Talking Beef: the bare bone truth of how beef and meat works

I had the pleasure of being invited by some great people very connected to conservatism and holistic grazing, to be a part of their Zimbabwe farm’s annual game count. It was an incredible experience.

To those of you who have been reading these articles for a while, you’ll be familiar with the farming practice of holistic management that I am extremely passionate about.

This farm also manages 14 herds of Nguni (indigenous breed of cattle) of between 400 – 600 each strong using the principles of holistic management. For me, this was a great place to be.

I also had the pleasure of spending good time with the Chairman of the Nguni South African Association where we got to talk about a topic very dear to my heart: indigenous cattle and beef and our joint wish for more people to be eating African breeds that best suit our land and get into a better relationship with it, than any other breeds of beef.

Beef is possibly something I am the most particular about and I only want the best of it in this store.

Holistic management is a form of farming that intends to ‘mimic nature’. It was founded by Alan Savory, as a way of farming and having animals back in natural herds that restores their relationship to the land so that it re-generates. This TED talk titled: how to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change is probably one of the most famous Alan Savory talks that introduced people to why holistic management is such a great philosophy.
It was through this talk that many people got to understand and connect with the fact that we are losing too much topsoil in the world to factory farming and to how much land is literally turning to desert. As a result
Holistic grazing is a way of bringing animals and land back into their rightful relationship, something Alan refers to as ‘mimicking nature’.

I’ve seen four examples of holistically managed farms on my journey with this business of getting to interact some of our country’s best farmers. I’ve seen enough to be convinced that it works. A holistically managed farm is one where biodiversity is alive and where grasses, fauna and flora that belong to the area returns once the right animals are put back into their right relationship with the land. I have literally on two occasions seen veldt fencing dividing a holistically managed farm and a neighbour, where the difference between the one and the other is mind blowing. It is a literal reflection of the difference between life and death.

The holistically managed farm is alive, teeming with bush and veldt while the neighbour is dead soil and poor veldt. I saw Hendrik Fourie transform barren land in Limpopo back to vibrant alive veldt when he put pigs and chickens back into relationship with it, living symbiotically outdoors on the land.

Life returns when the farmer acts as a custodian to nature’s symbiotic relationship. Grasslands don’t work or get fed without animals.

Before the land became over populated and really messed by development, animals would roam in huge herds across savannahs. They would move in fairly tightly packed herds that ensured their safety from predators and that meant a concentrated space of manure that was feeding the soil for new growth. Their grazing to only the part of the grass that was nutritious and acting like nature’s lawn mowers also ensured that the grasslands were constantly maintained because the way cattle graze stimulates the growth of the grass. It’s such a beautiful symbiotic relationship.  Those sacred relationships in nature are the cornerstone of endless creation.

When I’m on a holistically managed farm I feel like I’m in a space of sacred understanding. It’s a space of endless biodiversity with everything back in its rightful relationship with everything else.
I was first introduced to this by Keith Harvey. He was the first farmer who truly made me understand the interconnectedness of all life as we walked through his veldt and he described the relationship between all things. Even though we recently lost him, what he left me with lives on in me, the essence of his belief lives on in those he taught – forever.

Once I had spent time with Keith and went on that particular journey with cattle, I could never entertain anything less than that.

I am very particular that I only ever want wholly veldt grazed beef in my store with no supplementation whatsoever, that I don’t want to eat baby cows and want mature cattle that have been on the veldt for at least 3 years.

We want the high levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), beta carotene and omega 3’s that come from animals on grass and veldt. It takes longer than a year for cattle to develop and build the healthy bodies they need, resulting in cattle that are less than a year old or not being fed on grass not having this profile present.

We know about the benefits of bone broth but it makes no sense when you are using bones from an animal that has been slaughtered so young as most are.

The beef that is the most readily available and that everybody has been used to eating is typically ‘A grade’ which means just over a year old.

A grade beef is supposed to be the best beef according to the grading system but it most certainly isn’t.  In fact, the opposite is true.

It was graded that way because it is the most beneficial product to the feedlot philosophy. You will never get the same taste or quality from a young animal that hasn’t had good time to grow on veldt that you will from one that has spent years on veldt – never.
Even the Brennaissance Boran that is the most superior tasting and textured beef I have ever come across, is not the same as an A grade. A grade is simply too young to have spent the time of veldt required to develop and hasn’t had the time on to develop the bone, muscle and fat structure that gives it the depth of taste and texture.

So if this the case, why is A grade beef in stores rated more highly and the most available despite not being the healthiest or best quality?

To answer this, I need to give you a view into feedlots. This is our predominant meat system that has shaped the entire meat terrain and the lack of choice you have to choose good beef that is sustainably produced.

