When it comes to their diets, not all cattle are raised the same way. Cattle usually eat either grass or grain. How cows are raised and fed affects the nutrient composition of the beef, which can play a role in the health benefits as well as the taste of the meat. There have been many debates and much research conducted concerning grass-fed vs. grain-fed meat for consumers and the environment.
Before you purchase your next beef product, you may want to consider how the cattle were raised. We hope this guide will help you understand the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef so you can choose the best type of meat for you and your family.
Grain-fed cattle, or conventionally raised cattle, begin their life the same way as grass-fed cattle by starting on a grass diet. However, they go to feedlots at around eight months old, where they receive formulated feed that typically consists of corn, soy, straw and alfalfa grains. Many people think cattle receive 100 percent corn feed. However, feeds can range from 0 percent to 50 percent corn. If cows ate 100 percent corn, they would become ill, because their bodies haven’t evolved to digest it as well as grass.
When cows switch to a grain-based diet, their stomach’s acidity increases. Animals with acidic stomachs may experience ulcers, bloat or a weakened immune system. With a slower adjustment period to switch a cow’s diet from primarily forages to concentrates, farmers can help the cow’s stomach adjust to the change in diet.
With a grain diet, these cattle can put on weight at a much faster rate than grass-fed animals. For this reason, cattle typically reach their harvest rate around 18 months. Since grain-fed cattle don’t require access to grass throughout the year, grain-fed beef and steak are more readily available year-round.
What Are Feedlots?
To help learn a little more about how grain-fed beef is raised, let’s take a closer look at what a feedlot is. Feedlots are also called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFO. In general, a feedlot is an area or building where cattle are raised and fed to prepare them for harvest. Feedlots serve as the final destination before animals are ready to slaughter.
Government agencies classify locations as animal feeding operations if they feed animals for at least 45 days in a 12-month period and if vegetation doesn’t make up at least 50 percent of the area. To be classified as a CAFO or feeding lot, they also must confine more than 1,000 animal units, which is equal to 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef steers.
The large size of feedlots, and the thousands of animals housed there, give them an economic advantage over other cattle-raising systems. Since diets consist of mostly feed, they don’t need as much land, which helps farmers cut down on costs. In general, feedlots provide a faster and cheaper way to produce large quantities of beef.
Although feedlots can provide meat for the growing beef demand, there are ethical and moral concerns about animals raised on feedlots. Some critics of feedlots feel animals are treated unfairly. They aren’t allowed to roam freely and graze on grass. Some spend their lives in confined areas with little to no room to move.
Another major concern about animals raised in feedlots is their susceptibility to diseases. Eating a diet they’re not accustomed to leads cows to contract diseases, which require antibiotics. In addition, the confined nature of feedlots contributes to the spread of disease. Managing the spread of disease can be challenging, since animals move in and out of feedlots often. Some diseases animals contract can be passed on to humans who consume the meat, causing major concerns.
One specific issue of concern is E. coli. When cattle eat grain, it makes their intestines more acidic, which promotes the growth of bacteria such as E. coli. If you eat undercooked beef that has E. coli, it could kill you.
Feedlots provide a quick and efficient way to produce large amounts of meat to satisfy the demand. However, the concerns associated with feedlots may cause you to rethink eating grain-fed beef.
Grass-fed beef is also called grass-finished beef or open-range beef. Though all cattle start their life on a grass-fed diet, only grass-fed cattle remain on a grass-fed diet until they reach their harvest weight.
Grass-fed cattle reside in areas where the grass is easily available. In the event of bad weather, cattle need to be able to move to a place where they can still graze grass. During the winter, some farmers will shelter their cattle and supplement them with hay and grass silage feed. Supplementing them with this type of feed allows farmers to maintain their grass-fed status.
Grass-fed cows are able to roam freely and get more exercise than grain-fed cows, which helps make grass-fed meat leaner. Because of the grass-based feeding plan, these cattle typically take longer to reach their harvest weight. It can take around 22 to 28 months for grass-fed cattle to reach the harvest weight. The extra time required to raise cattle to the correct weight is one reason grass-fed beef tends to be more costly.
Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
In the past decade, demand for grass-fed beef rose at an annual rate of 25 to 30 percent. This increased demand is partly due to the vast amount of health benefits grass-fed beef contain.
Research shows the many unique health benefits you receive when you consume grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef contains higher concentrations of some antioxidants and vitamins. Beef from grass-fed animals is rich in vitamin E, vitamin A, magnesium and potassium. Consuming foods that have these additional antioxidants and vitamins are good for your heart health and can lower your risks of some forms of cancers.
Grass-fed beef contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a naturally occurring trans-fat. In fact, grass-fed meat contains three to five times more CLA than grain-fed meat. CLA is a necessary part of your diet and is known to help with weight loss, muscle-building and fighting cancer.
Also, grass-fed beef contains almost three times more omega-3 fatty acid than grain-fed beef. Our bodies can’t naturally make omega-3 fatty acids, so we must get them from our diet. Omega-3s have proven beneficial for improving heart health, improving cognitive function, regulating cholesterol, fighting off inflammation and lowering high blood pressure.
