Marks Daily Apple
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7 Apr

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

cowsWhen 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. Hey Mark,
    I realize this is an old post, but I thought it the appropriate subject to add my comment/question to. What are your thoughts on silage? We get our beef from my in-laws cattle farm and their cows are mostly pastured and also fed some silage. My husband argues that this is not “grain-fed” because it is the entire corn plant and it has gone through a fermentation process, which makes it easier to break down for the cow, pre-digestion. My concern is with the omega-6 issue and if this is still considered grain-finished? I want to get the highest quality meat with the best fatty acid profile because I am feeding this to my children and want to keep their diet as pristine as I can, while I still have control over what they are eating.
    Thanks!
    Kate

    Kate wrote on November 22nd, 2012
  2. I have tried grass-fed & finished several times based on the claim that it matters to the flavor. What I have found is that it does not. There is no comparison between grass fed and finished and grain finished. Grain finished is far superior in taste, and as for being healthier, I could not care any less. If I live an extra two years but have to eat tastless grass fed beef for the rest of my life, then PLEASE KILL ME NOW! SERIOUSLY, BRING ON THE HEART ATTACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    BTW, “I do not have kids, so I really could not care any less if the world bursts into flames in the year 2050 either.” Truth is we can only make about a 60 day difference anyway. If we all became Vegans, and walked everywhere we went we might be able to extend that final year to 2050.5.

    Meat-a-tarian wrote on December 27th, 2012
  3. Mark, I can not see anyone that writes a lengthy story trying to inform the American public about their Beef choices can fail to mention the fact the cloned meat (including beef) has been on sale in American supermarkets since January 2010.
    Worse still the sellers are legally allowed to sell as normal beef so consumers are not given a choice.
    No other country has embraced GMO’s and cloned meat like America and no other country has a growing health and
    environmental time bomb. From Super weeds to cancer causing problems with Aspartame, to polluting the water table due to over use of pesticides. But specifically on the issue of cloned meat most Americans still don’t know they are eating it? Last November I was invited to Spain as a judge in an International Culinary Competition. During my visit I spoke to several dozen highly skilled American chefs (including from the CIA)who were not aware they could be eating cloned without choosing to do so.
    In the UK GM grain and cloned meat are banned, mainly because the people railed against any move towards them.

    Kevin Ashton wrote on January 20th, 2013
    • Yes, some of the top herd sires in the nation have been cloned because they produce outstanding offspring. But the clone itself isn’t put on the meat rack. Cloning is a very expensive process and it would be economically unfeasible to do such a thing! The price per pound would be quite high to cover the production costs.

      Cole wrote on June 18th, 2014
      • Cloning isn’t even that great though, because a cloned bull is not an exact replica of the original. The clone will express different genes and will perform differently, as will his offspring, so the whole cloning thing for the universally perfect bull that can be copied time after time to sire top notch steers is a wash.

        Cole wrote on June 18th, 2014
    • GMOs have been formulated exactly because of a major problem that is occurring with conventional crops. It is the overuse of pesticides! By developing crops with a higher tolerance against pests and that can outcompete weeds while producing more bushels to the acre, less pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer are needed, which means less chance for contamination of the water supply.

      Cole wrote on June 18th, 2014
  4. According to Joel Salatin it only takes 14 days for the CLA to disappear in cattle after transferring from pasture to grain feed and that makes up the majority of grass fed cattle in America. If it’s not grass finished it will cause inflammation it seems.

    Dan wrote on June 6th, 2013
  5. Grass fed and pasture raised are just that!
    The calves are branded, vaccinated and weaned at 5 – 6 months old and are put in a small pasture and fed alfalfa hay and plenty of clean water. They are looked at 2-3 times a day to make sure there is no sickness related to the stress of weaning. If there are some sick ones, they are separated and treated.
    The calves are given free choice organic vitamin, mineral and protein supplement blocks to help them get ready when they are put into pastures.
    At no time are they given grain or antibiotics or animal food stuffs.
    The cows are allowed 3-5 months to recover from the nursing calves to get into breeding condition.
    As far as feedlots go, I do not like them, but Harris Ranch feedlot is one of the largest in the U,.S. and they are cleaned daily and the animals are checked 3-4 times a days for sickness or injury and administered to by a licensed vet.
    The ranchers who own these cattle take better care of them than most city folks do their dogs and cats! They care about both the animals and the land and the environment and are the original conservationists!
    Personally speaking I prefer the grass fed beef IF it is fed properly and aged 21-29 days.

    Steve Carpenter wrote on June 19th, 2013
  6. I enjoyed your post. If I may, I would like to suggest my farm web site.

    Sumas Mountain Farms is the only producer of 100% certified-organic, lifetime grass-fed & finished beef in the Lower Mainland of BC (near Vancouver, Canada). We also offer grass-only chicken and pork.

    Please visit http://www.sumasmountainfarms.ca/ for more information!

    Thanks.

