I’m a dyed in the wool fat beef guy. And I thought I’d be a died in the wool fat beef guy. Until recently.
Recently, I spent two months at our second home in Toronto. And close to our Toronto home there are three butchers. And all three of those butchers now exclusively sell grass-fed beef and, as you probably know, grass-fed beef is very lean beef. But three butchers. Location, location, location. Sermons from three different preachers meant my conversion to greener pastures had begun.
A woman came to lunch at our home in San Miguel de Allende today. She’s a country girl. A cattle rancher. A modern farmer.
She came bearing steaks. Ribeye steaks from grass fed beef. She suggested that if I ate her grass-fed beef, I might forget the word marbling. The word may return again to its original meaning as a hard crystalline metamorphic form of limestone.
The woman’s name is Meagan Burns and her cattle ranch is located close to Dolores Hidalgo about 50 kilometres outside San Miguel de Allende. It’s not exactly Meagan Burns’ cattle ranch, it’s her ex-husband Reed Burns’ cattle ranch. And until a couple of years ago, Meagan was very much a city girl, a business woman, and, for part of her life, a vegetarian.
“I overheard Reed on the telephone arranging to have some of his cattle shipped to northern Mexico to be finished with corn on a feedlot”, said Meagan. “I asked him why he had to do that when there was a market for beef here. He said, ‘How about I give you a cow and you can do what you want with it’.”
Today, Meagan is working to have 140 Limousin cows remain in and feed the community.
I told Meagan Burns that if I thought her lean, mostly grass-fed ribeyes were as good as the marbled, corn-fed ribeyes that I had salivated over for the last few decades, if she could complete my conversion from corn-fed to grass-fed beef, I would either walk over white hot charcoal or I’d say something nice about her business on the blog. My feet remain unblistered but I have a story to tell.
But first a little background on beef farming.
Almost all cows are pastured for part of their life but, due to weather, almost all cows require some supplemental feeding. This feed can come in many forms including hay which is simply grass that’s cut and stored, grains such as wheat or barley, legumes such as soy or alfalfa, or, most commonly, corn.
Thanks to growth hormones, dramatically increased yields from the use of genetically modified seed and enormous government subsidies, corn has become by far the cheapest alternative for putting more weight on more cows in less time. It used to take four years to get a cow to its slaughter weight of about 1200 pounds. These days it can be done in 14 months.
More and more farmers are now, however, saying no thanks to hormones, antibiotics and GMOs. One of those farmers is Meagan Burns.
Corn is an unnatural product for cows to consume. Despite cows being ruminants with multiple stomachs and therefore able to convert grass to meat, it is much more difficult with corn. Cows are often distressed and sometimes become seriously ill. Meagan Burns shared a heartbreaking story from last year of losing two cows that had over-indulged in corn, became bloated and died very quickly.
“It happens very fast, which is why we stay away from corn as best we can, even though corn is king in most of Mexico,” said Meagan. “Grass-fed cows are a bit of an oxymoron in the high Mexican desert. There’s not much in the way of lush green grass but Guanajuato does have brown grass, especially after the rains have arrived. The cows of Guanajuato have mostly adapted to the terrain, but the issue of having enough food for everyone remains a challenge.”
“There is work to be done, but our goal is to have our cows eat their natural diets, while living a natural life alongside their natural family, because I swear it makes such an amazing difference in the quality of meat these cows will provide. It’s really a very simple equation but the challenges of that equation are what inspires me.”
I have done enough research to be convinced that grass-fed beef is better for the cows, better for the consumer and better for the environment.
Rowe Farms, one of those three butchers within walking distance of our Toronto home, told me, “Research has shown that meat from grass-fed animals is both lower in calories and has up to one-third less fat when compared with a similar cut from a grain-fed animal. Grass fed beef is also higher in omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vitamins. CLA has been shown to suppress cancerous tumors and moderate body weight, body composition, glucose metabolism and the immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to significantly reduce triglyceride levels in the blood and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
At Rancho Santo Niño, 250 of the 650 acres are suitable for pasturing Meagan Burns’ Limousin herd but there’s still a need for occasional supplementing, due mostly to the drought conditions that exist in the high desert during late winter and early spring.
“We feed them alfalfa, barley, oats, sorghum and sometimes it’s necessary to include corn”, said Meagan, “but the corn we feed them is maiz criollo, the native corn that was around before Monsanto started messing with it.”
I was convinced that Meagan Burns’ mostly grass-fed meat was better for me but I also thought the Mexican beef I buy at my local butchers was grass-fed.
