If you worry about what is in the food you eat and the rate at which we are destroying our planet then veld-raised/grass fed/free range beef is a good option for you.
Journalist and cattle farmer Heather Dugmore explains why.
This morning I was up at dawn checking on the cattle and watching the first light touch the tip of their horns. The Zulu people have a specific expression for this – mpondozankomo. It’s something that herdsman over the centuries carry in their souls.
Every morning, summer or winter, rain, snow or subzero temperatures, herdsmen and farmers all over the country are out in the veld, checking on their cattle, making sure they are in good health, and that they have adequate water and grazing.
Throughout the day, the cattle wander through the landscape, grazing on the variety of grasses, bushes and trees that a healthy, well-managed grassland ecosystem should provide. Cattle are a vital component of this ecosystem, as all grasslands evolved with large herbivores over thousands of years.
Cattle that are raised to adulthood on the veld, and sold from farm to fork, without being given growth hormones or antibiotics, are defined as veld-raised/grass fed/free range/natural/sustainably produced cattle. For ease of reading I’ll refer to them as “veld-raised”.
The benefits of veld-raised beef
“Veld-raised beef and any form of veld-raised meat is healthy to eat because it has a high ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids to Omega 6s, and it is free of growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics,” explains Professor Tim Noakes.
“As we know, much of our meat comes from feedlots, and this changes the Omega ratios, where you are not getting sufficient Omega 3s, which are healthy fats.”
One of the first butcheries in South Africa to offer veld-raised beef is Braeside Meat Market in Parkhurst, Johannesburg.
“Most livestock is fattened or finished off in feedlots with growth stimulants and antibiotics and then labeled as ‘the finest meat in the world’,” says Caroline McCann, who owns Braeside where she started introducing veld-raised beef, mutton and lamb eight years ago.
Visiting chefs and butcheries abroad
“It all started with my travels overseas, visiting chefs and butcheries, including my aunt and cousin’s butcheries in the United Kingdom and Australia. I needed to know why the meat I was receiving at my butchery in Joburg did not have the same intramuscular fat as theirs, why it took so long to tender up and why the taste was not as round and filling,” she explains.
“All of them said I should look into how the animals are raised, and discussed their preference for grass-fed beef.
“From then I started dealing directly with farmers who graze their animals on grass and who sustainably manage their veld. I have had an exceptional response from my customers, including requests from chefs all over South Africa who say they prefer the flavour of grass-fed,” says McCann who is also a committee member of Slow Food Joburg.
Slow Food is an international organisation started in response to the fast food market, including the proliferation of fast food chains and large food production companies, which are effectively eliminating small family-owned farms.
McCann has been invited to attend the global inaugural conference for Slow Meat in Denver, Colorado, in June this year.
“My personal food philosophy is to know where your food comes from and to eliminate food waste,” says McCann. “What is interesting is that in the last year I have seen a noticeable number of my customers turning back to eating everything from offal to forequarter cuts, using recipes with a modern twist.”
She has strong views on why the veld-raised meat movement is so important: “It’s healthy for people and for the future of a successful food production system in our country,” she says.
An alternative meat market
“Typically it is the small family owned farms that produce free range or grass fed meat. Most of our cattle farmers are caught in the weaner feedlot system (weaners are young, weaned cattle up to approximately 20 months old that are sent directly to the feedlots for fattening), and they have no control over the price they get. By giving them an alternative market to sell their cattle in, we are enabling them to break this cycle. This makes it more financially viable for them to remain food farmers.”
South Africa’s current meat classification system favours feedlot beef production over veld-raised production, with farmers getting the highest price for weaners, classified as A-grade.
From here, cattle are classed as AB-grade (20-28 months), B-grade (28 – 36 months) and C-grade (older than 36 months) and the price drops considerably from A-grade. This makes it financially unviable for most farmers to keep their animals on the veld for an extra year or two to grow them out for the farm to fork market.
The stats speak for themselves: 83% of beef slaughtered in the formal sector is classified as A-grade.
