Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Cows
Whenever I read somewhere that eating meat is bad for your health and the planet, I want to call or write the author and tell them to correct the headline to "Eating factory-farmed GRAIN & SOY-fed meat is bad for your health and the planet". We always lump together very different types of cows and meat, condemning them all and ignoring facts like the one that by applying holistic grazing methods, cows can actually help to REDUCE climate change.
In this post, I want to clarify the differences between the different types of cows.
Unfortunately, it is NOT as simplistic as “organic vs. non-organic”. There’s lots of nuances and details that make the difference. I’ll try to explain.
Let’s start by defining what grass-fed and grain-fed actually mean, because those terms are not protected.
According to the USDA, grass (forage) fed means: “Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.”
This implies a few things:
- Beef can only be called grass-fed, when it has indeed gotten grass (or the other above named foods) throughout ALL ITS LIFE and with NO grain supplement. This means that "organic" cows getting a grain supplement as part of their diets, canNOT be called "grass-fed".
- Grass-fed beef can be raised on very different types of “grass” with very different nutrient content. Fresh grass and herbs (a varied salad buffet), just plain grass, dried grass (hay) or silage (fermented fresh grass).
- Grass-fed beef MUST have access to pasture, so it’s not ok to keep them in the stable all year long, even if the farmers go out in the field to cut the grass and bring it to the stable. Thus "grass-fed" usually means that they have lived a quite "organic" life, even if the meat is not certified organic.
That being said, there can be differences in HOW the grazing is organized.
- Cows can be kept completely “wild” and left to their own destiny until it’s time to catch and slaughter them. This is only possible in climates where greens are available throughout the year, incl. winter.
- Cows can be kept “wild” during seasons where plants are available for them to graze on and provided shelter (and hay) during winter. An example would be the Galloways used by the environmental organization Natuurpunt to maintain natural reserves in Flanders (and whose meat you can get in my shop). Those cows serve a purpose which goes far beyond commerce. They live 4-5 years before being slaughtered (compared to 1.5-2.5 years in conventional and organic farming).
- Cows can be “holistically managed”, meaning that the available prairie is divided into different slots and the cows are regularly rotated to a fresh slot. This is a quite “intensive” way of cattle farming, with cows crowded together, BUT the goal of this method is to mimic nature as much as possible, because in nature cows also tend to move in crowds, graze on a piece of land, move on when they are done there and only come back to it after a significant time of “rest” for the soil. Apart from animal welfare and nutritional considerations, this system also emphasizes the benefits for soil fertility, since the intense trampling stimulates plant growth, the manure is a natural fertilizer, and the rotation allows the plants to recover before the next “round” of grazing. A fertile soil is able to store more CO2 and to better absorb water (important for flood management). An example would be PureGraze meat available in the Netherlands.
- Cows can simply be allowed to pasture outside during the day and/or certain periods of the year. Feedbunks with additional feed (hay, silage) can or cannot be available in addition to the grass they find themselves. Some of the “organic” cows are grazed like that (most do get a grain supplement though, so would not count as 100% grass-fed, but rather as “grain-finished” – see below).
The term "grass-fed" does not say "antibiotic-free", although they usually do NOT get any antibiotics and/or preventive medical treatment, since there is no need for those (less risk of infection due to wrong diet or overcrowded feedlots).
Grain-fed doesn’t mean that the cows eat ONLY grains. All cattle, including non-organic, feedlot cattle usually is grazed (grass-fed) for the first 6 months of their lives, often together with their mother. This is called cow-calf-operation. From there, the calf is “backgrounded”, which means prepared for feed lot by slowly introducing it to corn. In the feedlot it is then fattened (grain-finished) on corn and other grains (plus some silage), vitamin supplements and antibiotics (and hormones in the US) to stimulate growth and “optimize” food efficiency. This allows to slaughter the cow much earlier than in the past (1.5-2 years rather than 4-5 years). The meat will also have a better marbling and thus be superior in palatability to 100% self-grazing cows.
