Fat in the Grass – the Key to Gourmet Grass-fed Beef?

We’re trying to fix our soil so we can accomplish our goal of producing very high-quality grass that will make gourmet, super tasty grass-fed steaks.  We want steaks that offer the prime nutrition that comes with grass-fed AND steaks that turn out juicy and tender with very satisfying flavor on the grill.  Gourmet-quality 100% grass-fed beef is very difficult to produce if the soil and grass aren’t right, so we have our work cut out for us for sure.  This post describes grass fat – one helpful quality indicator – and steps we’ll take to increase its presence in our pastures. 

The Problem:  Some Grass-fed Steaks Taste Really Bad

Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, states that both the best and worst steaks he’s ever had were grass-fed.  We tried local grass-fed steaks and eventually gave up.  Roasts tasted okay (cooked on low heat), but the steaks were unfortunately pretty awful.  McDonald’s aside, we all intuitively know that taste and nutrition are intertwined.  Just as bitter and mealy vegetables tell us they’re substandard and lacking in nutrition, tough and gamey off-flavored grass-fed beef tells us the same thing – DON’T EAT IT!  We did find great grass-fed beef through U.S. Wellness Meats.  These are the best steaks we’ve ever had.  They give us hope that producing quality beef on grass alone is possible.  The question is, how do we grow grass that’s so good, it results in gourmet-quality grass-fed steak?

The Solution?

We attended the 2011 Acres USA conference’s two-day seminar with John Kempf, Jerry Brunetti, and Lawrence Mayhew.  This fantastic seminar was where we learned about fat in the grass. 

John Kempf, Amish farmer and owner of Advancing Eco Agriculture, said he had noticed something peculiar with grass quality and animal feed preferences.  He consults on dairy farms where they tissue test often to discern the quality of pasture forages.  With all other factors such as fiber and protein at good levels, he has noticed that once the grasses reach at least 6% fat content on the tissue test, the cows turn up their noses at grain.  They strongly prefer pasture over grain!  Amazing!  He said some grasses are getting even higher than 6%, but this seems to be the cutoff.  Wow, this would be like American kids strongly preferring kale over ice cream.  That’s some good, super high-quality kale! 

Cows know nutrition.  They aren’t dumb!  They prefer grain when their other feed (pasture forage) is lacking.  But with 6% fat grass, the cows are telling us that the grass is tasty, it provides everything they need, and it’s better than the grain.  Grain provides high-energy feed to cows, so grass with at least 6% fat is probably an indicator of very high energy (high quality) forage.  Sounds good, so how do we get 6% fat grass? 

Plant Fat Details

At the two-day Acres seminar, we learned:

  • When plants reach an energy surplus, they start to store the extra energy as fat.  Common plant fats are Omega-3 (stored in growing, vegetative tissues) and Omega-6 and -9 (stored in fruits and seeds). 
  • High energy plants are grown in soils that enable their roots to be a fully functional digestive system.  High quality soils have abundant, balanced minerals and very healthy biological activity that provides full amino acids to the plant, not just simple ions like calcium, magnesium, etc.  Plants that receive complete amino acids from the root zone biology save a lot of energy by not having to assemble the amino acids themselves. 
  • Fats form the structural components of cell walls and the waxy cuticles on leaf surfaces.  These functions protect the plant from disease and pest invaders.  
  • Fats are the precursors of plant essential oils. 
  • The average fat content as seen on U.S. forage tissue tests is about 2.5%.

How Plants Get Fat

We also learned that plant health seems to go through transition steps.  Fat content isn’t one of the early steps; it’s one of the last.  Several things need to be satisfied before plants have an energy excess and store it as fat.  The following is taken from John Kempf’s Plant Health Transitions  and is based on his observations in the field.

