Pasture Raised Vs Free Range Cows: What Is The Difference and Does It Matter?

Pasture raised cows is an official term where cows only eat grass and other natural vegetation, but no grain. Meanwhile, the term 'free range cows' is an unofficial term where cows have unrestricted access to grazing land but can consume grass, vegetation, grain and other supplements. 

The differences seem subtle but are quite obvious to everyday farmers. Both animals have free access to fields, but only pasture-raised are truly ‘organic’.

Pasture Raised (Grass-Fed)

Pasture-raised animals are brought up grazing free on pasture in natural surroundings and only eat grass and other natural vegetation. While they may be described as free-range, pasture-raised cattle only graze and forage outside for a part of the day.

Free Range

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have an official description for free-range beef and pork products. Their only definitions of free-range apply to poultry; no other animal products qualify.

When talking about “free-range” cattle, most Americans would traditionally associate the term with cows roaming freely over the pasture, unrestricted by any barriers or cattle herders.

In legal terms, some specific species of cattle had permission to roam free. Any property damage was not the responsibility of the cattle owner.

In some cases, this lack of liability meant that landowners would build fences to keep the free-range cattle from getting onto their properties, or cattle owners would build them to keep the cattle from roaming outside theirs.

Most grass-fed or forage-fed livestock can be free-range if they do not feed in a restricted space. And yet, not all free-range livestock feed exclusively on grass or forage.

The Agriculture Marketing Service has previously stated that for livestock to receive a “free-range” classification, they must have continuous and unrestricted access to grazing land for a minimum of 80 percent of their life.

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Other Definitions

Grain-fed cows might eat a mixture of corn and other grain suitable for cattle. They may be given supplements, such as growth hormones to speed up weight gain. Other supplements improve health or help dairy cows produce more milk.

Grass-fed cows follow the most natural and suitable diet possible for cattle. They only eat natural vegetation, such as sorghum grass or forage legumes. A cow has four stomachs and is, therefore, a ruminant. Their digestive system copes with the sturdy, fiber-rich grass found on grazing pastures more quickly than it does grain.

No Global Standardization

It is significant to point out that there’s no global standardization regarding a definition. There isn’t much national regulation either, and you can only rely on the accreditation procedures manufacturers follow when labeling their meat.

2 cows on pasture
These cattle are both pasture-raised and free-range, unless they eat grain, in which case, they are only free-range.

For example, grass-fed cows have had a natural diet – as their physical constitution intended. The labeling refers to the cow’s dietary habits but won’t include further details, such as poor natural surroundings. Under three percent of all beef sold in the United States is grass-fed.

What Does This Mean For Consumers?

Meat, egg, and dairy products from pasture-fed cattle are usually healthier. They have fewer calories and a lower fat content than foods derived from cattle that have been reared more conventionally.

According to reports, pasture-fed meat has a higher vitamin content, especially vitamin D and linoleic and omega-3 fatty acids. Free-range chickens also have fewer calories and less fat. Their eggs have a higher vitamin content and more omega-3 fatty acids than more traditionally-reared poultry.

As far as environmental impacts are concerned, pasture-fed cattle operations are less damaging to natural resources. It is less likely to provoke climate change while benefiting consumer and animal health.

Farms that allow their cattle to feed on pasture do not have to buy or manufacture feed supplements.

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If you prefer meat from a cow that has eaten the food it was designed to eat, i.e., grass and little to no grain, grass-fed beef is what you should purchase. However, if you think it is more important that your cattle are free to wander around in their natural environment, you should buy pasture-raised meat.

Of course, you may ask, if a pasture has grass on it, why wouldn’t pasture-raised cattle qualify as grass-fed? The answer would be that a farmer can feed the pasture-raised cow grass, especially if the pasture is sparse or covered in snow. A pasture-raised cow can be grass-fed, but only if its diet consists mainly of grass throughout its life.

Similarities Of Free-Range And Pasture-Raised Beef

As we’ve mentioned before, while there are differences between free-range and pasture-raised beef, there is also a lot of common ground. Both designations are valid for cattle allowed to roam and graze naturally with no restrictions.

1. Happier Animals

Living in this nature-friendly way means the meat produced is free from artificial or synthetic additives. Additionally, with animal welfare a priority, the cattle will be happier and healthier and have higher quality meat in return with a cruelty-free environment.

Most feeder steers spend their last months in a feedlot before going to market. This method is known as finishing or growing out. Many end-consumers dislike and find this particular farming practice unethical.

2. Free From Hormones and Antibiotics

As mentioned above, perhaps the best-known characteristic of free-range and pasture-raised cattle is the organic nature of their feed regime.

The rancher may administer antibiotics to treat illnesses, but these cattle do not tend to receive growth or feed-efficiency hormones. Organic farming means ranchers will not use chemicals on the cattle pasture. Consequently, these cattle will generally eat pasture that is non-GMO or free from pesticides and other harmful agricultural chemicals.

Their constant movement while grazing allows them to develop the musculature they need to produce high-quality meat. The premium paid for organic beef also offsets the need for hormone implants.

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3. Healthier Beef

Free-range and pasture-raised beef is scientifically demonstrated to contain higher levels of beneficial elements, including:

  • Omega 3, an anti-inflammatory.
  • Vitamin E, which lowers the incidence of cardiovascular problems.
  • Conjugated linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid.

4. Environmentally Friendly

Free-range and pasture-raised animals improve the environment. Their manure and control of grass growth contribute to sustainability and a completely natural environmental cycle. A cow’s feces add valuable phosphates and other minerals to the soil.

Pasture-raised livestock allows wildlife to thrive. They cause far less damage to the environment and contribute to a well-balanced eco-system. However, farmers do have to be careful of overgrazing.

Lower carbon footprints are an added advantage with no products that involve fossil fuels in their manufacture, e.g., pens, concrete for paddock flooring, and shelters. Feed and input manufacturers also produce carbon dioxide.

Glossary of Terms

To sum up, let’s look at quick definitions of the terms we’ve discussed above and some related ones you might encounter:

  • Pasture finished: These cattle have grazed on pasture before going to market and may have been fed grain.
  • Grain-fed and finished: These cattle have eaten grain for much of their lives.
  • Grass-fed: These cattle have eaten grass at some point in their lives.
  • Grass-finished: These cattle grazed on grass in the run-up to market. They might have been fed grain.
  • 100% pasture-fed or grass-fed and finished: These cattle have only eaten grass and never grain.
  • Free range: Have unrestricted access to land, but may be fed grain (this is still an unofficial term)

The USDA regulates “Free Range” for use on poultry only, not eggs. The USDA requires that birds have outdoor access for an undetermined period every day.

Remarkably, the USDA considers five minutes of open-air access each day to be adequate to approve the “Free Range” claim on chickens, while the “Free Range” claims on eggs have no regulation whatsoever.

Free-range cattle is not an official term and should never appear on meat or dairy farming product packaging.


Adam has always had a fascination with farmyard animals, no doubt sparked by the farm in Devon he used to visit every summer when he was a young pup. He became close friends with the farmer’s children, two of which were about his age, and they allowed him to help out with cattle milking, herding and tagging. Being a fondly magical experience, he recently jumped at the opportunity to help the team at Cow Care Taker.

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