In a cottonwood-shaded meadow 4,500 feet above sea level, cattle munch on rye, wild oats, bronco grass, squirrel grass and clover.
These cows wear the brand of the Mendenhall Ranch, a California outfit that is riding the hottest trend among America's conscientious carnivores.
Grass-fed beef, leaner and considered more nutritious than the standard corn-fed variety, is raised by 1,000-plus U.S. ranchers. (One industry leader: former CBS News correspondent Bill Kurtis, founder of Kansas-based Tallgrass Beef.)
For these herds, the market is bullish. When Harry Caray's introduced grass-fed filets to its menu two years ago, the Chicago restaurant set a one-month record for steak sales.
Mendenhall Ranch, then, is ready to cash in on this culinary craze. Has been ready, in fact, for more than a century.
"This is the way we've always done it," said Joel Mendenhall, 25, whose family has ranched on Palomar Mountain for five generations.
In historical terms, though, the Mendenhalls are newcomers to the savannah. Cattle have grazed on ground cover for millenniums; massive feed lots, which "finish" cattle with a high-calorie corn diet, weren't prevalent in the United States until the mid-20th century.
Corn-fed beef may dominate American supermarket and butcher-shop meat cases, yet chances are good that your average meat-eater has sampled the grass-fed variety. Many dairy cows, after spending their productive lives grazing, end up as ground beef.
"All the Wendy's and McDonald's of the world are using primarily grass-fed beef" in their burgers, said John Comerford, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State.
But grass-fed T-bones and porterhouses are expensive — and, no matter how long they're cooked, rare. Comerford estimates that corn-fed steaks outsell their grass-fed counterparts in the U.S. by at least 50-to-1. Grass-fed sales are best on the coasts, with the San Francisco area taking the lead.
This is a boutique meat. A pound of "all-natural" corn-fed New York strip runs $17.99. The grass-fed equivalent: $23.99.
"We get more of a yuppy-type population that can afford this type of product," said Comerford, who studies American beef trends. "You get empty nesters, baby boomers, people who are concerned about health."
Visit a grass-fed herd in Mendenhall Valley and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. These are tail-swishing, cud-chewing bovines, between 500 and 1,800 pounds on the hoof - in other words, they appear identical to their corn-eating peers.
The difference begins in the digestive tract, where the high-fiber, low-starch grasses take a leisurely tour through the cow's four stomach chambers. Because corn makes this journey in speedier fashion, grain-fed cows eat more and gain weight faster.
Grass also provides an impressive lineup of nutrients: elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower blood pressure; conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat that shows promise as a cancer-fighter; and vitamin E and beta-carotene.
Even better, there are no hormones and no antibiotics."
ON THE PLATE
If you eat to live, these health benefits may be enough to sell you. But if you live to eat, you may wonder about the flavor.
Fans say grass-fed offers true beef flavor. A small, grilled grass-fed filet was tender, juicy and reminiscent of venison.
Critics say grass-fed beef is gamey, liverish, lacking the buttery quality you find in well-marbled — that is, more fatty - prime and choice meats.
On the other hand, when Comerford surveyed consumers in Ireland and Argentina, many rejected U.S. corn-fed beef: "Most found our choice meats greasy."
This is a matter of taste, and tastes can change. Comerford believes that grass-fed beef faces a higher hurdle before it's accepted by American consumers: the lack of uniform flavor. The "grass" eaten by grass-fed beef is not a single strain. Instead, it's a vast array of wild sedges, ryes, clovers and other plants. This diet varies from region to region, season to season, meadow to meadow - even cow to cow, thanks to the herd's ability to roam and graze on whatever looks yummy.
"Variability in this product is really all over the map," Comerford said. "You ask the farmers, what's your biggest problem? They say their biggest problem is consistency of the product."
Producers of grass-fed beef also are being challenged by operations such as Brandt Beef. At this Imperial County, Calif., ranch, cattle are fed a tightly regulated diet of milled corn and alfalfa. Moreover, the Brandt family embraces "green ag" — for instance, using ladybugs instead of pesticides to combat aphids — and shuns antibiotics and hormones.
"You get a full flavor that I've never yet had from steaks that are just grass-fed," said Tom McAliney, Brandt's executive chef. "I have yet to see a strictly grass-fed beef rated choice or prime."
IN THE FIELD
Emerging from the pines on Mendenhall Valley's western border, you can see Palomar Observatory's white dome 1,000 feet above you. The professional stargazers weren't here when Joel Mendenhall's great-great-grandfather arrived in the late 19th century, and neither were the few vacation homes dotting this 7,000-acre expanse.
But the blue heron that takes wing as you bounce across the rutted dirt road, the deer and mountain lion roaming the slopes, the gnarled black oak and sycamore rising over a narrow stream — to Enos P. Mendenhall, these would have been familiar sights.
He would recognize the cattle, too, although the business has changed since his day. "When they started running the cows," Joel Mendenhall said, "the military was buying the hides. We sold the meat, too, but the real demand was for the leather."
Mendenhall's cattle, though, still meet a range of needs. "There's not one thing in the animal that isn't used," Rimel said.
The tail? "Oxtail soup."
The intestines? "Casings for sausage."
The blood? "Blood sausage."
The brains? "We split the skull and sell the brains. Grass-fed brains!"
GRASS-FED BEEF WITH HERBS
3 sprigs thyme
3 sprigs oregano
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound grass-fed top round, sirloin or filet mignon
Yields 4 servings,
In a food processor, blend thyme, oregano, parsley, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Rub on meat. Marinate 2 hours at room temperature or overnight in refrigerator, turning meat once or twice.
Heat oven to 400 F. Heat medium cast-iron pan over medium heat. Sear meat on all sides until it has a brown crust. Transfer pan to oven; roast meat until internal temperature is 120 F, 15 to 25 minutes. Remove; let meat rest 20 minutes (internal temperature will rise to 130 degrees). Slice, sprinkle with coarse salt and serve.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 195 calories, 9 g fat (1.7 g saturated), 0.7 g carbs, 0.1 g fiber, 26.3 g protein.
— Adapted from Peter Hoffman in Self Magazine, September 2008.
Peter Rowe is a columnist and reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune. Contact him at [email protected]