Saskatoon·Prairie Palate

Grass-fed and grass-finished beef growing on Sask. producers

If you’re confused about the environmental impact of cattle, or what terms like grass-fed and grass-finished mean (don’t all cattle eat grass?) you’re not alone.

Wait, don't all cattle eat grass?

Janeen Covlin's Cool Springs Ranch has Scottish Highland calves among their stock. (Richard Marjan)

Misconceptions about the beef industry can make it hard to sort fact from fiction. If you're confused about the environmental impact of cattle, or what terms like grass-fed and grass-finished mean (Don't all cattle eat grass?) you're not alone. 

New research from the University of California is an eye-opener for those concerned about cattle's environmental impact. The research found that, in the 21st century, grasslands are more adaptive to climate change than forests.

Forests are efficient at capturing carbon, which makes up about a quarter of human pollution worldwide. But decades of warmer temperatures, droughts and increased wildfires have turned California's forests into carbon sources, as forests release stored carbon when they burn. 

Grasslands, on the other hand, store most of their carbon underground. When rangeland burns, that captured carbon mostly stays in the roots and soil.

Grazing cattle play an important role in grassland ecosystems and in nutrient recycling, filling a role that at one time was done by bison.

The animals best suited for being finished on grass are the type of animals we want to raise: low maintenance, walk-past-a-thistle-and-get-fat kind of cattle.- Mark Hoimyr, Sask. cattle producer

In Canada, which has one of the healthiest national cattle herds in the world, cattle spend most of their days on grasslands unsuitable for crop production or on agricultural land that's part of a sustainable cropping system. In the winter, they move to more sheltered areas.

In the conventional system, cattle are placed in open air feedlot pens at around one year of age. They're fed nutritionally-balanced rations — which moves from forages to 90 per cent grains — until they reach the desired finishing weight. They're then sold to a processing plant. 

Feeding cattle grain at the end of their lives produces tender, marbled beef in a shorter amount of time than grass-finishing, making it an efficient and profitable system. 

This is where the marketing language gets tricky. Technically, almost all cattle are grass-fed and grain-finished. The term grass-fed means different things to different farmers. If you have questions, it's a good idea to get to know someone raising cattle.

Here's a look at a few people in Saskatchewan who sell their beef directly to consumers. They've chosen the grass-fed route and explain what the term means to them.

Central Saskatchewan

Janeen (pictured) and Sam Covlin own Cool Springs Ranch near Endeavour, Sask. They rotate their animals to new grazing areas regularly. (Richard Marjan)

Janeen and Sam Covlin's cooking area is what every good farm kitchen should be: a gathering place overflowing with buckets of garden produce, freshly creamed butter, bulbs of garlic and links of homemade sausage. A wooden dining table sits smack dab in the middle of all the action, its large size a necessity for the Covlins and their five children. 

Cool Springs Ranch, located near Endeavour, uses holistic animal management techniques for its cattle, pigs, turkeys and chickens. The animals are rotated to new grazing areas often to ensure their own health and that of the soil, as overgrazing kills grasslands and makes it easy for weeds to invade.

Janeen Covlin carefully documents her chickens at Cool Springs Ranch. (Richard Marjan)

Janeen had always been a fan of Joel Salatin and knew she wanted to run her farm more in line with his teachings. Salatin educates about the benefits of grass-based, regenerative farming for nutritionally dense food, along with the holistic animal management techniques he and his family have used at their Polyface Farm in Virginia for over 40 years. 

A course through the Weston A. Price Foundation taught Janeen the ground rules and "has been the framework for everything we do since then."

Cool Springs Ranch delivers each month to Saskatoon and Regina. The farm has a market store along with an abattoir for on-site butchering and animal processing. 

Northern Saskatchewan

The Dimond Family Farm sell grass-finished beef at the Meadow Lake Farmer's Market. Owen shows off some of the meat ready for sale. (Richard Marjan)

Minda Dimond says grass-fed beef has three benefits: "To the animal, to the environment, and to the people who ingest it."

She, her husband, Colin, and their three children, Bo, Owen and Charlie, switched their conventional cattle operation near Meadow Lake to a direct-to-market farm in 2015. This means they coordinate all butchering, processing and marketing. They also moved to rotational grazing and grass-finishing their small cattle herd.

"I want (our customers) to understand where their food comes from and the difference between our local food compared to commercial food," said Minda.

She said they'd like to expand to bigger urban centres, as grass-fed meat has been slow to catch on in the area, but that would detract from her goal.

"We try to do everything as local as possible, (to support) the local economy and feed our community."

The family's beef is sold via online ordering and in Meadow Lake at the seasonal farmers' market and at Abundant Living & The Hippie Hub.

Southern Saskatchewan

Mark Hoimyr runs Box H Farm near Minton, Sask. (Richard Marjan)

At Box H Farm, the Hoimyr family — Mark, Laura and their two children — works with nature to raise healthy livestock while keeping the land just as nourished.

After studying soil health and cattle's positive effect on grasslands in a rotational grazing system, the Hoimyrs changed the way they were raising their animals.

"We're starting to get things right," Mark said. "We're seeing improvements in the soil." 

This led to finishing some of their cattle on grass, a successful venture that's helped Box H Farm's direct-to-consumer products stand out. They sell beef from 15 grass-finished cows each year through their own markets, with the rest going the conventional feedlot route.

"It was just a perfect fit. The animals best suited for being finished on grass are the type of animals we want to raise: low maintenance, walk-past-a-thistle-and-get-fat kind of cattle," Mark said.

He said the family believes the extra time it takes to finish on grass is worth the effort for a nutritionally-dense end product. 

"We test our hay in the fall and the highest quality feed goes to the bunch we are grass-finishing. Being in good condition first thing in the spring sets us up well for an easier finish on grass," Mark said.

Box H Farm's grass-finished beef is available via online orders, at Reid's Artisanal Butchery in Regina and on Local & Fresh's website.

Hank watches the cattle following the truck at Box H Farm near Minton, Sask. (Richard Marjan)

Jenn Sharp is a freelance writer travelling the province this year in search of stories that connect us to the people growing and making our food. 

If you're a baker, beekeeper, butcher, charcutier, cheesemaker, chocolatier, coffee roaster, craft brewer, distiller, farmer, farm-to-table chef, fishmonger, forager, market gardener, miller or orchardist in Saskatchewan, she wants to hear from you.

Her research will be compiled into the ultimate Saskatchewan food guide: Flat Out Delicious: Food Artisans of Saskatchewan. The book will be published by Touchwood Editions in spring 2020.

About the Author

Jenn Sharp is a freelance writer based in Saskatoon. Follow her on Twitter at @flatoutfoodsk.

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