The Difference

What is so great about our beef anyway?

Ribeye Steak

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef — What’s the Difference?

Isn't Grass-fed beef just unmarbled and tasteless?

I asked lots of questions when we first started converting our cattle entirely to grass-fed in 2019. My question was this: "Most people aren't comparing apples to apples - people seem to be just butchering skinny cattle that were never finished and calling it grass-fed. So is there less fat IF YOU TAKE 70/30 grain-fed ground beef and 70/30 grass-fed ground beef? It would be the same, right? I was talking to an expert with decades of experience in the industry working with ruminant animals and advanced degrees in animal science. THEIR ANSWER WAS NO. The actual fat itself is different on a molecular level. Period.

At the end of the day, the main difference in our beef is the cattle aren't fed in confinement, which reduces their efficiency by around 25%. They are free to move about burning calories resulting in more time to produce a fat animal. Our beef is also dry-aged for an average of 21 days instead of being hosed down and packaged immediately. Because of this, it is more "beefy" and less "watery".

The difference between grass- and grain-fed cattle

In the United States, most cows begin their life the same.

The calves are born in the early spring, drink milk from their mothers, and are then allowed to roam free and eat grass or other edible plants they find in their environment.

This continues for about 7–9 months. After that, most conventionally raised cows are moved to feedlots.

Large feedlots are called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). There, the cows are kept in confined stalls, often with limited space.

They are rapidly fattened with grain-based feeds that are usually made from a base of soy or corn. Typically, their diet is also supplemented with small amounts of dried grass.

The cows live in these feedlots for a few months before being brought to a slaughterhouse.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The different feeding practices are complicated and varied.

For example, grass-fed beef in Australia may not be directly comparable to US products, and grass-fed beef isn’t necessarily pasture-raised. Not all grass-fed cows can graze outdoors.

In fact, the term grass-fed isn’t clearly defined.

That said, grass-fed cows eat (mostly) grass, while grain-fed cows eat (mostly) an unnatural diet based on corn and soy during the latter part of their lives.

To maximize growth, the cows are often given drugs, such as antibiotics and growth hormones.

As of January 1st, 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed new legislation known as the Veterinary Feed Directive.

According to this legislation, antibiotics that are considered important in human medicine need to be administered under the oversight of a licensed veterinarian and cannot be used for growth promotion (1Trusted Source).

How cows are fed can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of their beef.

Whereas cattle today are often fed grains, the animals people ate throughout evolution roamed free and ate grass.

Many studies have shown that the nutrients in beef can vary depending on what cows eat.

Where beef is mass-produced, such as in the United States, cattle are usually fed grain. However, grass-fed beef is common in many other countries, like Australia.

You may wonder if there is any difference in your health based on what cows are fed.

This article looks at the evidence to determine the differences between grass- and grain-fed beef.

Most cows start on a pasture, drinking milk and eating grass. However, conventionally raised cows are later moved to feedlots and fed mainly grain-based feeds.

Differences in fatty acid composition

“You are what you eat” applies to cows, too.

What a cow eats can significantly affect the nutrient composition of its beef. This is particularly evident when it comes to fatty acid composition.

Grass-fed beef usually contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, which means that gram for gram, grass-fed beef contains fewer calories (2Trusted Source).

However, the composition of fatty acids is also different:

  • Monounsaturated fat. Grass-fed beef contains much less monounsaturated fat than grain-fed beef (2Trusted Source).
  • Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Grass- 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 five times as much omega-3 (3Trusted Source).
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Grass-fed beef contains about twice as much CLA as grain-fed beef. This fatty acid is associated with a few health benefits (4Trusted Source5Trusted Source).

In short, there are some significant differences in the composition and amount of fat in grass and grain-fed beef.

Moreover, the breed and cut of meat considerably affect the fat composition of beef (2Trusted Source).

Grass-fed beef may contain less total fat than grain-fed beef, but a lot more omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, which are both linked to health benefits.

Grass-fed beef is more nutritious

Both grain- and grass-fed beef are highly concentrated sources of nutrients.

Beef is loaded with Vitamin B12, B3, and B6. It’s also rich in highly bioavailable iron, selenium, and zinc. In fact, meat contains almost every nutrient that you need to survive (6Trusted Source).

It also contains high-quality protein and various lesser-known nutrients, such as creatine and carnosine, which are very important for your muscles and brain.

But even though the difference isn’t great, grass-fed beef generally contains higher amounts of certain nutrients.

Compared with grain-fed beef, grass-fed is much higher in the following vitamins:

  • Vitamin A. Grass-fed beef contains carotenoid precursors to vitamin A, such as beta carotene.
  • Vitamin E. This antioxidant sits in your cell membranes and protects them from oxidation (4Trusted Source).

Grass-fed beef also tends to be richer in other antioxidants (7Trusted Source8Trusted Source).

Conventional grain-fed beef is highly nutritious, but grass-fed beef contains more carotenoids, vitamin E, and other antioxidants.

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