Hi, I’m Jason, and I blog over at Grassfed Geek. I first heard about Grass Fed Girl on the Balanced Bites podcast, and came to check it out! I had to reach out to Caitlin to say hello because it looks like we have a lot in common—right down to the alliteration in our blog names. After we got acquainted, we thought it would be great for me to do guest post here about sourcing grass fed meat, an area in which I’ve become very well-versed since my transition to a Paleo lifestyle.
How to Source and Select Quality Grass Fed Beef for a Paleo or Real Food Diet
Many of the people I’ve talked to about finding good sources of grass fed meat understand the benefits of both eating grass fed animals and supporting local farms, but they feel like it’s not that easy to get and that it must be expensive. I’ve also heard people express concern over the health and safety standards of these small farms. First off, let me respond to these concerns:
- There are more options for getting good quality meat than you think. We’ll talk about those later on in this post.
- You can get it at similar or better prices to conventional grain-fed meat. We save money by buying it in bulk and at the same price for all cuts.
- Small farms are subject to stringent health and safety regulations, too, and since you know the origin, you can investigate the quality yourself. The farm we’ve bought from most has said that some of their customers eat their meat raw all the time.
So keep these solutions in mind as I share with you my tips for sourcing quality, local grassfed meat, and let me help you find an option that works best for you!
What to expect in the purchasing process:
If you buy beef from a local farm you are most likely going to be purchasing a cow share, or a fraction of a specific, whole animal. Many farms offer shares down to 1/4 or 1/8th of a whole animal, which is great because you’ll know your beef came from one specific, healthy animal; and, since you’re buying a large quantity at a time, you will save on costs and trips to the farm. It takes a little bit of restructuring in your thinking to go from the normal weekly grocery store trip to purchasing months’ worth of meat at a time, but because of the huge benefits, many in the Paleo community are feel that it’s really worth making that transition. My wife and I love having plenty of nutrient-rich beef in our freezer to pull out to thaw when we need it.
One of the great things about purchasing a cow share is that you often can speak with the butchers who are processing your animal in order to make specific requests about your share. Do you want more ground beef or more stew meat? How thick do you want your steaks cut? How large do you want your roasts? Buying in a larger amount gives you the freedom to make those kinds of choices. It’s also really fun!
Some farms offer other types of meat, as well. Kookoolan Farms, which my wife and I have bought from here in Oregon, also offer pig shares and whole chickens for purchase. Figuring out what kinds of meat you’re going to want, and how you want to go about purchasing it really comes down to individual taste and working with the farmers. It also should be noted that there are sometimes options to buy individually packed meat by the pound, and be sure to inquire about this with the farmer if that’s what you’re interested in.
Finding a farm:
So now we know what to expect from the buying process, but the question still remains, how do we find a farm? My first and best recommendation is to check out EatWild.com and use their Shop for Local Grassfed Meat, Eggs & Dairy feature. If you go to this section you can use the map to select which state you live in, if you’re in the US, and see their list of farms and a Google Map of their locations. This site is really great. They list each individual farm with its location, what they produce, and their contact information. I recommend searching through until you find a few farms that are close enough to you and have what you are looking for in grass fed products. Remember, depending on the amount you purchase, you’re only going to need to go to the farm once every few months or less, so keep that in mind when you think about distance. The farms my wife and I go to are about 30 miles away, but we would be willing to drive a lot further if we had to; we’d just save up and buy more!
Once you’ve found a few farms that sound good take a look at their websites, read through their information, and start sending some emails! Look for sections that describe whether their animals are 100% grass fed and finished, or if they’re given grain in the last 30 days. Are they fed on pasture only, or are they fed alfalfa hay? How often will beef shares be available and what are the wait times like? Are butcher fees included in the price per pound or not? Do they specifically talk about the health and safety measures they take? What method of slaughter do they use? If you can’t find this kind of information on their site, ask them detailed questions in your email.
You can make up your own mind about all of these things, but you should be aware of them before you buy. You might decide that you want your animal to be 100% grass fed and finished, with no grain, or you may decide that some corn or feed towards the end is no big deal, but it’s up to you to know what you’re getting when you make a purchase. Don’t be shy about asking these kinds of questions, either. It’s important for you to know these things in order to make an informed decision about your beef. A good farm will have a lot of this info on their site, or they will happily answer every question you have. They should be wanting an informed and conscientious buyer who is aware of what they’re doing and why because having an informed public is how they’ll grow their business.
One of the reasons my wife and I have chosen to regularly use Kookoolan Farms is how up front and communicative they are, as well as how humanely they do their slaughtering. They go to a level where they won’t kill an animal if the animal is agitated or showing signs of stress in any way. They will instead wait for another day because they find it more respectful of the animal and prevents the release of stress hormones into the finished meat. This was something that was appealing to my wife and I, but may not be as much of a priority to others, so it’s really about individual preference and choice. Get to know the farmers you like and their animals and you’ll build a deep relationship with your food that is very hard to find. We also like Mossback Farm in our area, since they are very communicative and friendly and their cows are 100% grass fed on their own fields.
Once you’ve sent some emails inquiring about their meat availability and gotten some responses, you can progress with whomever you think will work the best with you and get you what you need. Usually there will be some kind of wait because these are small farms who aren’t processing animals more than a couple of times a month, tops. Once an animal is slaughtered you’ll need to wait 10–14 days for it to be processed and ready to be picked up, so plan accordingly.
