Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 Apr

The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef

When making the transition into the Primal way of life, a lot of people get tripped up on the question of grass-fed beef. Is it necessary? (No.) Is there really that big a difference between conventional beef and grass-fed beef? (Kinda.) What does grass-fed actually mean? How do conventional cows live and what do they eat – and does that matter enough to me to make the effort to incorporate true grass-fed beef into my diet?

Hopefully, the following article will shed a bit of light on the subject, making it easier for you to make an informed decision based on your preferences, your needs, your budget, your personal ethics, and the objective information provided.

Cow’s Diet

You’d think this would be a simple, single sentence section – grass-fed cows eat grass, grain-fed cows eat grain. Bam. Done, right? Not quite.

For the most part, all cows start on grass. Well, calves drink milk, obviously, and then “milk replacement” (which appears to be a sort of high-powered protein shake made of milk proteins, lard, lactose, added minerals, and several choice supplements) upon separation from their mothers, but even the most CAFOed out cow probably started with grass before being switched to concentrated feed. Concentrated feed can mean any number of things, but the base food is always a grain slurry, typically of corn and corn byproducts (husks, cobs), soy and soy hulls, spent brewery grain, spent distiller’s grain, and other cereals. CAFO nutritionists can get pretty creative, though, sometimes including cotton byproducts, old candy (including wrappers), beet and citrus pulp, and peanut shells in their cows’ diet.

To say grass-fed cows eat grass isn’t telling the entire story. It’s more accurate to say they eat graminoids, which comprise hundreds of different species of sedges (found in wild marshes and grasslands; a famous sedge includes papyrus), rushes (a small but plucky family of herbaceous and rhizomatous plants), and true grasses (cereals, lawn grass, bamboo, grassland grass – the type of grass that produces the leaves Walt Whitman writes about). And that’s just the graminoid. Cows will also nibble on shrubs, clovers, and random leaves if they can get to them. Basically, they’ll eat whatever’s in reach, green, and leafy. Legally, grass-fed cows may also eat cereal grain crops in the “pre-grain stage,” hay, silage, and non-grain crop byproducts (one of my favorite farms gives their cows leftover veggies, for example, and it’s fantastic; that would qualify).

There’s yet another hazy category: the pasture-raised cow. These guys get steady lifelong access to open pastures, but those pastures are supplemented with feed bins containing grain feed. Not technically grass-fed, but not quite sucking down gumdrops like Grandma. Purveyors of pastured cattle who include grain in the feed are usually pretty conscientious stewards of their operation, and I’ve had great meat from cows that were fed grass and grain concurrently.

Living Conditions

While both grass-fed and CAFO cows start out on grass and milk (many of those cows you see grazing on open grassland along highways end up in feedlots eventually), only exclusively grass-fed cows live out their entire lives on grassland. CAFO cows move to feedlots once they hit 650 or 750 pounds, a weight it takes the average cow twelve months to reach on pasture. Feedlot life lasts three to four months, plenty of time to boost the animal’s weight above 1200 pounds and increase intramuscular fat deposition (marbling). Feedlots have the potential to be pretty grim places. While I’m sure “good” feedlots exist, nondescript, bleak pens crowded with sick, overweight cattle and their manure are the norm. The purpose of the feedlot, after all, is to maximize weight gain and minimize overhead. You don’t do either by recreating the cow’s natural habitat.

Whenever I drive up the I-5 to Northern California, I pass the Harris Ranch feedlot in Coalinga. The Harris ranch feedlot is the largest I’ve ever personally seen – up to 250,000 head of cattle annually, 100,000 head at any one time, about 200 million pounds of beef produced each year – but it’s actually considered to be a moderate sized feedlot. If it’s above 80 degrees, you smell the lot long before you see the signs for it. Now, I’m not citing any studies here, but I think it’s a safe assumption that cows prefer a grassy paddock to a pond of their own manure. You don’t have to care about the animal’s welfare – after all, we’re going to end up eating them – but I enjoy my meat more knowing that it comes from an honest operation that respects its participants’ living conditions.

