November 11, 2012

Food for thought

Peter Hagar, Cooperative Extension Educator

---- — Naturally raised, pastured, grass fed, grain fed, free range, organically grown, which is right for you? When it comes to buying meat at the grocery store, farmer’s market or from the farmer directly, you face a myriad of terms that can either clarify or confuse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a number of descriptive terms that can legally be used in the marketing of meat products. Knowing the meaning of these terms can make purchasing of meat and poultry products less confusing.

A popular new trend both locally and nationally is “grass-fed” beef. While all beef cows and calves are usually kept on pastures, grass “finishing” is what we are really talking about.

Instead of moving calves to a confinement system and feeding them a higher proportion of high-energy grains, grass-finished beef keep on grazing, often utilizing intensive pasture systems. During the winter months, the cattle are fed dry hay or hay silage instead of grains. The benefit of this method is that the cattle are in a more natural environment, under less stress and can yield leaner cuts of meat.

Does grass fed equal organic? Not necessarily. Although grazing cows will wander about the farm spreading their manure naturally, the farmer often needs to spread additional fertilizer to maximize forage growth. Products such as fertilizer, fly sprays, wormers and the occasional use of antibiotics for sick animals are not allowed in organic beef. Also, organic cattle aren’t necessarily strictly grass fed. Organically raised cattle can be fed grain as long as the grain is organic, too.

What about “natural?”  Meat products labeled “natural” must be without additives and must be “minimally processed.” The “natural” label does not signify the method of growing the animal. “Naturally raised” is a voluntary label standard that indicates that the animal has been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and has never been fed animal by-products. Again, “naturally raised” cattle can be grain fed.

How about buying local? By buying meat from a local beef farmer, you will be supporting your neighbors and the local businesses they support. Since beef cattle in our area are primarily raised on pasture on small-scale farms, you can get to know a whole lot more about who is producing your food. Knowing the farmer and how the farm cares for the animals is the best way to be sure that your beef is raised humanely and with farming practices that most mirror your values.

So where do you find local beef? Several local farmers have been selling beef at area farmers markets, and more are selling directly from the farm. If the beef has been processed at a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant, it can be sold by the pound or in bulk. However, if you purchase an animal for your own use, it can be processed by a local custom processor.

This “freezer beef” is usually sold by the pound based on the carcass weight. Many factors will affect how much actual meat you will receive. The animal’s size and condition, the amount of body fat and the length of time aging all factor in. The finished cut weight as a percentage of live weight will range from about 38-43 percent so a whole 1,200 pound steer will yield 456 to 516 actual pounds of meat cuts.

You don’t need 500 pounds of meat? Most freezer beef is sold by the quarter or half to several different people to allow for a more affordable and reasonable quantity for storage.

To find a source of local beef, you can ask your friends and neighbors for a referral, talk with a local beef farmer or try several websites that promote local foods. Adirondack Harvest is a local community organization with a local food map available at If you still have questions about buying local beef, contact Peter Hagar, Extension agriculture educator, at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite No. 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email