For almost all of human history, there was only one way to raise animals: off the surrounding land. Cattle spent their lives years grazing on the indigenous goodness of local grasses to grow into strong, fully developed adults. Other grazing animals like goats, sheep and bison lived the same way—known as ruminants, these animals are designed to eat the grasses, plants and shrubs that grow naturally. Ranchers knew this and nurtured soil, water and plants for pastures that were alive with the high-quality grasses and legumes essential for healthy animal growth. Free to roam these lush, green pastures, animals were healthy and their resulting meat was lean, nutritious and rich in flavor.
Today the reality is far different.
After World War II, big business found its way into our nation’s family farms, and the best practices developed over millennia all but disappeared. In the 1960s, the work of producing American meat shifted quickly to larger family farms and commercial feedlots thanks to new strategies for confining cattle and feeding them with high-starch grain diets. The largest of these commercial operations learned to efficiently crank out in excess of 100,000 head of cattle a year. Vast surpluses of corn, milo, wheat and soybean meal—produced in mass quantities thanks to petroleum-based fertilizers and subsidized by the government—further fueled the expansion of the cattle-feeding industry.
Now animals, many of which have never seen a blade of grass after weaning, are fattened on unnatural diets, with added hormones and antibiotics and churned out for slaughter in little more than a year. This efficient industrial process guarantees that there will always be plenty of meat at your local supermarket—and that it will consistently be inexpensive.
But we are paying in other ways. And one need only look to our beef-loving neighbors in Argentina to understand how. Though Argentina leads the world in per-capita red meat consumption, the country enjoys lower numbers in deaths-per-1000 of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And, yes, Argentina has specialized in grass-fed beef production for centuries.