In the Field

What Is the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?

What Is the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?

As grass-fed beef gains popularity with consumers, many still question the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Not all are aware that grass-fed beef offers many advantages over grain-fed beef, including healthier meat, better animal welfare, less impact on the environment and a boost to the local economy. 

Grass-fed beef currently accounts for about 4% of all beef sales in the United States. However, demand is growing as more learn about the benefits to human health, animal welfare and the environment that grass-fed beef offers.

In a report on the economic future for grass-fed beef, the Stone Barns Center reports that grass-fed beef can “make the transition from a delicacy for the few to a meat for the masses.” But it will require time, consumer education and better marketing efforts from the grass-fed beef industry.

Before understanding the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, it’s important to understand exactly what is meant by “grass-fed.”

Grass-Fed vs. 100% Grass-Fed

Exploring the meat aisle at your grocery store can prove bewildering. Meat is slapped with stickers proclaiming it, among other things, “hormone-free,” “grass-fed” and “organic.” What’s the right choice?

Knowing the answer requires understanding the word games played on meat packaging.

Almost any beef can be said to come from grass-fed beef. That’s because in large-scale industrial farming, cattle are often started on grass, but then moved to grain feed. So grass-fed technically applies, even though the cattle also were fed grain (and likely growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics).

To ensure that a product is really grass-fed, look for a label that indicates the beef is 100% grass-fed. In some cases, they might read “pasture-finished.” Both indicate the cattle were fed grass their entire lives.

The Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef

In most cases, 100% grass-fed cattle are raised by smaller farms, often not far from where you are making your purchase. Some, such as Acabonac Farms, offer the option to order your beef online.

In most cases, the advantages of grass-fed beef and the farms that produce the cattle include the following.

  • Healthier beef with more vitamins and less fat
  • Rotational grazing that better manages the land
  • Land management techniques that lead to sequestration of carbon dioxide in the soil, which helps reduce greenhouse gases
  • Better treatment of the cattle
  • Fewer transportation miles for your beef
  • In most cases, no antibiotics or hormones used on the cattle
  • In the case of Acabonac Farms, no pesticides or herbicides ever used

Here’s a look at how some of the above plays out in three major categories that demonstrate the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.

Healthier Meat

Is grass-fed beef better for you than grain-fed beef? Study after study has shown this is the case, according to NPR. For example, grass-fed beef contains more of the following than grain-fed beef:

  • Omega-3 heart healthy fatty acids
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E

Grass-fed beef also has less fat.

But it goes beyond this. In a conventional cattle farm, animals are fed grains and soy. This can lead to them being sick. This, in turn, leads to industrial farms giving their cattle antibiotics. Also, the conventional cattle industry, as pointed out in a study from Penn State University, uses a high-energy diet so that cattle grow faster. In some cases, that means adding growth-promoting hormones to their diet.

Grass-fed and pasture-finished cattle, on the other hand, eat what their finely tuned digestive system is designed to eat: grass.

These are vital facts to keep in mind when shopping for beef given the fact that, as author Michael Pollan often points out, “You are what you eat eats.” As pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists, that’s a “bit of an awkward phrase,” but it’s an important phrase for reminding us that “when we eat animals, we are inheriting their diet—as well as several other aspects of their lives.”

Animal Welfare

Some people simply do not care about animal welfare - that’s a fact that isn’t often acknowledged in the copious number of articles and papers on the grass-fed beef industry. But when you tie animal welfare into the issues mentioned above - all involving the health of the meat you eat - animals welfare suddenly becomes an issue for more people.

There are stark contrasts between the lives of cattle in a grass-fed and a grain-fed beef operation.

Most cattle start their lives the same way. They are born, usually in the spring, and then fed milk from their mothers. They also can roam freely on a pasture, eating grasses. That is, for the first six or seven months.

At that point, their paths diverge. Pasture-finished cattle remain on the grasslands. Farmers typically rotate them from pasture to pasture, offering them grass and a rich variety of foliage to eat. They live longer lives, growing naturally.

Grain-fed cattle are taken to a CAFO - a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. While the exact nature of these CAFOs can vary, cattle are typically kept in stalls and fed a diet heavy in corn and soy. This also is where the hormones and antibiotics come into use. They typically are slaughtered only a few months after arriving at the CAFO.

Grass-Fed Beef and the Environment

Many studies have focused on this aspect of grass-fed cattle operations. Again, most 100% grass-fed farms are small operations. The rotational grazing used in such operations leads to better management of soil, an important factor for the environment.

That’s because soil can serve as a carbon sink, trapping carbon in the ground rather than releasing it into the air. That can lessen the human impact on global warming. One study found that properly managed, grass-fed cattle operations resulted in up to 268 pounds of carbon stored per acre per year.

Impact on Local Economy

This falls into the category of common sense. Buying your beef from a local farmer, often through your area’s farmer’s market or directly from the supplier, is going to keep your hard-earned dollars in your own community.

In a report on buying local from Michigan State University, the positive impacts include:

  • Supporting businesses that give local residents good-paying jobs
  • Rewarding businesses that use local resources in a sustainable way
  • Relying less on imports for needed goods
  • Moving control of the local economy from distant, corporate boards of directors to local leaders
  • Keeping money in the community means it is re-spent locally, which raises the local economic activity, pays more salaries and builds the local tax base

The university found that for every $100 spent, only $27 leave the local community if the money is spent at a local business. However, $57 leaves the local community when the purchase is made with an out-of-town business.

These are some of the major differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. As can be seen, it’s about a lot more than just the beef itself - although there are significant differences there, as well. Buying grass-fed beef is an important decision across many different areas of life and can impact your local community just as much as your own health.

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