The problems with this way of raising cattle are several. Besides the pesticides, hormones and GMO's potentially present in their feed, they are forced to eat something that nature has not intended them to eat - at least not in such concentration. Cows are herbivores, and their stomachs are meant to transform grass and herbs into valuable proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals easily absorbable for us (we are not able to absorb those directly from the grass/herbs - we need the cow as an intermediate). While even in nature they might end up eating SOME corn or grain (usually in its pre-grain state though, with the grass still on it), if they are fed on those EXCLUSIVELY, the ph in their stomach changes, making them susceptible to bacterial infections (e.g. E. Coli) and organ failure. They also excrete more methane gas. Since they cannot metabolize these grains very well, they gain weight (what is desired in this case) and the meat will be marbled. But more fat means more estrogens that we end up eating and that increase our own risk of gaining weight and developing symptoms related to estrogen dominance, incl. infertility. In the US, it is even allowed to feed additional hormones, to stimulate growth. If on top, those cows are raised in feed-lots (enormous, industrial "farms"), they don't lead very happy lives, since those are overcrowded, forcing the cows to stand in their own feces and preventing them from following their natural instincts. The prophylatic administration of antibiotics (to increase feed efficiency and stimulate growth) alters their gut flora, weakens their immune system and of course contaminates the meat and the environment, leading to resistance problematics and the development of super bugs. The cows suffer a lot of stress (which is stored energetically in the meat) and often die a very cruel death at the end of their short, unhappy life.
"Organic" cows might or might not be "grass-fed". Most "organic" meat is partially grain-fed and/or grain-finished. This is because the farmers have an interest in increasing the animals' final weight and thus their revenue. The difference to conventional feedlot farming is, that the cows are usually kept more extensively (less cows), that there is NO prophylactic antibiotic or hormone use and that the grains are “organic”. So in general, the cows lead a better life than their conventional counterparts, although this highly depends on the kind of "organic" you buy (unfortunately "organic" is often a mere Marketing tool nowadays, and doesn't necessarily mean more animal welfare, read more here). When it comes to the composition of the grain feed, this can vary tremendously, too. Some organic cows are still finished mainly on corn or soy, which is not ideal, even if that soy and corn is organic. Other organic cows do not receive corn or soy, but a mixture of local grains and legumes, like triticale or peas. While this is already MUCH better than conventional feedlot meat, it is still not "perfect" from a nutritional point of view. So "organic" does not automatically mean "grass-fed", nor does "grass-fed" automatically mean "organic". There might in fact be farms that work "organic" without being certified.
Advantages of grass-fed beef
The following compares 100% grass-fed beef with grain-finished beef (source). The exact numbers can vary depending on the amount and type of grains.
- Contains 2-5 times more omega 3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. The omega 3 / omega 6 ratio of grass-fed beef is 1,5 : 1 while the ratio of grain-fed beef is 7,65 : 1.
- The meat is leaner and thus contains less calories per 100g.
- Contains more of the "good" saturated fat than the (potentially) "bad" one.
- Contains 2-3 times more CLA (conjugated-linoleic acid), a potent anti-oxidant found in meat and milk.
- Contains much more beta-carotine (antioxidant and pre-cursor to vitamin A) than grain-fed beef (this is why the fat is more yellow).
- Contains much more vitamin E, glutathione and other important antioxidants. Those also protect the meat itself from damage during transport or cooking.
- Contains more zinc and iron.
- Creates less methane gas (cows that eat food not made for their stomachs produce and burp out more of that).
- The cows are healthier. Grains change the ph of the cow's stomach, making it susceptible for bacterial infections and illness in general.
- Integrating "big grazers" in a sustainable grazing program, helps to reduce climate change.
Here you find more arguments why eating meat is not the problem, but eating factory-farmed meat is.