What’s your beef? It’s a serious question. Is your beef grass-fed? Grass finished? Or is it really grass-fed masquerading as grass finished? Perhaps you’re thinking, “Um, I have no idea what that even is!” Well, next time you’re craving a Fred Flintstone-brontosaurus-sized-steak, you’ll know exactly what it means. And who better to decipher it all than Nick Bradley of Bradley and Son Cattle?
A third-generation cattle rancher, Nick is the grandson of the Bradley and Son outfit, and his family’s herding history comes with some Truckee ties. What his grandfather started as a dairy farm in 1938 evolved in the 1950s to become a cattle ranch. Since the beginning, the Bradley herd has been well-traveled in the Sierra Nevada region. In the olden days, the cows would be boarded onto a train that, over the course of three days, would transport them in time for the change of season. They’d ride the rails from Lincoln to Rocklin, and from there they would roll on to Truckee.
Decades later, the herd’s home still changes with the seasons. The Bradley cattle split their grazing time between pastures in both Quincy and Sierra Valley in the summer, and the Sierra Nevada foothills in Chico for the winter. Why, you ask, would this family of ranchers go through the bother of moving their herd twice yearly? “We do this to make sure the cattle have the best possible grass all year round,” said Nick.
You see, while misleading labels slipping through loopholes in regulations might give the impression that grass-fed cattle is along the same lines as grass finished, the two are not interchangeable. The distinctions leave much room for interpretation, although Nick said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to correct this. When you buy beef directly from the Bradley ranch, you are getting a product that is both — grass-fed and grass finished.
“Grass-fed doesn’t always mean grass finished,” Nick said.
Milk. Milk and grass. Grass. Those are the three stages of nutrition that the Bradley cattle receive throughout the course of their lives. “[Our] cattle are out in native pastures, not man-made feed lots,” he added.
A label declaring that beef was grass-fed gives the implication that the cattle were fed nothing but grass their entire lives. Typically, cattle that become meat labeled grass-fed started out munching solely on grass as calves but were later on fed a more grain-based diet including corn, hay, and potatoes. Those that are both, grass-fed and finished, sustain on nothing but mother’s milk and grass from birth to slaughter.
According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, most animals are fed grain to speed up weight gain and increase milk production. Beef and dairy products from cattle that were fed a 100% grass-based diet have important nutritional benefits for humans, and for the animals’ health, as well.
Beef and dairy cattle are ruminants, which are a classification of animal characterized by chewing again what has been swallowed. (You’ve heard the expression chewing the cud?) Grass and grass-based forage is the natural diet of ruminants, and their systems are capable of easily digesting high-fiber, low-starch grasses. Introducing grain feeding comes at a cost to nutritional value for humans and with adverse health effects for the animals.
“We like to make sure our cattle stay on the best, strongest feed their whole life, with a variety of grasses,” he said. “This gives us the best finish with great beef flavor. Not gamey taste that you sometimes hear complaints [about] with grass-fed.”
In the end, better flavor isn’t the only difference when it comes to what cattle are eating. According to the Mayo Clinic, beef from cattle that eat solely grass may contain less total fat in addition to more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat believed to reduce heart disease and cancer risks. It also has more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E, than conventionally fed cattle. So, look for labels that say American Grassfed or PCO 100% Certified Grassfed to ensure you’re getting beef that only ate grass.
The positives, said Nick, go beyond taste and nutrition. Buying local is always more sustainable. The ranch lessens its carbon footprint by cutting out the middle men, eliminating trucking their cattle hundreds of miles out of the area for processing, and keeping it in the neighborhood. His family’s ranch has been a longtime staple at the Truckee Farmers Market, making the trek up the hill every Tuesday to bring their beef directly to the consumer.