On a July day in 2019, I navigated my pickup truck up the endless logging road switchbacks that wound their way upward and across the North Fork of Hat Creek drainage in the Salmon River Mountains. With me were four scientists from all over the US; specialists in fields somehow related to these lands: remote sensing, human and animal nutrition, animal behavior, and grazer/plant relationships. They were Dr. Sierra Young, from North Carolina State, Dr. Stephan Van Vliet, from Duke University (now Utah State), Dr. Scott Kronberg, from the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Dr. Fred Provenza, Professor Emeritus, from Utah State. They had come to see and experience the wild and remote high mountain country that we called our summer range.
As we crested this ridge, the pass between Iron Mountain Creek and Hat Creek, I knew we had to be getting close, and as we finally broke out of the thick conifer forest onto a windswept ridge covered with the wildflower blooms of lupine and arrow-leaf balsamroot, I tapped on the brakes.
I opened my door, they opened theirs, and we all stepped outside of the truck, happily inhaling the thick and fragrant mountain air. I pointed across the wilds of Iron Mountain Creek. “There they are.”
I gestured at the silent mass of moving and shadowed black figures picking their way across the open forest far below. We could see them through the trees. Over 400 head of yearling Angus beef cattle grazed across a steep mountainside of Douglas-fir. In a loosely held formation around them, 4 cowboy-hatted horseback riders and 2 border collies kept them oriented in the same direction as they lightly grazed their way upward. The morning sun was just summiting the peak of Iron Mountain as the five of us observed their progress.
In a few more minutes of driving on bumpy two tracks, we were among the cattle and riders. As the cattle lazily grazed in the warming and dappled sunlight that came through the canopy, scientists met cowhands. They animatedly chatted, happy to meet each other. It was clear that both respected the other. On one hand, we had professors and researchers from experiment stations and universities on summer research leave; on the other, we had some of my daughters and summer range riders, most enrolled in college themselves during the non-summer season.
The scientists were fascinated. It was because they had heard that we were emulating the ancient practice of wild native ungulate grazers with our cattle on fairly intact native-plant rangelands in our area of the Rocky Mountains. They wanted to witness it firsthand—because there was more: they had interest in the actual nutritional assays of all the plant compounds they could find through the analytics of mass spectroscopy of samples from our beef.
And you, dear reader, likely have already figured out why. It’s because Alderspring is surprisingly unlike any other beef raised in the US—and probably the world. I say surprisingly because just 150 years ago, most beef in the world was raised just as we raise it. It wasn’t simply grass fed beef from farmed monoculture or low diversity pastures—ancient animal protein was a much more wild food, raised on native plants in their expansive diversity that the animals themselves selected.
And on Alderspring, that ancient path is being followed.
But agriculture has taken a different path in most of the world. Cattle that may have been born into situations like our own end up on concentrate rations—most often in confinement—in feedlots or finishing yards. Concentrate usually means grain, and it is because the carbohydrates found in corn, wheat, barley and their byproducts, like dry distillers grains, pack an incredible amount of energy.
Concentrate makes animals fat fast. Exactly the opposite of what our wild grass does. Our grasses can make an animal fat, but that process is anything but fast.
And that makes all the difference.
Dr. Stephan Van Vliet , as a former metabolomics researcher at Duke University, and now, Utah State, is particularly intrigued by what this difference may be. His desire was to take 18 lbs of our beef from several of our range-fattened black Angus steers and compare the chemical differences between them and several North Dakota black Angus feedlot finished steers.
And, long story short, the results are in. And they are quite exciting.
As Dr. Van Vliet stated to me: “Certainly the current grain-fed beef is nothing like the meat we consumed in the [our ancestral] past and grass-fed beef looks much more like that of a wild ruminant. It will be exciting to see once we have more data as your cattle are probably exceptionally well exercised and fed. Though as compared to feedlot beef, your animals certainly are healthier and the beef is more nutrient-dense. That I feel pretty comfortable in stating.”
Although he has not yet gone through the rigors of peer reviewed publication of his findings as of yet, I asked him if I could share part of his executive summary with you, our readers. He agreed that it would be OK.
So, grab that cup of coffee or tea, partners. Dr. Van Vliet kept it fairly readable in near-laymen’s terms for us eaters and raisers of Alderspring in the Executive Summary that he wrote below. I think you’ll get the gist. We are pretty stoked, and I can’t even begin to thank our scientific friends for embarking on this exciting journey to get to the truth of the matter of meat.
Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef Metabolomics
Growing consumer interest in grass-fed meat has raised several questions about differences in the nutritional quality of beef from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle; however, in-depth nutritional analysis is still needed. The goal of this study was to determine differences in grass-fed beef (sourced from Alderspring Ranch, ID) and grain-fed beef samples (sourced from a South Dakota feedlot) using metabolomics, which analyzes over 500 unique nutrients/metabolites. To our knowledge, this is the most in-depth profiling of beef to date. We found that 377 out of 578 compounds differed between the grass-fed and grain-fed beef samples. This represents a much larger difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef than previously considered, which goes far beyond simply omega-3 fatty acids. Our main findings are:
- Pasture finishing increases phytochemicals, lipids, fatty acids, and other potentially health-promoting bioactive compounds.
- Pasture finishing decreases potentially less-desirable compounds such as homocysteine and triaglycerols.
- Pasture finishing improves metabolic health pathways of the animal.
Phytochemicals, polyphenols, tocopherols, and carotenoids were found to accumulate in 2-3 times higher amounts in grass-finished meat. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds derived from plants that have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in animals and humans. Phytochemicals can have a role in the prevention and management of chronic diseases. Additionally, we found 7-fold higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in the grass-fed meat, which have important roles in heart and brain health. We also found higher amounts of saturated long-chain fats in the grass-fed beef which, unlike other saturated fats, are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. Grass-fed animals also had lower levels of homocysteine, triglycerides, and advanced glycation end products, which all associate with improved cardiovascular health for both the animal and the consumer. Vitamin C, B5, and B6 were higher in the grain-fed beef, which is likely the result of the higher contents of these nutrients in the total mixed ration.
The identified metabolites in meat also provide detailed information about animal health. Grain-finishing negatively affects glucose metabolism, while grass-finishing improves mitochondrial/energy metabolism. We also found more collagen metabolites and elevated markers of protein breakdown in the grain-fed animals, which could compromise meat quality. To use a human analogy, the muscle/meat of grass-fed animals looks more like a “healthy athlete” while the muscle of grain-fed animals shows early signs of metabolic health issues. As compared to the grain-finished system, grass-finished beef improved markers of animal metabolic healthy and nutrient density, but our data does not per se indicate that grain-finished beef is therefore unhealthy. It is realistic to assume that various finishing systems will be utilized in the near future and it is important to move towards best practices, irrespective of the system. Nonetheless, our initial data indicates that pasture-finishing improves the health of animals and nutrient density of their meat, which we expect to be linked. Whether this has an appreciable effect on our health remains to be studied in future controlled feeding trials. Future work that includes more farms will have to be performed to provide better insight into the variation that exists between meat from various finishing systems.
Table 1. Overview of main findings.
|Nutrient||What it is||Potential impact on human health||Preferred levels||Meat variety that contains the preferred level|
|Phytochemicals||Group of plant phenols with potential animal and human health benefits||Anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. Potential benefits for prevention and management of chronic disease||Higher||22/37 compounds higher in grass-fed (overall 2.5 x higher)|
|Hippurate||Phytochemical||↑ gut microbial diversity and ↓ risk of metabolic syndrome||Higher||Grass-fed (1.9 x higher)|
|Catechol-sulfate||Phytochemical: Downstream metabolite of hippurate||Inversely related to circulating cholesterol levels and anti-inflammatory||Higher||Grass-fed (2.7 x higher)|
|4-ethylphenylsulfate||Phytochemical: Downstream metabolite of hippurate||—||Higher||Grass-fed (7.1 x higher)|
|Phenol sulfate||Phytochemical/ polyphenol||—||Higher||Grass-fed (6 x higher)|
|Cinnamoylglycine||Phytochemical/ polyphenol||Anti-inflammatory, ↓ risk of Parkinson’s disease and various cancers||Higher||Grass-fed (1.4 x higher)|
|N-methylpipecolate||Downstream metabolite of coumaric acid (phytochemical)||↓ oxidative stress and tumor activity in colorectal cancer models||Higher||Grass-fed (5 x higher)|
