The BBC’s spin on grass-fed beef

One of the discussion groups I follow was sent this BBC news item on a French butcher who thinks English beef is the best. It was interesting enough albeit with a couple of errors, but I was curious what was behind this item. It was this book:

L'effet boeuf Et si les vaches mangeaient de l'herbe - Ce que l'on vous cache sur la viande

It turns out there’s a Parisian butcher by the name of le Bourdonnec who has just published a book called l’effet boeuf and is promoting it in the newspapers and on TV. He’s pushing grass-fed beef and thinks that French beef, usually raised for export to feedlots, has lost a lot of taste. He’s somewhat of a rhetoric producing celebrity but he is pointing out some painful truths. There are a few interesting articles in the press.

L’Express has an article where le Bourdonnec slams French beef as being mostly from dairy cows. The article seems accurate – male calves (taurillons) go to the export market, farmers are paid by carcass weight not much by quality and prices haven’t moved in over a decade yet the cost of machinery/fuel/land has gone up a lot. I think l’Express doesn’t think too highly of the butcher, either.

This quote was interesting to read:

La Blonde d’Aquitaine, que 95% de la profession considère comme la quintessence de l’élevage français est une publicité mensongère, un attrape-touristes, une vaste connerie.

Sacrilege! The Blonde d’Aquitaine is a big con? You could never say this in the Gers and get out of the room unscathed. I would put it a little differently, that the Blonde has been bred in recent decades to be the ultimate feedlot cow with huge muscles and thin bones and has lost its ability to put on good flavor while living on grass. Charolaise cows are similar, maybe Limousine are a little better, but still the big three breeds are aimed at feedlots.

A lot of farmers fatten a cow or so each year to eat and sell to friends or to butchers. These are often cull cows and like feedlots they are kept in pens and fed a lot of cereal to get to finish weight. The neighbors think six months of grain finishing is necessary for a Blonde.

Le Monde has more. He’s pushing pasture-fed beef. Anyway, I ordered his book and will see how it goes.

Back to the errors of the BBC article:

British breeds – Angus, Longhorn, Shorthorn, Galloway for example – are indeed much smaller than France’s Limousin, Charolais or Blonde d’Aquitaine whose prize specimens weigh in at one and a half metric tonnes.

That number misrepresents. While you could find a very large mature Blond prize specimen bull of 1.5t this isn’t what you buy in the shops when you buy a steak. A Blonde mother cow is about 750kg and an Angus is about 500-550kg so there’s a big difference, but to use the 1.5t number is silly. I’m sure you could find prize specimen Angus bulls not far off that. Note you can find a huge variation in Angus sizes way down to small, small cows.

This is probably the best paragraph in the BBC article:

In reality, the French, he says, hardly raise any cattle for beef at all. Almost half of what is sold as beef comes from cows raised for their milk – the rest from cows raised to have veal calves. The French word “boeuf” means the male of the species but almost none of the beef sold in this country is “boeuf” at all, it’s “vache”.

True indeed. Male calves get sold to feedlots in Italy, Spain or Africa where grain is cheap and grass is expensive. There are also feedlots in the northern part of France. The truth is farmers don’t finish Blondes on grass. The animals do not put on the condition. They’ve been bred to fatten on grain in feedlots. Now I bet there are exceptions and there’s plenty of variation within a breed but it is a reasonable generalization.

The dairy industry has a lot of beef byproducts – retired cows, cross-calves that aren’t needed except to make their mothers lactate, purebred bull calves. If you look at the little label on the meat packet in French shops it will say if it is a meat cow or a dairy cow. Dairy cows can be very good eating if they are the right breed (e.g. Normande) but breed isn’t on the label so you’re probably buying a Holstein which isn’t really any improvement.

The BBC is just plain wrong here:

France’s beef cattle are mostly situated in the dry south-west of the country and so they eat a lot more cereal and maize.

The dry SW does not finish cattle and historically rarely has. We generally produce calves that go elsewhere to be finished. I’ve heard from other farmers that it has always been that way, but it is certainly true that the main cattle business here is cow-calf where the calves are sold to the export market.

The BBC article talks about British beef being the best. As you can guess, this isn’t mentioned in any of the French articles. One of them mentioned Aubrac, one of the three rustic local cow breeds that gourmets like along with Gascon and our Salers. Some cows do better on grass than others and there is variation within a breed, within a family and within a herd, but if you start with a Blonde then the odds are stacked against you to be a successful finisher of pasture-raised beef.

4 thoughts on “The BBC’s spin on grass-fed beef

  1. ceciliag says:

    Do you finish your beasts on pasture though? I finish my beef on alfalfa and so far they are always a Ayrshire steer and pretty tasty. Of course I have the hereford coming but she is not ready to breed yet.. c

  2. Susan Lea says:

    Why don’t you contact BBC and write them/talk to them about this from the standpoint of a breeder of grass-fed cattle in France? I bet the fact that you speak perfect English (well, maybe not from the Brits’ perspective!) while farming in France would make it easier and more attractive for them to interview you. Who knows, you could get something in the news about your operation?

  3. bc says:

    We use both permanent and temporary pastures. The permanent ones are a huge mix (of course) and the temporary ones are an alfalfa/grass mix. That’s the lucerne I keep talking about. We have droughts and the lucerne is very drought resistant. It is all that grew last summer and saved our bacon, well beef.

    We’re still figuring a few things out. Like the next couple of months we’ll have a separate finish herd of a handful of animals. They’ll have natural pasture and lucerne hay. Next year we’ll have another 16ha of lucerne coming online for grazing so we’ll have plenty to finish on.

  4. bc says:

    Susan, for some reason I am publicity-shy. Maybe in a few years when we have thirty or forty animals getting finished. I cannot sell myself as any sort of expert here, I just ask a lot of questions of all the farmers I meet and piece things together.

    Now if The Agricultrix wants publicity, she’s welcome to it. 🙂

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