Grass Fed Beef and Grain Fed Beef – What’s The Difference?

Grass Fed Beef and Grain Fed Beef

What is the difference?  Which has better nutritional values?  Is there a cost difference? What about the taste?

I will answer each question from a butcher’s perspective and explain details from my years experience in the meat industry.

grass-fed-beef

What is the difference between Grass Fed Beef and Grain Fed Beef?

Quite simply, one is fed on grass pasture for its life and the other is fed on a diet of grains that could be wheat, corn, oats, barley, soya beans and other grains for a time period before the animal is slaughtered.

Beef is mostly born on a grass pasture farm or ranch environment. The calves are brought up under their mother feeding on milk until a point where they will be weaned off and prepared for market. Some remain on the paddock and feed on grass until they are ready for slaughter while some are taken to Lot Feed farms where the beef will start a diet of grains described above for a specific time.

Quite logical but there are a few categories within these two descriptions of Grass Fed and Grain Fed beef.

We have…

  • Grass Pasture Fed Beef:  born and raised on grass and sold as Grass Fed Beef. The animal lives in a natural environment and grazes the fields at its own pace while the farmers and ranchers monitor the beefs growth and healthiness from a far but still weighing and checking from time to time for when the beef reaches the weight for market. The animals can still fall ill if not managed correctly but farmers and ranchers have vast experience and gained knowledge over the years of raising cattle. Normally a tradition handed down over generations.
  • Grass Fed beef but Grain Finished: born and raised on grass feed but finished off being fed a diet of grains to gain weight and improved meat muscle size before sending to market. These are described as Grain Finished Beef. They can still be sold as Grass Fed Beef as the time on grain is a very short period.
  • Grain Fed Beef: born and raised on grass but then sent to Lot Feeds to feed on a diet of grains and kept for a certain period of time depending on orders. There can be 100 day grain fed beef, 150 day grain fed beef, 200 day grain fed beef and the days can continue to whatever customers require.  The description starts as Short Grain Fed, meaning a short amount of days on grain feed and Long Grain Fed, meaning a greater number of days on grain feed.

Lot Feed establishments don’t really have a very good reputation of living conditions for the beef, as the main point is to increase the beefs weight and muscle size as quickly as practical. Beef live in yards where natural grass is unable to grow as the number of animals in the yards, prevent and plants from growing. They are sometimes crowded but overcrowding is avoided to allow each animal enough space to move around freely and eat their food without competition from other animals. The beef are carefully monitored regularly and fed a carefully prepared and adjusted diet to get the animal ready for slaughter. Contrary to what people believe the beef are well cared for and monitored for healthiness frequently and if an animal falls ill there are qualified people to administer medicine as no one wants an animal to suffer. Just like a normal farmer or rancher. There are many good Lot Feed businesses that have very good practices to ensure the animals are healthy and happy and produce good quality meat for the meat eating public.

Large parts of the community believe that Lot Feeding beef is not a good practice and cannot understand why the industry is allowed to operate. People must understand that in our ever growing World people want to eat protein and red meat is a highly sourced food. As people gain wealth, consumers want readily available, consistent quality and consistently affordable quality meat. Lot Feeding is an industry that can produce the needs for a hungry growing World.

Which has better nutritional values? Grass Fed Beef or Grain Fed Beef?

It has been said that grass fed beef gives many health benefits. One benefit is that the meat is leaner with less fat.  The leanness is perfect for people who are on a diet and the fat content is less saturated. Grass fed beef has higher Conjugated Linoleic Acid content or CLA, which is believed to have cancer-fighting properties and is reported to reduce body fat in people who are overweight. The CLA reportedly causes a chemical reaction in the body which helps reduce our absorption of fat and possibly can help with obesity.

Grass fed beef also contains a higher percentage of omega 3 than grain fed beef with other associated vitamins like A and E.

