A Taste of the Open Range
A handful of South County ranchers switch to grass-fed beef.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
I’m standing at the exit end of a cow, my arm plunged shoulder deep into the orifice commonly referred to as the poop chute. I consider how I came to find myself in this predicament, and am incredulous—not because I voluntarily chose to invade the nether regions of a cow with my own limb, but at how eagerly I accepted the invitation from Dr. Jim Hayes, the veterinarian who is coaching me through this bovine violation.
“Keep your hand flat,” he says, “that’s it…now you should feel some cobblestone-like things, those are called cotyledons, they’re like the bolts that fasten the placenta to the uterus. Now, your hand should start feeling something like a little bag of bones. That’s the calf.” Through the thin plastic sheath encasing my arm, I feel a small round object squirm against my cupped hand. I’m enjoying the strange sensation of gently patting an unborn baby cow on the head.
Ranchers Chris Harrold and Ray Berta watch, Berta looking bemused and Harrold slightly worried. He’s concerned for my safety, since some of his cows don’t submit to a pregnancy examination as serenely as this one does.
Earlier Dr. Hayes had eyed me with a look of caution as I pulled the shoulder-length plastic glove onto my right arm, ready to go the distance. “Now, are you right- or left-handed?” I indicated that the glove was indeed on my dominant hand. “Well, it’s probably not going to be a problem, so I wouldn’t worry about it, but one of the things they teach you in vet school is that at some point she’s going to sit on your arm and break it…”
The sentence is still drawling out of him as I hastily strip the glove from my right arm and transfer it to my left. He approved. “That way you can still write and stuff with your good hand.”
A little forethought goes a long way in the world of the large-animal vet. Even with this grim possibility, I’m undeterred, and hold my plastic-gauntleted left arm out for a coating of pink lubricant from a squeeze bottle.
Harrold isn’t so sure about this. “Uh, Jim, is this really such a good idea? I mean, we don’t want her to get hurt or anything.” The vet dismisses Harrold’s concerns and gives the cow a friendly swat on the rump.
“Nah, she’ll be fine, Chris, this girl’s pretty mellow!” I assume he’s referring to the cow and proceed with my first-ever bovine pregnancy check, bringing us to how I found myself mired in…well, let’s just say it wasn’t the cleanest situation I’ve been in.
I’m taking part in the big June gather, when the Harrold-Berta cows are rounded up and brought in from the range for pregnancy checks and vaccinations, and so the ranchers can figure out which of the young steers are to become steaks, roasts and burgers the following weekend.
It’s been a good year for their grass-fed beef sales; eight of the steers have been sold directly to individual buyers and will be butchered in short order. Still, four unsold steers, the smallest, will end up on the auction block, likely to be purchased by a commercial feedlot operation, to be fattened up on grain prior to slaughter, the fate of the vast majority of beef cattle in the United States.
Ray Berta, a horse-trainer by profession, is known in Western riding circles as a local horse guru—a man who can put himself in the animal’s mind and find the best way to help horse and rider come to a mutual agreement. He also teaches clinics on cutting—the art of herding cattle from horseback.
While this partnership with Harrold is a side project, it’s in the tradition of his forefathers; some of the cows in the Harrold-Berta herd are descended from the herd his grandfather started in Carmel Valley in the 1800s.
Chris Harrold’s route to becoming a rancher was a bit more roundabout. His day job is director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where he oversees research programs working to better understand and protect the ocean. For relaxation, Harrold and his wife ride trails in Carmel Valley. A few years back he signed up for one of Berta’s cutting clinics; eventually they formed a ranching partnership, taking over Berta’s father’s herd when he passed away.
The decision to implement grass-fed ranching practices came after reading a 2002 New York Times Magazine article by noted food writer Michael Pollan.
“From the perspective of humane animal care, environmental stewardship and human health, industrial feedlots are very bad news,” Harrold says. “So it just feels good to keep our steers out of that stream, even if we’re only small volume producers.”
Today I’ll be choosing my own steer from those destined for the dinner table. My inner carnivore is eagerly anticipating a freezer full of nice London broil steaks, stew meat, roasts, and hamburgers for summer barbecues, but it’s my conscience that’s led me to this particular ranch. I had only recently heard the term “grass-fed beef,” and my first thought was, “Don’t all cows eat grass?”
It’s true that all cows begin their lives grazing on pasture. However, to meet US consumer demand for inexpensive and plentiful meat, large-scale beef producers have come up with a cheaper, more efficient way of getting cows off the ranch and into plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays.
