Sure, Canada has at least one "mad" cow. But what American beef eaters don't know is that the United States has millions of cows that, if not yet mad, are certainly uncomfortable. "They appear to be happy walking up to a full bunk of grain every morning," Dale Lasater says, "but that's not what they were made to digest."
Lasater is a fourth-generation rancher whose charges never have to stomach grain. His Beef Master stock, a breed the family developed years ago, dine on the naturally occurring grasses of Colorado's eastern plains, which Lasater Grasslands Beef calls home. That bovine diet returns cows to their original feed and makes Lasater a pioneer in grass-fed beef -- a field that's winning consumers with healthier meat and animal-friendly ranching methods that even a PETA staffer could love.
"Anytime you feed grain to a ruminant, you're causing it gastric distress and greatly increasing its risk of disease," says Jo Robinson, author of Why Grassfed Is Best. "If you were to take a cow off pasture and give it a full meal of grain, it could die in two days."
That's why grain is added gradually to the diet of the nation's mass-produced cattle, which eventually get five months of the stuff. But with the addition of grain come antibiotics, for fighting liver and other disorders, and a wide range of hormones and pesticides.
Cattle on the Lasater Ranch are raised without antibiotics, pesticides, hormones or animal by-products. They also enjoy managed-grazing methods that imitate the Mother Nature-endorsed practices once carried out by bison, elk and other animals. "Grazing animals are part and parcel of the Great Plains and shortgrass prairie, where we are," says Lasater, a Princeton grad and Fulbright Scholar who took over the family's ranch in 1986. "We need a lot of hoofed animals out there to keep the prairie healthy and maintain the ecosystem."
Lasater's 1,000 cows roam 30,000 acres, nibbling Colorado grass and returning its nutrients to the soil through cow manure. The four-legged composters graze in expansive fenced-in areas and are moved every seven to ten days to allow the vegetation to regenerate. "If we didn't graze it, the prairie would degrade over time," says Lasater ranch manager Aaron Berger.
Like Colorado's eastern ecosystem, consumers are reaping rewards from grass-fed beef. "It's nutritionally better for the consumers," says Robinson, whose www.eatwild.com sings its praises. She points to research showing that the beef is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, has more vitamin E, beta carotene and cancer-fighting compounds, and less overall fat and Omega-6 fatty acids.
"Grass-fed beef has a different nutritional profile than commercial, grain-fed beef," says Jen Allbritton, nutrition coordinator for Vitamin Cottage, which carries Lasater Grasslands Beef. "There are a lot of health values from meat when you're eating the right kind."
In his acclaimed Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser dropped the Lasater Ranch name; The Slow Food organization recently honored the company for its good beef and environmentally sound practices.
"The timing might finally be right for what we're doing," says Lasater. When he began marketing his grass-fed beef to consumers six years ago, he points out, "You said 'grass-fed,' and nobody had any clue about what you were talking about."
For generations, grass-fed beef was the only kind of beef in America. After World War II, though, a surplus of cheap grain, increased beef demand (spawned in part by the burgeoning fast-food trade) and the start of agriculture's factory-minded practices sent grass-fed beef out to pasture.
But grass-fed beef never went out of style at the Lasater Ranch. "We've eaten it off the ranch since I was kid," says Lasater. And long before that, his great-grandfather raised cattle on the Texas plains using holistic methods suited to that ecosystem. When oil was discovered under that ranch in the '30s, the Lasaters relocated their herd to Colorado.
Cows raised on Colorado grasses are healthier and make for better meat. "It's a fuller, more boisterous flavor than what you'd find in a grain-fed product," Berger says. And he's right: The company's ribeye steaks are lean but very moist and deliver a subtle, earthy beef flavor you won't find in most supermarket beef. (The meat is dry-aged for 14 to 21 days before it's packed and sold.) Lasater's 10-percent-fat ground beef makes for the quietest hamburger you'll ever griddle, a rich patty that's lean on fat but high on flavor and doesn't spit flying fat. Such quality doesn't come cheap, however: Lasater ground beef sells for $9 a pound, and ribeyes go for $12 a pound -- and that's for frozen meat.
But Lasater says freezing is the only way to guarantee high-quality beef, given the ranch's slower harvesting schedules. He also insists that it doesn't detract from the beef's fine flavor.
And Marvin Bronstein agrees. "Freezing something doesn't hurt it," says the owner/chef of Marvin's Hideaway Park in Winter Park. "It's how it's defrosted." Bronstein has been serving Lasater steaks since last fall, which he orders from the company's Web site, www.lgbeef.com. Bronstein thaws the meat for three to five days in the refrigerator and suggests cooking it at slightly lower temperatures to allow for its leanness. "It's an excellent product," he adds. "It's got a flavor like it's truly farm-raised -- a nice, meaty flavor."
Lasater appreciates the compliments. He's not out just to make beef taste better, though. He wants to personally change the livestock-growing practices of his peers -- and push the American way of eating back a half-century. "Our diet over the past forty or fifty years evolved into being grain-based, a major shift after centuries," he says. "In the interest of our collective health, it should be shifted back."
He sees a day when grass-fed beef will make up as much as 10 percent of the nation's beef supply instead of the fraction of a percent it fills today. "Obviously, there are millions of acres out here, so production could be increased dramatically," he points out. "But it's more expensive to produce grass-fed beef, so someone has to believe in it enough to buy it. Or like it enough. Hopefully, it's both."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.