The first time I tried a smoked grass-fed brisket, I hated it. At a 2010 barbecue competition in Dallas where all the brisket entries were from purely grass-fed cattle, I told the Dallas Observer, “This form of sustainable meat just isn’t conducive to good barbecue.” I’ve been hoping to be proven wrong ever since. Thanks to the new grass-fed brisket at Ferris Wheelers Backyard & BBQ in Dallas, I finally got that chance.
Doug Pickering, co-owner and pitmaster at Ferris Wheelers, first tested grass-fed briskets a few months back. His meat supplier sent him prime-grade briskets from Grass Run Farms, and Pickering smoked them just like the conventionally raised briskets he had been cooking. “We were really happy with it,” he said. Once Grass Run Farms could guarantee a steady supply of beef, Pickering was happy to leave grain-fed beef behind.
Sales are up at Ferris Wheelers. After an article announced the switch last month, Pickering said, “business has increased tremendously.” The demand is evident. Specialty beef programs—cattle raised on a grass diet, or without hormones or antibiotics, or solely on organic feed—make up just a small percentage of the beef industry, but the share for grass-fed beef doubled each year from 2012 to 2016. It could constitute more than 5 percent of the market within a few years. Consumers who prefer the idea of free-range cattle to those raised in feed-lots gravitate to grass-fed beef. There’s also an argument to be made that the digestive system of cattle wasn’t designed to process grains, and therefore an all-grass diet is better for their well-being.
When I stopped into Ferris Wheelers for a taste recently, the phrase “grass-fed” wasn’t listed on the menu, but only because all the joint’s briskets are now grass-fed. The price is still $22 per pound for a brisket that costs Pickering a little more than the beef he was previously buying. I sat down with a half-pound of lean brisket slices, expecting the meat to be a bit dry and maybe even have a gamey flavor. It had neither issue. The slices were juicy, with a line of well-rendered fat across the top. The meat had taken on the smoke well and tasted like nothing less than fine Texas brisket. I would have welcomed a hint of distinct flavor from the grass-fed beef, but it served as a worthy doppelgänger for the grain-fed beef to which most of us are accustomed.
I wanted to learn more about how Grass Run Farms was upending my expectations, so I spoke to Charlie Bradbury, who’s worked in the beef industry for decades. The Texas A&M graduate started working for JBS, the largest beef company in the world, just before it purchased Grass Run Farms in 2015, and he now heads its grass-fed beef program. “We’re probably the largest domestic producer of grass-fed beef in the U.S.,” he told me over the phone from his home in Huntsville, Texas. “Domestic” is the key word in that statement. Most of the grass-fed beef we eat in the U.S. is imported from Australia or South America. It’s hard to compete with those producers on price, but Bradbury said, “We do think we can produce a better product.”
Until modern beef production methods like feed lots came into practice, all beef was grass-fed beef. We didn’t call it that because it wasn’t special. Cattle grazed in pastures or on the range until it was time for slaughter. It’s still true that all cattle start off grass-fed, but most are finished on grain. They spend the last few months of their lives in a feed lot fattening up on grain, most often corn. It speeds their growth and provides the fat for the marbling we value. Antibiotics and hormone treatments also add weight to the animal. The whole process is designed to get a steer up to slaughtering weight as quickly as possible.
When you’ve trained consumers to value marbling and expect inexpensive meat, grass-fed beef producers are at a disadvantage. Cattle put on weight far more slowly eating just grass. “The cattle are only gaining a pound and a half a day or so,” Bradbury explained. “A feed-lot steer will gain sometimes four pounds a day.” Plus, since grass is 90 to 95 percent water, it requires much more grass than it does grain to fatten cattle. “The typical feed-lot steer, you can get a pound of gain off about 6.5 pounds of feed. These cattle are probably consuming around 14.5 pounds of this forage diet before you get a pound of gain out of them,” Bradbury said. “It’s a very inefficient way to raise cattle.”
Still, Bradbury thinks it’s a worthwhile endeavor. “There’s a lot of demand for good quality, grass-fed beef,” he said, expressing his excitement at the prospect of cracking the code on producing a high-quality version in the U.S. Too often the domestic supply of what’s labeled as grass-fed beef comes from older dairy cattle, which haven’t been raised specifically for their meat. The flavor can be gamey in older animals, the fat yellow and gristly, and the meat tough and dry. It gives grass-fed beef a poor reputation, and that’s probably what contributed to my unpleasant earlier experiences eating it.
Grass Run Farms combines a few characteristics to produce good grass-fed beef. They start with smaller-framed animals—mainly a stock of red and black Angus, but smaller varieties of the breed. The finished carcass weights are about 720 pounds instead 1,000 pounds like most commodity beef. They also grow them slowly. A standard feed-lot steer will be slaughtered before its second birthday, but Grass Run’s aren’t market ready until about 30 months of age. The type of grass they’re fed is also important. Farmers use grasses from grains like oats and cowpeas, but they harvest them just before the grains sprout, when the grasses are still high in sugar. These are cut and stored as silage, which is fed to the cattle during the winter.
Bradbury credits the slow growth and elimination of antibiotics and growth hormones with the good marbling they’re getting at Grass Run Farms. “When you take the growth hormones and the antibiotics out, and you grow them really slowly, you’re gonna get a higher grade than you think,” he said. They’re getting a prime grade on 15 to 20 percent of their harvest. That’s a lot better than the industry average of about 7 to 9 percent. That percentage will dip during the summer, when the cattle work harder and it’s more difficult to add bulk, but that’s an impressive amount of prime beef. It’s so much that Ferris Wheelers, which serves between 60 and 80 briskets per week, can fill their smokers exclusively with prime briskets, although that could change come summer.
Right now Grass Run Farms is slaughtering fewer than a thousand head a week. A few select HEB stores carry their steaks, but you can’t buy their briskets in stores, and most of their wholesale supply goes directly to Ferris Wheelers. For now you’ll have to visit Dallas for a taste from the only Texas barbecue joint I know of that’s smoking grass-fed briskets [Helberg Barbecue in Waco also uses briskets from Grass Run Farms]. The domestic grass-fed beef industry has come a long way since I prematurely swore it off all those years ago. It took the largest beef company in the world to change my mind.