A soft, melodic call is all it takes to beckon the grass-fed cattle at Cross Creek Cattle Company. While other ranchers might use cattle prods to get their cattle moving, Lane DeHaven, the ranch manager at Cross Creek Cattle Company simply uses his voice, and his herd of Beefmaster cattle saunters up to him, eventually stopping in a circle at his side and bowing their heads down to munch on lush, green grass.
The day I visited the Cross Creek Cattle Company ranch, the cows were feeling shy, as they often do around strangers. DeHaven told me that they usually lick his face and nuzzle up against him after they’re called.
I spent a Sunday afternoon with the family that runs Cross Creek Cattle Company. Kenton Holliday and his wife, Cathey Holliday, are the two founders. The Hollidays, their daughter, Lara DeHaven, and her husband, Lane DeHaven, gave me a rundown of what it’s like to be a part of the growing number of U.S. ranchers who raise grass-fed cattle.
As it turns out, raising grass-fed cattle is tough but rewarding for the Holliday/DeHaven clan. They opened up their grass-fed operation four years ago, and haven’t had any problems selling their beef. In fact, Cross Creek Cattle Company’s grass-fed cattle operation allows Lara and Lane DeHaven to comfortably support their five kids.
“The demand for our grass-fed beef far exceeds our supply,” Kenton Holliday told me. “There’s a need for grass-fed beef, and we’re happy to fill that need.”
Unfortunately, raising grass-fed cattle isn’t always easy for the Hollidays and DeHavens, who have struggled with drought and other environmental issues. When the grass dies in the brutal Texas heat, grass-fed cattle ranchers can’t turn to corn to feed their cows. They have to pay big bucks for imported hay and grass to sustain their cattle. Luckily, this summer’s been a particularly rainy one in Texas, and there’s plenty of grass growing on the Cross Creek Cattle Company ranch.
The Hollidays can trace their cattle ranching roots as far back as 1852. Lara DeHaven, Cross Creek Cattle Company’s business manager, convinced her father to make the switch to raising grass-fed cattle after noticing how eating grass-fed beef, homegrown fruits and veggies, free range chicken, and other healthy fare had benefited her children.
“Lara’s son had a condition that was affecting his health. So, she changed his diet and started feeding him grass-fed beef and other healthy, homegrown food. After a while of eating better, his condition went away. He was cured. That’s part of why Lara realized we had to share grass-fed beef with the public,” Holliday said.
Grass-fed beef playing a role in Lara DeHaven’s son’s recovery isn’t too surprising considering the nutritional benefits of this kind of beef. According to research, grass-fed beef typically contains six times more omega-3 fatty acids and four times more vitamin E than the grain-fed beef most of us are used to eating. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart, brain, joints, bones, and skin. Vitamin E is good for your heart and perhaps helps prevent cancer. Most Americans don’t consume nearly enough omega-3 fatty acids and usually miss the nutritional mark when it comes to vitamin E consumption as well.
Grass-fed beef is also much lower in saturated fat than grain-fed beef. In fact, it’s about as lean as chicken. So, beef, the poster child of red meat, isn’t so bad for your waistline after all, as long as it comes from grass-fed cattle.
The benefits of eating grass-fed beef aren’t just nutritional. Grass-fed beef is also, in many ways, good for cows.
Cows are meant to graze on grass. That’s what they did since the beginning of their existence on Earth, until people realized cows reached maturity and fattened up a lot faster if they ate corn, the cheapest and most widely produced grain. There are records that date back to the 1800s detailing the practical benefits of feeding cows corn. However, the corn-fed craze didn’t really catch on until the early 1940s, when feedlots slowly began to take over the beef industry to cut costs and increase profits.
Nowadays, most cattle eat grass-only diets for the first few months of their lives. Then they’re shipped to a feedlot, and the last few months of their lives are spent eating corn and other grains and gaining weight in miserably cramped conditions, oftentimes having to stand in their own waste until it’s time to go to the meat processing plant.
Feedlots make a lot of sense from a business standpoint. It’s profitable to cram thousands of cows into a relatively small area, stuff them with corn byproducts and hormones that help them grow at unnaturally fast speeds, regularly inject them with antibiotics, and slaughter them as soon as they’re plump enough. In comparison, it’s starkly inefficient to let twenty or so cattle graze on a pasture for a couple of years until they’re mature enough to eat, especially when you consider the tremendous demand for beef.
The main problem with feedlots is that cows aren’t meant to eat corn and the other cheap grains they’re fed. Corn makes them gain weight pretty quickly, but it also tears up their stomachs and doesn’t provide them with the nutrients their bodies need. Because of this, most of them wouldn’t survive without steady streams of antibiotics coursing through their veins. And, so, the beef we end up buying from the grocery store is fatty, full of antibiotics, and devoid of essential nutrients our bodies need.
Feedlots are also flawed in another important way. They make the lives of cattle considerably more stressful. Cows are hard-wired to stand around all day in a peaceful atmosphere, eat grass, and chew on their cud. They’re relatively simple creatures, with relatively simple needs. Their needs aren’t fulfilled when they live on feedlots, and, so, they become stressed.
It’s a proven fact that when cows are stressed on a consistent basis, their muscles become saturated with adrenaline, hormones, and blood. This, in turn, increases the amount of acid in their bodies and ultimately in the beef we eat. What cows are subjected to at feedlots is not only cruel and unusual. It’s also, in many cases, not good for the taste of our meat.
The cows at Cross Creek Cattle Company live relatively low-stress lives. They stand under the shade of the trees on the ranch. They eat a lot of grass, walk and stand around together, and maintain a harmonious pecking order as they would in the wild. They trust, respect, and maybe even love Lane DeHaven for taking care of them. They watch the sun rise and sun set each day without apprehension. The 700 acres of ranch land around them is their home sweet home, a place of comfort, and predictability.
Critics of grass-fed beef will say that grain-fed beef is the only realistic option. If we abandoned feedlots and let all the cattle we eat graze on pastures, the supply of beef would decrease, and the price of it would inevitably go up. As a result, most of us would have to eat less beef in exchange for eating healthier beef. I may be oversimplifying the economics of beef production here, but you get the idea.
Right now if you go to a restaurant and order a burger that includes a grass-fed beef patty, you’ll probably end up paying around $2 more for your meal than someone who orders a regular burger. It’s unlikely that everyone would willingly pay an extra couple of bucks every time they wanted a cheeseburger.
Maybe it’s not realistic, but I want all cattle to have a safe and comfortable place to call home. So, next time I want a burger, I’ll go to a restaurant that offers grass-fed ground beef on its menu. I’ll pay the extra $2, and I’ll be making a decision that supports my health and supports businesses that treat cattle with respect. As Kenton Holliday told me, feeding cows grass and letting them roam in pastures their whole lives is “the most humane, natural thing to do,” and I think it’s the right thing to do too.