At around seven or eight months of age, most beef cows are trucked from the range to a commercial feedlot. There, instead of being allowed to live out their lives foraging for grass, the animals are packed together in pens and fed a diet designed to fatten them up as quickly as possible.
The feedlot’s high-starch and protein diet, combined with a careful cocktail of pharmaceuticals, ensures that the cows quickly expand to “slaughter weight,” but not without some serious side effects. (See sidebar, next page.)
Grass-fed beef could more accurately be called grass-finished beef, since these cows spend their entire lives eating nothing but what they evolved to eat: low starch, high cellulose grasses and forage.
The meat from a grass-fed cow has a distinctly different flavor from your typical store-bought beef. Some describe it as being richer and more flavorful, while others say it’s a little gamier, more like elk or deer. Berta says he notices it most distinctly in a hamburger. His wife brought home some regular ground beef from the grocery store one night after she discovered they had eaten their entire supply of frozen burger from the ranch, and at dinner Berta immediately noticed the lack of flavor. “It tasted more like cardboard,” he says.
In addition to taste, grass-fed beef is a healthier choice for those concerned about calories or heart disease—a six-ounce grass-fed steak contains 100 fewer calories than an ordinary steak of the same size.
So with all the health and environmental benefits, why isn’t grass-fed beef found in every grocery store meat department, alongside the organic free-range chickens? If Frank La Macchia has anything to say about it, it soon will be.
A shaggy faced ranch dog barks a few times and wags his tail by way of greeting as I pull up to the PL Bar Ranch in Gonzales—one of Monterey County’s largest producers of grass-fed beef for the commercial market.
Frank La Macchia briefly says hello, then excuses himself to take a quick phone call in the ranch office.
I follow him across the yard past tall edifices of sun-weathered hay bales while scores of barn swallows dart and wheel around nearby whitewashed sheds. At the moment, there are no cows down here near the ranch buildings; they’re all grazing.
The PL Bar is a medium-sized operation out along Gloria Road, with pastures leading up gently sloping hillsides to the Gabilan Range. PL stands for Pete La Macchia, an Italian who emigrated to the US in the early 1900s and became a butcher at a Salinas grocery store.
In 1940 he bought an old dry farm near Gonzalez. Mostly he wanted some land to ride his horse on. In ’47 he retired from the grocery store and bought some cows, and within a few years his retirement hobby became a thriving cattle business.
Frank La Macchia attended school to become a bookkeeper, but when his father passed away unexpectedly in ’58, Frank, then 20, took over the PL Bar. Frank’s son Pete now runs most of the operation, and daughters Lisa and Lori help out as well.
Frank beckons me into the office, apologizing for the delay. He’s one of those men for whom a straw cowboy hat seems so natural that he’d look odd without it. His demeanor is friendly and yet businesslike, and his enthusiasm for grass-fed beef ranching is immediately apparent. He jumps right in and begins outlining quick facts about the state of ranching in general, one after another in rapid succession.
La Macchia’s cattle were all feedlot-finished until 2002, when he tasted a grass-finished steak from New Zealand in a Templeton restaurant. Impressed with the unique flavor, he asked the waiter “Where can I buy that kind of beef?” As he recalls, the waiter replied, “Nowhere—it has to be specially imported.” La Macchia was intrigued and began learning all he could about the practice of grass-finishing his own beef for the US market.
“It’s the pasture that’s the thing,” he tells me. “If you have quality pasture, you can grow your beef almost as fast as the feedlots. We’ve experimented with all kinds of pasture, reseeded with crimson clover, rose clover—those are from New Zealand and Australia—Italian clover, vetch. Getting your beef to gain weight quickly is 90 percent pasture, and only 10 percent genetics.”
I ask if he’s tried native grasses, and he explains that he did try reseeding his pastures with natives, but they didn’t take as well as the clovers and legumes he’s currently seeding with.
He takes me out to one of the fields near the old sheds, which are empty of cows to allow the pasture to recover from grazing. Rotating the cows so the fields aren’t overgrazed is another important factor in grass-fed ranching.
La Macchia lets me in on a secret: He’s been working to get his herd certified organic, the final step in producing the most sustainable, earth-friendly beef available.
La Macchia doesn’t strike one as an environmentalist at first glance. He appears to fit the stereotype of the conservative, rodeo-lovin’, Sierra Club-hatin’ Salinas Republican. Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that he’s passionate about protecting the environment. “My daughter, she’ll tell you I’m the biggest environmentalist out there,” he reports.
