Raising cattle in the bull city

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 10:50 AM

As a lover of both animals and meat, I insist that the meat on my plate originate only from humanely raised animals. That is why I now buy all my beef at the South Durham Farmers’ Market. We have six beef vendors at the market, Bull City Farm, Fickle Creek Farm, Green Button Farm, McAdams Farm, Sassafras Fork Farm and Walters Unlimited, and all six raise grass-fed cattle on pasture without the use of hormones or antibiotics.

We are fortunate that the mild climate of North Carolina affords the possibility for cows to feed on grass all year round. In early fall, around this time of year, cattle farmers begin stockpiling the grass in their pasture. This means refraining from cutting or allowing grazing on sections of their land, so there will be forage available throughout the winter.

On Green Button Farm, Ryan and Alicia Butler stockpile their pasture and plant cool-weather forage crops that are tasty and nutritious for their Black Angus and Hereford cattle. This year their cows will dine on a buffet of white clover, winter rye, rapeseed and Austrian peas.

Even with stockpiling, there is still the potential for smaller farms to run out of pasture-based forage. As a result, many farmers, such as Sam Gasson of Bull City Farm, stock up on hay cut from their summer fields. This practice ensures that Bull City’s Jersey cows can continue to munch on their natural diet even in the middle of February.

While grass-fed cattle do take considerably longer to make slaughter weight than those raised on grain in confined feeding lots, they also live a substantially less stressful life with fewer health problems. Not surprisingly, a healthier cow is also a much healthier source of food. Compared with beef from corn-fed cattle, grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E and beta carotene.

Additionally, the organ meats, or offal, of pasture-raised cows are not only edible but delicious, which cannot often be said of the organ meats from confined feedlot cattle. Plus, according to Sam Glasson, “The offal are some of the healthiest parts of the animal and the cheapest.....a good way to eat grass-fed if you are on a budget.”

I was happy to learn from our farmers that they have very little trouble using or selling almost all parts of the cow. Green Button sells all their oxtails, beef cheeks, tongues, kidneys and hearts to local restaurants. (You don’t have to be as brave as Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones” to eat the heart of an animal, although I would cook it first.) The bones are purchased for soup stocks and smoked for local dog chews. Ryan and Alicia Butler are searching for a processor that will help them make local bags from their cowhides.

If you are interested in seeing firsthand how these farmers care for their cattle, both Bull City Farm and Green Button Farm are participating in this weekend’s Eastern Triangle Farm Tour.

Elizabeth Zander is market manager of the South Durham Farmers'  Market.