Before we get into the nitty-gritty of grass fed vs grain fed beef, let’s just start with something easy as pie that we can all agree on: beef is awesome.
No matter what its origins, all beef tastes great, is versatile on the grill or in the kitchen, and is proven to be a good source of many essential nutrients, protein, and healthful fatty acids.
OK, that was simple!
Now let’s take a close look at the often confusing and ambiguous differences in the ways beef is produced: grass-fed, grass-finished, grain-fed, grain-finished, pasture-raised, free-range, organic, naturally-raised.
You can lose a good thirty minutes sifting through all the options and still not be entirely sure you’ve made the right choice.
Many assume that natural and more expensive must be better, but it’s not as simple as that. And what’s “better” anyway? Better taste, better for you, better for the animal, or better for the planet? That’s a heck of a lot of thinking when you’re just trying to get through your shopping list.
In this post, we’ll clear up the confusion. We’ll help clarify what the different cattle-raising terms mean and explain the differences between taste, healthfulness, price, and environmental impact.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Defining and Understanding the Terms
- 2 Let’s Talk Taste! What are the Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef?
- 3 Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef — Which is Healthier for You?
- 4 Is the Nutritional Difference Much Ado About Nothing?
- 5 What is the Difference in Price Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?
- 6 What About the Cows? Which is better for them? Feeding Grass or Grain?
- 7 What is the Environmental Impact of Grain-Feeding Compared to Grass-Feeding?
- 8 Should You Cook Grass-Fed Beef Differently from Grain-Fed Beef?
- 9 A Word about Pasture-Raised, Organic, and Free-Range.
- 10 What’s Your Beef?
Defining and Understanding the Terms
Before we get into the meat of the article, it helps if we understand the different terms thrown around, and terms that we will use throughout this article, because it’s not immediately obvious.
What is Grass-Fed Beef?
This is a highly variable and often misleading term. All cows in the US spend some time pasture grazing, so this allows producers to label them as “grass-fed.” But most do not spend their entire lives roaming freely in fields but are transferred to feedlots, typically after six months or so.
In other words, “grass-fed” does not necessarily mean 100% grass-fed. This can be confusing for consumers who may believe mistakenly that they are choosing entirely grass-fed beef. In fact, the cows were only partially grass-fed and then “finished” on grain in less wholesome environments.
What’s more, since grass-fed beef is rapidly growing in popularity, producers will often mix harvested forage (grasses, hay etc.) into grain feed, so they can meet the loose standards of “grass-fed” and label their meat as such. In reality, these animals are often in feedlots, not at all meeting the customer’s idea of “grass-fed” cows roaming happily across open pastures. Plus, they may receive hormones and antibiotics because the “grass-fed” designation does not preclude this.
Proponents of grass-fed beef will also argue that grass-fed means more than just the content of the animals’ food. It means the animal moved freely in the open, getting exercise, breathing fresh air and doing what cows are naturally meant to do: graze in pastures. These folks will argue that the stress and crowded conditions of feedlots combined with the antibiotics that are administered to feedlot cows because of the risk of infection will all affect the final quality and taste of the beef. More on taste differences later.
To further muddy the waters, in 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service (a branch of the USDA) dropped its official definition of “grass-fed” so that the term is now even more loosely applied. Or, to be really honest, plain meaningless. For an excellent and in-depth look at the history and ambiguity of beef labeling in the United States, click here.
In short, the “grass-fed” label is unfortunately often more of a feel-good marketing ploy by beef producers than the wholesome, fresh-air, happy cow experience that it sounds like. To be sure you are getting 100% grass-fed beef, you need to look for the AGA logo.
What is Grain-Fed Beef?
The practice of feeding cattle grain, a mixture of largely corn, but also soy and other grain products, gained in popularity in the 1950s and is now the gold standard for beef production in the United States. Also called “corn feeding,” it’s not the natural food for cows, but they seem to like it, and it’s a lot faster, cheaper, and produces juicy, beautifully marbled meat.
With grain-feeding, cows reach slaughter-weight up to a year faster than cows raised purely on pasture and will be heavier too. For producers, this amounts to a faster production cycle and more product, enabling them to keep costs down.
In a nutshell, feedlots or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) allow farmers to raise more cattle in smaller spaces.
For you and me, this means lower-cost meat, and because cows fatten faster with less exercise in the feedlots, the meat is juicier with more marbling.
However, it’s important to know that two things are added to grain-fed cows’ feed: growth hormones (to make them reach slaughter-weight faster) and antibiotics. A whopping 80% of the antibiotics in the US are used in animal feed. Cows get sick when fed low-fiber corn that their digestive systems are not designed for and are routinely given antibiotics to fend against this.