Does it matter?

I think so. I make no bones about my primary reason for supporting grass-fed beef (I, ahem, want to eat delicious animals and buying delicious animals promotes their production), but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about their welfare while alive. I’ve been to grassland farms with families of cattle ranging, and if you get to close to a calf the mother will stomp and chase you down. I didn’t even know cows could run like that. Are they cud-chewing ungulates with minimal brainpower in the grand scheme of things? Sure, but they care about stuff in their own beefy way. And I find that pretty touching. I’ve also hiked through cattle farms and watched the cows roam and range all over for acres, contrary to the grass-fed detractor’s claim that cows prefer to be confined to a single, safe spot.

Nutrition

I’ve been one to bang the omega-6 in feedlot beef drum, perhaps as loudly as anyone, but I think a revisiting is in order. Simply put, while the omega-6:omega-3 ratio in CAFO beef is worse than the ratio in grass-fed beef, it’s not because the omega-6 content of beef fat skyrockets with grain feeding; it’s because the omega-3 content is basically nonexistent. The absolute totals of omega-6 in grass-fed and grain-fed are roughly similar. Grass-fed is even richer in PUFA by percentage, owing to the increase in omega-3s. As long as you’re avoiding or limiting the real big sources of linoleic acid in the diet, like seed oils, bushels of nuts, and conventionally raised poultry fat, the omega-6 content of conventional beef fat won’t throw your tissue ratios off by much (if at all). What will, however, is the lack of omega-3 fats in grain-fed. Eat some fatty fish or take some high quality fish oil to round it out.

Grass-fed beef is also higher in B-vitamins, beta-carotene (look for yellow fat), vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), vitamin K, and trace minerals like magnesium, calcium, and selenium. Studies show grass feeding results in higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, the “good” naturally occurring trans fat. Studies also typically show lower total levels of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats in grass-fed cows, but that’s just looking at the trimmed cuts. If you look at the whole carcass post-slaughter, you’ll find it’s encased in a thick shell of saturated animal fat that gets removed because consumers are scared of it and many grass-fed producers love to market their meat as low in “bad fat” and low in cholesterol. Kurt Harris, who regularly hunts “lean” wild bucks and miraculously discovers ample stores of body fat, just put up a post dealing with this exact issue. Long story short: grass-fed beef has plenty of fat, it’s just distributed differently. More subtle marbling and more subcutaneous deposition.

Grass-fed truly shines in the micronutrient profile for one reason. Grass-fed cows get more nutritious food. Remember: they aren’t munching on monoculture lawn cuttings (let alone soy and corn). They’re eating a wide variety of (often wild) grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, and herbs, each with its own nutrient profile. Of course, how nutritious those graminoids are depends on the quality of the soil, or the terroir. If we care about what our food eats, we should also care about what the food that our food eats is eating, right? Grass-fed isn’t just miraculously higher in selenium because of some magic process; it’s higher because grass grown in good wild soil patrolled by plenty of mobile, self-perpetuating organic fertilizer machines contains more selenium than soybeans or corn grown on nutrient deficient land. It should follow that pastured, grain-supplemented beef raised on good soil by good ranchers also contains higher levels of micronutrients when compared to the CAFO cow, albeit not as high as the purely grass-fed.

Eat beef, first and foremost. Get the highest quality beef you can afford, whether that ends up being premium grass-finished from the farm up the road or USDA Prime from Costco. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Man cannot live on wild caught canned sardines and crushing angst alone.

Cost and Accessibility

For the average grocery store shopper, conventional meat is cheaper and easier to get. You drive your car to the grocery store parking lot, walk twenty feet to the entrance, walk to the meat counter, balk at the $9/lb grass-fed ground round, grab a few Styrofoam containers of ground beef for a few bucks per pound instead, and you’re done. Not much thinking, hard work, or money required. This is how most people handle their meat acquisition.

If you want that same deal for the grass-fed beef, you have several options.

