Taste of the pasture
Beef raised on grass leaner, with pronounced flavor
By Kelly Kennedy, For the Camera
October 1, 2003
In 1979, Marianne and Don Stilson needed somebody to take care of the grass.
After buying a 98.5-acre ranch in Nederland in 1965, the stay-at-home mom and biometrics
teacher at the University of Colorado had pastured other people's horses on their land. But in the
tough economic times of the late 1970s, the horses became too expensive for their boarders to
keep. But they feared a different problem without their equine grass eaters: a pasture full of
broadleaf plants, many of them weeds.
The weed control solution eventually led them to start a small business that feeds them (literally)
and occupies them in retirement.
"We got some cows to eat the grass so we wouldn't have to take care of it," Marianne Stilson
says. "We butchered a couple steers for our family, and we liked it. Then we thought, 'Well,
somebody else might like it, too.'"
At the B Bar S Ranch on Twin Sisters Road, the heifers eat only mountain grasses â€” no corn,
no hay, and are fed none of the antibiotics, hormones or food additives found in most feed-lot
"I like to see that they're treated really well," Stilson says while walking through a herd of placid
mooing. "If they get injured or a respiratory disease, we take care of them. But if we give them
antibiotics, we don't sell them."
The grass alternative
The obvious difference for a person dining on a grass-fed steak is the taste, which is close to
buffalo, another grass-fed animal. The meat has to be cooked differently â€” low and slow â€”
because it is so lean. The not-so-obvious differences are that it's healthier for meat lovers, a
happier life for the cows, and, advocates say, it's better for the environment than feed-lot beef.
"It's been a lot of fun because it's really taken care of the land," Stilson says.
And, she says, beef from her cattle is delicious.
Full of taste
"People say it's just more flavorful," she says. "It's more like eating good elk. Some people say
it's gamy, but I don't think so. It's not like lamb at all."
For her, grain-fed beef has lost its appeal.
"Sometimes I run out, and I have to buy some at the market," she says. "It's really bland."
The taste is an acquired one.
Jim Smailer, chef at the Boulder Cork, says he served grass-fed beef at his restaurant two years
ago during an Argentinian wine-tasting event.
"We decided to go with their traditional menu, and they're known for their grass-fed beef,"
Smailer says. "It's interesting. Grass-fed is a little lighter in color â€” not quite so red. I like it. It's
different. Our guests loved it."
But he doesn't serve it often.
"The American palate isn't ready for grass-fed," he says. "They're used to grain-fed. If I had a
choice, I'd pick the prime-grade grain-fed. It's just richer."
Mike Cummings, national category manager of the meat department for Boulder-based Wild
Oats markets, agrees."Not too many customers are asking for it. "It's a different flavor, sort of
gamy like venison, but not as strong. The American palate isn't ready for it," says Cummings,
who has been in the meat business for 37 years.
Cummings enjoys grass-fed beef, but says the product can be inconsistent.
"The trouble with grass-fed is that it tastes different depending on what part of the country it
comes from," he says. "When they're out in the pastures, there's a mixture of grasses, so it's just
However, Jerry Donley, the owner of Arapahoe Packing, which processes the meat from the B
Bar S Ranch, says there is demand for grass-fed beef.
"I've had people ask for it from as far away as Colorado Springs," he says.
Cindy Shoemaker of Honeyacre Enterprises in Wiggins, who sells small cuts of grass-fed beef at
the Longmont Farmers' Market, says people often like it when they try it.
"One couple I know started out with a steak, then bought hamburger, then a roast, and then
finally they bought a side. They were hooked."
At Princess Beef in Delta, Cynthia Crawford says when the World War II generation tastes her
grass-fed beef, they tell her it's like what they ate growing up â€” before grain-fed beef became
Of the flavor, she says: "It's fabulous. It has taste. I think that's the big thing. It's beefier. It's
tastier. It's stronger. It's meatier. It's like the difference between eating a garden tomato and a
She says she sells customers on grass-fed meat with hamburgers. "You put it in a pan, and you
never, ever pour off fat," she says. "And the patties don't shrink."
How to cook it
As with low-fat buffalo, preparation is key.
Stilson cooks steaks over the coals until they are medium-rare â€” any longer and they tend to
Crawford advises cooking the meat for a longer period than beef on low heat.
"If you overcook it, it's going to be tough," she says. "If you marinate it, you can cook it longer.
For roasts, put it in at 200 all day. If you put it in the crock pot, it will flake off with a fork."
The low fat content appeals to many grass-fed beef devotees.
"Our beef ... has only about 30 percent of the calories from fat, so it's comparable to a chicken
breast without the skin," says Stilson.
Shoemaker says people get to enjoy the taste of the meat, rather than the taste of the fat, with
"Since we've been eating this, you can tell the difference in flavor from the store-bought beef,"
she says. "We recently went to a steakhouse, and my husband ordered prime rib. He almost
couldn't eat it because of all the fat."
Grass-fed beef is high in Omega-3 fatty acid and linoleic acid, says Cummings of Wild Oats.
Omega 3 is a "good" fat that people don't produce on their own, and linoleic acid is believed to
fight cancer, he adds.
As with any beef, E. coli contamination during processing is a potential concern. Experts advise
that all ground beef should be thoroughly cooked. Steaks, roasts and similar cuts of meat do not
have to be cooked to well done as long as they are seared on the outside to kill exterior germs.
No cases of Mad Cow disease have been reported in the United States. The cases in Europe
are believed to have originated in cattle that were fed sheep parts.
Like the Stilsons, Crawford and Shoemaker, many grass-fed beef producers are niche farmers
who do not use antibiotics and hormones.
Shoemaker says raising grass-fed beef has changed the way she looks at her health.
"I used to never be a big proponent of natural foods," she says, "but once you start eating that
way, you start thinking about other foods. It's really a lot better."
For more information: http://www.bbarsranch.com/ B Bar S grass-fed beef (303) 442-1995;
www.longmontfarmers.com Longmont Farmers' Market, runs Saturdays through Oct. 26 at the
Boulder County Fairgrounds; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Princess Beef (970) 921-7821; www.
honeyacre.com Honeyacre Enterprises