Farmers use two entirely different approaches to produce beef: grass-fed (as your local farm might do) and grain-fed, or conventional (factory-farmed). We have experience in both, and for us, grass-fed is the only choice. Why grass-fed beef? Read on!
For those not in the business, this can be a confusing topic. So many differences exist - some of which are technical - that it’s easy to get confused when choosing grass-fed vs grain-fed beef.
In this primer, I’ll explain the four most important differences between grass-fed beef and factory-farmed grain-fed beef in simple language so you can decide. The bottom line? Grass-fed beef tastes better! As well, grass-fed is better for you, the animal, and the environment.
|What Matters Most||Grass-Fed Beef||Conventional, Factory-Farmed, Grain-fed Beef|
|Taste||Wins in blind taste tests for flavor, juiciness and tenderness, but can be variable – know your producer!||Best option for those who prefer mild taste that disappears into the background|
|Health||Lower in overall fat, a higher percentage of healthier fats, and higher in nutrients, those unavailable in plants||For those who prefer fattier meat and aren't concerned about that higher percentage of unhealthy fats|
|Animal Welfare||Raising cattle outdoors on grass without grain, antibiotics or growth hormones costs more and takes longer, but is critical for animal health and quality of life||Fattening cattle in pens on grain is fast and cheap, but harmful to the animal: this requires daily antibiotics and repeated implants of growth hormones|
|Environmental Impact||Regenerative – grazing cattle correctly can sequester carbon, and actually improves the soil, protects waterways, and supports the integrity of local ecosystems||Grain-fed beef has a high carbon footprint and fattening in large centrally located "factory" pens is environmentally deleterious|
If you prefer meat that is rich in flavor, juicy, and tender, find a source of grass-fed beef that is properly “finished.” This has been shown repeatedly in blind taste tests like here, here, here, here – we could go on, but you get the point. If you want to run your own blind taste test, instructions for doing so can be found here.
Fattening an animal on corn and soy is about like fattening you on candy and junk food – fast, cheap, and requires no expertise to get a very predictable result.
Compared to this, fattening on grass is a lengthier process, requiring patience and skill. Because of this, there exist tremendous differences in quality. The market for grass-fed beef is growing at 30% a year, attracting a lot of newcomers without knowledge or mastery who are producing sub-par, tough, meat.
To avoid these problems, you should:
Confusion abounds regarding health claims for grass-fed beef. Plenty of information is readily available if you want a detailed technical discussion on the health benefits of different types of beef. I’m going to summarize the research on this subject in laymen’s terms on why grass-fed beef is better for you.
Simply put, there are significant differences in 1) the amount of fat, 2) the type of fat, and 3) the vitamins and minerals in grass-fed vs grain-fed beef.
Our family has raised livestock on the same land for over 100 years. We love animals and caring for animals. The single greatest factor in our decision to quit fattening animals on grain was our concern for animal welfare.
Factory farming uses confinement, grain, medications, and hormones to make the work easier and faster for the producer, but some time ago we discovered its detrimental impact on our cattle’s health and welfare.
Cattle are not evolved to survive a diet of corn and soy any more than humans are evolved to survive a diet of junk food and sugar. A calf penned up and fed only unlimited amounts of grain is like a teenager locked in an all-you-can-eat fast food restaurant or candy store with no exercise, and no variety of healthy food. If you’ve seen the film “Super Size Me” or “That Sugar Film” you know the results of this are deadly for humans.
As you might expect, calves subjected to similar treatment are also unhealthy. Because their digestive systems evolved to process grass, not grain, they require a constant supply of antibiotics to combat the abscesses formed by higher energy diets. And because this poor diet is so deadly, they must be implanted with growth hormones to make sure they grow quickly enough to fatten before they die from the diet they are fed in a typical feedlot.
For us, this boils down to a matter of principles and values. If we are going to bring a food animal into this world, we feel responsible for honoring that animal by providing it the best possible life before harvesting it. Others have values that go even further; they feel strongly that we should never raise animals for food. We respect their positions and urge everyone to be mindful and responsible with their diet choices.
There are some truly outrageous headlines suggesting the beef industry is a leading cause of environmental degradation on a global scale. These reports are well intentioned and valuable, but they often fail to make a distinction between the two very different systems used to produce beef.
The factory-farming system optimizes one thing: producing more pounds of beef as cheaply as possible. Huge tracts of land are plowed (erosion) and fertilized (toxic runoff into water bodies) and treated with herbicides and pesticides to produce grain. This system requires monumental energy-consumption at every step: tillage of the land, planting, making and spreading synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, harvesting the crops, transporting the grain to feedlots, and disposing of the massive loads of waste generated there.
In our grass-fed system, the feed (pasture) grows naturally with no tillage, herbicides, or pesticides. Our only fertilizer is the manure the cattle spread themselves. Our cattle are raised, processed, and sold within 150 miles of our farm. This uses only half as much energy as factory-farming. Using this approach, we have documented proof that we have increased biodiversity, reduced erosion, improved water quality, and sequestered carbon, in the form of increased organic matter in our soils.
That last point raises an issue that’s made for some eye-catching headlines. Cattle digest their food in a process that produces methane, which escapes when the animal belches. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and some reports have claimed that cattle constitute a greater danger to global warming that the all the cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes on the planet! This conclusion is, again, based on factory-farming, and fails to factor in the animals’ diets. This is inherently a technical discussion, and I promised not to get technical, so let me just point you toward a discussion of the science of grass-fed beef and the environment. There is plenty of scientific evidence that while factory-farming is very harmful, grass-fed beef production can actually be regenerative in reversing environmental degradation.
So there you have it, as simply as I can explain it. We believe grass-fed is better for you, our animals, and both the local and global environments.
Lick Skillet Farm