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Grass or Grain, Beef is Beef

Diet, Food Ingredients, Food Production, Health

Grass or Grain, Beef is Beef

The Dirt:

Whether your meat was fed a grain-based meal or foraged for grass, it is still a nutritious source of protein, B-complex vitamins, zinc, iron, and phosphorus.

Some nutritionists argue that grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids, less saturated fat, and fewer calories than grain-fed beef. Environmentalists argue that grass-fed cattle are better for the environment and do not have any microbial diseases. But how much of this is based on research and how much is based on speculation? While we want to think of cattle as happily roaming the range, we need to look at the facts.

What is a grass-fed cow?

, Grass or Grain, Beef is Beef
Grass-fed cattle on a Wyoming ranch

Almost all cattle live the first weeks of their life drinking their mother’s milk when kept in the pasture. After about eight to nine weeks, the calves are developed enough to forage for grass with the herd. Once the calf weighs approximately 700 pounds, 99% are sold to feedlots to fatten up to about 1,450 pounds. Here they gain about three pounds a day before they are generally harvested around 18 months. The other 1% are fed grass their entire life. Grass-fed cattle tend to live eight months longer to 26 months longer because they gain only about one and a half to two pounds per day on their grass diet. They also have the opportunity to walk around more so have less fat, more muscle and burn off their food. 

All cattle are grass-fed to some degree. The difference lies in whether they are grass finished.

Only about 1% of beef sales today are “grass finished”. However, the grass-fed market is growing by roughly 20% a year.

Is there a nutritional advantage to eating grass-fed beef?

The primary nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef lies in the saturated and unsaturated fat content. You may remember from our previous post, Fat: Our New Friend, we should get approximately 27% of our daily calories from fat. Fat protects our brain, maintains our cell membranes, and helps us absorb vitamins.

Our bodies are able to synthesize (or create) fatty acids from the fatty acids we consume. There are two healthy fatty acids that are an exception to this rule:  omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) and omega–6 (linoleic acid).  Grass-fed beef has 3-5x more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.

Why?  Because grass has high levels of alpha-linolenic acid and corn has very little

Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower your risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis.  But, let’s put everything into perspective. Does this mean you should use beef as your source of omega-3s? 

Well, you would certainly have to eat a lot of beef!  Comparatively, salmon has 35x more omega-3’s than grass-fed beef.  Other fatty fish, such as anchovies, herring, mackerel. trout, and tuna are also a great way to provide your body with a high dose of omega-3.  Even a tablespoon of canola oil, say in your salad dressing, would meet your omega-3 daily requirement of 1.1 grams for women and reach 87% of the 1.6 grams for men.

As far as the other nutritional comparisons go, Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities completed independent studies comparing omega-3, oleic acid, and total saturated fat from grass-fed and conventionally grain-fed cattle.  Their analysis concluded that “there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle.” In addition, the basic nutritional components of amino acids, B vitamins, zinc, iron, and phosphorus are all the same in both meat options.


, Grass or Grain, Beef is Beef
Source: Texas A&M University, Department of Animal Science

If you, like us at Dirt-to-Dinner, love a good steak or hamburger, you can get some of your important saturated fats, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat from any kind of beef.

If you prefer grass-fed beef, the most potent cattle (in our opinion), are those that eat grass in the high country because the growing season is so short the grass grows with higher amounts of linoleic acid.  As a result, there is plenty of omega-3s in the cattle’s beef.  Their cardiovascular system gets the benefit of exercise in high altitude – thus they are leaner than most.

While nutritionally there is not much difference, grass-fed versus grain-fed beef can vary in flavor. Depending on your taste preference, you may find you do not enjoy grass-fed beef as much as grain-fed.  Some people like the soft marble feel of a grain-fed cow, while others prefer the leaner taste of grass-fed.  One Wyoming rancher told us that grass-fed cattle tastes “wild” and digests as quickly as broccoli!  She felt that you didn’t feel as satiated after eating her grass-fed cows. 

Fun Facts:

NFL footballs are made of cowhide.  About 3,000 cowhides are required to make footballs for one season.

Beef Tongue is a Japanese delicacy.  About 50% of US cattle tongues are shipped to Japan every year.  Try one – thinly sliced and grilled!

Disneyland sells over 4 million hamburgers each year and McDonald’s sells approximately 75 hamburgers a second – 225 million burghers worldwide every year.

Where are grass-fed cows raised? 

The one billion cattle grown globally give us approximately 59 million tons of meat.  That is enough to give the world’s 7.4 billion people 18 pounds of beef a year. The major beef producing countries are the United States 18%, from Brazil 12%, from China 8%, and from Argentina 4%.  (FAOSTAT).