  • Total Saturated and Trans-fat: Grass Fed beef has either similar, or slightly less than Grain Fed beef
  • Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fats: Grass Fed and Grain Fed beef contain very similar amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Omega-3s: This is where Grass Fed makes a major difference, containing up to 3 to 5 times more Omega-3 than Grain Fed beef.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Grass Fed beef contains about twice as much CLA as Grain Fed beef. This fatty acid is associated with reduced body fat and some other beneficial effects (4).

One problem with these claims is that some of them appear to be contradictory.  Mr. Daniel Rule, an animal science professor and ruminant nutrition researcher at the University of Wyoming, points out the grass feeders are saying their product’s fat is healthier—but there’s also less of it.  He says, “If the consumer is eating lean beef, that means there’s just not that much fat.  If there’s not that much fat, and these fatty acids represent a small proportion of the total fat, then the consumption of these fatty acids cannot be that great.”  In other words, it’s hard to make health claims for CLA and omega-3 if the amount being consumed is negligible.

So that leaves a bit of a conundrum then. I think for me personally the real health nutritional qualities from grass fed beef compared to grain fed beef is that grass fed beef is a leaner meat and people need to decide if consuming lean meat is better for you but a lot of flavor comes from the fats. Overall both are healthy and taste good.

lot-fed-beef

Is there a cost difference?

Originally grass fed beef was cheaper than the first grain fed beef produced.  When grain fed producing started there were many set up costs and not much known on how much to feed the cattle. Grass fed cattle were left in paddocks and allowed to graze on pasture until the farmers or ranchers decided that the animals were ready for market.

A lot of things have changed since then and top quality grass fed beef is now more expensive than the mass produced 70 day to 120 day grain fed beef. The longer the cattle are on grain then the price will become higher than grass fed beef. Wagyu beef for example can be on a grain diet of 400 days or more and because of the time period the cost of the grain fed diet is higher. You can read more about it on my Waygu Beef post. Lower quality grass fed beef is still cheaper than grain fed but the emphasis is on the LOWER QUALITY.

These are the main factors that contribute to the increased costs for grass fed beef…

  • More land is required to graze cattle herds.
  • Quality of land and pasture grass must be high.
  • Time to grow cattle for market is longer. Average 7 months longer. (20 months to produce weight required)
  • More labour needed to assure optimal care, low stress and excellent feed nutrition by rotating grazing paddocks at regular intervals.
  • Increase demand for grass fed beef through marketing campaigns with less stock available than Lot Fed beef. The old supply – demand system.

Through the internet and media grass fed beef has gained a foot hold in the meat market World and more people are wanting naturally fed beef.

Factors that have reduced the costing production of grain fed beef…

  • Improved husbandry and genetics breeding to produce better beef cattle.
  • Improved study and research on how cattle grow.
  • Improved study and research on how much feed an animal should have available to eat at specific periods.
  • Improved quality of feed through higher crop nutritional value.
  • Improved weight and checking procedures after animals have been on required diet for a period. Animals that don’t reach certain weight criteria within the period have their feeding program adjusted quickly because of computer monitoring.
  • Less space required to hold cattle.

All these factors with improved technology have been able to reduce the time needed to produce a n animal ready for market. Approximately 7 months less time than grass fed cattle. (13 months to produce weight required)

Both grass fed and grain fed beef producers are competing for customers and some are now using Medical Ultra Sound technology to check the amount of meat muscle compared to fat on the beefs loin.  When the beef reaches the weight requirement the producers check the meat to fat ratio using the Ultra Sound technology.  The optimum meat to fat ratio will command a better price when the cattle go for slaughter while a bad meat to fat ratio can result in monetary penalties for the producers.

It’s all become scientific to get the right steak…

Before I get to the taste difference I get a lot of questions and concerns about chemicals, antibiotics and hormone growth proponents (HGP) used in the meat production industry.  

Now all farmer, ranchers or lot feed establishments use drugs and antibiotics medicine if an animal falls ill. No one in the industry wants to see their animals suffer with un-necessary sickness. They all have veterinarians on the pay roll to help manage and keep the animal healthy and safe.