Routine antibiotics are also used to fight the infections and diseases that they will be subject to in the over-crowded feedlots where …sorry there is no pretty way to put this…animals wallow in mud and their own excrement. This contributes significantly to antibiotic overuse and resistance problems, an issue that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.”
Remember too, that you are what you eat. And you are also what you eat, ate. Do you want growth hormones and antibiotics in your food? Something to think about.
What is Grass-Finished Beef?
Grass-finished beef is a more straightforward and transparent concept. It simply means the cows have been raised exclusively on grass or forage their entire lives. This means an open-pasture experience for the animal, and generally, but not always, no antibiotics or growth hormones used.
“Finished” is a livestock term that refers to how animals are fed after their initial time in pasture. After their six months or so in the open field, cattle will either remain there to be “grass-finished” or transported to feedlots to be “grain-finished.”
In other words, a grass-finished cow has been grass-fed all its life. But….and this is the tricky part, a grass-fed cow is not necessarily grass-finished and may not have received much grass-feeding during its life.
So if you are looking for 100% proof that the beef you are buying has been exclusively fed on grass and forage, you can either look for the words grass-finished on the label. Or you can look for the American Grass Fed Association’s logo.
It’s confusing here because the AGA uses the term “grass-fed” rather than “grass-finished.” But their definition is solid and reliable. Here’s what the AGA says about their standard for grass-fed:
“AGA defines grass-fed animals as those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement, and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones. In addition, all AGA-Certified Producers are American family farms and their livestock is born and raised in the US.”
Note that this is the AGA’s definition of grass-fed and not at all a universal standard.
What is in the Grass?
Well, there’s some variation here, of course, because who knows exactly what a cow will chomp down on as it roams across the range?
But safe to it’s a mix of fescue, clover, alfalfa, and other natural grasses. These too will be dried into hay and forage for winter feeding under cover when it’s too cold for cows to be outside.
Why Grass-Fed is Smart
- It’s the natural, healthy, and humane way to raise cattle who are designed to eat grass, not grain
- Although it takes more land, pasture-raising helps restore natural ecosystems, naturally fertilizes the land, and scientists maintain that the vast quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas pollutant) produced by cows can be “sequestered” (trapped safely) in the soil, which makes the practice eco-friendly
- It produces a leaner, healthier beef (more on that in a minute!)
What is Grain-Finished Beef?
Grain-finished is the widespread and highly efficient practice of moving cows from pasture after 6-8 months into feedlots (also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs).
Here, cows will be grain-fed intensively for 3-5 months in readiness for slaughter.
What is in the Grain?
The grain fed to cows in feedlots is typically an energy-dense mix of corn, soy, sometimes oats, barley, and other grains. It also contains antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick from this diet, which is unnatural.
Growth hormones are often also added to speed up their weight gain so that farmers can get them to market sooner, which is more cost-effective for the farmer.
Why Grain-Fed is Smart
- It takes less space…thousands of animals can be raised in relatively small areas,
- It takes less time …grain-fed cows achieve maturity and are ready for market around x to x months
- It is not weather dependent…grain can be trucked in from other parts of the country
- It is easy to control quality and make the end-product uniform because all cows are receiving exactly the same treatment and feed
- It creates a juicy, well-marbled beef that consumers like at an affordable price
Want more info? Read more here on the differences between grain-fed and grass-fed beef.
Let’s Talk Taste! What are the Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef?
OK, now we’re down to the nitty-gritty! You can see there are a lot of factors to understand and consider when it comes to how beef is raised. But we all want that big bad juicy steak on the grill.
So grab your fork, and let’s get stuck in with flavor and texture.
How does Grass-Fed Beef Taste?
A cow that roams all its life (as opposed to one who is largely immobile in a feedlot) is a fitter, leaner, more muscular animal, which affects the meat it produces.
Grass-fed beef is darker in color with less marbling, and yellower fat dues to higher levels of beta-carotene.
Taste panels describe grass-fed beef as a stronger, beefier flavor. “Intense,” “robust” and “pure” are other words used to describe this beef which some say “tastes like beef used to taste.”
Some of this stronger flavor is the result of a higher protein-to-fat ratio in grass-fed cows. And some is because grass-fed beef is often aged a little longer than grain-fed to help break down tough connective tissue and tenderize the meat before cooking.
You can read more about the fascinating science of aging meat here in our article on dry aging.
