More than once I’ve been asked, what is pasture-raised? Some assume that all animals are raised on the pasture, so why do we claim that ours are sustainably pasture-raised and what makes it better than industrialized practices ( commercial factory farming)?

As sustainable livestock ranchers we use a wide variety of practices, not only to raise animals humanely, produce better products and provide a living for ourselves and our families but also to build soil and sequester carbon, mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases.

At the heart of sustainable livestock production is well-managed pasture, forest, or rangeland, where animals can move and graze freely.

Raising livestock on pasture is labor intensive and expensive, from pasture and ranch management to securing reliable processing facilities and a constant fight with preditors.

The resulting products are more expensive as well. For those able to pay a premium, each purchase represents a worthy long-term investment in a dramatically different food system that is healthier, not only for you but for pasture-based livestock ranchers, animals, and the environment.

What Is Pasture-raised Livestock?

The industrialization of agriculture separates what is otherwise a closed-loop, renewable cycle. In a sustainable farming system, the needs of one element are met by the wastes of another: for example, animal manure builds the soil, replenishing nutrients used by crops that are fed to animals.

Industrial agriculture, however, artificially divorces animals from plants, creating problems of depleted soil on the one hand and excessive animal waste in toxic amounts, on the other.

Pasture-raised livestock ranching reintegrates the cycle putting livestock on grass or in another natural environment.

Cattle and sheep can graze on marginal rangelands, where they can roam freely, eat the plants or insects they naturally digest, and improve the fertility of the soil with their manure.

The meat products from pasture-raised animals are healthier and more nutritious than those raised in confinement operations.

A lot of meat producers may use a variety of techniques to raise their animals and a variety of terminology to describe those practices for marketing and sales. Grassfed, grass-finished, pastured, and free-range are words often used to distinguish sustainably-raised livestock from their industrially-raised counterparts.

Unfortunately, none of these terms are defined or regulated by the US Department of Agriculture or any other governmental body. (Until January 2016, the USDA maintained designated grass-fed standards but it was withdrawn due to poor definition and poor enforcement.)

So how can you tell if you are getting premium pasture-raised products? Learn about your rancher and their practices. Don’t be shy and ask questions and if you can, go see it.

Pasture Management and the Environment

At the heart of a healthy pastured livestock operation is well-managed land.

It is extremely important to do rotational grazing so that the animals do not overgraze the land.

We raise cattle and sheep. Different animals prefer different kinds of plants and have different kinds of impacts on the land; by grazing them in succession, we give pastures the greatest benefit.

Unlike confinement operations, a closed-loop pasture system takes advantage of animal waste as a beneficial fertilizer, because it is at a scale that the land can absorb without the runoff common to the spread of large amounts of manure.

Industrial farms rely on fossil fuels to transport feed and waste and regulate the indoor environment, as well as pesticides and herbicides on the feed crops, while pastured systems take advantage of the animal’s ability to feed itself, spread its waste, and be comfortable.

Pastured systems are also climate-friendly, in addition to being more energy efficient. There is some debate as to whether pasture-raised cattle produce more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than grain-fed cattle, but the carbon sequestration ability of healthy grasslands makes it a net win either way.

Animal Welfare

Animals raised on pasture are generally healthier and under less stress than those raised in confinement. They have widely varied diets that depend on the grasses and other forage available in the area; they roam freely and express natural behaviors like rooting and scratching.

As pasture-based ranchers, we ensure our animals always have access to fresh water and supplement their diets with vitamins or minerals as appropriate.

We also make sure that there is adequate shelter, whether trees or a formal structure, to protect our livestock from the elements.

Grazing on pasture is appropriate for cattle and other ruminants, whose multi-stomach digestive systems naturally extract nutrients from grass and plants. Consuming roughage is essential for these animals to produce saliva, which neutralizes their natural stomach acids.

When ruminants are fed a grain-based diet, however, much less saliva is produced and has the opposite effect of acidifying the digestive tract: intestinal damage, dehydration, liver abscesses, and death can result.

Human Health Benefits of Pastured Animal Products

A growing body of research indicates that pasture-raised meat is better than grain-fed options.

In addition to being lower in calories and total fat, pasture-raised foods have higher levels of vitamins and a healthier balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than conventional meat and dairy products.

Studies have shown that grass-fed meat has been shown to contain 200 to 500 percent more CLA as a proportion of total fatty acids than grain-fed meat.

The Pastured Price Differential

Raising animals on pasture is more labor-intensive, more expensive, and often requires more on-the-fly creative problem-solving than raising animals in confinement.

In a side-by-side comparison at the grocery store, industrially-raised animal products were much cheaper because they benefitted from economies of scale, taxpayer-funded tax breaks, and the externalization of many costs, all of which drive prices down.

The true costs (of labor, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, etc.) are reflected in retail pricing for pasture-raised meat which can cause sticker shock.

The cost differential varies, depending on the animal and is in inverse proportion to its size (the smaller the animal, the greater the cost spread).

It is important to understand that pastured meat products are more expensive than their industrialized counterparts because they are the result of a dramatically different model of food production.

This knowledge might help you as a consumer to adjust your expectation of what pastured meat products “should” cost.

It is also important to realize that the extra dollars spent on these purchases directly support independent ranchers — and that this further represents a positive investment in the development of a sustainable, healthy, alternative system.

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