  • Wait for a sale at the grocery store and stock up. It probably won’t hit $3/lb, but you might save a few bucks.
  • Find a farmers’ market nearby (if any exist and the season permits) that has a grass-fed beef vendor. Hope they sell for a reasonable price, haggle if not. Buying large quantities might lower costs for you.
  • Buy direct from a farm. Search Eatwild or browse the list from this post for the nearest provider. Oh, and you’ll need a freezer to store all the meat, since you’ll have to buy in bulk to reduce costs. If you go this route, you can sometimes get a quarter, half, or entire cow for as little as $4/lb. (Hint: remember to ask for the fat!)

Each route involves more effort, more money, and/or more time. All three are worth pursuing (grass-fed is that much better, in my opinion), but I can understand why the barrier to entry appears so high – a combination of price and time. To reduce the former requires more of the latter, usually. And if you do it right and get a freezer to go with your side of beef, you’re still incurring a big initial investment. Not everyone can do that.

To my knowledge, “average” price figures don’t exist. Grass-fed from one Whole Foods can be a dollar cheaper per pound than in another Whole Foods two zip codes over; the same farmer who gives me grass-fed ground round for four bucks a pound at the Santa Monica farmers’ market might charge five dollars at the Beverly Hills market.

Bottom line? Paying $12/lb for grass-fed flat iron steak regularly isn’t worth it, to me, but spending extra time researching farms/visiting farmers’ markets/scoping out sales to obtain affordable grass-fed beef definitely is worth doing.

Availability

From 1998 to 2009, the number of serious grass-fed producers in the United States grew from just 100 to over 2,000. Market share grew in the same time frame from just $2 million to $380 million (to over $1 billion if you include imported grass-fed beef). Today, you can find grass-fed beef (and lamb and bison, even) in standard supermarkets, not just your specialty upscale grocers. Farmers’ markets are exploding (I gotta arrive earlier every weekend, it seems), and the Slow Food/locavore movements are picking up steam. Clearly, the availability of grass-fed beef is growing with growing consumer awareness and demand – funny how that works out, eh?

Taste

In the end, what else matters? The final arbiter of a food’s worthiness is always taste. Food should – must – taste good for us to eat it, especially food that is responsible for a big portion of our caloric intake. Typical grass-fed beef is intramuscularly leaner, more robust, and “beefier” than typical CAFO beef, which I find to be somewhat mushy and bland.

Still, stringy, tough, unpalatable grass-fed beef exists along with incredible grain-finished beef. I’ve had both. I’ve eaten great conventional chuck roasts purchased for a few bucks per pound at the Hispanic supermarket and I’ve had excellent steaks from Prather Ranch, a Northern California producer that goes purely grass-fed until the last few weeks of a cow’s life, when its diet is supplemented with chopped forage, rice, and barley. While good grass-fed is better than anything else, the grass-fed label can’t make up for a bad rancher (or poor foraging) and a good rancher can make up for some grain in the diet (taste-wise; perhaps not nutritionally).

For me, the clearly superior version of beef comes from the grass-fed and –finished cows raised by ranchers committed to providing excellent stewardship of both soil and cattle. Next, cows that have been grass-fed, pastured, and grain-finished by similarly committed producers with similarly maintained soil quality.

After that? Just eat beef. Whatever you can get on a regular basis. Grab the occasional grass-fed cut when you can, see how it tastes, and figure out if it’s worth it to you.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Thanks for the information. Is their an online vendor you trust?

    Davis wrote on April 10th, 2011
  2. Any thoughts about beef consumer health and hormones (e.g., from stress) and fat soluble toxins from CAFO beef?

    Thanks,

    Vergil

    Vergil Den wrote on April 11th, 2011
  3. One of these days we’re going to go in on a grass-fed cow.
    Money is a bit tight right now due to other issues we’re having so grocery store regular ole cheap meat it is! hehe

    LisaL wrote on April 11th, 2011
  4. Given what it is legal for factories to put into beef in the US (large amounts of ammonia and other chemicals to wash the inedible portions of the cow after they are ground up – 15% of this mixture can be mashed into ground beef and sold – this is unique to the US, it seems. Can’t do that in Europe), it’s best to stick with local ground beef if possible (organic or TJ’s grass-fed are probably fine, too, but this legal stuff is scary. I mean, we can eat meat treated with large amounts of ammonia that no one has to tell us about!)

