Greener Pastures: When It Comes to Beef, Is Grass-Fed Better?

Greener Pastures

March/April 2008

By Patsy Jamieson

Cresting a steep, rutted dirt road that runs through the hills of Huntington, Vermont, I’m greeted by the sight of vigorously churning wind turbines and a dozen black cows lazily grazing on the rolling pasture. In an effort to eat locally and more sustainably, I’ve driven the 25 miles from my home in Burlington to Maple Wind Farm to pick up an order of grass-fed beef, assured by the farmers that the cows had spent their entire lives consuming only their mother’s milk and grass.

Young and energetic, farmers Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting manage this diversified livestock and vegetable operation. A former teacher and mountain guide, Bruce got into farming serendipitously. In 1999 he and Beth bought this beautiful patch of the Green Mountains and an old dairy farm that had lain fallow for several years. It was an impulse purchase that changed their lives.

After a discouraging attempt to clear the overgrown brush from the land, the couple started grazing 13 cows. That herd has grown to about 90 Angus-Devon-Hereford-cross cattle, which share the pastures with sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys.

Ironically, as a young man Bruce had been a vegetarian for seven years. He had elected to give up meat because of his concerns about the unsustainable land and energy resources cattle farming required and the negative health effects of fatty meat. “But the more I read about grass-fed beef and learned about the benefits—both environmental and health—of cattle raised on carefully managed pastures, I realized that this is something I could eat,” he explains. “Now we produce meat for recovering vegetarians.”

The grazing land at Maple Wind Farm is divided into a number of large paddocks, each contained by an electric fence (partially powered by those wind turbines). During the grazing season, the cows are moved to fresh pastures every day, following an agricultural system called Management Intensive Grazing. The model for this practice are wild buffalo, which roam in close groupings and are pressured into moving on to fresh grazing land by predators. After a paddock has been used for grazing, it is allowed to recover for two to four weeks, thus restoring the grass and eliminating erosion through a cycle of fertilization (manure) and recovery. This rotational grazing protects the roots of the grass and boosts fertility of the soil.

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