Because of the leaner quality of the meat, care is needed in grilling to not end up with a tough and chewy steak. Taking time to tenderize your grass-fed beef either with marinades, salt, or pounding will ensure a juicy, melt-in-the-mouth bite.
Slow cooking will also help to break down tough meat fibers. Or — counter-intuitively — grilling on high heat very quickly to medium-rare will also ensure the meat stays tender. It’s the in-between cooking you want to avoid. Medium to well-done with grass-fed beef that has not been tenderized could work the jaw-bone more than you care to.
This is not to say that grass-fed beef is not as tasty as grain-fed. On the contrary, many prefer the stronger, leaner flavor. You just need to take a little more care in grilling to prevent a chewy dry result.
Of course, with ground meat, there is no issue with texture. So, grass-fed beef is a great choice for your next burger night.
How Does Grain-Fed Beef Taste?
Besides being the most profitable way for farmers to produce beef for this burger-and-steak-loving nation, there’s another very good reason to love grain-fed beef. It tastes great.
The heavier grain-fed cow produces a prized beautifully-marbled beef that grills up easily and is juicy, rich-tasting, and buttery smooth. There’s not much to dislike about grain-fed beef, and it’s still the #1 choice for many chefs and restaurants.
Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef — Which is Healthier for You?
Ah, this one gets everyone fired up…the beef industry, the health advocates, farmers, and chefs alike. Lots of opinions!
So what’s the skinny here? Let’s look at the facts on health benefits between the two types of beef.
Grass-Fed Beef is Lower in Fat and Calories than Grain-Fed Beef
Since the grain that producers use is variable from one to the next, and some mix in forage and hay and others don’t, there is no absolute precise number here. But it has been shown that a 6-oz grass-fed beef tenderloin has around 92 calories less than the same from a grain-fed cow.
This adds up! If you’re a lover of beef, and I know you are, you may put away something like 67 pounds of the good stuff every year. So guess what? If you choose grass-fed beef, you’d be saving yourself a hefty 16,642 calories per year!
You’d also be consuming less fat which is better for your cholesterol.
Fatty Acid Content
Studies have shown that healthy omega-3 fatty acids are higher (3 times as much) in grass-fed beef than grain-fed beef.
These fatty acids are essential to our health, so this sounds good, right? But it’s important to keep a perspective here and understand that levels of these FA are very low in all beef.
For example, a 4-oz grass-fed burger would provide just 4% of an adult’s recommended daily intake (DRI) of FA, whereas just one tablespoon of canola oil contains more than the DRI for an adult man or woman.
Grass-fed beef also has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural trans-fat that some believe to have cancer-fighting properties.
On the other hand, research at Texas A&M University has shown that oleic acid, another essential FA, is higher in ground grain-fed beef than grass-fed. Oleic acid has been shown to reduce the bad cholesterol, LDL.
Grass-fed beef has more beta-carotene than grain-fed.
Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in our bodies and is essential for healthy vision, bone growth, reproduction, and more.
It’s also higher in vitamin E (3 times as much as grain-fed), a powerful antioxidant that may prevent heart disease and some cancers.
Drugs, Bacteria, Hormones: is Your Beef Safe to Eat?
Well, again, it’s important to think big picture. This huge burger-lovin’ nation consumes a staggering 66 million pounds of beef every day, more than any other country in the world. And we do OK.
There is the occasional health scare, an outbreak of E. Coli, or recall of contaminated meat, but for the most part, the 326 million Americans enjoy their beef and live to see another day. So beef can’t be that bad for you, right?
Well, this is true. But as with everything we consume these days, it’s worth taking time to understand process and content, so that you are well-informed about precisely what you are putting in your mouth.
The fact is that grain-fed beef contains growth hormones to stimulate the cows to gain weight faster. It also contains antibiotics to prevent the sickness cows face from the essentially unnatural grain diet and the crowded feedlot conditions.
Research carried out by Consumer Reports also claims that grass-fed beef is less likely to harbor harmful bacteria:
“The routine use of antibiotics in (conventional grain-fed) farming has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so once-easy-to-treat infections are becoming more serious and even deadly.”
And what about growth hormones? Critics of hormone use in cows point to the fact that puberty, twins incidence, and reproductive problems are all on the rise in humans because of growth hormones given to feedlot cows to promote faster weight gain.
The FDA claims that the levels are insignificant and harmless.
Basically, more research needs to be done, but meanwhile, take a look at this comprehensive article and choose organic beef (which never has received antibiotics or hormones) if you are concerned.
Is the Nutritional Difference Much Ado About Nothing?