Let’s face it, I am sure if you have a dog or cat you give them worming tablets and flea treatments when required.  Animal farming is no different. There are government protocols of how long an animal must be without any chemicals intake before slaughtering. All slaughter houses randomly chemical residue test carcasses from every producer delivered cattle. There is a formula in place on the percentage amount of carcasses that must be tested from each delivered cattle amount.

Hormone Growth Proponents or HGP have been widely used in the past. The use of HGP is to get the animal to grow at a faster rate than normal. There is a growing rate of countries around the World that demand all meat exported to their country be HGP Free and require government documentation with every cargo delivered by law. The use of HGPs are becoming less and less as the general public is demanding more HGP free meat with labelling indicating more information so they can make a better decision on what they can buy to suit their needs.

What about the taste?dry-aged-stk-cooked

In the end what really matters. The final arbiter of the meat worthiness is its taste. Meat should, must taste good for us to want to eat it.

The taste differences are subtle. Grass fed beef is often leaner and there may be some differences in texture. Sometimes grass feed beef is darker in colour with yellowish fat and can be stringy and a little tougher. The grass fed beef can have a bit more of a gamy taste or some people describe the taste as a distinct grass flavour. Grain fed beef on the other hand can be pale pink in colour with white or creamy coloured fat with the main beef flavour coming from the marbled fat within the meat structure. When cooking the marbled fat melts away leaving the meat fibres to have more room which allows the meat to be tender. The flavour sometimes can be bland and while cooking a lot of water may be discharged. This is a sure sign that the meat is grain fed.

  For me, as a Butcher, I don’t really have a preference. I like all meat either grass fed or grain fed. If I feel that there isn’t very much flavour, I just add a little salt and pepper as the salt helps increase the natural flavour of the meat in question and helps enhance the tastiness.  I recommend you try both and see which one you prefer. Here are a couple great on-line butcher shops where you can get great quality for your requirements.

US Wellness Meats

US Wellness Meats sells quality grassland meat products to satisfy your every need. Founded by life long farmer John Wood who raises his quality cattle for a growing grass fed beef consumer base. John’s unique way of raising his cattle over years of trial and experimentation has given him the results of producing consistent, tender and exquisite tasting quality beef. 

My other recommendation is 

Snake River Farms (SRF)

Snake River Farmers and Double R Ranch are a family owned and run business. They produce the highest quality beef and pork in the US and they were founded in 1968. SRF control all aspects of the business and can boast the fact that they can deliver your selections of high quality grain fed Waygu beef from Paddock to Plate delivering right to your door step.

I am sure what ever meat you wish to try and enjoy both of these companies will have the products for your next great Meat Meal Enjoyment.

I hope the information was valuable to you and please leave comment should you wish to contact me or have any questions. Thanks for dropping by. John

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2 comments

  1. Helen Doyle says:

    John, wow this is a really well thought out and deep post. I am used to both type of feeding for cattle, having lived on an outback cattle station where we killed and dressed out own beef, sheep, goats,chickens etc.

    I must say at my age I like at least a period of grain feeding as my teeth aren’t what they used to be (in fact some teeth just aren’t)! Tasmania is pretty conscientiously grow natural and is fighting to keep it that way.

    I certainly think that people visiting your site will go away well informed.

    Cheers
    Helen

    • John says:

      Hi Helen. Thanks for visiting my site and glad you liked it. With my years in the trade I just thought of informing people that are interested in finding out a bit of what they are eating and they are then able to make a better informed decision on what they buy.

      I have visited Tasmania quite a few times and yes the land is very clean and prestine. I was involved in a marketing campaign launch in Shanghai when a Company introduced beef and lamb from Tasmania for a hotel and restaurant chain. The marketing focused on “Clean and Green Environment for Top Quality Meat” which is certainly true. Thanks again and please visit again as I add mote info. John

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