A Grassy Dilemma

I recently discovered that grass-fed meat costs an arm and a leg in Australia. As I don’t eat meat, I was oblivious to the various labels and grading used in our meat industry. Call me naive, but I just assumed that Aussie cows wandered around in paddocks until the man with the truck arrived to take them off to the abattoir. Not so. And as I pondered the range of options in the supermarket, thinking that I might make a slow cooked ragu for the children, I was faced with all sorts of dilemmas. A basic cut of grass-fed beef, commonly referred to as gravy beef, costs around AU$18 a kilo. The next option was something called MSA beef. I asked the check out girl what MSA stood for but she said she had no idea. A quick search will reveal that it stands for Meat Standards Australia, but having watched the video and read the nonsense attached to the site, I still feel in the dark  and am siding with the check out girl. There was no mention of grass, but I discovered that the MSA stamp is “a grading system based on actual consumer research”. Really? Sounds a little Orwellian to me. Then came the meat trays with no little stamps at all- nicely wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays and looking all red and juicy- and much cheaper. No information was attached to this meat: I guess it meets no standards at all.

My Dexter cows.

I went to the local hairdresser and discovered that she also lives on a small acreage farm and breeds a few cows and sheep for the table. She has more grass than I do and, as meat eater, she is ready to slaughter her own grass-fed animals. I admire that. There’s a local butcher in Hurstbridge who will do the butchering for you. You need to hire a bobcat or tractor to dig the large hole for the carcasses. You need to separate the animals for at least a day and make sure that they fast for 24 hours or so. I guess you then have to wear earplugs while the cows moo and fret, not to mention the fear and anxiety of the rest of the herd as this process occurs. I can’t bring myself to do this.

Front paddock and dam

We have five grass-fed cows and sadly two or three have to go due to lack of grass in winter. They have done a fine job supplying us with manure for our compost heaps and keeping the grass down during bushfire season. It seems such a shame that our cows who have had a happy life will end up at an abattoir and their meat will appear on a plastic wrapped supermarket tray with an idiotic MSA sticker attached or perhaps not even that.

Another grassy paddock
We like to eat grass too. Mobs of kangaroos call our grassy paddocks home which might explain the grass shortage.

For Where’s my Backpack This week’s theme is Grassy.

42 thoughts on “A Grassy Dilemma”

  1. I do eat meat – two or three times weekly! Yet when I look at the feedlots for cattle in other countries I feel thoroughly sickened ! I wish to God that the man came to take the grass-fed, healthy cattle here to be humanely slaughtered to the abattoir wherever ALWAYS. Whistle, sister, whistle for that one!!! Tho’ we in Australia are fantastic and improving!!! Kangaroos and other wild meat – well, I have just finished a beautiful tray of same – it may not sound very exciting, but going Italian and Spanish and so on . . . rather umptious . . .

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    1. Cattle lot feeding reached 1 million head of beef in 2015 and is on the rise. Kangaroo meat is a good option I hear, though it is not wild meat as such. To be sold commercially it must be bred under strict controls. Rabbits- now I wish someone would come and round them all up- another wild meat that can’t be sold under law but then can be shot or trapped on your own land and eaten.

