Grass-Fed Beef 101


By: Kayla Brown

In the heat of grilling season, an interest in grass-fed animals – and more specifically grass-fed beef – is on the rise. Which leads us to the question, is grass-fed beef really better?


Well, let’s start with the basics.


What does it mean for a cow to be grass-fed?

All beef cattle in the United States are started on grass, so the term “grass-fed” really means “grass-finished” or that the cattle is fed grass from the beginning of their lives, to the end.


The USDA specifies that in order for beef cattle to qualify as “grass-fed”, the cow must have exclusively eaten “grass and forage” and must have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”


Is it better for you than grain-fed beef?

Grass-fed beef is lower in fat and saturated fat and also provides more omega-3 fats. Grass-fed beef has around twice as many omega-3 fats as grain-fed beef. But it’s also important to remember that though grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats than grain-fed, it is still not a good source of omega-3 fats, so don’t go supplementing salmon for grass-fed beef.


Is it better for the cows?

Grass-fed cows are not subjected to the cruel environment that comes with living in confinement. You don’t need to be an activist, vegetarian, or even an animal lover to find the conditions of factory farming intolerable.


Does it taste different than grain-fed beef?

It’s important for those interested in switching from grain-fed to grass-fed only to realize that you will taste the difference. Meat from grass-fed animals has been described as “bitter, old, sour, and gamey.” It has a different flavor profile that many people raised on corn-fed beef may not enjoy immediately.


Does grass-fed beef mean it’s organic?

Just because it is grass-fed, doesn’t mean that it’s organic. There are animals that ARE grass-fed but graze on grass that has been sprayed with herbicides or has been treated with synthetic fertilizers. It isn’t organic unless the label specifically reads that it is both. 


Additionally, when you see hormone/antibiotic-free beef and dairy products, remember that these products still come from grain-fed cattle that spend the majority of their lives in feedlots. These cows were just fed organic grains.


And what about the environment?


If grass-fed beef better for the environment?

Grass-fed beef has some environmental advantages. With grain-fed beef, the animal’s droppings build up in enormous quantities and are one of the biggest sources of water and air pollution today. The droppings from grass-fed cattle drop on the land and convert into nutrients for the in-coming crops.


If it’s so much better, then why don’t we only produce grass-fed beef?

Actually, that's been done and the result wasn’t pretty. Brazilians attempted to raise large quantities of grass-fed beef and ended up with what is now a huge factor in global deforestation. This deforestation is also responsible for 20 percent of our world’s greenhouse gases.


Those Amazonian cattle were grass-fed, and possibly even organic, yet they are a leading cause in global warming and pose the biggest threat to our environment.  


Is there a happy medium?

Grass-fed advocates believe that well-managed grazing can actually compensate for greenhouse gases that stem from beef cattle by locking up carbon in the soil, preventing carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Though, “well-managed” isn't always common with such a high demand for beef, grass-fed beef is still better for you than grain-fed and is more humane for the cows. However, when the cattle overgrazes, the grass-fed beef industry isn’t necessarily better for the environment.


Long story short? If you are really interested in buying meat that is grass-fed, organic, or better for you, go straight to the source! The wonderful thing about buying locally, is that your farmers are there to answer any questions you have. 

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