“Some environmentalists get a bad rap…but their hearts are in the right place. I think most cattlemen are in my frame of mind. They like wildlife, they want to protect the land.”
La Macchia tells me that he’s proud that he’s helping to protect the environment by ranching grass-fed beef. He says this in response to my rather lame question as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s like asking a little kid why he loves Legos. It’s not the end result that La Macchia loves, it’s the process.
Some months later, I get a short e-mail: “Hi Kris, we’re certified organic. See ya, Frank.”
I catch up with the La Macchias on a recent Saturday at Star Market in Salinas. The smell of grilling steak greets my nose as Frank’s wife Irene waves hello. She’s wearing a green apron bearing the PL Bar brand and handing out bite-sized samples of steak. Frank is wearing his trademark cowboy hat and chatting with shoppers. He knows just about everyone. Packages of PL Bar beef on the shelves of the nearby meat cooler are now proudly labeled CERTIFIED ORGANIC.
“It’s the rarest of the rare,” La Macchia says proudly. “You’ve got organic, and you’ve got grass-fed, but to do ‘em both, that’s the cream of the crop.”
Now that his cows are certified organic, La Macchia’s finishing 10 percent of his herd himself for local sale, and selling the other 90 percent to Panorama Grass-Fed Meats, a wholesaler with the means to distribute grass-fed organic beef to discerning retailers and restaurants across the West.
Acquiring the right to label his beef organic was no small feat. The PL Bar grazing pastures had to remain pesticide free for three years, while the cows themselves had to be demonstrably free of hormones and antibiotics.
While there are stringent rules on organic food labeling, the USDA has yet to adopt guidelines on grass-fed beef labeling. Technically any beef can be called “grass-fed,” but unless the label states clearly that the beef is 100 percent grass-fed, that cow may have done time in a feedlot. There are even organic feedlots, where the grain-based diet that the animals receive is organic, so the distinction between “organic” and “grass-fed” isn’t always clear, even to those working in the meat departments of upscale natural food markets.
Finding a convenient local supply of grass-fed beef isn’t easy. Most people don’t have a freezer to devote to a side of beef purchased from a small ranching operation like Harrold-Berta. At the moment, Star Market in Salinas is the only place where you can find packages of fresh PL Bar beef for sale, outside of calling up Frank and Irene La Macchia and placing an order (incidentally, they’re happy to run a special order over to Star if you’re looking for a unique cut for a special occasion).
Grass-fed beef has also been pricier than regular beef, but Frank says that price gap is narrowing, thanks to another issue related to the environment. “It’s the corn,” he says, “the price is going up because of ethanol.”
“The real cost of grass-fed is in slaughtering the animals. The big slaughterhouses won’t touch a batch of grass-fed beef; they don’t even bother with such small numbers. You have to find specialty slaughterhouses that will handle it, and they’re more expensive.”
I ask Frank what he thinks about the future of the grass-fed market. “I think it will become more widely available,” he says matter-of-factly. Maybe he’s an optimist. On the other hand, he’s been a cattleman long enough to know what’s possible.
Back at the Harrold-Berta gather, I’m staring across a holding pen at a group of young steers containing my summer steaks. Number 62 is turned with his reddish rear to me, and occasionally he and the others complain with ear-buzzing moos about being isolated from the rest of the herd. Every so often my cow turns and levels his gaze at me, and I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’m looking my food in the eye.
While for others this might plant the seeds of vegetarianism, I find that it’s a moment of reconciliation. Some animals eat other animals. I’m one of those carnivores, and I’ve made my peace with that fact. Like Buddhists who eat meat, or the Native Americans who thank the spirit of an animal that’s been killed in a hunt, I appreciate being able to acknowledge face-to-face the animal whose life will end to feed me and my friends and family.
He’s had an exceptionally good life by cow standards, and next weekend he’ll be quickly and humanely slaughtered on the ranch where he was born, having suffered a minimum of pain and trauma during his short life. I feel pretty good knowing that.
Michael Pollan’s closing words from This Steer’s Life echo in my head: “We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that’s only part of the story. We are what we eat eats too.” I take even more comfort in that.
Postscript: As of May 2007, all of the Harrold-Berta steers were sold to individual buyers. Most small-scale grass-fed ranchers sell their steers once a year in spring. Occasionally 100 percent grass fed beef is available at Whole Foods; be sure to ask if it’s not clearly labeled as such. Sources for local grass fed beef can also be found on the web. For more information visit: eatwild.com or plbar.com.