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  2. Oh! The mental anguish your blog stirs from childhood memories of farm life. Our farm had many milking cows and a huge bull – resulting in calves being born throughout Spring. We were often able to watch the birthing process as is was such a delight to see Mama cow licking the newborn and then the calf struggling on its spindly legs ready for a feed and take it’s part in rural life. Not too many months later we were given the job of weaning the calves from their Mamas who were glad of regaining their independence. Meanwhile all seven kids we responsible for rearing their charges until they were health and abundant in size. It was always a competition as to what to name them. To name a few we had Mickey Mouse, Liberace, Dorothy Lamour, Gladys Knight, Patti Smith et. al. They were all consequently sold off – we used to watch and lament as they here herded into an old truck. As one grew old enough and had to learn “the facts of bucolic life” we were taken to the cattle auction where they were sold. I was very exciting to enter the grown-ups world of rustic commerce. UNTIL my poddies were sold to the local butcher. I was grief-stricken and went up to him and kicked him with my over-sized gum boots, screaming and yelling blue murder not at all aware that I’d stopped the auction taking place and then I noticed all the farmers roaring with laughter. It was déjà vu for a lot of them. These childhood traumas dissipated with maturity – but the remembrance will never fade. Like a lot of rural farm kids, if we didn’t eat what was served we didn’t eat, sent to our room and given extra chores the following day. Later in life I had a vegetarian stage befitting the eighties but the smell of a barbie always won over. These days we eat red meat twice a month because of the cost – so I’ve learnt to substitute mince for lentils – great in lasagne, pies, casseroles etc. and just as yummy and hardly noticeable to unsuspecting guests. My heart goes out to you and your Dexters – they are so hard not to love.

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    1. I guess my dilemma is two fold. Not just that we have to sell Dougie, Oh Danny Boy and Duffy but that Australian meat, for those who like eating it, is now beyond the budget of the average family and so lot fed meat is now the norm, an awful life for a cow.
      Dorothy Lamour and Liberace indeed Peter!!!! What names.

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  3. Buying meat on plastic wrapped trays from the supermarket just encourages the disconnect in the collective consciousness between cattle and beef. You are also render yourself choice less. There are many independent butchers only selling grass fed beef and yes it is pricey, but by eating a small amount occasionally at least some cattle are leading a decent life in a paddock. Australia’s food lobby controlled by big business at both the production and retail ends of the chain has ensured our food production laws are ridiculously restrictive and anti small ethical production. Makes my blood boil! I think as a non meat eater you are very brave to engage in animal husbandry…..

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    1. Not brave so much but in the interests of grass management. when we came to this block, the grass was long. We spent all the pre- fire season mowing on a ride on- around 11 acres of pasture ( the rest is bush). It made sense to get some cattle as lawnmowers as we wanted to keep our bush free blocks cleared, especially having experienced a bushfire in St Andrews. And so things went well, our Dexters all have names, but then there was some suggestion that the girls would be more settled if they were allowed to breed once. And so we hired Paul the bull- a fine specimen indeed and all the three girls loved him. And so now we have five- too many for 11 acres as our land is not that fertile and we do stock kangaroos and rabbits!! Their manure has made my gardens fertile and the compost rich- without the cows by product I would be pushing to have such a productive vegetable patch. The seasons of continuous long grass didn’t keep up- and so our dilemma.
      And yes, it makes my blood boil too. In order to sell a couple of cows, a test needed to be done- to become a registered seller and guess what the test is all about- chemicals. Of course even those who eat grass fed meat have no idea how many chemicals have been used on that grass.
      I never realised how big lot feeding had become in Australia until recently.

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  4. It is hard when your cows become pets with names to sell them knowing they are going to the meat factory. At least the cows don’t know a thing about what’s happening so that is heartening. A name for a cow used by my father-in-law was `Fizzer’ because it used to buck and kick every time it had to be milked. One time it’s dirty tail lashed Terry all over. He wasn’t amused! Farming is not easy. Just one comment on grass-fed meat – I know it’s very expensive in Australia but in Japan they will eat only grain-fed beef with marbling because the fat tenderises the meat. Interesting but not a healthy option for them.

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    1. Yes, so much for Wagyu and Kobe beef. But then, the Japanese don’t eat truckloads of meat ( like some Australians and many Americans) and never have. Meat eating over there is a newish thing. Pity the poor animals locked up in a pen eating grain for 300 days.

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  5. Having grown up on a farm, beef, sheep and arable, I find it horrendous the way some animals are treated nowadays and the fact that, like you, for the most part, people don’t realise where their meat comes from. Our cows were all grass fed, roaming fields, just as it should be. I am also surprised that in Australia you are able to slaughter your own animals, you are not allowed to in Europe, but good on your friends, I would find it very hard to do, but at least they will know where their meat is coming from and know that they had happy cows.

