Against grain: No matter how you slice it, cattle that eats grass said to be the tastiest

Clare Howard

Experiencing grass-finished beef is "tasting beef for the first time . . . an all-time high, a thrill" says farmer, Ph.D. and cookbook author Shannon Hayes.

Experiencing grass-finished beef is the right thing to do for your health, says Ron and Brenda Skaggs of Indian Valley Beef in Tiskilwa.

Both perspectives are part of a growing appreciation for beef raised according to the traditional way of production - before growth hormones, antibiotics and feed lots. Understanding the difference between grass-finished beef and grain-fed beef raised in feedlots can start on the 34-acre Indian Valley Beef operation the Skaggs own.

The setting is pristine and verdant, with rolling pasture and woodland bordering Timber Line Creek in Bureau County. The terrain is rugged and steep, with air that smells of deep forest and clean water.

A small, contented herd of Australian Lowline cattle roams and forages this property much like cattle once did before the advent of industrialized farming.

Ron Skaggs started researching the concept of grass-finished beef because of health issues. He was told by his doctor that if he couldn't lower his cholesterol, he'd have to start medication.

Both Hayes and Skaggs said the traditional protocol for raising cattle was grass feeding that produced meat high in omega-3 fatty acids and linoleic acid.

"Omega-3 is your heart healthy fat. Conjugated linoleic acid fights cancer. These are lost in grain-fed production," Hayes said. "After the 1950s, the practice of pumping grain into animals started in order to fatten them."

She said growth hormones and antibiotics fed to grain-raised cattle in feed lots are linked to early maturity problems in children.

Cattle are ruminants, biologically designed to forage on grasses, not to eat a consistent diet of grain, Hayes said, noting that the altered diet and tight quarters in feed lots create the need for large amounts of antibiotics.

Grain-feeding produces consistent meat, but the meat lacks flavor, she said. The increased fat and atrophied muscles of animals from feed lots produce meat that has become the American standard. Cooking has changed to accommodate this new standard.

"Americans have learned to cook beef on principles of consistency," she said. "With artisan-raised, grass-fed meat, we have to learn to cook with the meat in our hand. . . . It's not rocket science. Not difficult. Just different."

She said grilled beef should not be charred on the outside but caramelized and glistening. She recommends searing meat to lock in the juices and flavor, then finishing with indirect heat, not over the flame but off to the side with the lid of the grill closed.

"At the end of the day, people will not switch unless the taste is fantastic," she said. "Go out and taste beef for the first time. Taste beef from your own eco system. We are no longer used to chewing and tasting food. We want to just inhale food. Grass-finished beef should be eaten and experienced slowly . . . like wine."

Hayes gives workshops across the country on grilling meat. She works with any grass-finished meat from responsible local producers, and she cooks consistently tender meat.

She spent eight hours once working with a Cornell University food scientist who refused to believe grass-finished beef could be more tender.

"The grass-fed beef was more tender than the grain-fed every time," she said. "When animals are content, they do not have stress hormones released into the meat."

Chef Josh Adams plans to serve grass-finished Indian Valley Beef at June, his new Peoria Heights restaurant slated to open in late September in Heritage Square on Prospect Road.

An entree item on his preliminary menu for the restaurant is Indian Valley Beef rib eye, salt roasted fingerling potatoes, pickled shallots, Italian parsley puree and roasted garlic aioli.

The restaurant will have the area's first "farm to table" menu based on a network of regional family producers in Illinois and Indiana. In addition to Indian Valley Beef, also represented on the menu will be meats from Wettstein Farm, Greengold Acres Farm and Gunthrop farm; produce from Garden Spot Farm, Blue Moon Farm, Living Earth Farm and Tiny Greens Organic Farm; and cheeses from Prairie Fruits Farm.

The menu represents the philosophy of the Skaggs and other producers who value local food grown with traditional farming practices.

On a recent July evening, Alyson Hopkins drove down to Indian Valley Beef from her home in Bolingbrook to buy half a steer. The steaks, T-bones and roasts filled two huge freezer chests in her van and the ground beef was packed in bags.

Hopkins, who has five children, said, "Prior to the past year, my billfold was my guide to shopping. Organic meat is so outrageously expensive. But here I could buy all this organic beef for $3.50 a pound."

Skaggs said there is more to grass-finished beef than turning cattle out to forage. His property is never sprayed or chemically treated. He seeds his pasture with clover, rye, chicory and other grasses to give his animals nutritional balance. Garlic helps keep flies away from the cattle and is a natural worming technique.

Grass-finished and grass-fed beef are terms often used interchangeably, but because he gives his cattle a small natural supplement, he prefers the term grass-finished.

"With grain prices as high as they are, no one is going to take land out of grain production and put it into pasture," Skaggs said. "This will continue to be a tight market."

Regarding his own health, Skaggs said he started eating grass-finished beef, oatmeal, flax seed and flax oil; avoids sodium; and eliminated deep-fried foods.

"My cholesterol went from the danger zone to normal, and that was without drugs," he said. "I wish I had done this 20 years ago."

Peoria Journal Star writer Clare Howard can be reached at