Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. But when it comes time to choose between grass-fed beef, grain-fed beef, and grass-finished beef, which is the kind you want on your plate?
Whether you pride yourself on the well-being of livestock or simply want to ensure your family gets top-notch organic beef, it’s important to distinguish between the varying types of beef. Ultimately, it all comes down to how the cattle are fed and raised.
Grain fed vs grass fed and grass fed vs grass finished entail unique sets of agriculture methods. Having an understanding of them will enable you to be more critical when purchasing beef.
A Brief History of the Meat Industry in North America
Thousands of years ago, before the onslaught of industrialization, some 60 million wild buffalo roamed freely throughout the Great Plains of North America. On lush prairies, these massive creatures practiced their own rotational grazing, an agricultural method of rotating herds to new patches of grassland to let grazed pastures regrow and develop deeper root systems.
These systems, in turn, enable plants to draw valuable nutrients from the soil. This dynamic not only improves the yield of pasture land, but also reduces the dependence of feed and grain. Another benefit of rotational grazing is the overall health benefits for the animal. With healthier pastures, grazing animals rarely get sick, altogether eliminating the need for antibiotics.
Then came the Europeans and the Transcontinental Railroad. America was growing. To feed the demand of its population coupled with grain farmers searching for a way to profit from their excess grain, farmers started raising grain-fed cattle. Feedlots, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), quickly cropped up across cattle country where strictly grain-fed cows could get fat at much faster rates than roaming around pastures, foraging for food.
In feedlots, cattle are confined and stuffed to capacity, providing ample space for disease to run rampant. As an attempt to prevent and combat disease, as well as accelerate growth, livestock are given antibiotics and growth hormones.
One farmer told me that roughly a quarter of our nation’s medically important antibiotics are given to cattle. Thankfully, this undesirable quality of beef has led to the rising popularity of grass-fed beef. But what exactly is the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?
Grass-Fed Beef vs Grain-Fed Beef
All calves, including those that are shipped off to feedlots about six to eight months months after they have been weaned from their mothers, are grass fed. The term “grass fed” is similar to “all natural” and “antibiotic-free” in that brands can employ the language for marketing purposes.
Unless it is specified on the label, the language could mean the beef you purchase at the grocery store came from a cow that spent time in a feedlot. What you should look for is “100% grass-fed and grass finished” or “organic grass-fed” on the label.
Grain-fed, conversely, means that the cow was solely fed grain during the duration of its life. Biologically speaking, cattle are grass eaters, and the unnatural grain feedlot cattle are fed interrupts their digestive systems and alters acidity levels, creating a hotbed for bacteria to thrive in.
What is Grass-Finished Beef?
The term “finishing” refers to the final stage of cattle’s lives before arriving at the slaughterhouse. Grain-finished means cows were finished on unnatural, GMO grain whereas “grass-finished” refers to cattle that were only fed grass for their entire lives, and were never given hormones or antibiotics.
Slope Farms in upstate New York is one such farm that raises grass-fed, grass-finished cattle. Ken Jaffe, proprietor of the farm with his wife, Linda, first practiced medicine for years in Park Slope, a family-friendly neighborhood in Brooklyn. While many are surprised by his change in professions, Jaffe noted a continuum in awareness and attention to living systems.
“Medicine is obviously that,” he said. “But the thing about grass-fed beef is you are managing an ecosystem. It’s not just the cattle.”
Under the lush grasslands in the soil exist millions of microorganisms: microbes, fungi and nematodes. Managing this ecosystem primarily through rotational grazing (never plowed land), Slope Farms is able to produce consistent, high-quality beef for wholesale. When a study was conducted across 29 New York state farms where researchers evaluated various soil elements for a two-year period, Slope Farms came out on top with the highest level of soil health.
Another benefit to rotational grazing for grass-fed, grass-finished beef is its ability to sequester carbon. This result reduces greenhouse gases that coincide with raising cattle.
Methane, a byproduct of animal burps and farts, reaches a staggering annual 7.1 gigattones or 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Cows, who average between 40 and 50 gallons of methane per day, are deemed the worst culprits.
Region plays an impact, too.
“The scenario in NY with the rainfall is different, and in many ways it’s easier to finish cattle on grass in the northeast because we have such a great grass resource,” Jaffe said.
For this reason, Slope Farms is able to provide an acre of grassland per adult animal.
But out west, where the land is dry because it receives so little rainfall, the grass doesn’t grow back for the rest of the season. Each pasture-raised animal is given about 50 acres to wander around and forage food. Cattle out west have to walk further distances, which adds stress.
Slope Farm’s cattle have both constant food and water sources, making it easier for them to get fat by lounging in the pastures. Each day they are rotated to a new pasture.
In this beef production environment, cattle do not get sick. Though Jaffe said he would give antibiotics to a sick animal, “it’s literally been years since we’ve given an antibiotic to them.” Vaccinating the cattle has helped, too.
