There’s something about the words “grass fed beef” that just sound delicious. The idea of herds of cattle milling around a pastoral field somehow makes a beef product sound more appetizing, even for those of us who don’t have a deep understanding of farming practices or what influences the terroir of a steak or prime rib roast.
While most of us are still using commodity beef (the brandless stuff that is most common at the grocery story) for our daily cooking needs, locally raised specialty beef has become an increasingly coveted treat for meat lovers.
Even if customers don’t quite have a grasp on the science of livestock feed, products like the meat from Gemstone Grass Fed Beef clearly offer something special, both because of the way the cattle is raised and because of the people who raise it. Gemstone, located near the hamlet of Gem, Alberta (roughly halfway between Calgary and Medicine Hat), is run by the Doerksen family, third and fourth generation farmers who decided that they were ready to change the way they ranched to create a product that stands out from other beef on the market.
The ranch is primarily run by brothers Lorin and Daniel Doerksen along with their dad Arno, with another brother, Barry also involved (although living off-farm). The brothers’ great-grandfather settled in the Gem area in 1932, attracted by its good irrigation. For over 80 years the Doerksens operated the farm fairly conventionally, raising cattle and growing crops, but in 2018, the current generation decided that they wanted to do things a little differently. Lorin and Daniel both went off to study (animal science and environmental science respectively) and came back to the farm recharged and ready to write the next chapter in their family’s farming story.
“We really saw an opportunity for grass fed beef,” Lorin says. “We’d learned a lot about regenerative agriculture and the concept made a lot of sense to me and other members of my family. We love a good steak and being able to build a business around farm-to-table just seemed like a good opportunity.”
“Grass fed” means that instead of feeding cattle grains in a feed lot in the “finishing” stage (i.e. after the calves are old enough to be separated from their mothers and sold at auction), the animals are on a “forage only” diet for their entire lifespan, free to roam in pastures eating fresh grass or green hay and silage (a cut grass product) in the winter months. The forage diet can keep cattle healthier and less stressed, and as a ranching method, rotational grazing and regenerative farming (where the cows are moved around the farm so that they don’t overfeed on any one piece of land) is generally considered to be a more environmentally friendly option.
Perhaps more importantly to the consumer though, is the finished product. Research shows that grass feeding can make for a healthier beef with higher levels of Vitamins A and E and omega-3 fatty acids. There’s also the issue of “you are what you eat,” which is as true for cattle as it is for humans. Grass fed beef has a reputation for being less fatty than traditional commodity beef (the grain finishing is designed to fatten the cows up, after all), which can result in a tougher and less flavourful cut. To combat this, the Doerksens took special care to develop meat that has a unique (and very tasty) flavour.
The ranch had already been raising purebred Hereford and Red Angus cows and fortuitously enough, those breeds happened to retain fat without supplemental grain feed. Initially, the family experimented with switching just a few cows to grass fed to see if it would work, and they were incredibly impressed with the product that landed on their plates. “One of the most important things we learned is that you need the right kind of cattle genetics to successfully create a high-quality product to sell to restaurants and chefs,” Lorin says. “Our beef has some of the same characteristics as AAA commodity beef in terms of the fat content, but it has a whole different flavour profile that can taste better if you do it right.”
When a rancher gets out of the commodity market they have to do some work marketing their product to consumers, which is something that Gemstone has been very successful at — and once it gets to consumers the beef really does speak for itself. The “beefier” aromatic flavour and softer, juicier texture of Gemstone’s beef has won the label many fans, including chefs like John Jackson and Connie DeSousa from Calgary’s Charcut and Charbar restaurants.
Gemstone’s products are available through delivery boxes like Cultivatr.ca, Bessie Box, and Spud.ca, as well as retail shops like Nutters in Okotoks and Canmore, and Blush Lane locations throughout the province. The ranch also sells products ranging from standards like ground beef and steaks to nose-to-tail products like rendered beef tallow and soup bones, all available directly from its website at gemstonegrassfedbeef.com.