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Grain vs. grass - what's the beef?
Why the focus of this fierce debate has been wrong all along
When it comes to sourcing beef, no debate has been fiercer than choosing between grain or grass. The difference seems obvious enough on paper: grass-finished steers subsist on a strict diet of fresh pasture or dry hay, whereas grain-finished steers receive other nutritional inputs than just grass. The choice has been painted as binary but is actually more nuanced.
You may have noticed that I referred to these two options as grass- or grain-"finished." That’s because in all instances the steers will have been raised on pasture, eating grass for most of their lives. The divergence usually begins only in the last six months.
During those final months, the producer has two basic choices:
Move the steers to a feedlot where antibiotics and growth hormones are pervasive and the feed (often including chicken feces)1 has to be trucked in
Continue to raise the animals on pasture, with or without additional feed.
Many feedlot operators will give their cattle a preventive ration of tylosin to mitigate liver acidosis. This ailment occurs when the diet of a ruminant animal is switched too drastically from grass to grains, as is usually the case when moving from pasture to a patch of dirt. And even with the blanket use of tylosin, almost 10% of feedlot cattle end up with livers that are deemed unfit to sell by USDA inspectors.2
Cattle are very social creatures and have lower levels of aggression when established hierarchies are in place.3 Each time they are sold and transported to a new location, the move can increase their anxiety and stress levels.
The answer to which option is preferable should be intuitive enough: allowing the steer to remain on pasture until it goes to the abattoir4 results in a better end of life for the animal and a better product on your table.
Buying directly from a farmer or rancher allows you to verify the animal husbandry practices first hand and avoid sourcing commodity meat that was raised inhumanely.
So how does grain feed play into this debate?
The binary presentation of “grain vs. grass” has led people to associate grain feed with commodity beef, however this is definitely incorrect - many small producers slowly introduce supplemental feed while allowing the cattle to remain on pasture, and avoid the use of growth hormones and antibiotics. So, with husbandry practices out of the way, let's focus on health and nutrition.
One of the concerns often mentioned in connection with grain-finished beef consumption pertains to fatty acids. While it is true that there will be a difference in the fatty-acid profile, the absolute amount is actually not significant. As a Sacred Cow article on a related topic explains:
This means that if you are otherwise consuming nutrient-dense foods and using high-quality cooking fats, the marginal increase in undesirable fatty acids from grain-finished beef can be easily offset.
It is also important to note that most comparative studies use USDA commodity beef as the reference for a “typical grain-fed beef”, ignoring the fact that grain-finished cattle remaining on pasture will have a nutrient composition that is much closer to that of grass-only beef.5
There is also a distinction to be made between different kinds of grains that are fed to cattle. Most commodity grains like corn and soy will be loaded with glyphosate and other chemicals, all of which can be avoided by sourcing organic grains (or by growing them without chemicals on the same land where the animals graze). Additionally, the digestibility of a more diverse diet from barley, peas and other cover crops can be much better for the cattle compared to just corn and soy.
In other words, grass-finished beef is not necessarily the superior option for health. High-quality grain-finished beef is healthy, tastes great and won’t dry out as easily in cooking as grass-finished. Cattle raised strictly on grass will generally have a gamier flavor, although that factor can vary with the time of year when the animal is slaughtered.
So what’s the takeaway?
My research clearly indicates that one should aim to avoid commodity producers, instead connecting with a farmer who provides his livestock with healthy living conditions, a proper diet – either pasture-only or grain-finished – without unnecessary medications.
In my opinion, the time and energy invested in the “grass- vs. grain-finish” debate should be redirected to acknowledging an overriding issue: the superiority of “pasture-finished” beef. Let’s all spend more time shaking hands with people who raise our food responsibly.
The Purpose of the Primal Cut Sheet
This is part of an ongoing monthly series that aims to provide you with all of the information you will need to start buying high-quality beef in bulk directly from a local producer. Future topics will include how to connect with your local producers, and a full breakdown of a butcher’s cut sheet to help you get the most value from your purchase.
If you’re looking to buy in bulk right away and would like some personalized assistance, I also offer 1:1 consultations to help you navigate cut sheets or answer any other questions you might have:
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A fancy term that describes a place where animals are butchered.