SA’s meat classification system is outdated
“South Africa’s meat classification system is 30 years old and is based on two main criteria – age and fatness. It has not kept up with scientific research or the need to reward farmers for various qualities in beef, including its taste, tenderness and whether it is veld-raised, in other words, marketed directly off the veld, says Professor Frikkie Neser of the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State.
“AB and older animals of all breeds are accredited in various parts of the world as having extremely tasty meat. But our grading system does not accommodate this even though the tenderness and taste can be as good if not better than younger, A-grade animals,” Neser explains.
He believes that ABs should be incorporated into the A-grade price range in a revised, updated classification system. This way it would become viable for cattle to be marketed directly off the veld.
A number of problems with the current classification system
An Agricultural Research Council (ARC) task team was appointed in 2009 to investigate the current classification system, which led to the November 2014 symposium at the ARC in Pretoria. At the symposium the Red Meat Producers Organisation (RPO) reiterated that there are a number of problems with the current system.
One of these is that consumers and retailers often do not understand the system, which calls for concerted consumer and retailer education. Labeling of meat products is also of concern, as consumers and retailers need to understand what they are buying.
All veld-raised animals have creamier/yellower fat
For example, retailers currently pay less for the more creamy-coloured or yellow fat of veld-raised animals. Many retailers are not aware that creamier/yellower fat is scientifically proven as being healthier, with the right balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids mentioned earlier. They are also not aware that all veld-raised animals, across all age groups, have creamier/yellower fat.
The governing body for red meat production in South Africa is the RPO or Red Meat Producers organisation. The RPO’s Chief Executive Officer, Gerhard Schutte, explains that the funds from the statutory levy paid by farmers and beef producers are used for generic consumer education.
Bizarrely, the South African Feedlot Association holds the consumer education contract for SA Beef, and, according to Schutte, receives approximately R5million per year for this. Their 4-year contract has just been renewed.
“We do not think it is contrary to the development of grass fed beef,” says Schutte. This is deeply questionable.
Why hasn’t the system already improved?
“It’s a very difficult question to answer as to why, given all the research that has already gone into this issue of the meat classification system and consumer education, that it hasn’t already improved,” says Neser.
He adds that a revised classification system that accommodates a wider range of beef qualities is particularly vital for the survival of the indigenous breeds of cattle, as some of the largest feedlots are no longer taking purebred Nguni or Afrikaner weaners, or pricing them at R2 to R6 less per kilogram. The feedlots claim that they do not do well in their system.
Discrimination against SA’s indigenous breeds
In September 2014 the Council of Nguni Cattle Breeders Society (NCBS) sent an urgent letter to the Minister of Agriculture, strongly objecting to “the discrimination of the feedlots against the South African indigenous breeds of cattle while weaner calves were imported from Namibia.”
The President of the Nguni Cattle Breeders Society (NCBS), Marli Stegmann, is of the opinion that the major feedlots are exploiting the indigenous cattle farmers.
“Nguni weaners can be successfully raised in a feedlot if handled correctly. The feedlot in Douglas, which is happily taking all Nguni weaners, Nguni crosses and all other breeds, is proof of this,” she says.
“Indigenous cattle tend to put on fat too quickly in a conventional feedlot system; hence they are not that popular with the feedlot owners. However, put them in a feedlot where they are fed a cooler ration, in other words, less energy and more protein and roughage, and they perform wonderfully,” Neser adds.
Marketing straight from the veld
Having said this, both Stegmann and Neser assert that this is not making the most of our wonderful range of indigenous breeds, which are early maturing, with outstanding meat quality, and ideally suited to being marketed off the veld, without the need for heavy supplementation.
A lot of excellent, peer-reviewed research has been done on beef quality, such as the research conducted in the early 2000s as a partnership between South Africa’s ARC and the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for beef.
Outstanding meat tenderness qualities in indigenous breeds
This research looked at the frequency of genes associated with meat tenderness in Southern Africa’s indigenous Sanga breeds (Nguni, Afrikaner, Drakensberger and Tuli). It was found that they have a high percentage of tenderness genes and outstanding meat tenderness qualities.
Research by Dr Philip Strydom of the ARC also indicates that there is little or no difference between the meat qualities of indigenous and European/British breeds, as is sometimes claimed.
