What is Grass-fed Beef?

What is Grass-fed Beef?

If you ask anyone on the street what a cow eats, they probably would answer, “Grass!” But is that really the case? Maybe they were meant to eat grass… Maybe people envision cows standing out in a lush green field munching on all that nice green stuff, but is that really what the cows that we are eating eat themselves?

The term “grass-fed” is not strictly defined or regulated by any one agency. To put “grass-fed” on a label requires government approval, and some private organizations have set up their own standards and issue certifications for members that meet those standards. So when you are searching for “grass-fed beef”, what questions should you ask in order to know how that cow was really raised?

Here at Shady Grove Ranch, our “grass-fed-and-grass-finished” terminology means that the cows are raised from birth eating grasses, hay, and legume hay (and nursing on their mommas for about the first 9-10 months of their lives). To put it into negative terms, we never feed them corn, soy, oats, cottonseed, or any other grains; sweet-feed, conventional (soy/corn-based) range-cubes, grains, sugars, calf starter, etc. Our cows eat forage plants. We regularly supplement minerals via free-choice (see our article on the Bovine Buffet). If we are having extreme weather conditions such as drought, or have cows that need medical attention, we may offer them additional health-promoting feedstuffs such as raw vinegar, molasses, and a grass-based probiotic supplement. But these are not things we use to finish the animals, i.e. to put weight on them for slaughter.

We also do not feed growth stimulants, such as low-dose antibiotics. We do not use estrogen implants to hasten the growth of our stocker cows. We let our cows fatten naturally on pasture that we intensively manage. Why do we do it this way? Read on…

Cows aren’t meant to eat tons of grains

Conventional beef is finished on high starch grains such as corn. 100% grass-fed beef is both raised and “finished” only on pasture, and comes from cows that receive absolutely no harvested grains during their entire lives, including the last few months before processing. Most grasses do form a seed-head at some point during their growth season, and cows may eat those, but the difference is this: The cow is eating the whole plant, not just the energy portion. They get the fiber, the hull, and the starch all together. This is their natural food.

Cows are ruminant animals, meaning they have one stomach with four compartments, and are capable of breaking down plant matter (which humans cannot). They were created to eat grass and do not tend to thrive when fed anything else. It is also important that cows are raised naturally: without hormone implants, antibiotics, or other not-found-in-the-wild substances. These substances may carry over into the human food supply and cause unexpected, and undesired, effects.

Conventional cattle animals consume half the antibiotics produced in the US

When cows primarily eat grains for long periods of time, they can develop acidosis in their stomachs, which causes the walls to become ulcerated. These damaged walls allow bacteria to migrate into the body cavity where they cause abscesses. Meat processors like to get as much return on the animals they process as possible. According to Mercola.com, however, because of the health problems associated with cows eating excessive amounts of grains, as much as 13 percent of conventional animals’ livers must be discarded. They are so abscessed that they aren’t fit for human consumption. If antibiotics weren’t given, this number would increase to about 75%. Of all the antibiotics and baking soda produced in the US, half is fed to cows in order to counter the problems created when they are fed grain.1

Conventional beef creates greater risk of food-borne illness

Another potential issue with heavy grain feeding is the increased risk of bad bacteria. Women’s Health Magazine cites the Journal of Dairy Science’s theory that grain “creates an environment in [cow's] stomachs that’s more hospitable to [E. Coli], adding to the likelihood that the meat of a grain-fed animal will be contaminated with E. Coli during processing.”2

Feeding corn to cows increases pressure on the environment

For those who are environmentally conscious, as Women’s Health Magazine points out, switching to grass-fed can reduce the production of greenhouse gases, both produced by the cows themselves, and produced during the cultivation of corn. Corn requires a number of energy inputs, from chemical fertilizers to fuel for harvesting. Growing grass to feed cows, however, primarily requires energy from the sun, which is a totally renewable resource.

Studies show that grass-fed is higher in nutrients

In addition to environmental and animal concerns, a number of studies have been conducted on the human health benefits of eating grass-fed beef. A study conducted by the College of Agriculture at California State University found a number of such benefits. The first is that the fat in grass-fed beef contains 10 times as much beta-carotene than grain-fed meats. Beta-carotene is a natural precursor to Vitamin A, which is important for immune function; skin and mucous membrane maintenance; and eye, respiratory, urinary, and intestinal health. Grass-fed beef also contains Vitamin E, another fat-soluble vitamin, in amounts as much as 4.5 times more than in grain-fed meats. This vitamin helps with preventing heart disease and cancer.

Fatty acid profile of grass-fed is more beneficial

Finally, the type of fat found in grass-fed beef makes it a vastly different product than grain-fed beef. Grain-fed beef is much higher in Omega-6 fatty acids, which are one of the main fatty acids found in grains like corn. Omega-6 fatty acids, when out of balance in the body, can contribute to inflammation, blood-clotting, and tumor growth. Have a proper balance of Omega-3 fatty acids helps prevent these issues. Grass-fed beef has a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 that is more favorable to the human body—a ratio of 2:1 compared with typical grain-fed ratios of 4:1, or even as poor as 20:1. Grass-fed beef also contains higher levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA has been shown to reduce tumor size in mice, and is believed to help protect against cancer. It may also help prevent arterial blockage by plaque and reduce incidence of heart disease. CLA has been found to reduce the “accumulation of adipose tissue in experimental animals.” Grass-fed meats have been shown to have almost three times as much CLA as grain-fed meats.3

Does grass-fed taste different? We hope so!

Grass-fed or pasture-raised meats tend to be more flavorful. Some people tout that they are leaner overall, but we at Shady Grove Ranch will never process a scrawny animal for meat sales. We believe healthy animals have good fat cover, yet our goal is not animal obesity. What you will find in our beef is a good balance of fat (remember—it’s full of all those fat soluble vitamins!) and flavor, but it will not be greasy or bland. Grass-fed beef has great texture and tenderness when it is raised properly. Be careful, though, because once you try it, you may never be able to go back!

1Mercola.com, “High-Grain Cattle Diets Cause Antibiotic Need.”
2Moyer, Lindsay. “Grass is Greener.” www.womenshealthmag.com.
3http://www.csuchico.edu/agr/grassfedbeef/health-benefits/index.html