Every Saturday at the Tower Grove Farmers Market in St. Louis, rancher Jeremy Parker brings in hundreds of pounds of beef - flanks, sirloins, briskets, ground - and at the end of the market day, most of it is sold.
“When I leave, it’s all but gone most of the time,” Parker said. “There’s definitely growing demand. There’s more demand than there is availability.”
Parker and his fellow grass-fed producers are happy to ride the trend.
The appetite for grass-fed beef has shot up in recent years. While still a small percentage of the beef consumed in the U.S. — about 3 percent — advocates, consumers and producers predict the number will keep rising. One study put demand growth at 20 percent a year.
“It’s expanded dramatically,” said Alan Williams, a grass-fed beef producer and member of the Pasture Project, an effort to get more conventional producers in the Midwest switching to pasture-based systems. “In the late 1990s there were only 100 producers. Now there are more than 2,000. The market has grown from being $2 million to $3 million to over $2.5 billion in retail value.”
The American beef industry brought in $44 billion dollars in 2011, making it the most valuable sector in American agriculture.
Most cattle raised in the U.S. are sent to feedlots, in Kansas and Nebraska mostly, where the animals are fattened and “finished” on a diet of corn and other grains.
This feedlot system — where cattle are raised in one place, finished in another and processed in yet another — has enabled the country to develop its massive beef industry cheaply, efficiently and with less manpower.
Cattle ranchers contend that a wholesale, or even partial, transition to a grass-based system would be impractical and would drive up costs.
In recent years, however, critics of the mainstream system say the industry’s growth has come at too high a cost, for the environment, for human health and for the animals themselves.
About 40 percent of the country’s corn now goes to livestock, helping make corn the most grown, and most valuable, crop in the country. But corn production is nitrogen-intensive, and critics say that run-off from nitrogen fertilizer has contributed to polluted waterways, most notably the growing “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the same time cattle’s corn-centric diets have contributed to fattier, less nutritious beef that is higher in cholesterol and lower in good fatty acids, some say.
Because the cost of that beef is relatively low, consumers can afford to eat more of it, often in the form of fast-food burgers.
Finally, critics contend, the animals aren’t designed to subsist on grain or live in confined space. Their diet and confinement allow them to get fatter more quickly, improving margins for producers, but forcing the animals to live in crowded, dirty conditions that make them sick, requiring the use of antibiotics and triggering bacteria that, ultimately, get into the food supply and make people sick.
“Basically, it comes down to time,” explained Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, and a Missouri producer whose Rain Crow Ranch is among the largest grass fed operations in the country. “You take an animal off of pasture, you give him antibiotics and corn, you’re looking at harvesting that animal in 12 to 14 months. On grass, you’re looking at 24 months, and more likely 28.”
Altogether, these factors appear to be getting the attention of consumers who are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef. Producers and retailers are responding.
Until recently, most grass-fed beef was sold directly by the producer to the consumer, who often arranges to buy a whole side of beef through a special arrangement. Some grass-fed beef is also sold directly through buyers clubs.
But now it’s becoming big business, with supermarket chains now stocking grass-fed beef.
Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture or beef trade groups track production or sales of grass-fed beef, choosing not to distinguish grass-fed production from conventional production.
But according to the Pasture Project, based on the grass fed industry’s own market research, sales of domestic grass fed beef were about $350 million in 2010, with more than $1 billion in total retail sales including imported product. The group predicts that, with sufficient supply, annual sales could reach $17 billion.
That increase could have a dramatic impact on nutrient run-off, something the Pasture Project is targeting. In 2011, the group issued a report that set out a goal: to get 20 percent of cattle producers in the upper Midwest transitioned to grass-based systems.
“We firmly believe that using grazing techniques makes the land more productive and reduces the amounts of inputs,” said Warren King, who runs the project for the Wallace Center, which is part of the Arkansas-based, nonprofit Winrock International.
There are roughly 1 billion pastureland acres in the U.S., which appears to be ample to graze the number of cows needed to meet that number. But not all land is equal.
“The number of acres it would take, they’d be just exorbitant,” said Ray Massey, an agricultural economist with the University of Missouri, speaking at a recent panel discussion at Washington University. “You need four or five acres per cow. There are 1 billion acres. But most are west of the Mississippi. In Nebraska and Colorado, you need 20 and 30 acres.”