Grass fed cattle eat grass and never go to the feedlot for finishing, typically have less fat and marbling and often are more expensive. Meanwhile, grain fed cattle still eat grass but are fed grain during the last 4 to 6 months of their life to fatten up their bodies, leading to better marbling.
Today, consumers have a myriad of choices to make, but it wasn’t always the case.
It is important to understand the differences between grass-fed cattle and grain-fed cattle before making a decision on which type should be produced or eaten.
Table of Contents
Grass Fed Cattle vs Grain Fed Cattle
|Grass Fed Cattle||Grain-Fed Cattle|
|May be better environmentally due to regenerative agricultural practices|
Pasture-raised and spend entire life eating grass
Never go to a feedlot for finishing
Less fat content and marbling
Darker red color of meat
Tastes different than grain-fed beef with more minerality
More expensive ($3 more per pound on average)
Has 5x more omega-3 fatty acids
Have the same amount of omega 6 fatty acids as grain-fed cattle
Has more Vitamin A and Vitamin E
Contains more antioxidants and 7 times the amount of beta-carotene
Has fat that is yellow rather than bright white due to beta-carotene
May or may not be given antibiotics and growth hormones
|May be better environmentally due to shorter lifespan and less methane emission|
Spends the majority of their lives eating grass (89% of lifespan on average)
Spend between 4 and 6 months at a feedlot eating grains, local veg, and hay/forage making up (11%) of their lifetime diet
More marbling throughout meat
Meat is less red than grass-fed
Traditional flavor profile
Less expensive than grass-fed cattle ($3 less per pound on average)
Has between 90 and 100 more calories per serving
Has 5x less omega 3’s
Have the same amount of omega 6 fatty acids as grass-fed cattle
Has less Vitamin A and Vitamin E
Has less beta-carotene
Has white fat rather than yellow fat
May or may not be given antibiotics and growth hormones
Consumer Sentiment Has Changed
Consumers in the early part of the millennium began to become aware that industrial agriculture, especially beef production has a significant environmental impact due to methane emissions, deforestation, and water usage.
Simultaneously, a growing movement for people to understand where the food they were eating was coming from began to create a market for food that had been sustainably, locally and humanely raised.
Farmers and ranchers began to see that there was a niche market for artisanal products that were seen as healthier, better for the environment, and locally sourced. Enter “grass-fed beef” – the perfect product to fill that niche.
The commercials wrote themselves. In a time when smartphones became a new appendage, the message that grass-fed beef was healthier and better for animal welfare was everywhere.
Farmers began producing grass-fed beef, and grocery stores began stocking it next to the expensive cuts like filet mignon. Grass-fed beef became synonymous with quality, and people were willing to pay a lot more for it.
Of course, while most consumers believe there is a huge difference between grass-fed cattle and grain-fed cattle, the differences are quite small.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass – the difference is in the “finishing” of the cattle.
For the last 4 to 6 months of life, grain-fed cattle are moved to feedlots and given a mixture of corn, soy, hay, and local produce to put on weight quickly and consequently get them to market faster. Grass-fed cattle are never moved off of the pasture and take longer to gain enough weight for market.
The debate around whether grass-fed beef or grain-fed beef is “better” ultimately comes down to consumer preferences. However, there is a much greater difference for farmers in terms of input cost and time depending on which type of cattle they choose to raise.
At first glance, it may seem there is a huge difference between grass-fed cows and soybean or corn-fed cows in terms of nutritional value, and it may seem as though the extra price consumers are willing to pay is worth the overall health benefits. But is it?
CLA stands for conjugated linoleic acid, and one of the main selling points of grass-finished beef is that it has higher levels of CLA’s which is said to help fight against obesity and cancer in human populations. In this case, grass-fed beef has twice the amount of CLA’s of grain-fed beef.
Grass-fed cattle has five times as many omega 3’s, and more vitamin A and vitamin E.
Grass-fed cattle has fewer calories and less monosaturated fat, though the same amount of omega-6 fatty acids.
In research performed by the Department of Animal Science at A&M University on their study of ground beef, grain-fed beef had “more oleic acid and less saturated/trans-fats” than grass-fed beef. The study concluded, “So, at this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle.”
