In today’s world, we have an overwhelming number of options for food. Everywhere you turn, there are labels meant to pull you in. Some of the names include organic, sugar-free, antibiotic-free, and pasture-raised. So how do we sift through these labels to decide which choice is best for us?
If you have made any comparison when purchasing beef products, you would have noticed grass-fed and grain-fed beef. You might have thought, “can the diet of an animal affect my diet?”
The answer is an emphatic, yes! Let us look closer at the nutrient composition of grass-fed animals versus those who are grain-fed.
The life of the cow
Life starts about the same for all cattle. They are born as calves, eating grass and drinking from their mothers for seven to nine months. After weaning most cows are sold at livestock auctions.
While technically all cows are grass-fed at some point in their lives, the difference sets in after weaning when cows are either fed a grain-inclusive diet (grain-fed and finished) or continue to eat strictly grass (grass-fed and finished). It is from here, grass-fed cows and grain-fed cows embark on a very different journey.
Grass-fed and finished cattle
Before we dive into the life of grass-fed cattle, it is essential to note that not all grass-fed cows are raised the same. Some grass-fed cattle are raised in a lot/pasture combination but fed grass only. What does this mean exactly? According to the USDA, the standards to qualify for “grass-fed” are the animal must eat grass and forage exclusively after weaning and have continuous access to pastures during the growing season. What the USDA doesn’t specify is how much feed must be from a field. Other grass-fed cattle are raised in open pastures to graze.
In this article, we will be discussing grass-fed, grass-finished, and pasture-raised cattle such as cattle from US Wellness Meats. These cows spend their lives roaming for grass in open fields. Before industrial farming, this was the way cows lived. Because of their natural roaming lifestyle, these cows do not require antibiotics or growth hormones to thrive. The process is slower for grass-fed cows. They often roam in pastures for at least six to eight months before being harvested, and they are given adequate time to mature.
Grain-fed and finished cattle
After weaning from their mothers, the grain-fed, conventional cows are moved to mass feed lots called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Here they are most often kept in crowded, confined stalls while being fattened rapidly with grain-based feed. Every feedlot is different, and it is up to management for how comfortable these animals can be. A major problem sets in with drainage. If there is a lack of drainage cows are left in muddy, hot, and overcrowded environments. This only leads to discomfort and stress for the animal.
Feeding practices vary, but usually, their diet consists of corn or soy-based feed that is sometimes supplemented by dried grass. Some examples of diet ingredients include corn, wheat, soybean mill, and hay. If there is not an appropriate amount of roughage, the animal’s pH balance will become too acidic. This will ultimately cause numerous health problems. These cows are given drugs such as antibiotics and growth hormones to maximize harvest.
After approximately four months at a feed yard, cows will be brought to a packing plant. Once at the packing plant, cows will be slaughtered, processed, and then distributed to supermarket retailers and restaurants.
You can see how their lifestyles differ but are there differences in the quality of meat?
Nutrient composition: grass-fed vs. grain-fed
Let us talk about nutrition. Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef contain concentrated sources of nutrients. Beef is packed with iron, selenium, and zinc. It is also a great source of vitamins B12, B3, and B6.
- Vitamin B12: Works to keep the body’s blood and nerve cells healthy.
- Vitamin B3: An essential nutrient that EVERY part of your body needs to function properly.
- Vitamin B6: Benefits the nervous system, and is involved in producing the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine.
When comparing the two, grass-fed beef has higher concentrations of nutrients and is leaner than the grain-fed alternative. Grass-fed beef is more abundant in antioxidants, has higher levels of Vitamin A and Vitamin E, and is an essential source of amino acids. It is also rich in Omega-3s and has two to three times the amount of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef.
What is CLA? CLA is produced naturally in a cow’s body and is passed on to you when you eat grass-fed meat. Research has shown that a diet rich in CLA can help reduce a person’s risk of cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
- Vitamin A: A fat-soluble vitamin that is important for organ function and the immune system.
- Vitamin E: Prevents heart disease, supports immune function, and has anti-aging properties.
- Omega-3’s: These fatty acids are essential for a well-functioning body. Omega-3’s is where grass-fed meat shows off its benefits. Grass-fed beef has up to five times as omega-3 as grain-fed cattle.
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Another fatty acid that is associated with many health benefits including reducing cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
Looking at grain-fed beef, we see lower amounts of these nutrients.
The bottom line is a grain-fed diet for cattle is not a species-appropriate diet. Grain-fed cows have higher levels of monounsaturated fats and similar levels of Omega-6s. Despite having a higher amount of fat overall, grain-fed beef has a lower concentration of healthy fats such as heart-healthy Omega-3s: more fat but fewer benefits.
- Monounsaturated Fats: Much better for you than saturated or trans fats, but should be eaten in moderation.
- Omega-6s: Both grass-fed and grain-fed have similar amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids. When eaten in moderation Omega-6 fatty acids can be useful for heart health.
The difference in price
When comparing grain-fed and grass-fed beef, there is a noticeable difference in price.
The average cost for grain-fed, conventional meat is $4.95/pound, while the average price for grass-fed, grass-finished beef is $7.38/pound.
This noticeable difference leaves consumers asking why the amount is an average of $2.50 higher for grass-fed.
The answer lies in the vast differences in the raising of grass-fed animals compared to their grain-fed counterparts. As mentioned before, the process for grass-fed animals is much slower with animals living up to a year longer than grain-fed cattle. These farmers are providing care for each animal for much longer than the conventional farms, which includes tending to the cattle’s grass, labor for rotating grazing, and making sure the animals are healthy.
At the end of this process, grass-fed cows are often smaller than grain-fed because they are free from antibiotics and hormones. These farmers are going the extra mile to provide care for the animals and sustainable meat for consumers, but the result is less meat to sell.
These husbandry practices are specialized to create exact nutritional content – and the higher price reflects this specialization.
What is right for you?
We are seeing more and more people being conscious of what they put in their bodies. Shouldn’t it be the same for our food’s diet? We encourage you to do your research. Learn about the management and raising of your food. Learn about the values and practices of the farms and companies behind the scenes. In the end, choose what you feel is right for you and your family.
Check out this article by Josh Bryant describing how the benefits of grass-fed meat took his bodybuilding career to the next level.
Visit US Wellness Meats to learn about grass-fed farming practices.
Growing up on one of our partnering farms in Alabama, Assistant Marketing Director Allee Bertolla has seen firsthand our efforts with raising grass-fed cattle. She says her favorite part of working with US Wellness Meats is educating others on the revolutionary work of family farmers who go the extra mile.