10/09/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hole on the Range

Raising grass-fed beef is easy. Cows love grass -- their four-chambered gut is uniquely efficient at turning the green stuff into meat we carnivores crave. And grass loves cows -- the animals spread and fertilize the grass seeds, as well as preventing trees and shrubs from taking over. Biologists call it mutualism. Seems to me that elegant is another way to describe the relationship between cattle and grass. A cow grazing in her herd is the apotheosis of bovine joy.

The hardest thing about bringing cattle to market weight on grass -- rather than fattening them in feedlots for the last six months of their lives -- is that you got to have cowboys to do it. You need them to move the animals from one pasture to another and to help with breech births. You need them to fix broken irrigation and to rescue calves tangled in barbed wire. And that's all before lunch.

Problem is, finding a legit cowboy these days is about as easy as locating a barista without tattoos. There's certainly no shortage of clean white Stetsons, hand-tooled roach stompers, and rodeo belt buckles the size of dinner plates. But a real cowboy, like the ones I met living on ranches around the world? One of those rangy, resourceful specimens who can cobble together a winning hand out of any cards the cow gods deal? They're scarce. I'd even go so far as to call them an endangered species.

Last week I was out riding with a Uruguayan gaucho named Mono. He and a few other cowboys move Herefords across more than a thousand acres of grass in the heart of the pampas, land as flat and green as a billiard table. Mono never finished high school, but he's as good a cow doctor as any vet school graduate I've met, as well as being an expert horseman, a fine musician, a talented chef, a deadly card shark and something of a naturalist philosopher.

That's how I imagine lots of our U.S. cowboys once were, the dudes who chaperoned herds to Midwest stockyards, crossing country lush with dozens of species of native perennial grasses. The slaughterhouses of Chicago and St. Joe are long gone. Our open range has been overgrazed, compacted, dried up, converted to cornfields and other monoculture crops. And most of our cattle are squeezed into feedlots, standing in their own waste and fed antibiotics to keep them alive and promote weight gain.

That's not good for the land. In a 2008 article Scientific American, Dr. Bob Lawrence noted that feeding cows and other animals corn has created "widespread environmental degradation, including drained water supplies, degraded soils, and reliance on fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery fuel."

And it's not good for the animals. Dr. Lawrence says feeding them corn is "hard on cows, whose stomachs are specially designed to break down the cellulose in grass, leading to an epidemic of antibiotic use." He goes on to mention that humans are missing out on the omega-3 fatty acids found in grass-fed beef.

It's not good for us either, as reported in a recent Huffington Post article by Nick Viser. The Center for Disease Control has declared antibiotic resistance to be a major threat to human health and points to feedlots as part of the problem.

Even so, I'm optimistic. I think cowboys are poised for a comeback, both as an archetype and a job category. More and more folks are asking local butchers and restaurants for grass-fed beef; according to a recent study, demand for grass-fed beef is growing by 20 percent each year. Consumers like what they're reading about its health benefits and they like what they're tasting too. Grass-fed beef has been described as having a cleaner and more complex flavor when compared to feedlot-raised beef with its much higher fat content. Rising consumer demand means more and more animals are spending their entire lives on the range. Cows raised like that need cowboys.

I've met many over the years since I got into the beef business -- old school ranchers who have gone back to raising their animals at home, on grass, instead of sending their calves to feedlots. And then there's the new generation of cowboys -- a diverse group that includes Hank Williams-blasting roughnecks with Ag school degrees and Rudolph Steiner-loving hipsters from the sustainability movement -- all dedicated to turning green grass into delicious beef.

It's not hard, but it does take patience. Cows gain weight much slower when they eat only grass. After all, feedlots don't exist because some sadistic villain wants to watch cows suffer and to pollute the surrounding country. They exist because confining cattle in pens and feeding them cheap (often subsidized) corn causes the animals to gain weight two to three times faster than when they're finished on grass.