    Ashley wrote on April 13th, 2011
  5. I spent two years in Mongolia eating free-range cows (literally no fences), sheep, camels,and goats who fed on excellent short grass prairie…the meat was delicious! I also went to Mongolia weighing 250 LBS and came back weighing 170 LBS with doing no excercise other than walking. I love grass fed animals and get it as often as I can…well worth the price!

    Nick wrote on April 13th, 2011
  6. Living in central Texas grass fed beef is plenty available here.

    For those looking for local beef and produce check this website out.

    http://www.localharvest.com

    John wrote on April 13th, 2011
  7. You missed the most important point- Cows are ruminants- they have 2 stomachs and a mechanism to digest grass ansd turn it into great nutritious beef or milk. They CANNOT digest corn. Simple as that. They are sick at feedlots partly because they are not designed to eat the feed they are fed – corn and other garbage as your article describes. For more specifics on this see Michael Pollan’s book the Omnivore’s dilemma, or look up the facts about cows and grass eaating. You’ll never buy CAFO again. It’s just WRONG.

    Barb wrote on April 13th, 2011
  8. If you are in the Houston / Sugar Land, TX area – Aura is the name of a restaurant that serves grass fed cuts as well as wild boar.

    Quite enjoyable!

    Dr. Peter Osborne wrote on April 13th, 2011
  9. My wife and I regularly find coupons on Groupon, etc… for good butchers with grass fed beef in Toronto. We have bought $150 worth of meat for $50 !

    Jeff wrote on April 13th, 2011
  10. Does the same advice apply to pork and lamb? Grass fed beef is reasonably priced here but pork and lamb is $$$.

    Karen C. wrote on April 13th, 2011
  11. It matters terribly what kind of meat we eat. Grain fed beef is inflamed flesh. It is acidified meat. And that means when we eat it, we are consuming inflammation. Inflammation is the primary source of sickness in humans. We are eating the same industrial food diet through our consumption of essentially rotten meat. There are many other measures than Omega 3 and Omega 6 to capture this. Animals fed industrial foods are poisonous. And so are our pets who are now hugely obese as we are by feeding them industrial food.

    Barry wrote on April 13th, 2011
  12. Great overview. Your comments about the omega-6:omega-3 ratio were especially enlightening. As much as I would prefer grass fed, the budget usually calls for Costco beef. It’s good to know I can offset the ratio with fatty fish and fish oil.

    Dave wrote on April 13th, 2011
  13. This was a great article! My husband and I now live in Panama, Central America (from NY state) and they only have grass fed cattle here. Very tough meat but by using papaya as a tenderizer, we can have excellent steaks. I just lost 32 lbs. on a low carb diet (reaching my goal)and a friend introduced me to your books….this is the way to go!! Thanks for all the important info and I look forward to receiving your emails.

    Karen wrote on April 13th, 2011
  14. Not everyone has the budget for grass fed meat. My own plan includes (soon) raising my own, but meanwhile, the difference between ‘regular’ and grass fed for the same cut is about $2 a pound vs. $8 a pound. My 92 year old wheat loving mother says people have to eat wheat because they can’t afford meat–laughable! Bread is $$ more than heap beef and way more than chicken…and it’s toxic to boot! Even the ‘worst’ meat is a better choice than any grain.

    ellie wrote on April 13th, 2011
  15. I live in the NW Chicago burbs. I have gotten to know a few farmers. One farm in particular has really impressed me. The people at Meadow Haven Farm test the quality of the soil and grasses that their cattle eat. They even imported tons of crushed rock to remineralize the soil. They feed a lot of kelp to the cattle because the midwest is devoid of iodine in our soils. One of the farmers used to be a veterinarian. The first year they had a few cases of pinkeye and foot rot. A few years later the herd is far healthier due to the soil improvements.