|Stachydrine||Phytochemical in alfalfa/lucerne||Anti-oxidant, brain-protective, cardio-protective, anti-cancer||Higher||Grass-fed (2 x higher)|
|Alpha-tocopherol||Vitamin E precursor||Anti-oxidant, cardio and brain-protective, anti-cancer, ↑eye sight||Higher||Grass-fed (3 x higher)|
|Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)||Water-soluble vitamin||It helps produce energy by breaking down fats and carbohydrates. It also promotes healthy eyes, skin and liver.||Higher||Grain-fed (1.3 x higher)|
|Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)||Water-soluble vitamin||Essential anti-oxidant for brain health and immune system||Higher||Grain-fed (1.3 x higher)|
|Vitamin B3 (Niacin)||Water-soluble vitamin||Healthy nervous system, skin, and digestive system||Higher||Grass-fed (9 x higher)|
|Choline||Essential nutrient||Brain, muscle, liver function||Higher||Grass-fed (1.9 x higher)|
|EPA||Part of the omega-3 family||Anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, ↓ risk of heart disease, cancer, and liver disease, ↑ brain function||Higher||Grass-fed (10 x higher)|
|DHA||Part of the omega-3 family||Anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, ↓ risk of heart disease, cancer, and liver disease. ↑ brain function||Higher||Grass-fed (3 x higher)|
|Linolenic acid||Part of the omega-3 family||↓ risk of CVD, ↑ brain health||Higher||Grass-fed (10 x higher)|
|Long chain saturated fats||↓ risk of diabetes and heart disease||Higher||Grass-fed (2-3 x higher)|
|Caprate||Part of the long chain saturated fat family||Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory||Higher||Grass-fed (1.4 x higher)|
|Lauric Acid||Part of the long chain saturated fat family||Aids in recovery of viral infections||Higher||Grass-fed (1.7 x higher)|
|Triglycerides||—||↑ heart health||Lower||Grass-fed (2x lower)|
|Long chain acyl carnitines||Important for transport of nutrients to mitochondria||↑ heart health||Higher||Grass-fed (2 x higher)|
|Citrate||Mitochondrial/energy metabolite||Healthier animal, more “athletic”||Higher||Grass-fed (1.7 x higher)|
|Succinate||Mitochondrial/energy metabolite||Healthier animal, more “athletic”||Higher||Grass-fed (1.2 x higher)|
|Malate||Mitochondrial/energy metabolite||Healthier animal, more “athletic”||Higher||Grass-fed (1.4 x higher)|
|1,5-anhydroglucitol||Long-term indicator of glucose control (like Hb1Ac)||↑ glucose metabolic health||Lower||Grass-fed (40% lower)|
|Amino acid metabolites|
|Homocysteine||Amino acid||↓ risk of heart disease||Lower||Grass-fed (2x lower)|
|Carnitine||Antioxidant in animals||Helps the body turn fat into energy, important for heart and brain function||Higher||Grass-fed (1.2 x higher)|
|Anserine||Derivative of carnosine||Anti-oxidant, important for brain function||Higher||Grain-fed (1.2 x higher)|
*This list is non-exhaustive and represents a summary of main findings.
The objective of our work was to use a combination of untargeted and targeted metabolomics approaches to provide an in-depth comparison of phytochemicals and biochemicals (>500 unique compounds) in grass-fed beef from animals finished on biodiverse pastures (Alderspring Ranch, ID) vs. meat from animals finished on grain-based concentrates (feedlot in South Dakota). Metabolomics is an analytical technique that allows researchers to measure and compare large numbers of nutrients and metabolites present in biological samples. Metabolomics analysis of meat samples can simultaneously provide information on the metabolic health of the animal and the presence of potentially beneficial compounds for human consumption.
The grass-fed beef samples were sourced from Alderspring Ranch in May, ID. During the fall and winter, the cattle grazed organic home ranch pastures or ate certified organic hay. During the spring/summer, the animals are continuously herded through 70 square mile certified organic mountain rangeland in the Salmon Challis Natural Forest. Analyzed samples were from cattle harvested between September-November 2020. The grain-fed beef samples were sourced from a feedlot in South Dakota. The cattle were finished for 130 days on a combination of corn, distillers’ grain, and hay. Analyzed samples were from cattle harvested in September-October of 2020.
So that is the brief executive summary of the research Dr. Stephen Van Vliet and his team performed comparing our beef to grain fed feedlot beef. We’re pretty excited about these results and hope to share more with you as the peer-reviewing process is completed!
Our oldest daughter, Melanie, put together a few graphics highlighting some of the main nutrients mentioned above in the study:
Thank you again to you, our readers, for partnering with what we do here at Alderspring. You’re part of this work we do in pursuit of health–for our land and for you.