By the time Claire Benjack took over her family’s farm in 2008, she had a clear vision for how she planned to raise her cattle. She’d grown up with a front row seat at her family’s operation, and read—and been deeply influenced by—Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma, and knew she wanted her animals to be grass fed and nurtured in an environment where they would enjoy happy, stress-free lives. The approach seems to be working; since taking the reins, she has been producing some of the most tender and excellent tasting beef around at River Road Farm in Franklin, Virginia. Here, Benjack discusses the benefits of her natural approach to raising livestock, and offers advice on how consumers can source beef they can feel good about buying. While eating meat is a personal choice that involves taking many factors into consideration, for those who do, these recommendations will hopefully lead to a healthier, tastier, and more informed meat-buying experience.
Understand the health benefits of grass-fed beef for both cows and humans. According to Benjack, what cows can eat on feedlots is alarming—it can include anything from grains to candy. This, in turn, leads to sick cows and a buildup of E. coli in their systems, which results in the rampant use of antibiotics. A diet that consists of a variety of grasses, however, is consistent with what cows are meant to ingest, and, Benjack says, yields heart-healthier meat. While much has been made of marbling in terms of taste, Benjack notes that it isn’t the only factor to consider, and adds, “Any marbling in a grain fed animal isn’t good for you.”
Consider that grass-feeding provides perks for both farmers and cattle. When Benjack first took over her family’s farm operation, she started out small, with just five cows, and grew from there. Along the way, she discovered that grass feeding is much easier than grain feeding. “I grew up witnessing everything that went into grain feeding,” she said. “There’s a lot of time and money you have to invest.” Today, her cows can roam for years, rotating in and out of different pastures to sample a variety of grasses, and they never have a shot of antibiotics. “I also like to believe they enjoy the change of scenery,” she says.
Remember the importance of ethically raised beef. Benjack feels strongly that an organic certification doesn’t matter as much as how the animals are treated. “All of my animals are born and bred on my land. I plant the seeds for the grasses they eat and make the hay right here,” she says. She knows exactly what’s happening to them at every stage of their life, and has a great appreciation for what they give in the end, which is a superior product.
Be aware of the environmental implications. Many factors contribute to the environmental impact of meat production—an area that is well worth taking some time to research. While the verdict still seems to be out on which method produces the smallest carbon footprint, Benjack argues (and she is not alone) that grass-fed cattle are better for the environment than their grain-fed counterparts because they are putting carbon back into the earth as they roam the pastures, returning nutrients to the soil and enriching the land that feeds them.
Know the effects of stress. Benjack believes that happier cows are healthier and better tasting, and she cites science to support that claim: stress produces lactic acid, which makes meat tough. At River Road Farm, calves stay with their mothers until they are six to eight months old, cattle have a variety of grasses to eat, and the animals are treated with kindness and never yelled at, electrocuted, poked, or prodded. As a result, they lead happy, low-stress lives, which Benjack says leads to better meat. “Living a great life makes a difference,” she says.
Be conscious of where you buy. The local, grass-fed beef movement is spreading across the country, which means that many communities have access to ethically raised beef from a not-too-distant farm. Benjack suggests sourcing yours at your local farmers market, where you will likely find a farmer who can tell you about their practices. In addition to resulting in a purchase you’ll enjoy, you can know that when you buy from a small farmer, you’re supporting a big dream. Chances are, like Benjack, the seller takes great pride in watching over every step of their operation, and in being able to put delicious, healthy food on people’s tables.