The Fescue Conundrum: Think Grass-Fed Beef Is Natural? It's Time to Think Again

It may be better than the alternative, but it’s entirely disingenuous for producers and consumers to justify eating grass-fed beef on the essentialist grounds that it was “meant to be” that way.
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(PHOTO: JULIE VADER/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: JULIE VADER/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If there’s such a thing as a time-honored truth in the politically mercurial pursuit of sustainable agriculture it might be this: cows were meant to eat grass. Even the staunchest advocate of industrialized corn-fed beef would have a tough time denying the symbiotic embrace between ungulates and their grasslands, a relationship forged in the pre-historic crucible of evolutionary time. And thus it’s no wonder that, among the promoters of pasture-raised beef, euphoria for all things grass is uttered with mantra-like consistency. Samples might include Thistle Hill Farm, in Hume, Virgina, which tells us: “cows were meant to eat grass.” Fort Hill Farm, of Milford, Connecticut, notes: “cows were meant to eat grass.”  Mountain Run Farm, of Sedalia, Virginia, explains yet again (PDF): “cows were meant to eat  ... GRASS!” And so it goes.

Consumer enthusiasm for cows that eat grass (and, by implication, avoid corn) derives primarily from an unprecedented quest for culinary and agricultural purity. In an age of pink slime and E. coli outbreaks and factory farming, the unadulterated bond between a cow and his cud—that is, the elimination of a corporate-controlled supply chain of feedstuffs—adds value to the beefsteak while evoking bucolic images of agrarian bliss for health-and-welfare-conscious carnivores. If all food comes with a story, the narrative of cows thriving on grass is a bestseller. As Alan Williams, of the Pasture Project, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last fall: “In the late 1990s there were only 100 producers [of grass-fed beef]. Now there are more than 2,000. The market has grown from being $2 million to $3 million to over $2.5 billion in retail value.” That’s a lot of green.

The fescue tradeoff reminds us that, when we talk about agriculture, we’re talking about the most destructive activity humans have ever undertaken.

Given the explosive (and profitable) popularity of pastured beef, not to mention its unadulterated image, it may come as a surprise that much of the grass that cows eat in the United States is infected with a fungus. Even more surprising is the fact that grass farmers (as producers of grass-fed beef call themselves) generally want to keep it that way.

Tall fescue (usually just called “fescue”) is the most popular cool season grass in the United States, covering well over 35 million acres of land. The fact that the vast majority of fescue is infected with a fungus called an endophyte might sound alarming. However, as is often the case in nature, the fungus and grass are engaged in a self-serving symbiosis of their own. The fungus reproduces safely inside the grass while the grass becomes hardier, more nutritious, better resistant to drought and pests, and higher yielding as a direct result of the endophyte. Hence the farmer’s reluctant affection for this highly coveted durable grass. Nobody wants a fungus in their feed, but reliability is hard to beat in an endeavor as inherently unpredictable as agriculture.

The real loser in the whole arrangement is the cow. Another reason that fescue courts an endophyte is that, in the wild, the endophyte offers grass the benefit of protection from herbivores. Which is to say: it makes cows sick when they eat it. Not quite sick enough, though, for farmers to forgo the hardiness and consistency fescue provides. As a result, those who raise cows on grass tolerate a range of subclinical and non-infectious diseases and debilitations that consumers never hear about because there’s no reason for them to hear about them. The most generic examples of such conditions are “fescue foot,” which can cause gangrene and the loss of feet and other extremities; “fat necrosis,” which leads to chronic digestion problems and reduced reproductive ability; and “fescue toxicosis,” which experts have called “one of the most costly disorders facing livestock producers in the eastern U.S.” Other potential disorders attributed to eating endophyte-infected fescue include heat stress, reduced appetite, lower growth rates, hair loss, difficulty in calving, and, (for those who care) depression.

Because the grass is so durable, and because the cost of replacing fescue is prohibitive, many ranchers, at least when they talk amongst themselves, express an eagerness to keep their fescue infected with the fungus. At an online cattle forum called BackYardHerds.com, grass farmers routinely sing the praises of fescue. They note that (to cite just a few examples [PDF]) “the farm grows only endophyte infected fescue and clovers,” that “until convinced otherwise I will remain an advocate for endophyte infected fescue,” and that “the endophyte is what makes fescue so hardy; when they totally remove the endophyte, the grass isn't quite as good as the infected kind.” As these remarks indicate, fescue, according to one industry analyst, is a grass that farmers “can’t live with but can’t live without.”

None of this should suggest that we’re better off eating the corn-fed beef churned out of the agribusiness mill. By virtually any measure—health, welfare, common decency, environmental responsibility—pasture-raised beef, whether on fescue or not, is arguably a better choice. What the fungal reality of fescue does suggest, however, is that it’s entirely disingenuous for producers and consumers to justify eating grass-fed beef on the essentialist grounds that it was “meant to be” that way. This is a claim that needs to go.

Fescue was accidentally brought to the United States from England sometime in the latter half of the 19th century (it’s native to Europe and North Africa). In 1931, a Kentucky extension agent discovered a hearty ecotype of it growing on the hillside of a local scratch farm. He took it to the lab. By 1941 the grass was commercialized (as Kentucky ’31) and sold to farmers throughout the American Midwest and South, who quickly blanketed the landscape with this foreign (dare we say invasive) crop. Fescue and its fungal endophyte probably fell in love in the late 1940s and agricultural researchers have been documenting that relationship’s negative impact on cattle ever since. Point being: it was never “meant to be” that cattle eat a grass that makes them sick. No more or less than it was “meant to be” that cows grow fat fast on genetically-modified corn.

But there’s a bigger takeaway here. The fescue tradeoff does more than call into question the grass/corn dichotomy. It reminds us that, when we talk about agriculture, we’re talking about the most destructive activity humans have ever undertaken. We’re talking about a human-driven brute force intervention into natural ecosystems that, before we decided to take them over to provide ourselves with a reliable source of food, operated according to their own rules regarding what was meant to be. So, instead of gauging the relative merits or demerits of agricultural practice according to some mythical idea of what’s fake and what’s real, we’d be much better off seeking agricultural approaches that, fully aware that agriculture itself was never meant to be, seek to cause the least amount of harm.

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