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Bill Kurtis: Newsman, Conservationist, Cattleman

Veteran journalist Bill Kurtis, who was in Elmhurst last weekend, tells Tina why grass-fed beef is the answer to many health and environmental problems.

Do you ever stop to think about where that steak on your dinner plate came from?  You're probably imagining a herd of cattle grazing in the rolling pastures of cattle country, eating grass and wandering peacefully until nightfall. 

The truth is that most of the beef we eat in America, unless labeled otherwise, comes from corn-fed, factory farm cattle. Advertisers tout this as a good thing, bragging that their steaks are from "prime, corn-fed beef."

But how natural is it for cattle to eat corn?  Cattle graze in pastures; their stomaches are meant to digest grass, not corn. 

There's been a slow-growing trend, though, towards grass-fed beef.  Renowned investigative journalist Bill Kurtis is one believer. He is the founder and chairman of Tallgrass Beef, a company that produces beef from only grass-fed cattle. 

Kurtis settled in Independence, Kansas, as a teen, after his grandfather gave some of his land to Kurtis' mother. This land was the former site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder cabin in Little House on the Prairie.  Kurtis got his start in journalism in Kansas, where his reporting on a tornado led him to his big break in Chicago as an anchorman at WBBM-TV.

I chatted with Kurtis about grass-fed beef at the official grand opening of Amano Boucherie in Elmhurst,which carries his Tallgrass Beef.

What is your history in the cattle business?

I have been involved with cattle for over 15 years. I own the Red Buffalo Ranch near Sedan, Kansas. Initially, we had corn-fed, conventionally raised cattle. You raise them from birth, starting them off in the pasture until they are about a year old and weaned from their mother. Then, they are sold to a industrial feedlot, where they are confined to a small pen or paddock.

How is their life different in a feedlot?

The cattle don't see the pasture anymore, and instead are fed a diet of corn to fatten them up quicker. Corn-fed, feedlot cattle will be fattened up in about 14 to 16 months, as compared to pasture-raised cattle that are fattened up in 18 to 24 months. The stomach of cattle is meant to digest grass. Because of this, as well as the close conditions, they are routinely given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick.

I've also heard that feedlot cattle may be given hormones to encourage quicker growth. Is that true?

Yes, that can be true. Honestly, I felt guilty about the way these animals were being treated.

Then, about five years ago, two very important things happened.  Michael Pollan wrote his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. And the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is a nonprofit environmental advocacy group made up of scientists and citizens, released a report called Greener Pastures - How Grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating. Their report basically said that grass-fed cattle were the answer to many of our problems.

And, I knew this was for me.

Great book. It also changed my view of food as well. So now you've decided to raise grass-fed cattle. Then what happened?

Well, at that time there wasn't really a market for grass-fed, nor was there a supply.  We had to create the market and find the supply to satisfy it—no easy feat. We formed a (limited liability corporation) and got investors, and have been growing and developing ever since. Of course, there was a recession in there, and other hurdles as well. But there's an educational movement on the rise.

We've gotten our product into several restaurants in the Chicago area. Chefs such as Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter, and Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris (Prairie Grass Cafe) are all using Tallgrass in their restaurants. And now we've got Cafe Amano as well. We've got restaurants across the country using it, especially in California and New York.

Tell me about the health benefits of grass-fed beef.

Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat, cholesterol and calories. It's higher in CLA (a potential cancer fighter) and beta-carotene, higher in vitamins B and E, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. It also has a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. (A high ratio of omega-6's is linked to inflammation of the body and possible cancer.) 

Grass-fed beef is also better for the environment. Conventional feedlots create runoff of waste matter. And, it's definitely more humane for the animals, as well.

What do you see for the future of grass-fed beef? Do you believe the market will continue to grow?

Corn used to be a cheap source of energy; it used to sell for $2 a bushel. But because of ethanol, the price of corn has gone up tremendously to around $7 a bushel. That will definitely impact the price of corn-fed beef and make grass-fed more attractive from a pricing viewpoint. And people are definitely becoming more aware of its healthiness. Coupled together, this will stimulate continued interest for grass-fed beef.

And, it tastes better, too. 

Elijah Marks February 25, 2011 at 05:07 PM
Well Bill has the right idea. The Lamb industry is quickly figuring out that people are willing to pay much more for grass fed lamb, As if the cattle industry will ever fully get it, we may never know. When it comes down to it, for many, meat consumption is all about affordability. Can the average family afford New Zealand grass fed lamb at over $20 a pound, or grass fed beef at $15 a pound?
Tina Tuszynski February 25, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Great point, Elijah - but did you know that Americans eat twice as much meat as the rest of the world? From a nutritional standpoint, we should really only eat about 4 to 5 ounces anyway. When you consider the average size of steaks, if you cut down on size, it would be just as affordable as a higher grade cut of corn-fed, but with a much better taste. And it's healthier. Plus with corn prices raising, the differential between grass fed and corn fed won't be as high.
Carol Pavlik February 25, 2011 at 07:27 PM
If anyone can get the word out about the benefits of grass-fed beef, it's Bill Kurtis. He has a name we can trust. Tina, thank you for the interesting story!
Tina Tuszynski February 25, 2011 at 07:31 PM
Thanks, Carol!
Rachel Hellenga February 27, 2011 at 07:28 PM
I had some of the Tallgrass beef last week--amazing! I'd rather split a steak with my partner and spend the same $ on a smaller but better product.
Tina Tuszynski February 27, 2011 at 09:06 PM
So true, Rach! I actually bought the Tallgrass ground beef and made a Meatloaf with prosciutto, spinach, carrots, and pecorino cheese rolled up inside. The beef was so red and juicy instead of that sickly gray color. And it tasted great!

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