Even though grass fed and grain-finished beef sales have grown by 1,500 percent since 2012, according to ABC News, they are still overshadowed by conventional beef sales in the U.S., which topped $105 billion in 2015.1 While there is a long way to go before grass fed beef will become as popular as its conventional counterpart, the tides are changing as more consumers are demanding higher quality, safer meat products.
Once again, the health benefits of grass fed beef — to both the consumer and the soil — are making news. An ABC News feature highlights the success Texas farmers had in surviving a multiyear drought using regenerative agriculture practices and rotational grazing. The solution to their success was so simple and it can be applied anywhere: healthy soil + healthy grass = healthy grass fed beef.
Grass to the Rescue: Grass Fed Cows Save Drought-Stricken Texas Farms
As featured on ABC News’ “Food Forecast” program,2 the native grasses used to pasture grass fed beef is more than just animal feed — it’s vital to the survival of both the soil and ranching way of life. Among those interviewed by program host Ginger Zee, chief meteorologist for ABC News, was cattle rancher Jon Taggart of Grandview, Texas, who has been raising grass fed and grass-finished cows for slaughter since 1999. To bring his meat to market, Taggart owns and operates three stores in Texas that sell pastured beef.
In 2011, as other ranchers watched feed grasses dry up and die when oppressive heat and drought gripped Texas, Taggart continued operating his business as usual. “I'm proud to say we harvested cattle every week of the year through that entire drought,” he told ABC News. The drought, by the way, lasted into 2015.
While millions of cattle were moved out of Texas to survive the heat and shortage of edible forage, Taggart did not destock a single animal, or turn to supplemental feeding. He attributes his success to the fact his farm was replete with what he calls “those deep-rooted native grasses that were designed [to survive those droughts] by somebody a lot bigger than us.”
After initially raising grain-finished cows — meaning the animals, after starting a grass diet, were fed corn and other grains at the end of their lives as a means of increasing their size and weight just before slaughter — Taggart and others began feeding their cows exclusively on grass. As you may imagine, feeding large herds of farm animals grass on a continuous basis requires an abundant and diverse crop of seasonal grasses.
Said Taggart, “We want an extremely diversified plant population: warm season grasses, cool season grasses, grasses that germinate early and grasses that germinate later.” Cultivating a variety of grasses enables Taggart’s soil to remain fortified and healthy despite challenging weather conditions, including drought. His farmland retains water and other essential nutrients so the soil remains healthy year-round.
Focusing on Soil Health Breathes Life Back Into Farmland
When the 2011 drought hit, Jonathan and Kaylyn Cobb, one of the owner/operator families of Green Fields Farm in Rogers, Texas, were ready to sell their family ranch due to the poor condition of its soil.3 “We didn’t have any life in our soil and … we weren’t aware of it at all,” says Jonathan Cobb. “We killed everything that wasn’t what we were trying to grow because that is all we knew.”
After putting their home up for sale, the couple met with sixth-generation cattle farmer and regenerative agriculture consultant Allen Williams, Ph.D., who called out their dry powdery soil as the root problem. To save their soil and their farm, Williams suggested they begin raising entirely grass fed cows using a system of rotational grazing. His advice transformed their perspective on farming and gave them a vision for the value and importance of regenerative land management.
The foundation of rotational grazing is the development of paddocks — large plots of grass — and the systematic movement of herds from one paddock to another for forage. This cycle of rotation allows the grass to recover and regrow naturally in each paddock as the cows move on to a new one. Not only do the cows get plenty of exercise, but they also gain weight at a healthy pace. After taking Williams’ advice, the Cobbs changed their entire approach to farming, which returned health, vitality and structure to their soil.
Now, with rotational grazing solidly in place, Jonathan Cobb said his cows gain, on average, 3.5 pounds a day on a totally grass fed diet consisting of about 40 pounds of daily grass intake per animal. “It sounds funny to say, but we bought cattle for the soil,” states Kaylyn Cobb. “The reason we brought cattle back onto the land was because we knew it was a fundamental element needed to restore life to the soil.”