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    1. The home slaughtered meat cannot be sold of course. And very few people do this, but I suspect it’s a bit hush hush. It may be regulated in some ways and the butcher would need to be licensed. The industry otherwise regulates breeders and in order to sell a cow for slaughter, a huge document about chemical use has to be completed!

      When I was young, chicken was a special treat, something for Christmas dinner, and was home slaughtered, and plucked by my grandmother then left to bleed on the fence for a day or so. It tasted wonderful. I am sure that home slaughtering of chickens ( and ducks and Geese) still occurs in country France. And I am also sure that home slaughtering of pigs occurs in Italy for salami making and the like. Like here, it may be a country thing and may go under the radar.

      I was surprised to learn that lot feeding is now a growing thing in Australia- I always knew it was common enough in USA and Europe.

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  6. I find it’s all in the taste – the better the quality, the better the flavour. That wrapped in plastic is do easy to buy, it takes and an effort and time to source good meat, fruit , bread etc etc but is well worth the effort. Any visit to markets in Italy or France are enough to inspire to make that effort, by less but of a better quality. You never see overflowing shopping trolleys at these markets, just a few bags of select items. I need to remember that more often when I shop.
    Thanks for the timely reminder xx

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    1. I agree Anne. Less is more when it comes to meat. A little good quality meat can go a long way. A string bag of really good produce- whatever it may be- is better than a truckload of junk from the supermarket. Thanks for reminding all of us Anne.

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  7. Supermarket driven meat industry aka CAFO is one of my soapbox triggers… as a consumer we were unsuspecting for so long, wrongly assuming that Big Chains, even profit-shareholder driven had some conscience and consumer interest. Farmers markets opened our eyes to the alternatives, and we haven’t shut them. Even the meat loving G.O. has forgone quantity for quality & ethics, even now when our dolllar needs to go,so much further. We eat well and buy less but better. I interview our local butchers before we make purchases… Supermarket meat is not on our menu. On the odd occasion we eat out the -oddly in our eyes high-profile- ‘grain fed’ banner is our cue to avoid that option. Not a choice anymore, it makes us ill.
    I’m so sorry you have to thin your herd. If they have to be sold to someone whose table they’ll grace, try for a private sale where at least their provenance will be appreciated.

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    1. Ah Dale, I know this is one of your very special fields. I have read your raves on this subject before and I think this stance is admirable. Eat meat, just a little bit of good quality meat- and be healthier for it. This grain fed thing is a load of nonsense.

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  8. No yards at my place or I would consider buying them off you. The grass here is thick and lush at the moment due to warmish late Autumn days plus the black clay moisture retention. Two would be a good number. Oh well.

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  9. I live in the US and don’t eat beef unless someone invites me to their home and serves it. While I enjoy the taste of beef, there are too many reasons not to eat it. Here, most of the time it’s not grass fed. Grass fed beef is very costly. In the US, my understanding is they feed corn and other “foods = junk” to the cattle that the cattle wouldn’t normally eat because it’s cheaper. (I don’t think this is good for the cattle or for the people ultimately eating the meat.)

    Cattle, here, are also not processed (butchered) cleanly and because of this, there have been many instances of people getting sick from E. Coli. (My sister-in-law was one of them and spent 3 days in the hospital because of this.) The beef industry, of course, doesn’t want the public to know anything. Also, my understanding is that eating beef isn’t good for the environment. Finally, if the cattle does eat hay, in the US sometimes that hay is sprayed with an herbicide known to go right through to the manure. If you use the resulting manure, the herbicide will kill your produce. I know someone personally that this happened to (she just happens to be a biologist so she knows her stuff) and have read several accounts where this happened to other gardeners.

    Have tried raising meat rabbits with some success as a substitute, but they are a lot of work and the meat is very lean and sometimes tough.

    I wish you the best in whatever decision you make with your extra cows.

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  10. You raise some very interesting points, Francesca, in this thought-provoking post. I prefer grass-fed beef and, where possible, will buy from a reputable butcher who can advise me on the provenance of the animal. Sorry to hear that you must bid farewell to some of your cattle.