    ValerieH wrote on April 13th, 2011
    • I read some comments about the taste of grass fed beef. I have had grass fed meat that tasted gamey and some that did not. Over the past 2 months I have had grass fed beef from 3 different farms. One of them had the gamey meat. I’m wondering if it has to do with soil health or terrior. The beef I eat most often isn’t gamey at all, and I know these farmers and what they are doing. Interesting!

      ValerieH wrote on April 13th, 2011
  16. Another good reason to buy grass-fed-only: feed-lot beef is so unhealthy that the only way they get them to the slaughterhouse alive is to pump them full of antibiotics…when then go into the poor fools that eat it.

    I’ve found grassfed beef to be reasonably priced, but then, I buy direct from the rancher. Now if I could only find naturally-raised chicken at a good price. I don’t mind raising my own chickens, but processing them at the end of their life is SUCH a hassle.

    Joel Gehman wrote on April 13th, 2011
  17. We’re located 50 miles NW of Chicago, we sell grass-fed beef and partner with a neighbor to sell open range chicken, pork & eggs.

    We sell by the piece. As stated in your article, price is an obstacle for some wishing to eat grass-fed beef regularly, which is why we sell by the piece at a reasonable price. We want people that can’t afford a quarter, half or a whole beef to be able to enjoy the health benefits, great taste and know that the cattle they eat are raised with respect.

    Our cattle are raised on grass pastures along with brush to nibble on with an abundance of clean water winding through it. They are in NW Illinois 8 months of the year, then sent to Central IL for the winter months and fed hay and silege, they are back to the NW pasture in the spring.

    We love it when people visit our ranch, we get to share our pastures, cattle and horses with them.

    Take a look at our website, http://www.q7ranch.com, many are surprised that there is a cattle ranch with real cowboys and working horses (Frank, my husband has 43 years experience with cattle ranching in California, Texas and IL).

    Thanks for the article, we find that many people are trying to figure out the whole grass-fed, local movement, articles like this coming from a credible author is appreciated by the people looking for grass-fed beef and the providers.

    thanks…fran

    fran morgan wrote on April 13th, 2011
  18. I prefer to eat grass fed but don’t have regular access or funds to afford it so I have to eat grain fed beef at times. I’m gluten intolerant and can’t find anything definitive as to whether grain-fed meat is actually gluten free but I always feel like I’m eating poison when I ingest conventional beef.

    I came across this from http://www.thesavvyceliac.com: “Grain-fed beef is fine. Before protein is absorbed it’s broken down into single amino acids or very short peptide fragments-no longer gluten.” — Tricia Thompson MSRD

    Because I find this hard to believe even though I have no background or education to back myself up, I’m looking for scientific studies that will. Can anyone point me in the right direction? ~ A girl cannot live on salmon cakes alone!

    SenseiSalmonCake wrote on April 13th, 2011
  19. This article is great. People should know that it is cheaper in the long run to buy cases of exactly what you want to eat as opposed to buying a half of beef. Buying cases of what you use eliminates cuts of beef, lamb or pork that sit in the freezer for long periods of time until you finally feed them to your dog. People do not usually call cattle ranches, farms and most ranchers do not like to be called farmers. When there is a cow and calf in the field they are called cattle. More than one calf is considered calves. Prather Ranches have a lot to offer a consumer.

    Carrie wrote on April 13th, 2011
  20. We have very few beef csa’s here and I’d love info as well on why you like yours and maybe a few details on how it’s run as well. Thanks for any info you could give!

    Double n ranch wrote on April 13th, 2011
  21. the way to get grass fed beef for an affordable price is on the hoof

    and oh, my! the flavor!

    Cecilia wrote on April 13th, 2011
  22. We’re so lucky here in New Zealand, all cows are grass fed and finished. However, there is talk and great opposition to a CAFO being established in South Island.

    Janetta wrote on April 13th, 2011
  23. Restaurant Depot in Portland, OR sells Australian Tri-Tip that is grass fed for $2.89 a pound. They also have many other Australian and New Zealand cuts… The Flank is great at $3.09!

