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Grass-fed beef helping grasslands thrive

New interest from restaurant chains like A&W can help showcase beef more favourably with consumers

Gerond Davidson — seen here with his family — is the fifth generation to farm at Springbank Farm near Neepawa.

“There’s no excuse not to try grass-fed beef,” says the recently mailed A&W coupon book.

Why would A&W move to serving customers only grass-fed beef? “It is all about feeling good about the food you eat,” says the coupon book. OK, but what is so special about grass-fed beef? It’s simple says A&W, “cattle graze on pasture and the grazing helps the grasslands thrive.”

Gerond Davidson is the fifth generation of his family to continually farm and raise cattle at Springbank Farm near Neepawa.

“Today the term ‘grass-fed’ beef is being used as a marketing term that is gaining popularity with restaurants wanting to connect the beef they sell with a healthy environment,” Davidson said.

“Grass fed suggests a different management of the cattle, as compared to other approaches like a ‘conventional’ approach (open pasture), ‘grain fed’ (feedlot approach), or ‘grass finished’ (no grain) approach. The term ‘grass fed’ is somewhat ambiguous because at some point all cattle are ‘grass fed’ on summer pasture.”

In the ‘grass-fed’ world, a more holistic approach is often taken with pasture management. This includes rotational grazing, multi-paddock grazing, or mob grazing. Basically, they all mean the same thing. You move cattle through small paddocks and intensively graze, allowing grass in the ungrazed paddocks to regrow during rest periods, Davidson said.

“We have been raising cattle in a holistic way for almost 25 years now,” he said.

Keeping pasture grass and forage plants in a continuous state of vegetative growth means they absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, Davidson said.

“This has the added benefit of increasing our soil organic matter, therefore increasing the soil water-holding capacity, as well as sequestering carbon,” he said. “We were early adopters of riparian management on our creeks and adjacent grasslands because we did not want cattle to be a potential threat to water quality. In 2006 I partnered with Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation through a Conservation Agreement to protect the riparian area, grasslands and wildlife habitat in one of my pastures along Boggy Creek up stream of Neepawa.”

Heavy grazing, followed by a period of rest and recovery for the pasture, is the heart of any sustainable grazing system regardless what it’s called. photo: Wayne Hildebrand

“I got the A&W coupon book in my mailbox and was encouraged by the fact that A&W sees value in the link between beef production and a healthy landscape,” said Tim Sopuck, the CEO of Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC). “MHHC has long recognized the important contribution of cattle producers and their pasture lands that support healthy watersheds and the protection of wildlife habitat.”

He added the organization will continue to work with cattle producers to conserve pasture lands and improving grass quality by offering incentive programs like the new Keep Grazing Project.

“I am also thrilled that all my urban neighbours are getting the message that pasture lands are important,” he said. “Manitoba beef producers are important players in addressing issues such as climate change, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water purification, native prairie protection and habitat for birds, wildlife, and species at risk.”

A&W says, “it’s all about feeling good about the food you eat.”

But are there any nutritional differences between a ‘grass-fed’ beef burger and a ‘grain-fed’ burger? Studies have shown grass-fed beef contains less fat. It can also contain up to five times as much omega-3 (lowers risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis) and about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (an antioxidant, reduces heart health risks) as grain-fed beef.

“I would say ‘grass-fed’ beef marketing is gaining popularity with restaurants,” Davidson said. “It relays a positive message to consumers about food production, and it gets the word out that beef is good.”

Davidson says in the end, A&W supports beef produced on grazed grasslands that provide environmental benefits to society and he’s glad the company is relaying it to consumers.

“I feel good about the beef we raise, and I hope consumers feel good about the beef they eat,” he said. “My hope is there will be enough cattle producers left in the future so cattle can continue to graze on pastures which will help our grasslands thrive and support a healthy environment.”

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