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Red-hued calves that started life frolicking on the Bowen ranch last April will spend the next two years grazing on pastures, without ever eating a mouthful of corn or setting foot in a crowded feedlot.

This forage-only approach to raising beef is better for the animals, healthier for the people who eat the meat and better for the environment in general, say Scott and Tami Bowen.

The Bowens, of Worden, market their grass-fed beef as a more wholesome alternative to the highly marbled, grain-fed fare that’s sold in most restaurants and grocery stores.

The Bowens have been raising grass-fed beef for around 13 years. They started their back-to-the-pasture business in northern Utah, moved to Idaho for a while, and for the past six years have operated in Montana.

The Bowens rely on their website, and a direct-to-consumer marketing strategy to build customer loyalty. Buyers have been known to drive hundreds of miles to pick up their beef, and the Bowens consistently sell all of the cattle in their grass-fed beef program.

“I enjoy visiting with customers,” Tami said. “You meet some really neat, interesting people. Sometimes I’ll be on the phone with them for an hour, and I have become friends with them.”

While the market for grass-fed beef is widely described as a niche, a consumer preference for healthier food is driving demand for the product, industry experts say.

Whole Foods, the nationwide grocery chain that pitches organic foods and other products that are touted for their health benefits, jumped on the bandwagon for grass-fed beef eight years ago, and Colorado-based Lucky's Market also offers grass-fed beef.

Several other specialty grocers have followed suit, but many smaller beef producers like the Bowens market their products directly to consumers.

Scott Bowen warns that not all beef marketed as grass-fed lives up to the billing. Some producers raise cattle using traditional methods, turn them out on a pasture for a few weeks and affix a grass-fed label on the product.

“We’re purists,” he said. “Our whole direction is to raise them on grass and finish them on grass,” with no antibiotics or growth hormones. The Bowens haven’t gone through the process of having their beef certified as organic, although they’re careful not to include any genetically modified crops into their feed. Several customers have expressed a strong preference for avoiding GMOs, Scott said.

Through the years, the Bowens have been building their herd around North American Red Devon cattle, a traditional breed that has been in North America for hundreds of years and has been used both for beef and in dairy herds.

“Their bones are a little smaller than other breeds, so their meat to bone yield is a little higher,” Tami said. “That way the customer gets more meat when they’re buying by the hanging weight.”

“Some other breeds were too big, and we had a hard time getting them fat enough on grass alone,” Scott said.

The Bowens time their calving to take place later in the spring. The calves remain with their mothers into the following winter. Those that are selected for the grass-fed program are fattened up on irrigated pasture land near Shepherd. Others are used to build the herd.

Fattening cattle on grass alone takes a little patience. From the time the calf is born until it’s shipped to market usually takes 22 to 24 months, compared to 16 to 18 months for finishing cattle in a feedlot.

The Bowens say grass-fed beef is more nutritious because it’s higher in “good fats,” omega 3 fatty acids,  and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA.

Raising grass-fed beef presents its own set of challenges. Cattle are rotated between pastures to prevent overgrazing, and they have access to pasture even during winter months. They receive hay and occasionally a protein supplement during the winter.

“Nutrition is the big thing,” Tami said. “We work hard on getting good nutrition into the cow so that she’ll have a good calf.”

The Bowens’ rotational grazing plan involves moving the cattle to new pasture every 24 to 36 hours, a process that promotes good health, quality beef and humane treatment of the animals, they say.

The cattle business is a family affair. Codie, 13, and Brock, 11, saddle up their horses to help move cattle and also lend a hand during branding and other major chores.

Most of the Bowens’ cattle are processed at Project Meats near Huntley. But a number are shipped live to Utah, where they rest up for a few days before they’re processed.

Tami provided the following tips for cooking grass-fed beef. Steaks are best when cooked rare to medium rare. If you prefer your steak well done, she recommends brushing them with extra-virgin olive oil.

How does grass-fed beef taste? At the Huffington Post, tasters who participated in a side-by-side taste test comparing burgers from grass-fed beef and regular beef overwhelmingly favored the grass-fed product, praising its more complex flavor. Others say they prefer traditional beef because it has a milder flavor.