Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef
- [Narrator] Today we're going to compare and contrast grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef.
Grass-fed beef by definition is the beef from cattle raised solely on grass, pasture, or other forages.
This implies that the feeding of forages, either harvested or from pasture, occurs from birth to harvest of that animal.
This may be different from a program that specifies grass finishing, and those types of programs can include programs that may feed grain during the growing phase but feed forage during the finishing period right before harvest.
Because a grass-fed system relies on forage, the type and quality of the forage that are fed to cattle is very important, as type and quality of forage affects cattle weight gain and carcass characteristics.
To increase cattle gain when fed solely forage, the animal must have year round access to a high quality forage, and sufficient high quality forage must be provided throughout the entire year.
This may be difficult in some parts of the US due to the seasonal growth of different forages, and poor nutrient content of many forages.
Winter forages are going to be provided as harvested forages.
This picture is an example of one harvested forage which is the corn stalks harvested after a dry corn harvest.
Corn stover is as it is referred to should not be used in a grass-fed program due to the limited energy and protein it supplies the animal, thus inhibiting growth.
In a grass-fed program, because the animal is relying on forages, typically more land is required than in a grain finishing program.
Thus the advantages of a grass-fed program can be multiple.
There can be advantage to not having as much equipment as is needed in other programs, unless you're making your own hay for example.
Then you would have your haying equipment.
Other inputs are also minimal.
You need fencing for the animals to keep them on the pasture, and access to water.
In addition, you may fetch a premium price for your product.
If you go to the supermarket and you price a steak from a grass finished animal and one from a grain-fed animal or with conventional animals we'll talk about in a moment, you may see a different price tag.
The disadvantage are that the animals are going to be exposed to environmental factors being that they're out on pasture, including the wind, et cetera.
This can affect their growth rate and mean that it takes them a longer time to finish.
Also, because most grass-fed cattle don't qualify for quality grade premiums, that is they don't reach the choice and prime cuts, you may give up some of the benefits of those quality grade premiums.
In a grain-fed system, this system is sometimes referred to as the conventional system.
This is how 80% of the commercial beef production is reared in the United States.
Typically, cattle are fed grain from weaning to harvest, however they may be placed on pasture for four to six months and then finish on grain for the last five months or so of life.
The grain-fed system relies on a high energy diet.
Again this is a grain-based diet.
These cattle, because they are fed a high finishing diet, do reach their target end weight more quickly than cattle in a grass-fed system.
Also, because cattle can often finish at a younger age in a grain-fed system and finish at a heavier weight, more beef can be produced per unit of land in a grain-fed system when compared to a grass-fed system.
Thus the advantages of a grain-fed system are increased gains which shorten the finishing phase and increase the potential for cattle to grade choice and prime, and fetch a premium price.
The disadvantages are the animals are concentrated and it increases the concentration of manure, nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.
Also, the profitability of a grain-fed system is often tied to the grain markets which were relatively volatile between 2008 and 2014, and affected cattle profitability.
Because cattle grow and fatten more quickly on grains, the excess fat in the carcass may be a disadvantage to some if they're trying to maintain a low fat diet.
Are all grass-fed cattle organic?
The answer is no.
In fact, whether an animal is grass-fed or grain-fed doesn't tell you anything about whether or not it's organic.
Organic is a USDA certification that can be applied to either grass-fed or grain-fed beef, and in fact over two thirds of the organic beef produced in the US is fed grain.
The definition for organic is that the cattle have to be raised under organic management, and from the last third of gestation, so from the cow's pregnancy through that calf's life, it has to be raised under organic management.
Animals that are raised for organic are not allowed to be given any antibiotics or growth hormones.
Therefore, sick or injured animals that need to be treated have to be removed from the National Organic USDA program.
The animals that are fed for USDA Organic label have to be fed with grain and forage that is 100% organic, that is not treated with pesticides, and that ground has to be transitioned into organic three years prior to the harvest of that grain or forage.
At least 30% of the ruminant animal's forage needs must be met through pasture, so 30% of beef cattle's needs have to be met through pasture during the growing season.
Grain finish cattle are excluded from this requirement during the last 20% or 120 days of their lives, whichever is shorter.
Finally, processors must also be certified organic that process the meat.
Regardless of what production system you choose, grass-fed, or grain-fed, it's always important to remember that all beef is safe, nutritious, and provides ZIP, Zinc, Iron, and Protein.
Frequently Asked Questions