Sustainable livestock farmers use a wide variety of practices, not only to raise animals humanely, produce better products and provide a living for themselves and their 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 farm management to securing reliable processing facilities. The resulting products (including meat, milk and eggs) 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 consumers, but for sustainable livestock farmers, animals and the environment.
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. 1 Industrial agriculture, however, artificially divorces animals from plants, creating problems of depleted soil on the one hand and excessive animal wastes in toxic amounts, on the other.
Pasture-based livestock farming reintegrates the cycle, putting livestock on grass or in another natural environment (hogs are often raised in the woods and beef cattle 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, eggs and dairy products from pasture-raised animals have been shown to be healthier and more nutritious than from those raised in confinement operations.
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 (Until January 2016, the USDA maintained a designated grassfed standard, but it was withdrawn due to poor definition and poor enforcement.) Several independent third-party labels such as Animal Welfare Approved and NOFA Certified Grassfed have rigorous standards to certify how animals are raised; these are the best bet to look for at the supermarket. Learn more about labels here.
At the heart of a healthy pastured livestock operation is well-managed land. Many livestock farmers refer to themselves as “grass farmers,” as a nod to the importance of the grass to their animals’ health and well-being. At the very least, farmers match the pasture area they have to the number of animals, so that the animals do not overgraze the land; and generally farmers rotate animals from one parcel of land to another. Farmers who raise multiple species may keep track of complicated rotation systems, beginning with cattle for several days, for example, then goats, then chickens for a week before allowing the field to lie fallow and starting all over again. Different animals prefer different kinds of plants and have different kinds of impact on the land; by grazing them in succession, farmers give pastures the greatest benefit.
Unlike at 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 is able to 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 own waste and be comfortable.
Pastured systems are also climate friendly, in addition to being more energy efficient. There is some debate as to whether grassfed cattle produce more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than grainfed cattle, but the carbon sequestration ability of healthy grasslands makes it a net win either way.
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. Pasture-based farmers ensure their animals always have access to fresh water, and supplement their diets with vitamins or minerals as appropriate. Farmers also make sure that there is adequate shelter, whether trees or a formal structure, to protect 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. 2
There are many choices to make when it comes to buying pastured meat. While 100 percent grassfed and pastured meat is best, one can be discriminating when it comes to supporting farmers who, despite using varying confinement practices, still treat their animals well. There are situations in which animals in confinement are kept comfortable, and may also graze on pasture for part of their lives. In particular, many small-scale dairy farms use a “free stall” style barn where cows can move about freely and spend time on pasture between milkings and when they are not in the milking cycle.
A growing body of research indicates that pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products are better for consumers’ health than grainfed 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 grassfed milk to contain as much as five times the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (a healthy fatty acid as milk from grainfed cows, while grassfed meat has been shown to contain 200 to 500 percent more CLA as a proportion of total fatty acids than grainfed meat. 3 Free-range chickens have 21 percent less fat in total, 30 percent less saturated fat and 28 percent fewer calories than their factory-farmed counterparts. 4 Eggs from poultry raised on pasture have 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more Vitamin A and 400 percent more omega-3s. 5
Despite many benefits of pastured livestock, a major hurdle exists for farmers working on a small, sustainable scale to bring their products to consumers’ plates: a lack of independent processing and distribution infrastructure. The lack of facilities is a major logistical and financial challenge for small farmers; and many point to processing costs as one of their biggest expenses. 6
Small facilities for slaughtering and butchering meat, bottling milk or making cheese have closed in large numbers in the last several decades, due to industry consolidation, low profit margins, the complexities of federal regulation and other factors. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of slaughterhouses in the US declined by 15 percent. 7
Some pasture-based producers choose to build their own slaughterhouse or bottling plant, which makes them more self-sufficient, but also requires a significant investment. A farm with its own processing infrastructure becomes a different kind of business, too, requiring not only more workers overall but trained staff with specialized knowledge and marketing expertise to run the operation. Some farms have become very successful in this manner, but for producers who simply want to focus on the farming aspects, it might not be an appealing option.
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 (like environmental remediation, water treatment, etc.), all of which drives prices down.
The true costs (of labor, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, etc.) are reflected in retail pricing for pasture-raised meats, dairy and eggs, 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). This also partly reflects the degree of industrialization in each sector: pastured beef tends to be about 33 percent more expensive than industrialized beef, while pastured chicken is at least four times as expensive as industrialized chicken (raised for meat).
As is the case with many “alternative” food sectors, such as organic and local, in the last several years, pastured livestock production and demand is growing rapidly. Retail sales of domestically produced grassfed beef topped $400 million in 2013, compared with less than $5 million in 1998, and demand continues to grow at 25 to 30 percent annually. 8
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 farmers — and that this further represents a positive investment in the development of a sustainable, healthy, alternative system.
To find farms, stores and restaurants that supply pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products, a good first step is to check your local farmers’ market. You might also check with your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations: many offer shares of meat, eggs and milk along with fruits and vegetables. If you have access to a local butcher, she or he may offer pasture-raised meat as well. Since farmers typically slaughter their pasture-raised animals seasonally, it may be difficult to find certain pastured meats year-round. However, since these meats are often sold in bulk, you can buy a large quantity to store in your freezer.
Keep in mind that the consistency, texture, color and flavors of food from pasture-raised animals differ from what you may be used to. For instance, pasture-raised chickens produce eggs with brighter, more orange-colored yolks than conventional eggs, and butter from pasture-raised cows tends to have a darker yellow color than the butter from the supermarket. Since pastured meats contain less fat, they must be cooked more slowly than conventional meats.