    SMF Web wrote on July 18th, 2013
  7. Great Article.
    My family raises grass fed beef and it is available in the San Diego Area. You can find us at http://www.truepasturebeef.com
    True Pasture Beef.
    Even among grass fed it is better to find pasture raised. The Grass fed-label alone can be misleading.

    Kristi Graham wrote on September 26th, 2013
  8. I second the reply about hormones in conventional beef. A few years ago my family and I were on a road trip in rural northern Calif. when we had to wait for a herd of cattle to cross the road. I noticed these strange-looking skin flaps on each side of the animals’ mouths and asked my husband, who has an ag degree, what they were. They were hormone ampules, embedded under the skin! I haven’t bought commercial beef since.

    bouncedancer wrote on October 7th, 2013
  9. I wish we could all be consistent in the use of ‘grass fed’ and ‘grass finished’ Grass fed means that the animal had grass (or hay) at some point in its life but most likely was finished on grain (which is NOT good for your health) Grass finished means that the animal was raised on grass (or hay) and finished on grass (or hay), meaning it never had grain in its diet (which is GOOD for you. Just did a tour of Manhattan farm to table restaurants and found that chefs who should know better (and, unfortunately, probably do know better) were offering ‘grass fed’ beef instead of the desirable ‘grass finished’ beef. As I’m sure everyone know, grain finishing acidifies the rumen and causes the benefits of grazing to be lost in the beef. PLUS, ‘grass fed’ generally means that the animal spent it’s last 90 days in a feedlot environment (getting FAT) while the grass finished beef was living on growing grass. I hope this is clear to everyone! ;-)

    AllanBalliett wrote on November 30th, 2013
  10. To buy organic online means to have more organic food choices. A trip to the local food market can only let you enjoy a few fresh produce staples that you have already seen someplace else.

    OBE organic wrote on March 17th, 2014
    • Mark, I’m impressed by the fact that you’re touting the benefits of beef, but I feel like a lot of the comments left above have indicated some misinformed Primal eaters. Although beef can be grass fed or grain fed, either one can have been treated with antibiotics at some time in their life. If you want to avoid antibiotics altogether, try organic beef. Otherwise, meat labeled as grass fed doesn’t guarantee that there was no use of antibiotics. Or there could be the other end of the spectrum where the beef has been grain finished but never treated with antibiotics, which 90% of the beef that my family raises is. You can’t be sure about what’s in the beef unless the label says “organic.” But be prepared for a higher price tag.
      Also, what’s the big deal about antibiotics? Yes cattle get sick, and although it is more frequent in feedlots, I’ve had lots animals contract something while on spring and summer pasture. Month old Calves can easily contract a disease called “scours” in the early spring. This is like an intense form of diarrhea, almost like how cholera reacts in humans. Now am I supposed to let this calf crap all over himself, get dehydrated, die, and potentially infect the rest of the baby calves? No, I treat him with an antibiotic pill, and he gets better. That is what an ethical producer would do instead of letting the calf, and possibly the rest of the calves, suffer. Also, organic beef touts that no insecticide is placed on the cattle. To me, this is inhumane. How much do you enjoy swatting flies and mosquitoes? You don’t, so you either put on bug spray or go inside. Cattle don’t have much luxury to go indoors, so they’re forced to fight flies all summer long with only their tails for defense. But by putting insecticide on our cattle, they get a almost a summers worth of fly and hookworm fighting capabilities. But even that’s not enough! We then hang “dust bags”, basically a burlap sack filled with a special powder to deter flies at cool, shady spots of the pasture where the cattle like to congregate in the heat of the day. The cattle rub against the dust bag and get a fresh treatment against flies, ticks, and lice.

      Although conventional cattle raising practices might not be the most ideal picture when it comes to some concerns, I would like the consumer to realize that those big, bleak, and dirty feedlots might be doing the animal more justice than putting it on grass and letting it suffer without any available treatments for disease, because organic, grass fed beef is supposedly “better.” Yeah, a grain fed steer might be living in his own manure, but at least he can be treated when he gets sick. And the whole thing with “preventative” antibiotics is that it’s a waste of money! We give our cattle preventative VACCINES when they first arrive to the feedlot! Antibiotics aren’t used until the animal actually shows symptoms. Mass treating 100% of the herd when only 10% might actually get sick is money down the drain.

      Iv’e ate my family’s beef that I have personally helped birth, doctor, feed, and slaughter my entire life. Out of all of them, I will say that a grain fed animal contains more flavor than any grass fed beef. And I’d much rather take care of my animals using the technology that has been developed and tested as safe for the consumer so the herd can be at their healthiest.

      I guess if you really want to go primal, don’t bother eating domesticated livestock. Go out to the woods and shoot a deer. Ultimately the decision is up to you, the consumer, on what type of red meat you put on your plate. But if you truly want to know where it comes from, either visit the farm or raise it yourself.

      Cole wrote on June 18th, 2014
  11. What about pasture raised cattle that are finished eating in a wheat grass field? Since I do not eat grains would this be like eating wheat?

    Michele wrote on September 27th, 2014

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