Champions of grass-fed beef are quick to point out its health benefits, especially concerning good fats and vitamin content.
Critics say the differences are negligible, pointing out that five times the vitamin E can be had from a handful of almonds than from a burger (grass or grain-fed). Note too that flaxseed and fatty fish are significantly richer in omega 3 fats and, for your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, a handful of fruits and vegetables fills the bill better than beef does.
The bottom line? There clearly is a nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed. And at some level, it just plain makes sense that it’s healthier for us to consume an animal that eats what it’s born to eat instead of something it needs assistance from drugs to digest. But…and it’s a big but…the nutritional differences are small.
What is significant is the lower fat and calorie content of grass-fed over grain-fed beef. And for those who enjoy a tasty steak and a trimmer waistline, grass-fed makes an excellent choice.
In the end, it may just feel good to you to eat beef that you know has been raised and fed naturally and traditionally, is hormone and antibiotic-free, lower in fat, and has slightly higher levels of vitamins and healthful fats.
Then again, you may prefer…as many restaurants and steakhouses prefer…to choose a grain-fed beef that will be juicier and arguably more flavorful because of its higher fat content.
And with certain high-end cuts like tenderloin and rib-eye, well, that quality grain-fed fat really knocks it out of the park. With these premium cuts, most chefs will recommend grain-fed for a truly top-quality tender and juicy end-product. The choice is yours.
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What is the Difference in Price Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?
Time is money. And space is money. So an animal that takes more time and more land to raise is going to put a bigger dent in your pocket at the supermarket. This is the way it is with cows that are exclusively grass-fed (strictly speaking: grass-finished).
And of course, sheer production volume — less than 3% of US beef sales — is lower with grass-fed cows, which makes their operating costs higher. However, based on renewed consumer demand for a healthier, more natural beef, numbers have grown from just 50 grass-fed producers ten years ago to over 2000 today, an estimated growth rate of 25% annually! But this is still small fry compared to the feedlot giants of beef production in the United States.
In the feedlot, massive numbers of cows are efficiently packed into small spaces and fast-tracked to weight gain with calorie-laden grain. Not only is the grain-fed cow significantly heavier than its grass-fed counterpart at slaughter, but they are on average 10-12 months younger at maturity too. This is a win-win for producers who achieve their goal sooner and at a lower cost enabling them to keep their costs down for the consumer.
Jo Robinson, of Eatwild, has spent the past ten years examining scientific research that compares grass-fed and grain-fed animals. She says:
“Conventional factory meat is so cheap because they’ve done everything to speed growth and lower the cost of feed.”
So how much more are you forking over at the check-out for grass-fed beef? Consumer Reports says on average, you can expect to pay an extra $2.50-3 per-pound for grass-fed. If you bought a couple of pounds a week on average, this could amount to an additional $260-310 per year.
Click here for an excellent breakdown in costs in a Consumer Reports research paper.
Invest in a freezer, and buy grass-fed beef in bulk directly from farmers or local suppliers.
CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and “cow-sharing agreements” (or cowpools …how great is that!) are also great cost-cutting options. By cutting out other stages in the distribution process, you can keep costs in line with grain-fed.
What About the Cows? Which is better for them? Feeding Grass or Grain?
Well, as you might guess, this one’s pretty straightforward. Cows are happier doing what cows are built to do…roam around freely and graze on grass. Unfortunately, in the multi-billion dollar business of beef production, the cows’ opinion doesn’t count for much.
But what about grain-feeding that is so profitable for the farmers and provides us with well-priced tasty beef at the supermarket? Is the grain good for the cows?
The answer is no.
High-carb grain feed creates an acidic environment in the cows’ digestive tract which can lead to infection and ulcers. So grain-fed cows must be supplemented with antibiotics to help their systems process grain. Hmm, not the way Nature intended.
Here’s some more solid information about the differences in pasture and feedlot lives, from the cows’ perspective.
Grain-feeding, says Will Harris, a Georgia rancher at White Oak Pastures, is like giving cows “a big bowl of candy” …they like it, but it’s no better for them than it would be for us to munch through large bowls of candy day in day out.
Combined with a sedentary lifestyle where the animals don’t have much room to move freely, this quickly makes them reach unnatural levels of obesity. Great for juicy steaks. Not great for the cows.
The conditions of grain-feeding lots are also not pleasant for the cows. Zero natural vegetation, a deep soup of mud and feces, and overcrowding can all contribute to stress and disease. Hence, the widespread use of antibiotics.
What is the Environmental Impact of Grain-Feeding Compared to Grass-Feeding?