Neser believes that all farmers, irrespective of breed, should be encouraged to increase the numbers of veld-raised animals they are producing, and that the only way to do this is to pay them the same price that they are being paid for weaners.
Develop both the feedlot and veld-raised market options
Jack Miles, the Director of Meat Traders Abattoir in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, adds that there should be a lot more thought and discussion about the whole South African beef industry and what we should be doing. “I believe that through the RPO we need to develop both the feedlot and veld-raised market options,” he says.
Meat Traders was named the Shoprite Group of Companies’ Supplier of the Year for 2011 in the Meat Market Division, and Miles describes himself as someone who is “passionate” about meat:
“Meat is my line of work, I love it and I have put plenty of thought into what makes for quality beef – from the producer to how we manage the animals at the abattoir (with the least stress possible), to how we manage the carcasses.”
Miles’ personal preference is for veld-raised beef, slaughtered directly from the veld and hung chilled for 14 days. This, he believes, is the tastiest meat.
Apart from the tenderness and taste of veld-raised meat, it can also help to save our planet.
Save the Planet: Eat More Beef
Five years ago, in January 2010, Time magazine ran its first pro-veld-raised cattle feature, headlined ‘Save the Planet: Eat More Beef’.
Instead of lambasting cows as methane-belching contributors to global warming and destroyers of the natural environment, it explained that well managed, veld-raised herds are an essential component in the combating of one of the major causes of climate change: the desertification of the natural environment.
Quoting Zimbabwean-born holistic veld management pioneer, Allan Savory, it stated:
“A universal fear of running livestock in large numbers is the biggest cause of veld deterioration, soil erosion and desertification in the world. I said it 50 years ago and I am saying it again with urgency that hoof action, with an emphasis on the large livestock hooves of cattle, is the secret to restoring degraded landscapes. They work the soil better than any machine can possibly do, and healthy soil creates healthy vegetation.”
Focus on what we are doing to the soil
Finally his message is being heard. From the United Nations to farmers all over the world, his call for a Brown Revolution, which focuses on what we are doing to the soil, is taking hold.
“The soil is the greatest storage space for both carbon and fresh water; greater than all the dams, lakes and rivers in the world, but we have buggered it up,” Savory says.
“To restore healthy soil in the world’s extensive grasslands requires large numbers of large herbivores on the land, tightly herded together, grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating on a piece of land and then moving on after a brief period, just as the great wildlife herds once did. Those herds are gone in most parts of the world, and we now need to use livestock, particularly cattle, to achieve herd effect, animal impact and hoof action.”
Radically advancing human wellbeing
Savory’s project in Zimbabwe called Operation Hope – proving how cattle can transform degraded grassland and savannah into lush natural pasture with increased water and flowing streams – was named winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. This is a premier international competition, recognising initiatives that radically advance human wellbeing and the health of the planet’s ecosystems.
Starting to educate retailers and consumers
“We are starting to educate retailers and consumers about the various benefits of veld-raised beef,” says the Vice-Chair of the National RPO, Dr Pieter Prinsloo who farms with Beefmaster cattle outside of Queenstown.
This year, together with his neighbour, fellow Beefmaster breeder, Llewellyn Maclean, they forged ahead with their veld-raised ‘Daybreaker Beef Off Grass’ brand, as they believe that as soon as consumers start insisting on veld-raised meat, the price will change.
“The consumer will be assured – and we will include this on our label – that the beef can be traced directly from our farms and that our cattle receive no growth hormones, steroids or antibiotics.
“A growing number of consumers, particularly in the higher LSM groups (LSM 5 – 10), want to know what they are eating, and they are welcome to visit our farms,” Prinsloo adds. “It’s all about the consumer being able to trace the product back to the farm, which is a major trend in the United States and elsewhere, and which we believe will become more prominent in South Africa.”
Ultimate Beef Club
They have registered their Daybreaker Beef Off Grass brand with the Grass Fed Association of South Africa (GFSA) and have started marketing their product through a well-known restaurateur and butcher in Queenstown, Andrew Nel, as well as through The Local Grill restaurant group in Joburg, which offers a choice of veld-raised and grain-fed beef and hosts tastings through its ‘Ultimate Beef Club’.