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    1. So important to support the local butcher and let him know what cuts you prefer and buy the amount you need, as well as chatting and knowing the provenance of the meat you buy. Most Asian cuisines use meat sparingly- in a stir fry or a curry- letting all the other ingredients add flavour and bulk. For many meat eater, gone are the days of sitting down to a huge slab of steak on a plate.
      Although I don’t eat meat, I do eat fish and I have similar rules about fish eating. Know where it comes from. Buy it from a fishmonger. Try to buy sustainable species. Use cheaper, local and unpopular varieties. Eat 100 grams or less per serve.

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  11. Yes, we only eat meat now from a gourmet butcher not that far from our place. It’s called `Porterhaus’ would you believe! Anyway, when we do eat red meat from there it tastes wonderful but you do pay through the nose for it. Nevermind, we have cut our red meat intake right back and mainly eat chicken and seafood now. An animal still dies but at least cows are benefiting from reduced red meat eating these days. I’ve heard lentil pies taste great so must make one.

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    1. The killing of cows doesn’t worry me so much ( unless they’re my pets of course) If you eat meat, you accept this fact. Their life before slaughter does. And of course what they are given to eat in feedlots, the chemical use on the land, use of hormones, and so on. A little red meat can go a long way. Of course the same rules apply to chicken. Some of the supposed free range chicken out there is not really that good, though the chicken and egg industry is slowly being addressed. A good chicken that might have the right provenance could cost around $30. But then it might supply meals for three or more meals, used judiciously, not to mention the stock making.Asking the butcher lots of questions is the way to go. And avoiding non -descript bits of flesh on plastic trays.

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  12. When I was young, in England, we didn’t have meat every night of the week – in fact, I think the Sunday roast might have been it and, as you say, chicken was something we had at Christmas. It now seems to have become an expectation that Australians, like much of the western world, must have
    a meat-centric diet. With a bit of thought, as you know, it’s quite possible to do with less meat or none and live very well – for less money. I try very hard never to buy beef that has been grain fed – feed lots are a dreadful and completely unnatural way to for the animals to live, plus grass fed meat has a higher Omega 3 content. I go out of my way to buy higher welfare meat and it is more expensive, but I buy the less popular cuts and we eat less of it. I’m also conscious that having a choice of what kind of protein to eat is a privilege that, in so many parts of the world, people are not faced with because they truly can’t afford it. Australia is a dry continent and pastureland for rearing meat animals is expensive and not abundant – plus, as you say, the wild animals also like it. I’m so sorry for your dilemma, Francesca, I hope you can find a way of moving your Dexters on to somebody like your hairdresser. I’m for ever quoting Michael Pollan at my husband (he’s the confirmed carnivore) – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” he humours me!

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    1. I love that quote Jan- one worthy of a fridge magnet I think. Eating meat ( and fish ) is a privilege that many take for granted and one that needs to be considered. Even my carnivore sons struggle with the idea of eating a huge slab of meat these days. The use of cheaper cuts from a reliable grass fed source is the way to go. Long braises, slow cooked meat mixed with flavoursome sauces and lots of vegetables sounds much better . Or a good well made snag on a BBQ in summer to sit by all those salads. Oh just listen to me- sometimes my family call me the bad vegetarian as I am only too ready to bite the end off one of those snags….. just to test if they are of of course.

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      1. :). Out of the snag-lover-closet you are! I’d love to know the story of Nepal and why it was that in particular that made you decide to become vegetarian.

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        1. I know – something about snags and hangovers maybe. Mr T calls me sausage breath after I munch into one. The Nepal/vegetarian story is a long one and may be told in a future post. Lots of influences along the way.

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    1. Hi Louise. We live in the country most of the time but have a few days a week in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Our country place is only one hour’s drive from the city. It’s pretty wild for land so close to the suburban fringe.
      (I should mention Louise that I first became Vegetarian during a trip to Nepal- that was the turning point)

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