What does a Swiss steer have in common with a species of tallgrass?

A steer, known as Big Blue, was fed solely on a native prairie grass for a research project this summer led by Ryan Sensenig, associate professor of Biology and Environmental Science. He was assisted by four students at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The steer's name came from the species of native tallgrass, Big Blue Stem, that it was primarily fed.  These grasses originally dominated the Great Plains and evolved to the Midwest climate.

The main purpose of Sensenig's research was to honor the natural agricultural model based on native grasses. Today, less than one percent of the U.S. land has native grasses left for grazing.

“These prairies are not just grass, but more complex ecosystems with flowers. These grasses take out more carbon dioxide from the air and add it to the soil,” said Sensenig. “There are two major benefits for this, restoring the agricultural model back to how nature used to do it and to make farming more economically efficient while keeping the soil good.” The long-term goal of this research was to encourage farmers to grow prairie grasses and cool grasses to accommodate rotational grazing for cattle. By this not only will the soil be healthier; the meat produced will be leaner and of higher quality. It will also help the farmers restore their relationship with ground and encourage more ecologically sound eating habits for both consumers and producers.

“It’s a win –win situation since cows were evolved to eat grass not corn," said Sensenig. "Farmers will make money and [the] land benefits too.”

Sensenig does not eat a lot of meat, but when he does he is very aware of how it affects the ecology around him. “Understanding where the meat came from and the production of it is very important. Consuming meat should be undertaken after careful ecological consideration,” said Sensenig.

He added, “Grass fed beef is more expensive but if we can vote with our dollar, then as a society we will benefit highly from the environment it creates.” According to Sensenig, the basic socialization around community grown food is what is missing from society today.

Big Blue was eventually taken to the slaughterhouse and Sensenig sold his beef to raise money to support his research work. “Big Blue was not a pet, but I was certainly attached to him, which did cause me pain. But ironically the pain caused was the whole purpose of it, to be more aware of our connection to our food,” said Sensenig. Big Blue produced about 400 pounds of lean beef, and all of it was sold.

Faculty and staff members on campus were able to purchase the meat. While some, like Professor of History John D. Roth, had known about Big Blue through the Maple Scholar’s summer program, others like Becky Horst found out about it through an all faculty mass email from Sensenig.  The common thought among all those who bought the meat was that they were satisfied to pay more because they knew where it came from.

Paul Steury, the Merry Lea K-12 education coordinator said, “I’d rather know where my meat came from, than eating meat with ambiguous ethics involved.”  He said the graduate program students and the children at Merry Lea miss their friend.  Michelle Horning, professor of accounting, said, “ After reading Omnivore’s Dilemma last year, [I] became more aware of where my meat came from. We switched to buying meat and eggs from a farmer we knew or at the organic store. Big Blue was cheaper than the organic meat we usually buy.” She was sad that she never got to say goodbye to Big Blue before her family ate the meat.

Becky Horst, associate registrar, made borscht, a Russian soup, from the meat she bought from Sensenig. “Two pounds of meat made about 24 servings of delicious soup.” Said Becky Horst, associate registrar at Goshen College.