, Grass or Grain, Beef is Beef
Typical Feedlot

The United States is awash in corn, so it is easy to feed and grow our cattle in feedlots.  States like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, and western Nebraska have thousands of grassy acres to support their cattle in the summer but of course not in the winter. In the fall, all those cows either head to the feedlots or have to be given feed rations to keep increasing their weight growing through the wintertime. 

Thus, grass-fed beef is harder to grow in the U.S.  Australia and Uruguay, on the other hand, have acres of land which can support grass-fed cattle throughout the year making their grass-fed farming more cost effective.

Do grass-fed cattle have a happier life?

According to Dr. Temple Grandin, the animal welfare expert of cattle,

“It doesn’t matter whether a cow is in a feedlot or on the ‘range’. What is important is whether the animal has shelter, proper drainage for the rain, consistent food, and is not put in stressful situations.”

Sure, it is nice to think of a cow having access to a beautiful grassy field, but keep in mind, not all pastures are grassy! Some are dry, some have no water, and some are terribly arid. Some farmers claim that their cows are fed only grass – but they are contained in a feedlot and fed grass pellets! All feedlot owners are not the same either. Some feedlot owners pay attention to every single cow and some do not. What the cattle are fed or their ability to roam are not the determining factors for good animal welfare. What really matters is the quality of care and attention given by the farmer, and each farmer is different.

Are grass fed cattle better for the environment?

One can say that cattle are the perfect “crop” for those grassy areas that don’t have great soil for grains and oilseeds.  Their hooves aerate and their manure fertilizes the soil which enables the grass to grow better than it would otherwise.  For example, parts of western Nebraska have 50,000-acre ranches which are perfect for the grass-fed cattle.

However, when most people think of the environment, with respect to cattle, they think of methane emissions.  And, in fact, cattle are often blamed for global warming!  Yes, the media and Hollywood have convinced people that cows produce more pollution than cars or trucks – check out Cowspiracy. This is based on the UN Food and Agriculture Organizations 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow.

While there is a difference in cow methane production in the developed world versus the developing world, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, Associate Professor and air quality extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, disputes the FAO report and explains that the difference is in the animal’s nutrition.  In the developed world, we have very good veterinary care, excellent cow nutrition, and strong genetics. This combination plus a well-managed ranch reduces the parasites that compete for nutrients in the cows’ digestive system. The better the digestion – which you have when the cattle eat a good diet full of nutrients – the less the greenhouse gas production.  In fact, because grass-fed cows live eight months longer – combined with their grassy diet – their emissions are higher.

According to the EPA, in the United States, agriculture as a whole contributes 9% to greenhouse gas emissions compared to electricity which weighs in at 30%. Animal agriculture, which has increased its meat production by almost 50% since 1990, has remained constant at about 3% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that emissions from U.S. animal agriculture have remained relatively constant while protein production has increased dramatically reflects improved feed efficiencies, better manure management strategies, and efficient use of cropland.

Air quality is just one piece of the environmental discussion concerning cattle. It is important to consider water quality, land usage, composting, birds, and wildlife diversity.  Sustainable farming is a multi-faceted approach to all aspects of the environment, not just one.  It is not whether cattle are grass-fed or grain0fed that gives us sustainability – it is the overall environmental responsibility of each individual farmer or country. The North American Meat Institute provides informative fact sheets on meat production.

What about E. coli and mad cow disease?

Some of the grass-fed marketing efforts try to tell the consumer that there is no risk of mad cow disease or E. coli O157: H7. Let’s separate these issues for a moment.  E. coli lives in the cow’s digestive system and is excreted in its manure. Cows have manure on their hide before they go to the processing plant – thus there is the risk of E. coli on the hide.  This is why it is considered best practices for beef processing plants to wash and sterilize the hide with best practices before the cows are processed. They basically go through a car wash for cows.  There are approximately 6,200 processing plants in the United States that include about 8,000 federal inspectors on-site making sure our meat is safe.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or more commonly known as “mad cow disease”, on the other hand, is an illness that results in brain degeneration. The significant cause is when cows are fed feed containing other mammalian protein – a practice that is now against the law. (The real mad cow disease started with sheep byproduct being fed to live sheep.)  When the spinal cord or brains of these cattle are eaten, there is a chance the disease can be spread to humans. 

Today, all cattle are carefully processed without any brain or spinal tissue. In addition, they are all harvested well before 36 months, the incubation period for the disease.

What are the certifications for grass-fed beef?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that labeling beef as grass-fed means that these cattle can only eat grass after they are weaned from their mother.  The Animal Welfare Approved Standards (AWA),  the American Grassfed Association, and Food Alliance are certifications you can find on your beef that ensures that they are grass-fed their entire life.

The Bottom Line:

Red meat is good for you regardless of how the cattle were fed. Grass-fed beef can provide you with more omega-3 than grain fed beef, but it doesn’t compare to the levels you get in healthy, fatty fish! Whether your taste buds like grass- or grain-fed beef is entirely up to you – but either one will provide you with essential nutrients.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line