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“You are what you eat” not only applies to humans and every other living being—it holds true for cows, too. It should come as no surprise, then, that quality, taste, texture, value and grade of beef are all affected by the animal’s diet. There are two main approaches to feed: grass-fed versus grain-fed (mostly corn). Grass-fed cows graze in pastures, whereas grain-fed cows are given corn in feedlots. Let’s explore how cattle diet affects the taste, texture, cost, grade and overall quality of beef.

 

THE MEAT OF THE STORY

  • All cattle in the U.S. are initially raised grass diet, but most transition to a grain diet in the first year—so it’s really grass-finished. Grain-fed cows consume mostly corn.
  • While grass-fed beef is packed with nutrients, both grain- and grass-fed beef have high concentrations of Vitamins A, B and E, zinc, selenium, iron, Omega fatty acids and other important nutrients.
  • Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner with a firmer texture. A grain-based diet, with its higher carbohydrate content, tends to yield beef with more intramuscular fat (IMF).
  • Grain-fed beef is often more tender, juicy and richly flavored than grass-fed beef, so it can command a higher grade.
  • Grass-fed beef often comes with a higher price tag than grain-fed beef

KNOW YOUR LABELS: “GRASS FED” AND “PASTURE RAISED,” EXPLAINED

The terms “grass fed” and “pasture raised” have become buzzwords today, conjuring up images of happy cows grazing in their natural habitat. You might ask yourself: What is the difference between “grass fed” and “pasture raised,” aren’t they the same? The short answer is that they can be—but not always.

Here’s an easy way to think about it: “grass fed” is what an animal eats, while “pasture raised” refers to where it eats. Of course, many cows raised on the pasture eat grass, but they can also be raised indoors and eat grass, although this is less common. Pasture-raised cows can also be fed a grain or partial-grain diet. Beef products may say “grass fed” on the packaging, but in reality, the cow might have been “finished” on grain, meaning it consumed grain during the last few months of its life. 

WORTH THE COST?

Grass-fed beef’s higher price tag in comparison to grain-fed beef is a result of the producers’ profit margin. Grass-fed cows can take up to a year longer to reach slaughter weight (translation: a year’s worth of food and labor) than conventionally raised cattle. These cows are often smaller at slaughter, so there’s less meat to sell, causing farmers to hike up prices to compensate. While some studies show that grass-fed beef is more nutritious than grain-fed, there is still much debate as to the validity of this. You might find yourself reconsidering paying that premium for grass-fed beef.

FINISHING TOUCHES

Not all beef is 100 percent grass fed or grain fed—many are somewhere in between. “Grass-finished” or “grain-finished” beef refers to a change of diet prior to slaughter. The animal lives most of its life on one diet, then is given another prior to slaughter.

A TOLL ON THE ENVIRONMENT

Simply put, beef production directly affects the environment. Cattle burp (a lot, actually), releasing greenhouse gases. Proponents of conventional beef argue that since grass-fed cattle gain weight at a slower rate than grain-fed cattle, which reach slaughter weight much faster, they have a longer opportunity to produce these harmful gases.