Grass-fed meat is leaner and contains less fat and fewer calories than grain-fed beef. In the United States, the average person consumes 67 pounds of beef annually. Switching to grass-fed beef could save you 16,642 calories a year.
Grass-Fed Beef Labels
With so many different labels on meat products in the grocery store, it can be difficult to determine if the beef you purchase is raised on a grass diet. The USDA Grass-Fed label doesn’t always mean animals ate 100 percent grass their entire life.
You may need to look for other third-party labels, such as the Animal Grassfed Approved logo and Food Alliance Grassfed certification, to help you verify your meat is 100 percent grass-fed.
If you see an organic label on the meat you are considering purchasing, this is not an indicator the beef is grass-fed. Some animals that eat organic grains fall under this label. You will need to look for a grass-fed label in addition to the organic label to ensure that product is really grass-fed.
Buying from local farmers who raise cattle in open fields and feed their cattle only fresh and dry grasses is another great option for purchasing grass-fed beef. Purchasing from a qualified local farmer will contribute to your local community while helping ensure you get quality grass-fed beef.
Environmental Benefits for Each Type
Cows emit between 70 and 120kg of methane each year, which has negative effects on the climate and our environment. Because of the impact of the meat industry on climate change and global warming, many individuals are concerned with the environmental impact of raising cattle. There are arguments for the environmental benefits of both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle.
Grain-fed beef may help the environment by requiring fewer land resources. Since grain-fed cattle reach their harvesting age faster, they have a shorter lifespan and have less time to release additional methane and greenhouse gases.
Proponents of the environmental advantages of grass-fed beef focus on the reduced waste and pollution when animals eat only grass. Waste that is dropped on the land supplies the soil with necessary nutrients to fuel the next cycle of crops. However, in grain-fed feedlots, this waste builds up and leads to more water and air pollution.
Producing large amounts of corn feed for grain-fed animals requires more chemical fertilizer, and chemical fertilizer requires more oil. Using a grass-fed process helps reduce the use of fertilizer, which in turn, helps lessen the pesticide runoff.
Hormone & Antibiotic Usage in Raising Cattle
One major difference between grain-fed and grass-fed cattle is the use of antibiotics and hormones. Using antibiotics for cattle started in the 1940s, and the use of antibiotics, as well as hormones, has continued to grow over the years.
Grain-fed animals in feedlots typically get hormones, in addition to their diets of grain, to help increase their weight faster. Adding hormones to their feed allows them to grow larger, faster and be ready for harvest earlier. Grass-fed cattle generally do not receive hormones.
The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance in animals and create superbugs. This antibiotic resistance is passed to humans who consume the beef. Today, antibiotic resistance is a major concern for the public and doctors.
Because feedlots’ smaller spaces give way to the increased spread of diseases, it is common for antibiotics to be used in feedlots. Although grass-fed cattle can still get sick and require antibiotics, it is less common than the use of antibiotics to treat cattle in poor living conditions. Grass-fed diets also provide nutrients that boost the immune system and help limit the chances of needing antibiotics.
Overall, grass-fed cattle receive fewer antibiotics and hormones than grain-fed cattle.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef Taste
Due to their diet, grass-fed beef and steak have a different taste than grain-fed beef and steak. Chefs often say the source of flavor for meat comes from the fat. The difference in diet between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle creates a different nutrient and fat profile for each type of meat, thus giving each type a unique flavor.
Many Americans are accustomed to grain-fed beef. However, there have been debates over which meat has the better flavor. Some diners have described grass-fed beef as being dry or chewy, while others claim it has a “beefier” and “earthier” taste. On the other hand, people have described grain-fed beef as both blander and richer. Because preferences for grass-fed and grain-fed beef taste vary, you’ll have to try each for yourself to determine which flavor you enjoy more.
Because grass-fed beef is leaner, it requires specific cooking instructions. Grass-fed beef cooks 30 percent faster than grain-fed beef. Using a meat thermometer, you can help check the doneness of your meat, so you don’t overcook it. You should remove your meat from the heat once it reaches 10 degrees lower than your desired temperature, because it will continue to cook after you remove the meat from the stove or grill. Since grass-fed beef contains less fat, you may need to add olive oil or butter to help brown the meat on the stove. Adding oil will also help avoid the dryness and chewiness some people associate with grass-fed beef.
Why Does This Matter to You?
Understanding the process involved in creating the food you consume is an important step in making an informed decision about the food you eat.
Now that you know more about the process of raising grass-fed and grain-fed animals, you can make a better decision about the type of meat you and your family consume. Looking at the environmental and health impact of each type will help you decide which option best suits your preferences.
Get Quality Locally Sourced Meat
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We are proud to serve high-quality cuts of meat. Our chefs pay close attention to our dishes and use locally-sourced, fresh ingredients. With our established relationships with local farmers and producers, we ensure our menu provides healthy ingredients for each season.
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