When it’s time to pick up your meat, find a time to make the drive and bring a chest cooler with you if possible to keep the meat cold. It will most likely be frozen when you get it, so if you have a long drive it’ll be best to keep it that way! My wife and I have found that we enjoy our occasional trips out to the country to get our meat; we make it fun and enjoy the drive knowing that we get high quality meats from animals who have lived like they’re supposed to. This experience has really put me in touch with my food, and has made me more understanding of my place in the food chain, and the connections we all have with the earth. Pretty awesome stuff.
Check out a post I did about our tour of Kookoolan Farms where we got to meet the herd and their dairy cows. Here’s a quick picture of me picking up our first (1/8) cow share from the farm:
Another great benefit of purchasing cow shares, besides quality and health benefits, is that farms will often let you take the organ meats, bones, and chunks of fat from each harvest—all FREE to customers of beef shares. For us Paleo people (organ meat and bone broth-loving, nose-to-tail eaters), that’s a huge plus. We want all that good stuff! We love having big bags of bones to make bone broth from, and are getting used to organ meats and love knowing they’re the best quality we can find. And they’re free! How great is that?!
U.S. Wellness Meats is a great resource for busy folks and their meat is second to none!
This article is nice, but imcomplete. It doesn’t address the issue of avoiding “grass-fed” beef that isn’t finished well. Many people will buy grass-fed that is far too lean, and they’ll never try it again. This happens for two reasons: 1. Farmers and customers alike no longer place value on fat, so processing a skinny animal is perfectly acceptable… until you try to eat and cook it! 2. Fattening an animal on grass takes time and money (good genetics, good infrastructure, good minerals). Though you get better yields off a well-fleshed carcass, the overall cost to both farmer and consumer goes up because it’s a bigger, older animal. Here is a comment I left at Chris Kresser L.Ac’s site on his Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed:
Fat grass-fed beef takes 3 ingredients: 1. Good genetics, 2. Good nutrition/management (i.e. plenty to eat), and 3. Time.
There are a handful of breeds that will never get good marbling no matter what because their genetics were destroyed by feedlot up-breeding efforts. The best grass-fed cows are short and fat. They look like barrels with legs. And breeds contain a lot of variation. Just because one Black Angus finishes well on grass (or not) doesn’t mean all Black Angus will follow suit.
At our ranch, we look for a particular phenotype when separating breeding stock from eating stock. Good nutrition means that the cows are never starved. Too many cows in a non-rotated paddock only spells disaster and poor quality beef. We get our cows fat in the spring by making them eat plenty of grass hay before turning them out on lush spring pasture–that slows down their digestion and they put on weight very efficiently–much more so than if we kept them for longer and fed them less per day. Can’t starve the critters!
My third point is simple: don’t harvest until the cows are ripe! We look at body condition score to make sure a cow is going to have good intramuscular fat before she goes to slaughter. Sometimes this is later than the USDA cutoff age for allowing spinal cuts like t-bones (30 months–stupid mad cow disease feedlot rule). Some butchers won’t take cows older than 30 months because of regulatory issues, but many cows won’t finish well on grass only before that. So you have to find a new butcher.
If we have a skinny cow that will never finish out well, she goes for hamburger, and we use fat of some of our other cows to boost the fat content up to at least 20%. So there you go. Our grass-fed beef strategy. If you’re a shopper, ask your farmer how he knows when the cows are ready to slaughter. If it is strictly based on age, be wary.
Jason Stanley says
Thanks for the extra information Jerica! It’s really great to have additional input from an actual rancher. I have had discussions with multiple farmers about their genetic tracking, selecting for certain traits, and finishing in a way that promotes healthy fat production, and that kind of serious, scientific approach, in order to get the most out of their cows, is a hugely important part of the process.
I’ve had cheaper grassfed beef that I have found to be FAR too lean, and therefore less tasty, and have gone on to choose different farms as a result. It costs more, but is totally worth it! Of course, it’s not just about taste but about nutritional value. I want that healthy beef fat in my diet, and it’s not worth my money if I’m not getting that! Thanks again for providing additional perspective.
Jerica is so right. I will add (although she’s implied it) that the animals must be managed well on pasture, not just continuously grazed or moved occasionally. To fatten them, they must get the most nutritious pasture for the last 2 or 3 months.
And everyone should be concerned about stress on the animal. If you’ve every had meat that tastes “liver-like”, that’s an animal that is very stressed. Butchers call them “dark cutters”.
Which farm are you from we are in e Portland area you can email me email@example.com
Thank you for the information
Thanks, Jason for an excellent & super helpful article and to Jerica for great additional info! You guys & Cailtin ROCK! (from a deeply grateful, new paleo, former vegetarian!) 🙂
*Caitlin!! (apologies for the misspelling)
Caitlin Weeks says
Thanks for reading our blogs! Way to go on being #paleo!
Hi Caitlin! I see you have all types of degrees and expertise in different areas…can I ask what classes in college or elsewhere you took?? Im trying to get into the nutrition field and know that I’ll take a lot of mainstream medicine classes but I want to know how to stay focused on the holistic and alternative medicine parts. Around my area we have no nutrition courses period in our college so I’d have to transfer somewhere else anyways. If you could point me in the right direction that would be great!
Jason Stanley says
Thanks so much Renee! I’m glad it was helpful. Go out there and find some great, high quality meat!
I’m not paleo… but, have been interested in buying my meat from sustainable and local sources. This was a great intro into what I needed to know! Thanks so much for posting!
Dawn A. Mcclain says
for all animal life, the nutrients in grass-fed meats and their relative balance are down the centerline for the nutrient requirements our human bodies require — no more no less. There is no other food that compares to the nutritional perfection of meat from a grass-fed critter. Therefore, grass-fed meats are a nutrient standard.
I have purchased beef from these folks and it is AWESOME! (No affiliation other than that.)