There’s no way around it. To satisfy the sky-high demand for beef in the US, cattle farming takes an enormous toll on our planet both in open pastures and purpose-built feedlots. Scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science estimates that producing 1 kilogram of beef emits more greenhouse gas than driving 155 miles.
We’re talking hundreds and thousands of large animals here, and either they need acres upon acres of grassy land to graze on or acres and acres of land to grow their feed. In fact, much more of the grain grown in the US goes to feeding animals than humans…about 80%…all of which requires a lot of energy to produce and transport.
Here are some of the environmental pros and cons of grass and grain feeding cattle:
- Helps preserve grassland ecosystems by recycling nutrients
- Uses natural land on a sustainable rotational basis meaning cows are regularly moved in order to allow vegetation to grow back.
- Cows naturally fertilize the land with their waste
- Some carbon produced by cows in the form of methane is sequestered (trapped organically and safely) in the soil
- Some estimates say it takes 9 acres to raise just one grass-fed cow
- Cows produce methane (both grass— and grain-fed) a powerful and harmful greenhouse gas
- Not enough green space in the world to grass-feed all animals, simply not feasible
- Water consumption is high, with concentrated irrigation required for all the pasture
- Animals reach slaughter weight much faster and more efficiently using fewer resources
- A shorter life-span means each animal produces less methane during its life
- The way cows digest a corn-based diet results in less methane output
- Groundwater pollution from CAFO manure runoff
- Overuse of antibiotics leading to “superbugs.”
- Vast areas of land are devoted to growing the grain to feed the cows
- Huge quantities of fertilizer are used to help the grain grow
- Cows produce methane (both grass— and grain-fed) a powerful and harmful greenhouse gas
- Poor air quality (and this is putting it mildly) …the dust and stench of a feedlot can hit you like a cattle truck a good mile away
Should You Cook Grass-Fed Beef Differently from Grain-Fed Beef?
Being leaner with less marbling means grass-fed beef will require a little more care on the grill. Steaks like rib eye, Porterhouse, T-bone, and NY strip are among the most tender cuts of beef and so are well-suited to the grill.
The secret is to sear at high heat only very briefly, then, using a 2-zone set-up on your grill, switch the meat to indirect heat to finish cooking. This will prevent the more muscular structure of the meat from tightening up and becoming tough. I always recommend using a thermometer, especially when grilling over indirect heat, so you can be sure the meat reaches safe internal temperatures.
Another option you have is slow-cooking larger cuts over low heat. Slow-cooking over indirect heat on the grill helps break down connective tissue and turns tough collagen into melt-in-the-mouth goodness.
With a significantly higher fat content and the delicate white marbling so prized by steak lovers everywhere, grain-fed beef is a surefire winner. Easy to grill, you can pretty much count on a juicier steak every time.
A Word about Pasture-Raised, Organic, and Free-Range.
You just want to grab some burgers…but so many choices! In addition to the explanations of terms given earlier, here’s what you need to know.
Certified organic beef can be grass or grain-raised, as long as no hormones or antibiotics, drugs or chemicals of any kind have been used. Also, the animals must have access to a pasture.
Cows that have been pasture-raised must have received a significant portion of their nutrition from organically managed pasture and stored dried forages. Unlike 100% grass-fed cows, pasture-raised cows may also get a supplement of organic grains.
This is a tricky one. In general, animals with the “free-range” label have access to open space, but it doesn’t mean they use it or that it’s an organic fresh green space. Also, the USDA does not require a common standard for producers who claim “free-range”. So they can define free-range however they like. Your best bet is to look for additional explanations of the free-range term on the label.
What’s Your Beef?
There’s a lot to digest here, and we hope we’ve helped clarify some differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Some of it is simple, and some … especially the term “grass-fed,”… is pretty slippery, with no clear-cut standardized definition in sight.
My advice? Understand the labels. If eating beef that has only known the joy of the open pasture is important to you, look for “grass-finished.” If you don’t want any drugs and chemicals messing with your steak, look for “organic.” Want a killer juicy steak that’s affordable too? Go for “grain-fed.” You have options. And now you have knowledge too! And as long as you take a few moments to check out the labeling at the meat counter, you’ll find what you’re looking for.
But remember, grass-fed or grain-fed, it’s going to be good because it’s beautiful, delicious juicy beef. And that, folks, is what’s for dinner!
What’s your feeling about grass-fed versus grain-fed beef? Is taste most important to you? Or how the animals live their lives? What about cost? Or cost to the environment? We’d love to hear what you think. Please share with us and share this post with friends.