”Many people in San Miguel de Allende believe their meat is clean…free of chemicals, added hormones and antibiotics…because things look primitive”, said Meagan. “Although there are meat producers and butchers who are making clean meat, please don’t let looks fool you, much of the meat is full of all the added chemicals the cows in the northern part of the continent get, and sometimes right up until it’s time to slaughter which is a big no-no. A common practice is to literally feed cattle chicken shit, to fatten them up. I’ve smelled the carcasses of animals who have lived on this unfortunate diet and I promise you, you do not want to be eating this meat. You have to ask questions, that’s what it has come to these days.”
“There’s little or no aging in that butcher shop beef either. Aging is very important. The meat has to rest so that the proteins begin to break down.”
”We age our meat for at least two weeks and preferably four. I’m experimenting with both dry and wet aging. This is a very new thing for me but I’m learning all the time.”
We decided to cook two of the aged, bone-in ribeyes that I’d purchased from Rancho Santo Niño. One would be done in Don Day’s Wife’s traditional way with a rub we buy from Olliffe’s, another of those three local Toronto butchers, consisting of salt, spices, dehydrated onions and garlic. The other would be done in Meagan Burns traditional way with simply a light sprinkling of salt. We all agreed that both steaks would be finished with a couple of pats of butter, they’d be cooked medium rare (about four minutes a side with the gas barbecue on high), and would be given five minutes of rest time.
Apart from the beef I’ve eaten outside of North America, this, by the way, would be only our second ever grass-fed ribeye. In Toronto, the cut is beyond our budget and we’ve adapted by eating flank, flat iron, skirt, tritip and bavette cuts. A grass-fed ribeye in Toronto runs you between 700 to 800 pesos a kilo. Meagan Burns ribeyes from Rancho Santo Niño are less than half that price, but it’s important to remember there’s much more to a cow than it’s ribeyes, so experimenting with lesser-known cuts is encouraged by Meagan Burns.
We grilled some cebollitos and bell and poblano peppers, fried some cremini mushrooms in butter, and Don Day’s Wife baked the best friend a good steak ever had in a town where Russets are rare, Lyonnaise potatoes.
The meat certainly looked different than corn fed ribeyes. It was a pinky purple as opposed to deep red. Fat was almost non-existent except for a little that was close to the bone. After resting and slicing, the meat kept its paler pink hue.
The time had come for the taste and tenderness test. I was excited. Very excited.
“It cuts just like a corn fed steak”, said Don Day’s Wife. “The texture seems a little less grainy but who cares?”
I thought I definitely need a steak knife but that’s often the case with corn fed so it was, again, who cares? I didn’t get that melt-in-you-mouth sensation you get from corn fed and it took a little more molar power but that wasn’t a problem either. There were a couple of very chewy bits but I attributed that to bad butchering.
I had read the result of every taste test I could find on the internet and had been prepped by some of my research to expect an unpleasant taste from grass fed beef. I’d read of off-flavors like ammonia, bitter, liverish, old, fishy, rotten and sour. Most of all I’d read the word gamey, the type of taste you might get from eating wild venison or elk.
“Taste gamey to you?”, asked Meagan.
“Not to me”, said Don Day’s Wife and I re-iterated her opinion.
“There’s nothing at all unpleasant”, I said, “but it does taste different from those marbled ribeyes I’m used to.”
It was hard to pinpoint the taste. All I could say was it was a little like comparing beef to pork or beef to lamb. It was just different and perhaps there was room for both. Particularly considering the health benefits and, even though I’m no animal activist, I do like to know that the cows are a little more content.
As I gnawed one bone and Meagan the other, I appreciated her sentiments when she said, “Knowing where my meat has come from has made an enormous difference in my life.”
“I like knowing where every bit of the cow goes as well. The hide to Leon for leather. The guts to processors for dog food. The not-so-good cuts to taco stands for filling a tortilla. And the good cuts to people like you.”
So will I be buying more grass fed beef from Meagan Burns? Yes, I will. I like her enthusiasm. I like her passion. And I really like her beef.
And am I now a true believer, a convert to grass-fed beef? Have I really lost my marbles? No, not quite. But you could call me bicarnal. And when I’m in San Miguel de Allende, where grass-fed beef is much more competitively priced with corn fed, grass-fed just might be getting the lion’s share of our butchered business.
Rancho Santo Niño offers 16 different meat cuts online, ranging in price from 100 to 300 pesos a kilo. Orders can be delivered to your home in Centro for 50 pesos or you can arrange for in-town pick up. Meats are vacuum-packed and frozen. Prices will fluctuate and availability changes often. Please keep in mind this is not factory farming with unlimited quantities; this is nose-to-tail artisanal Limousin beef and the most popular cuts may occasionally be out of stock. You’ll find full details on Meagan Burns’ website at ranchosantonino.com.