Vendor Profile: Big Picture Beef
Two weeks ago, we had invited Big Picture Beef to present their product at the staff huddle. We learned about grass-fed versus grain, and the economical effects of supporting rural, locally grown grass-fed beef. We had the opportunity to sit down with Ridge Shinn to talk more in depth about his process and why customers should care about supporting grass-fed.
Ridge Shinn is the founder and CEO of Big Picture Beef, offering 100% grass-fed beef raised in the Northeast to stores, restaurants, and institutions all over the region: Northeast beef to Northeast customers. River Valley Co-op is now carrying Big Picture Beef.
RVC: Big Picture Beef cattle eat only grass and forage – no grain, ever. What’s so bad about a little grain?
Beef is a health food if the cattle are well raised on pasture alone – no grain. One of the benefits of 100% grass-fed beef is that it has a perfect ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids to Omega 6 fatty acids. Too much Omega 6 – as in corn-fed beef – can foster heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases, all of which are suppressed by Omega 3. For more health benefits of grass-fed, see our website. https://www.bigpicturebeef.com/health-benefits/
We have had our meat tested in a laboratory to document this perfect ratio. Susan Duckett, a Professor of Animal Sciences at Clemson University, can look at a piece of beef under a microscope and see if the animal has eaten any grain at all; if the animal has eaten corn, the proportion of Omega 6s is higher than the Omega 3s – and the beef is not as healthful. The microscope showed that our meat was 100% grass-fed with the optimal ratio of fatty acids.
RVC: How can customers tell if beef is really 100% grass-fed?
This can be a problem. Customers are not going to send their steaks to a laboratory for testing! So people should speak to the farmer - or the meat buyer for the grocery store, or the restaurant manager – to find out exactly where the meat came from and whether the cattle were fed any grain. Often the response will be, “They only had grain in the last few months of their lives.” Right there you know that this is not grass-fed beef! But if they do claim it is 100% grass-fed, you still might want to check further. Ask for the name of the farm or the meat company.
All our meat is traceable to farms in the Northeast that have raised the cattle according to our protocol, which means that they have not had any grain - period.
I once ordered grass-fed beef from a restaurant menu that claimed “grass-fed.” On a hunch I called the meat company the next day and asked some pointed questions; the company VP acknowledged that they do feed grain. At least he was honest. Because the demand for grass-fed is growing, some vendors simply tell their customers what they want to hear. It all comes down to dealing with people who have earned your trust.
RVC: There is some grass-fed beef in the marketplace that is not all that great. How do you ensure that Big Picture Beef is tasty and tender every time?
These are three main reasons why our beef is always high quality: bovine genetics, excellent grazing management, and the way the animal is handled, particularly just before slaughter:
(1) Regarding cattle genetics, some breeds will flourish on grass and forage, whereas others will not. Good breeds for 100% grass-fed beef tend to be the English breeds: Angus, Hereford, Devon, Murray Gray, etc. But even with the right breed, we also look at the individual herds to see if the cattle have the body type that we want. Over the years we found that we can tell a lot about the meat by evaluating the live animal.
(2) Since the animals are raised and fattened on grass and forage alone, the pasture has to be well managed. Good pasture management and other requirements, such as no antibiotics or added hormones, are part of the Big Picture Beef protocol that all the farms we work with must follow.
Another way we ensure consistent quality is in fattening the cattle. Fattening (also called “finishing”) without grain is a special skill and takes more time than many farmers have. Therefore, we aggregate calves grown by our partner farms and fatten them in large herds on acreage managed by skilled graziers so that they received optimal nutrition and the land has the chance to rest and rejuvenate. This is similar to the way the large herds of buffalo helped build the fertility of the Great Plains.
(3) The importance of animal handling may come as a surprise. If cattle are pressured or frightened on the last day of their lives, this stress affects the color and texture of the meat. Because cattle are herding animals, our cattle are transported to the slaughterhouse in a group. Cattle that are docile and have been well treated, generally walk calmly, single file, up a ramp into the truck. and later into the slaughter facility. Therefore the meat itself is one indication whether or not the transport and slaughter process went well in terms of humane handling.
I learned about cattle handling from the well-known, cattle-handling expert, Temple Grandin. Many years ago I was vice president of a slaughterhouse. The cattle were not as calm in the chute as I thought they should be. Temple looked at the situation and saw right away that the cattle were made uneasy by shafts of sunlight that appeared on the walls and floor of the chute. When I eliminated those random, flashes of light, the cattle were calm – and subsequently the meat reflected that they were no longer stressed.
RVC: Why did you decide on beef? What about pastured pigs or poultry?
This brings up a very significant point. Unlike pigs and poultry, cattle are ruminants; the bovine digestive system is set up to handle grass and forage. They have four stomachs to do the job! Pigs and poultry, however, have only one stomach – which means they cannot be 100% grass-fed. They need either grain or a substitute protein source such as milk or whey. For pigs, acorns are good.
The majority of people advertising “pastured” pigs or poultry, are supplementing the pasture diet with grain. And unless it’s organic, the grain was probably grown with the herbicide Roundup, with the main ingredient being glyphosate. This chemical, which is manufactured by Monsanto, has been implicated in many diseases. Again, to know what you’re getting you need to ask the right questions.
RVC: How can BPB strengthen the rural economy in Western Massachusetts?
We are a mission-driven company, and a key to our mission is helping farmers get a fair return for their work. The price of our meat is determined by the real costs of caring for the animals and caring for the land. In Western Massachusetts there is a lot of development pressure on the land. When farmers get a fair price, it helps them keep their farms intact, and the money they earn reverberates through the local rural economy. People offering goods and services to farmers also benefit. Restaurants serving local grass-fed beef benefit too.
One of the things most exciting for me is the opportunity for farmers, both men and woman, to learn the agrarian skill of managed, rotational grazing – sometimes called multi-paddock grazing. This is something new, and the time for it is now. Managed grazing sequesters carbon. It is a critical strategy for combatting climate change.
Ridge's Final Thoughts: I’m making a lot of claims here: providing healthy food, restoring farmland, combatting climate change. But these claims are all backed by current science, and we have a lot of the references on our website. In our lifetimes, we can see big changes come about in rural communities across the Northeast.
“…grass will act as the great balance wheel and stabilizer to prevent gluts of other crops—to save soil from destruction—to build up a reserve of nutrients and moisture in the soil, ready for any future emergency, to create a more prosperous livestock industry, and finally to contribute to the health of our people through better nutrition.”
Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, 1933-1941