than their farm. Speak to them directly to organize this.