The answer as with all corporate and commercial food systems, is about money and profit.
A feedlot makes its money on the growth spurt of the animal. So the cattle is brought at a low price at the age just before it is about to experience the greatest growth spurt, around 9 months.

It is then put into an intensive feedlot process in order to maximize on 3 months of the growth spurt so that the feedlot makes its money on that growth. They will make their money on the increase in mass.

The animal will be fattened and forced to grow in as quick a time as the feedlot can manage so that they make their money. It’s pure economics. The cattle come off veldt and go onto maize and soy. This increases the growth rate as the animal fattens and bloats really, unable to properly digest their fattening unnatural feed. The addition of growth promoters and antibiotics makes them grow and fatten rapidly. This is at a huge cost to the health of the animal which is why antibiotics are critical in this system. Maize and soy are not foods that cattle can digest well, being a herbivore with an intense digestive structure of 4 stomachs, designed to digest grass.

The maize and soy upsets this process so rapidly that the animal bloats and gets lethargic and its immune system compromised.

This is a similar comparison to what would happen to us if we ate junk food for 3 months. But because this system isn’t centered around health, of the animal or us, or what is natural but all about how much money can be made in a short period of time, this is how it is done.

What people have come to regard as ‘normal beef’ is for the most part, the slaughter of a young weakened animal with a compromised immune system that has a bloated and unnatural size muscle from the steroids. Add huge rushes of adrenaline that come from the stress of the large commercial abattoirs and you end up thinking that the pink, immature, grainy grey tasteless beef you eat is normal when it is in fact the opposite.

It is not anywhere near what beef is supposed to taste like.

Along with none of the health benefits you get from cattle reared on their natural diet – which is veldt and grass – not grain and not medication. We have come to think of the white omega 6 rich fat as ‘normal’ when it is anything but. Beef fat is meant to have a yellow tinge in it from the beta-carotene from the grass.

Our entire experience of beef has been perverted in the extreme and most people have no idea.

I get so passionate and so frustrated by this topic and what is being served up as beef wherever you go. It was an unspeakable joy for me to be able to bring Brennaissance Boran beef to the store. I then didn’t have to bang on about the same issue, I could just show you by letting you experience the difference, to try and get people to see what beef is supposed to be.

I’m just not able to eat beef out anywhere without wanting to tear my hair out after having this beef as our normal and being now used to the full bodied texture of it.
I can’t get my head around how beef is being sold everywhere else that tastes so shockingly bad that I basically find it inedible. There is nothing more grim to me nowadays, than feedlot beef, just the grey, grainy look of it is enough to make my spirit flag. It makes me miserable, watching people pay extortionate prices, when eating out for something that lacks all of the flavor that beef is meant to hold. Yet this is the norm.

So this is also why it was so rewarding to be talking to a like mind on this Zimbabwe trip in Herman who like me, believes that we should be eating indigenous breeds that have been on veldt for at least 3 years. Younger than that makes no sense in terms of our philosophy of placing sustainability, the health of the animal and the meat as first priority.

Once an animal has passed the 3-month growth spurt, the grading system then downgrades it to a b or c grade and this is meant then to be inferior which is not true. It is inferior then only because it doesn’t suit the feedlot paradigm and they can’t make as much of a profit on the sale of it.

Anybody farming indigenous breeds on veldt like Tom with the Boran and Herman with Ngunis is going to, like me, tell you that the best cattle are those that have been on veldt well into their adulthood. It was very rewarding to be talking to another farmer passionate about indigenous breeds like Herman and his belief in Ngunis and to be on a farm run by a woman as passionate about Ngunis as Strilli.

It is unlikely that many people would ever have tasted indigenous beef like the Boran and Nguni. This is despite the fact that these cattle are so well adapted and perfect for rearing on the veldt that they are adapted to, because again these animals don’t enter the feedlot system much because they aren’t efficient from an economical point of view. As a result they are not commercially available in conventional stores which are supplied by the feedlot system.

The Boran for example makes little financial sense in the current meat paradigm.

As you will know from having experienced it in the store, it is an animal that has a lot of fat, the fat to muscle ratio doesn’t work out as economical for meat sellers because we don’t value fat and don’t expect to pay much for it.

The Boran also has very strong and heavy bones. You won’t necessarily see that unless you are buying the stock bones from the store but this also makes it uneconomical in terms of profit as the bones are where most of the money on a carcass is lost. To sell carcasses to retailers in the most profitable way, they need cattle that are leaner and have a higher muscle to bone and fat ratio. The Ngunis as well are not only too small a carcass for feedlots to make the profit they want but also according to Herman don’t cope at all or grow when fed maize so they don’t work out for feedlots.

Despite the fact that indigenous cattle like the Boran and Nguni are:

  • The best for veldt rearing
  • Have the healthiest and most symbiotic relationship on our veldt and grasses
  • Can withstand drought and enhance the land they graze on
  • Are the healthiest and tastiest.

