Published November 23, 2012
More and more consumers are paying a premium and seeking out beef which is raised exclusively on grass.
"Grass-finished" generally means once the cattle is weaned from mothers' milk, it consumes grass in open pasture for the entire lifespan, rather than getting fattened up on corn in feed lots during its final months.
Demand for grass-fed beef has been growing at a rate of 20 percent a year, according to one study. More stores are starting to offer grass-finished, but retail availability is still limited. Consumers are taking matters into their own hands by buying direct from ranchers.
David Jessup of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, Colo., says they have doubled production in the past year, without really doing any advertising. This year, they expect to sell 50 direct to the public.
Jessup says people are catching onto health benefits.
"They're calling us and we're sold out two months in advance," he said.
"Probably the biggest and most truthful selling point about grass finished beef is that it is generally leaner," Dr. Dale Woerner, assistant professor with the Center for Meat Safety & Quality at Colorado State University said.
Grass-finished beef has a more favorable ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids and a higher level of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA's), known for fighting cancer and fat. While this has personal health appeal to some, Woerner says there are not major nutritional differences between the two types of beef. He says grass-fed is a niche market and the majority (97 percent) of beef production in this country still comes from conventionally raised cattle.
Grass-fed can be more expensive, because it takes longer to raise it on the land. Jessup says it's worth the wait and any price gap is shrinking.
"The cost differential is changing now because corn and grain is going up in price," he said.
Ranchers tell Fox News that families are banding together to buy in bulk, divvying up one whole cow.
"When you average all of that out, it ends up being just a little over six dollars a pound," Jessup said.
More people are investing in freezers, where vacuum sealed cuts can last up to two years.
Cost and nutrition aside, the eating experience is said to be different.
"I think most consumers eating grass-finished beef for the first time will be really challenged or be shocked or surprised ... of the flavor of grass-finished beef, because it is so much different than that of corn-finished beef," Woerner said.
The taste is described as being stronger.
Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver offers fresh grass-fed beef by special order a few times a year as a service to customers who want to experience it.
"We've been dulled down we've been lulled into this false sense of what is good," co-owner Pete Marczyk said. "There's a whole world of food out there that I think Americans in general are starting to eagerly embrace and starting to get excited about trying new flavors, trying new-old flavors."
If you pass grass fed cattle out on the range in Colorado or elsewhere, keep in mind they are not mindlessly eating as they meander the landscape. Jessup told Fox News that his animals are actually picking out the grasses that contain the nutrients their bodies are telling them they need.
Fox News' Alicia Acuna contributed to this report.