Farmers head back to nature with grass-fed beef
Frank and Stacy Bowman started raising grass-fed beef for their own use about five years ago. Soon, friends and family started asking for it.
Today, their Sangamon Valley Cattle Co. in Pleasant Plains sells to the public, one of a small number of Midwestern farms where cattle graze in open pastures instead of eating the more traditional diet of corn or other grain fed in commercial feedlots.
“The market for grass-fed animals is growing steadily as people take more interest in the foods they eat and they shift to local foods,” Frank Bowman said.
Before World War II, most cattle fed on grass. But during the war, the U.S. government gave surplus corn to ranchers, who fed it to their cattle. The corn made the animals gain weight faster, and soon cattlemen were building giant feedlots to fatten cattle toward the end of their lives. Growth hormones added to feed sped up the weight gain.
“We harvest our first and heaviest cattle at 18 to 20 months of age. Heifers tend to finish earlier than steers. We’re all done by the time they reach 24 to 26 months,” Bowman said.
“In commercial feedlots, they’ll push to become heavy at 14 to 16 months. Ours take a little longer. There’s more crafting.”
The 20 or so head of cattle at the Sangamon Valley Cattle Co. graze in fields of grasses and legumes near the fertile banks of the Sangamon River. In the winter, they are fed haylage, a mixture of high-moisture cut grasses.
The Bowmans also raise grass-fed lamb and grow corn, soybeans and hay on the farm that has been in Stacy Bowman’s family for 108 years.
Maralee Johnson, executive vice president of the Illinois Beef Association, said grass-fed beef gives consumers a choice.
“Grass-fed is a small market. There are a few people who want it, people who are interested in knowing where their food supply is from and in reducing their footprint. We’re getting into niche markets and supply streams now,” she said.
She said grass-fed beef is leaner than corn-fed and may not be appealing to a diner who wants a well-marbled steak.
“We don’t promote one against the other,” Johnson said. “There are customers who want grass-fed and will pay for it, while others say, ‘I don’t care. Give me a big marbled steak.’ A good eating experience is what we want people to have.”
Producing grass-fed beef in large amounts is difficult in North America, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, because most of the continent doesn’t have the required growing season. Most grass-fed beef in this country is imported from Australia or New Zealand, where grass is more abundant than corn and grows year-round.
Grass-fed beef is said to have less fat and cholesterol, fewer calories and more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says grass-fed has 15 milligrams more omega-3 fats and slightly more vitamin E.
Bowman and others who raise animals naturally do not use growth hormones, steroids, stimulants or antibiotics.
“Health concerns are driving some of this. I have a lot of folks who have children with allergies to any grain,” he said.
The price of grass-fed beef is competitive with other types of beef, he said, because farmers' costs don't escalate with grain prices.
Bowman, originally from Colorado, describes grass-fed beef as having "more texture and flavor, closer to the meat that our ancestors ate." He said it's less "washy" than conventional beef. Because it has less fat, cooking it requires careful attention.
"Grass-fed steaks can go from the best to the worst in less than a minute. You can ruin them in a heartbeat," he said. He offers this cooking advice:
--Don’t overcook it. Grass-fed is ideal for rare to medium-rare cooking. For well-done beef, cook at low temperatures in a sauce to keep it moist.
--Take meat off the heat source 10 degrees before it reaches the desired temperature; it continues to cook after it’s removed from the heat.
--Reduce the temperature of grass-fed beef recipes by 50 degrees when roasting and use the lowest heat setting when using a crock pot. The cooking time will be the same or slightly shorter.
--Try stove-top cooking; it gives you more control over the temperature. Use butter and garlic in the final minutes when the heat is low to carry the taste through the meat.
--Coat the meat to keep moisture in. Use virgin olive oil to add flavor, encourage browning and prevent drying.
--Tenderize or marinate beef before cooking lean cuts such as sirloin or New York Strip steaks. Good marinades include lemon, vinegar, wine, beer, bourbon, Italian dressing or any bottled marinade.
--Bring meat to room temperature before cooking.
--Never use a microwave to thaw grass-fed beef. Either thaw in the refrigerator or under cold running water while the meat is still vacuum-sealed.
Recipes are adapted from “The Prairie Table Cookbook” by Bill Kurtis with Michelle Martin (Sourcebooks, 2008, $29.95).
Texas Beef Tips
2 pounds grass-fed sirloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon grease (more if necessary)
1 clove garlic, slashed
1/2 package dry onion soup mix
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon steak sauce
1 to 2 cups water
1 medium onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a 14-inch Dutch oven, brown meat in grease. Add garlic and soup mix and stir until soup mix dissolves. Add Tabasco sauce, steak sauce and water. Cook until all blends in, about 3 minutes. Add jalapeno and cornstarch. Mix all together and simmer on low heat for 2 hours. Makes 6 servings.
Filet Mignon with Cabernet Peppercorn Sauce
6 grass-fed filet mignon steaks
Salt and pepper
1 cup white mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup chopped shallots
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine, preferable cabernet
2 quarts demi-glace (see note)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon beef base (see note)
Cornstarch, as needed
Season both sides of the filets with salt and pepper. Place filets on the grill. Once meat reaches internal temperature of 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare, remove from the grill and let rest about 5 minutes before serving.
Cabernet Peppercorn Sauce: In a saucepan over medium heat, saute mushrooms, shallots and peppercorns in oil. When shallots are tender, deglaze pan with red wine and reduce by two-thirds.
Whisk together the reduction and demi-glace until smooth. Whisk in the cream and beef base.
Combine a few teaspoons of cornstarch (or more as needed) with a little cold water to make a slurry. Add slurry to the sauce to thicken; cook for 1 minute and then remove from the heat. Pour sauce over steaks.
Note: Demi-glace is a rich sauce of reduced beef or veal stock. It can be homemade or purchased at kitchen specialty stores. Beef base is concentrated beef flavor that can be found in the soup aisle of grocery stores.
Makes 6 servings.
Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached email@example.com or (217) 788-1520.
Where can I buy it?
Here are some area sources for grass-fed beef, from www.eatwild.com. Visit the Web site for more locations.
--James Family Farm, Andrea James, 3750 Sherman Road, Sherman, (217) 496-2160. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.jamesfamilyfarm.com.
--Sangamon Valley Cattle Co., Frank and Stacy Bowman, 5128 Stagecoach Road, Pleasant Plains, (217) 487-7664. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.svgrassfedbeef.com.
--Sonrise Farms, Dan and Diane Hesterberg, 1330 E. 3000 North Road, Penfield, (217) 595-5603. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.sonrisefarms.net.
--Vincent Family Farm, Todd Vincent, 368 1300th Ave., Lake Fork, (217) 306-4058. E-mail: email@example.com.