Conversely, the feedlot setting creates stress on animals. Initially, livestock received antibiotics to make them grow fast, but now they’re receiving antibiotics to ward off sickness because they are in infection-prone environments. Jaffe compared this unhygienic scenario to the disease-prone 1900s when people crammed like sardines in tiny apartments, worked 16-hour days, 6 days a week, and didn’t get vaccinated.
Why You Should Choose Grass-Finished or Grass-Fed Beef Over Grain-Fed Beef
From a health perspective, choosing grass-fed, grass-finished beef over conventional beef means you are eliminating foreign hormones and antibiotics from entering your body. This protection is especially important so you do not develop antibiotic resistance that can compromise your body’s ability to fight off disease and infections.
You can also rest assured that grass-finished cattle never lived in the egregious, unsanitary conditions synonymous with feedlot beef. Cattle raised solely on grass also live much happier and healthier lives.
The Linewaiter’s Gazette, the weekly newsletter the Park Slope Food Coop puts out, noted that cows raised on a natural diet of grass “develop strong defenses against E. coli.” The coop, which I highlighted on Public Goods last year, was Slope Farms’ first wholesale customer and continues to be 16 years later.
The nutritional value of beef is also affected by a cow’s diet. Though both grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef both contain iron and protein, grass-fed beef typically contains less total fat than grain-fed, which means that grass-fed beef not only contains fewer calories but also provides leaner, healthier meat that is easier to digest.
Grass-fed beef also contains five times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to body and brain function. Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids boast over a dozen benefits, including reducing symptoms of ADHD in children, improving risk factors related to heart disease, enhancing joint health, and promoting brain health during pregnancy — the latter a reason why many pregnant women are ditching fast-food burger cravings for grass-finished beef. Grass-fed beef is also rich in vitamin E and A and contains more amounts of iron, potassium, phosphorus, sodium and zinc than grain-fed beef.
After speaking with Jaffe, I visited Marlow and Daughters, a butcher shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that sources its beef from Slope Farms. One butcher voiced an obstacle: the price tag. It’s hard to get people to purchase grass-finished beef, which is about double the amount of meat from grain-fed cattle.
By understanding the health, environmental and ethical impacts of grass-finished beef, however, consumers will hopefully be steered in the right direction. To ensure you are purchasing the best quality beef, look for “grass-finished” on the beef’s product label.
A Case Study in Grass-Finished Beef
A week later, I returned to Marlow and Daughters where a butcher in a white apron recommended Slope Farms’ flat iron grass-fed and grass-finished steak, an easy-to-cook cut. $10 afforded me enough steak for three separate meals.
Meat portions should be the size of a fist. With a better understanding of this rationing, the price of grass-fed, grass-finished beef won’t seem so exorbitant because we won’t be eating as much compared to grain-fed beef.
The third time I visited Marlow and Daughters, I picked up a beautiful, aged T-bone grass-fed and grass-finished steak sourced from Slope Farms. A butcher had to walk downstairs to the basement where the meats are aged and stored, then returned with a hunk of meat in his arms. After slicing it on a Hobart slicer, he trimmed the ribbon of fat and wrapped it neatly in butcher paper.
“Grass-fed beef is more lean to begin with,” he said.
When cows are fed a grass diet, the meat is beautifully marbled because of the nutrients in grass. Marbling is a term to describe the marble-like pattern created from the white ribbons of fat found in lean cuts of beef like strip, flank and top round steaks. Marbled meat is loaded with flavor, eliminating the need for steak sauces or gravies. In the culinary and meat industries, marbled meat is a selling point that indicates quality.
Come winter, when the cows resort to hay because the ground has frozen, the beef is not as marbled, the butcher explained, pointing out the white stripes in the T-bone he had just cut for me. New York’s unusually warm winter this year, though, allowed cows to continue to graze in the grassy pastures — creating a hefty supply of grass-fed beef.
At home I unwrapped the glistening, marbled thick cut of T-bone steak, let it reach room temperature then rubbed oil and salt and pepper onto each side. Once the cast iron pan got hot enough in the pre-heated oven (425 degrees), I removed the pan and placed it on high on the stovetop.
To cook, I seared each side for 30 seconds to lock in all the flavorful juices then placed the pan back in the oven for another two minutes. After removing the pan, I covered it in tin foil and allowed the steak to sit for five minutes before cutting.
The knife cut through the steak like butter that’s been left out too long, and the inside was a perfect shade of pink. There was no need for sauce or condiments, and there was no need for conversation either. “Wow” was the only exchange between my friend and I.
Alone in the kitchen, I bit off and savored the last few bits of steak from the bone. Sitting on the couch afterwards, we felt satisfied; not bloated or lethargic, but perfectly satiated. It’s been weeks since that meal, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.
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