“To give our customers choice I offer both grass-fed and grain-fed beef on our menu. We show customers the various cuts and the different colour and texture between grass-fed and rain-fed, and all our waiters are well informed on both,” comments Steve Maresch, co-owner of The Local Grill.
“What we are trying to do is to promote better beef as a whole, and our search has put us together with beef farmers throughout South Africa. We showcase their beef in our restaurants.
Preference for marbled beef
“We currently sell 70% grain-fed beef and 30% grass-fed, and what we have seen is an increase in the preference for marbled beef – beef with more intramuscular fat, which can be aged for longer. We age our meat for up to 50 days or more,” says Maresch, adding that when you cook marbled beef, it releases wonderful flavour and juiciness back into the meat.
With more than enough said, it’s lunchtime now and I’m heading to my kitchen to cook a juicy, well-marbled steak. Beef is a beautiful product and I urge you to start asking your butcher and supermarket about veld-raised beef and to find out more.
The merits of veld-raised Afrikaner beef
This video was commissioned by the Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society to explain the merits of veld-raised beef:
Should meat be on the menu?
Australian agricultural journalist David Mason-Jones addresses what every farmer and environmentalist needs to know about free-ranging cattle and global warming, and which he writes about in his book ‘Should meat be on the menu?’
The first misconception is the idea that cattle are just standing there in the middle of the veld breathing out, and belching, vast quantities of ‘new carbon’ in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. The anti-cattle lobbyists argue that this ‘new carbon’ is the basis of harmful carbon emissions or carbon pollution. But how can this be so when every atom of carbon ever emitted by a free-ranging animal – either as carbon dioxide or methane – comes from the atmosphere in the first place?
The critical fact is that this kind of carbon originates from the atmosphere, not from the ground. And when a cow (or sheep or goat) belches, the result is simply a return of carbon to the atmosphere. It is an ever repeating closed loop with no net gain of carbon.
It is a natural, organic cycle, powered by solar energy, in which the cattle and other livestock are natural organic components.
So why is there all this fuss about cattle? Because those calling for a reduction in meat-eating in order to save the planet from global warming gases are ignoring the basic facts about the natural carbon cycle and confusing it with fossil fuel power stations.
Power stations get their carbon from beneath the ground (from fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil), burn it and create what is effectively new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, generated by human activity.
You can certainly therefore stand at the top of a power station chimney stack and argue that the carbon dioxide coming from the stack is warming the planet. You cannot, however, stand in the veld where cattle or sheep are grazing and have the same argument.
People who want meat eating curtailed are getting power stations and livestock mixed up.
A further difference is that the power station can never re-use its own waste carbon dioxide. A sheep or cow can. The next mouthful of grass represents a new drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Far from being part of the carbon emission problem, free-ranging cattle are part of the solution. The grazing relationship between plants and free-ranging animals is one of the very few ways to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in the soil.
Feedlot animals are in a different category because of the added carbon footprint of the fossil fuel used in tilling, seeding and harvesting grain. There is also a fossil fuel component in the production and distribution of fertiliser for grain growing. Finally, there is a fossil fuel component in transporting the grain to the feedlot.
Similarly, we are warned about the dangers of methane production by cows, as if it is something bizarre and unusual. Methane production by animals is a completely natural and organic process, powered ultimately by solar energy. Methane production by fossil fuels is an altogether different process, completely unrelated to cows.
The fact that a severe attack has been made on livestock farmers based on misleading information and poorly understood science is appalling.
Fortunately, cattle farmers now have a major high profile scientist on their side in the person of Professor Tim Flannery from Macquarie University, a former Australian of the Year.
Tim Flannery recently spoke at a seminar in Australia titled, ‘Can red meat be green?’ Experts debate sustainable food production’. During his talk he emphasised that by using the relationship between plants and animals we can boost the carbon storage capacity of our soil. It is so important for all livestock farmers to get the message out because the food security of the world, environmental sustainability and livelihoods are at stake.
To contact David Mason-Jones
Tel: +61 (0) 411 172 328