This sentiment was echoed by Healthline, “Even though grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of certain nutrients, there is currently no compelling evidence that it’s significantly healthier than grain-fed beef in the context of a balanced diet.”
Beef that is grain-fed or grass-fed is highly nutritious as a whole food and contains vitamins b3, b6, b12, selenium, iron, and zinc. It is high in protein and has nearly every nutrient required for survival.
Whether consumers think the extra vitamins and CLA’s of grass-fed beef are worth the heftier price tag is ultimately their decision and stores make it easy for consumers who can pick out meat with the grass-fed label.
In terms of labeling, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, 2007 “Certification through the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) voluntary labeling program does not guarantee a particular nutrient profile but does guarantee that beef marketed as “grass (forage) fed” will be from cattle fed grass and forage throughout “… the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.”
Of course, having a grass-fed label doesn’t guarantee that an animal was treated humanely or was in good health at the time they were slaughtered. If these factors are important, it may be best to purchase local beef from a farm that is open to the public.
In general, the health benefits of a particular kind of meat is just one factor for choosing it. Taste and quality also play a major role in determining what kind of meat to purchase.
Red meat quality and flavor differ greatly between grass-fed animals and grain-fed animals, with the difference being primarily in the concentrations of fat.
Fat equates to juicy meat that is full of flavor. This is why most people will choose ground beef which has a higher proportion of fat when making burgers or meatloaf such as 20/80.
Of course, some people prefer lean meat and if they know how to properly cook it, it can also be delicious. Yet either way, lean meat is noticeably drier than meat that has a lot of fat.
In terms of quality, most people believe grass-fed beef cattle are superior. However, grass-fed beef has lower USDA quality grades because it has less marbling, particularly when judging ribeye cuts.
Naturally, the USDA grade is not the only factor when judging meat quality. The taste and tenderness can vary between animals and can depend on how it was cooked.
The type of beef people ultimately buy is really up to consumer preference.
Ranchers and farmers often have a hard time deciding whether to finish their cattle on pasture or in the feedlot.
Input considerations include:
- Cost of feed
- Health care including vaccines and deworming
- Time to send cattle to slaughter
- Weight of slaughtered animals
- Amount of money paid per pound
Grass-fed animals cost less in terms of feed costs, but typically weigh less than their grain-finished counterparts. According to NPR, grain-fed cows will weigh around 1350 lbs while the same species of grass-fed cattle weigh around 1,200lbs.
Grass-fed cattle are slaughtered between 20 and 28 months of age rather than the 12 to 18 months of grain-fed cattle.
It is also more difficult to produce grass-fed cattle year-round because of seasonality. The location and size of pasture matter when producing grass-fed cattle.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Services, it is vital to calculate how much pasture you need per head. For grass-fed cattle, the amount is roughly 5 acres per head, and grass doesn’t grow year-round, so the cost of hay supplements will need to be factored in.
While it is often more cost-effective to produce grain-fed cattle, consumer demand for grass-fed beef is climbing. According to Market Watch, grass-fed cattle demand is soaring and steadily climbing with expectations that it will peak in 2029.
Ultimately, farmers need to consider all of these factors when determining whether it makes more sense to produce grass-fed or grain-fed cattle.
Why Are Cattle Fed Grain?
Cattle are fed grain for the last 4 to 6 months of their life in order to gain weight quickly. They are moved to feedlots where they are given unrestricted access to grain and don’t have to waste calories foraging for their own food.
Cows who eat grain have more fat and tend to have meat that is rated a higher quality due to fat marbling.
What Tastes Better Grain-Fed or Grass-Fed Beef?
Many people claim that they can’t tell a difference when meat is properly cooked while others claim that grain-fed beef tastes better because it has more fat and natural juices.
Grass-fed beef has a more mineral taste, and some people prefer this minerality to the traditional beef flavor provided by grain-fed cattle.
Ultimately it is up to each person to decide which tastes better as it is a matter of individual taste.
What are the Benefits of Grain-fed Beef?
Grain-fed beef has higher fat. It is usually rated higher according to the USDA due to marbling and less exact cooking processes are needed as the meat is more forgiving due to the fat content.
Grain-fed beef is also less expensive for farmers to produce, and thus less expensive for consumers to buy.