Most people will never eat them because the meat system that has shaped our context has been driven by feedlot interests, all centered around what is profitable, not what is sustainable or healthy.

Our philosophy for Organic Emporium and the Jozi Real Food (R)evolution is of course entirely different. We are looking for meat that has been ethically reared, that has been raised into adult life on the diet most suited to it without having its growth artificially promoted or its immune system compromised and meat that has had longevity on the land.

None of the animal produce in our store is slaughtered at the same time as the conventional options.

Our chickens that you all find so huge – aren’t. It’s just that they aren’t being slaughtered as babies on steroids at 6 weeks. They are fully grown adults at 12 weeks. It is entirely different.

The Aldersyde lamb actually isn’t ‘lamb’ in the true sense of the word because they are only slaughtered once they have reached new adulthood. This also accounts for why the taste is so much deeper and has more body.
The charcuterie from Jewell and Co is coming from older pigs from Glen Oakes farm that have had the time to marble well pastured outdoors. We have no interest in lean young pork.
It actually never does make sense when you value true pasture reared animals and the Brennaissance Boran beef we get in for you is never younger than 3 years. Anywhere else – you are getting A grade beef, a young, young animal.

The age of animals is very important

The age of an animal is something rarely discussed but it is very important when we discuss the differences between the dominant feedlot system and what we value and what to expect in terms of pricing. A farmer that sells his carcasses at 9 months to a feedlot has very different cost implications to a farmer who waits 3 – 5 years to get a return, the entire pricing paradigm is different. People can’t expect the price to compare to feedlot efficiency, you are paying for the loss of quality and for a miserable process for the animal at that price and there are very little health benefits to that meat.

The only real value is that it is efficient for the processors but you end up paying a high price for something that actually has little value and very little flavor or texture or nutrition.

Whereas when you are paying farmers who do it properly – you need to consider that they have to invest in farming for a lot longer a period of time to do it properly and give us the most sustainably reared meat they can.

We are literally talking about entirely different animals and two entirely different paradigms – one factory and the other natural. The former advocates that it is apparently the only way to feed the world. Which is utter nonsense.

Just take a look out of your car window when you’re next driving anywhere and really take in the vast tracts of land you will see planted to genetically modified maize and soy, the bulk of which will get fed to animals to fatten them to make sense of this system.

Outside of that paradigm what could that land be used for? How about mixed farming, how about the return to growing our indigenous crops, sorghum, millet and mixed crop vegetables?

This is not being done because big food is sitting around trying to resolve the problems of the world and how to feed an overpopulated planet. This is the status quo because it makes money for some in a system that values capitalist achievement. There are no great humanitarian ideals coming from the feedlot industry. Otherwise they wouldn’t be supporting the whole insane production mentality of animals and creating the devastation of soil that comes from the supplement crops while they turn to medicine to try and alleviate the inherent problems of the way they are doing things, misery and disease for everything in between.

That’s the bare bone truth of it and I need to give you a view of how beef and meat works so that you understand why we have an entirely different value system for what we support for this store.

The irony is that the animals a feedlot devalues – the older animals that they can’t make the profit on, are the ones we most value. This is because we want to know they have had grown into their adult life on the right diet for them and been grazing for as long as possible. Yet without being able to capitalize on the growth spurt, they wouldn’t be able to survive as for the most part, the consumer won’t pay the right price for beef. Everybody wants their meat cheap – so consumer demand and education is paramount here too.

This is why I have typed heaven knows how many words over 8 years trying to share what I have learnt being intimately involved in the real origins of our food.

My layering of learning about beef went somewhat deeper once I was introduced to Tom Breytenbach, the farmer behind Brennaissance Beef and somebody deeply passionate about keeping the genetic purity of the Boran alive.

After learning so much about cattle and holistic management through Keith Harvey, I learnt something else critical to this journey through Tom. That when we are talking about true sustainability when it comes to cattle farming with indigenous breeds holding the key.

Meeting Tom meant that what I want in the store has just gotten more specific.
Because we are small, I can run this business according to what’s most important to me and I’m hell bent on selling the best we can find so it moved from the criteria being only veldt reared with no grain supplementation whatsoever and holistically managed to focusing on indigenous breeds.

The Northwest is the right terrain for rearing cattle on veldt as much as the Karoo is the right vegetation for lamb.

When you put indigenous breeds onto their right land, no supplementation is necessary during drought or at all if you are grazing the animals correctly.

Of course, farmers rearing animals in other parts of the country in different contexts cannot not supplement in drought especially. It wouldn’t be feasible for all beef to come from the North West and all lamb from the Karoo. The point is though that this isn’t my problem to solve, I just only want the most true form of sustainable meat for this store.