    Alex wrote on April 13th, 2011
  24. Neither you nor any of your commenters mentioned the presence of hormones or antibiotics in conventionally raised beef. I would gravitate towards farm raised or grass fed because the greatest majority of these types of farmers avoid using these toxins. An oncologist friend counsels eating “conventional” beef no more than once a month because of that reason.

    paul r. calderon wrote on April 13th, 2011
  25. Interesting article. I’ve never tasted grain fed beef so I’m interested in how big the taste difference is? I’m in New Zealand and our cows live outside in paddocks year round and eat grass mostly, sometimes hay as supplementary feed. I’ve heard of grain fed beef advertised here as a specialty product but it is more expensive than regular free range beef. How big is the difference in taste between grass fed and grain fed beef? Does grain fed beef taste unpleasant, or different but nice?

    Ash wrote on April 13th, 2011
  26. in rural india, life is hard and driven more by necessity than anything else. my mother, not equipped with too much more than native intelligence, used to run a small dairy farm. green fodder was hard to come by. rains were always inadequate, fodder was expensive and scarce. cheap grain based cattle feed was being actively promoted by both govt and commercial producers.
    even while she bought cattle feed, my mother always ensured her cows had green fodder when available, then dry fodder. the milk was tastier, she said, and the animals healthier.
    you don’t need nutritionists or anybody with fancy degrees to tell you this… even small farmers know it. grass is a cows natural food. grass fed animals are healthier.
    what kind of meat you buy is your choice. but what more do you need to know really?

    magicalsummer wrote on April 13th, 2011
  27. I just found out there is a local Carlton Farms near Rome, Georgia… convenient to Atlanta (Cedartown) where I was able to drive and buy organic grass fed everything. Great raw milk for pets. Awesome awesome awesome, I am so grateful! I was able to stop my car and pet the cows, they walked right up to the fence… couldn’t have been any cleaner or sweeter.

    Myra wrote on April 14th, 2011
  28. Poesia restaurant in San Francisco has a fantastic grass-fed beef filet, as well as Carpaccio, which is raw Organic filet mignon,with organic Lemon Olive oil dressing.

    Roger Rose wrote on April 14th, 2011
  29. Mark, can you recommend some places to purchase good meat in west san fernando valley woodland hills-calabasas area or surroundings

    Ed wrote on April 14th, 2011
  30. You North Americans have no idea how good you have it.

    Japanese beef STARTS at $12/lb and goes up to $80/lb. Grain fed from what I have learned.

    On the plus side, Aussie beef is available everywhere and mostly grass fed, and here we can get it starting around $6-7/lb for the cheaper cuts.

    The little US beef we do find is unlabeled, so no doubt it is grain fed. Costs about the same as the Aussie stuff.

    Interesting note that Japan had a ban on US beef for a long time due to BSE worries. US producers refused to test for it, even though the Japanese buyers were going to pay. Aussies won out since they don’t rely on “feed”.

    KobeTony wrote on April 15th, 2011
    • @ KobeTony
      Oh, boo-hoo! Then move!! Stop whinning, grow a pair, and deal with life’s little hurdles. Really now, come on!

      Timmy wrote on April 15th, 2011
  31. Mark, Need to clarify a few things. Here in NW Wash, we have many small farms who raise pasture beef. Fed totally on grass or grass hay. No grain. And never fed milk replacement as calves like dairy calves.. They nurse their mamma. Of course we have super perennial pastures and many have irrigation. Our calves at 12 mos avg 8-900 lbs. At slaughter, 18-24 mos they will weigh 1100-1200 lbs. Outstanding meat with unbeatable flavor cooked MR or better rare Yes, range raised beef may require feedlot to finish, but ours don’t and grain fed tastes offbeat once you eat the total grass fed meat. Also we have a local USDA slaughter house to our meat is sold by the piece, at a very reasonable price. E.G. Sirloin steak at $6.50 /lb.

    John Kaye wrote on April 18th, 2011

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