By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
For health-conscious shoppers, a new kind of beef may be getting onto the dinner menu. University researchers in three states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say Appalachian forage-finished beef has a lot to offer.
In a three-year joint research project, cattle were raised solely on forages in Virginia and West Virginia. The meat was then sent to the University of Georgia to be analyzed.
Animal's diet matters
"The goal of this project is to document how animal feeding systems impact meat quality," said Susan Duckett, an animal scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Duckett analyzed the beef in the project in her Athens, Ga., lab.
U.S. beef cattle normally start out grazing grass or other forages. But they "finish," or gain their last 400 pounds or so, eating corn or other grains in feedlots.
Duckett compared the forage-finished beef with grain-finished beef in quality, composition, tenderness, palatability, juiciness, flavors, fat coloring and marbling.
Lower fat, better omega ratio
She found the fat content of the forage-finished steaks to be 40 percent lower than that of grain-finished steaks. It had higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acid, too, and a better ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3.
"Health professionals recommend a balance of 2-to-1 or less of omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids," she said. "Grain-finished beef typically has a 5-to-1 ratio or higher," she said.
The forage-finished beef had a ratio of less than 2-to-1.
Duckett said the forage-finished beef was higher in fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin E and beta carotene. It also had double concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid. CLA is a cancer-fighting compound in products like milk, ice cream, butter, beef and lamb.
"It all comes down to the fact that the forage contains a lot of these things," Duckett said. "And when the animals consume this diet, they're able to deposit these valuable phytochemicals into the meat."
Some taste difference
Forage-finished meat is a healthy alternative to traditional beef. But it tastes different. It can be gamey, Duckett said, like venison and lamb.
For the past five years, Gwen Roland of Pike County, Ga., has driven three and a half hours one way to pick up her yearly supply of forage-finished beef.
"If you buy from a producer who uses breeds that finish well on grass and who uses the right forages, it's the best beef you're ever going to eat," Roland said. "I've bought from two farmers, and they both supply outrageously good meat."
The research project includes researchers from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and West Virginia University.
This fall, the team plans to begin taste-panel studies and start comparing three types of forage feeding systems.
"We need to determine how the feeding systems impact flavor and palatability," she said. "Our first objective was to look at the quality and production. Now that we see benefits, we'd like to partner with someone in the retail arena to get the product out to consumers."
Through a separate project in Georgia, Duckett started the Georgia Grass-fed Beef Initiative, which has helped educate farmers on finishing their cattle on forages.
Niche-market for farmers
"Several producers in our state are marketing forage-finished beef," she said. "They usually market directly from their farm."
Farmers in Argentina raise forage-finished cattle and sell their beef for premium prices in specialty markets. They also supply U.S. restaurants, supermarkets and health food stores.
"Appalachian beef could capture some of this market and increase the net income of the farmers in this area," Duckett said.
The researchers' main goal was simply to compare the effect of different feeding systems on beef quality. "In the process," Duckett said, "we found a way to help small farmers increase their profits."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)