Being introduced to the Boran and the difference between how an indigenous cattle fares on the veldt compared to a European cross breed was just an incredible experience. Heightened by the fact that when I first visited Tom at his North West farm the country was in the middle of a drought. Cattle farmers, like all farmers, were in trouble and supplementation was necessary. Not on Tom’s farm where the cattle were coming off the land with sleek coats and fat. I remember Tom pointing to several types of veldt grasses that indigenous cattle can eat and were still present in the drought. European cross-breeds can’t digest and won’t go for these types of veldt grasses.

He couldn’t have proved his core point any more strongly – that the point of conversation about what type of cattle farming is truly sustainable can’t be divorced from the breed of the animal.

African cattle are hard wired to cope in drought conditions and the Boran has come in to us from Tom always fat, on grass and a broad variety of veldt grasses. Then the taste of it blew us all away. I haven’t been able to find any beef since that can in any way compete with the full bodied texture of the Boran, that has the abundant yellow fat that is too flavorful for words or that is that well marbled.

This philosophy is in direct and complete opposition to the dominant feedlot perspective that has shaped how beef is graded, thought about and sold in this country. For our mission of selling the best food from South Africa’s most sustainable farms, we want the exact opposite of what the feedlot paradigm taught us to think as valuable.I don’t want to make any compromises on this.

On this incredible trip in Zimbabwe, I got to spend good time with Herman Nel, the Chairman of the Nguni South African Association and with Strilli Oppenheimer who is as passionate about all things Nguni as Herman and a driving conservationist and contributor to our learning about conservatism and the Nguni breed especially.

Tom Breytenbach opened up another whole world to me of insight into indigenous breeds through what he taught me about the Boran and I have another aim, to one day have Nguni beef in this store too so that both indigenous breeds are represented.

Once we have a larger store and this is possible, I’d love to bring that to you.

I know more about Boran because of my time with Tom then I do Nguni but have always been fascinated as much with Ngunis. I do get why just the look of the cattle does something to you. It s hard to explain they are captivating and mystical – and ours. They belong to this land and it’s quite sacred to spend time with them.

So much of that weekend was about just being amongst incredible minds in the world of sustainable farming and conservationism and I thought that I should give you a rather deeper glimpse into the conversations that happen around these types of hearts and minds about the difference between feedlot meat and truly sustainably reared beef.

It helps to just give you a view of what system sits behind the convenient packets sitting on supermarket shelves and sadly how little choice people are really given.

It also helps you to understand what we consider for the store and why I am so non-negotiable when it comes to the meat.

There is so much more to consider than just a ‘grass-fed’ label. It doesn’t say enough and as tough as it makes my offering, it just simply isn’t meaningful enough for me.

I don’t want grass-fed beef with supplementation, I want wholly veldt reared.  In order to get that, I have learnt why indigenous breeds are so important – they are the animals who are genetically hard wired to live off our specific veldt and cope well on it and then because we know that the meat is healthier and coming off an animal that has had a good time on veldt to become adult and longer time to just live and to incorporate all the value of that grass in the form of CLA’s and beta-carotene from the grass, I want adult animals only. I don’t want to sell a baby version of anything in this store, it makes a mockery of the focus on the diet if the animal is slaughtered too young and our wish for it be raised in a good free range environment with longevity.

Below are some pictures of the Zimbabwe trip, of the beautiful Ngunis as well as Tom’s Boran cattle. I want you to get to know what indigenous cattle look like.

Before I end off I have another beautiful story to tell about that trip. About meeting a female cattle herder, one of the most incredible woman I have met in some time. In holistic grazing, typically the movement of cattle around huge tracts of veldt is managed by mobile electric fencing, so that the animals don’t wander too far and too scattered that will prevent their manure from being concentrated and trampled back into the soil for the next growth. At Debshan Ranch they have gone even further with the philosophy and removed the mobile fencing altogether. I was so taken by this.

The cattle herder, Mupunya whom I got into a deep conversation with about the role of women in cattle herding and the value they bring to a typically male dominated relationship, said that when they decided to not dictate what area a cattle would roam in and rather focus on herding properly, she asked the male herders she manages to think about ‘listening to the cattle’. She said there was such a huge impact on the cattle when they felt like they had unrestricted space to roam and explained that she thinks it is true of all life, she describes an even deeper calm amongst the cattle. I was fascinated by the intuition and different language woman cattle herders bring to the way things are done and very moved by her.

A huge thank you to Nicky and Strilli for making this weekend possible and for the great learning that came from this.

I hope that by sharing some of the topics that came up, it helps you to get some insight into the system behind feedlot meat and the dialogue around what true sustainable farming really means and what we consider.

Our paradigm is very literally – complete opposite in terms of what we value. It means we have to carve out a new way of making this work outside of the dominant paradigm and this isn’t always easy. But it means that the meat we have in store is in line with what we value the most – and no doubt, the healthiest too.