Stage 1:  Successful Photosynthesis.  Using adequate sunlight, water, and air, plants photosynthesize successfully.  They make simple sugars such as glucose and fructose, and combine them with enzymes to form complex carbs such as pectins, cellulose, and lignins.  These build resistance to soil pathogens like fusarium, and altemaria.  At this stage of basic health, plants are still susceptible to insects and air-borne pathogens.

Stage 2:  Complete Proteins.  Plants transfer simple sugars to their roots and to soil microbes.  In return, microbes release soil nutrients in plant-available form.  The simple sugars are combined with nitrogen to form amino acids.  Amino acids bond to form peptides.  Peptides bond to form complete proteins.  Plants’ complete, high quality proteins increase resistance to insects with simple digestive systems such as aphids and larval insects.  Enzymes and enzyme co-factors are necessary in order to bond amino acids and peptides.  More than 50 trace minerals are needed to form complete compounds.  Some of these are zinc, molybdenum, iodine, cobalt, and nickel. 

Stage 3:  Fat!  Plants store surplus energy in the form of lipids, fats, and oils.  Lipids build strong cell membranes for increased resistance to all airborne pathogens, parasites, disease, and UV radiation.  Plants at this stage are now resistant to mildews, late blight, and bacterial invaders such as scab.

Stage 4:  Essential Oils.  Very healthy plants have energy to build plant secondary metabolites (PSMs) out of lipids.  PSMs are aromatic “essential oil” compounds such as terpenes, phenolics, and bioflavonoids.  These are natural plant protection compounds that convey “food as medicine” benefits to the eater.  Plants are now resistant to insects with advanced digestive systems such as cucumber beetles and Colorado potato beetles.

How to Get Our Grass to Stages 3 and 4?

I would guess our grass content is below 2% and its health is barely making it out of Stage 1.  With very weak soil biology and low amounts of organic matter, nitrogen, sulfur, and important micro nutrients in the soil, I can say with confidence that our grass is not forming complete proteins.  I would imagine that eating complete proteins is very important for animal health and meat/milk quality.  At the conference, we also learned that the bad off-flavors in meat are caused by nitrates.  Maybe this is related to incomplete proteins in the grass. 

The method for reaching our goals is to get the grass to an energy surplus state.  Soil biology is ever so important here.  If Stage 1 photosynthesis is successful, plants can donate some of the solar energy they collected, in the form of simple sugar photosynthesis products, to soil microbes.  If soil nitrogen exists and soil biology is healthy enough to make amino acids for the plants, then plants have saved energy, and the soil, biology, and plant are working as a healthy, symbiotic team. 

Our plan is designed to repair our soil to get these symbiotic relationships going.  We plan to increase our soil nutrients, especially sulfur, nitrogen, and micro nutrients that are important building blocks of complete proteins.  With our very sandy soil, good foliar fertilizers will probably play a big role in helping our forages reach the energy surplus state.  In an effort to coax diverse and beneficial soil biology back to our farm, we plan to plant a massive cover crop cocktail this spring and lightly incorporate it at maturity with microbe inoculants.  This will hopefully start the humification process in the soil for making humus and giving the beneficial soil microbes a permanent home.  More to come on that this spring!

Part of Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday.


4 responses to this post.

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  3. Hi what are your selenium, cobalt traces like did not see them on you soil tests these are needed to grow cattle on grass. What I see first on your soil test is your pH to high for good grass growth grass based production recommend pH of around 6.2-6.8 as for the other elements hard to convert to metric system. From what I am getting from your post is that you are feeding the pasture at to late stage of growth. If cattle are not liking to eat pasture it’s the same as if you find something bland you add salt (NaCl) Brix test is also helpful ideal is around 12-14brix.
    We have 242Ha in Far north NZ Grass based dairy rotational Grazing 1st year owning the farm going Biological System.


    • Hello Doug, we had traces tested on one of our first soil tests. Results were similar to other nutrients – about half of what is needed. Along with low nutrients, our pH bounces around a lot because we have sand (CEC = 4 or 5). That’s why we’re concentrating on increasing organic matter first.


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