There’s a lot of confusion about what grass fed beef actually is. Here are the facts so you can be more informed about what is grass fed beef.
Grass fed beef was once a novelty, but now it can be found in many places, from restaurant menus to grocery stores. However, there is a lot of confusion about what the term really means and what the benefits of grass fed beef are.
What is grass fed beef?
Surprisingly, the USDA (who monitors food labels) doesn’t have an official definition for grass fed beef.
In 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the USDA, announced in a statement that it was dropping its official definition of “grass fed” because it doesn’t have the authority to define and determine whether grass fed claims are truthful and misleading.
All cows eat grass
When a calf is first born, it stays with its mom for about six-months and drinks her milk. At this time, the calf is weaned from its mother and it starts to eat grass. It will continue to eat grass until it’s about twelve months old.
At this stage, a farmer has a decision to make with two main options.
- Option 1: The cattle farmer can “finish” the animal on his farm and have it butchered at a local facility for beef. If the farmer chooses to finish the beef on his farm, he’ll also decide if it’s going to be grain finished, grass finished, organic, etc.
- Option 2: A cattle farmer can sell the animal (typically between 8-12 months of age). and the animal will eventually go to a feedlot where large beef packing houses package beef. When the animal is transferred to a feedlot, it is typically fed a diet that’s higher in grain (like corn), but it also contains hay and other grasses. This is for the last 6-8 months of their lives. This type of beef is called grain finished beef or conventional beef.
On our farm, we do both option 1 and option 2, depending on the animal.
Our best cattle take the path of option 1. We finish them on our farm, and they spend 100% of their lives in open, free range pasture. We then have them butchered at a local USDA approved facility.
Grass finished beef and grass fed beef are different
As described above, all cattle eat grass and can be considered “grass fed.”
If you want an animal that has only had grass its entire life, you need to look for the term “grass finished.”
On our farm, we sell both grass finished beef and grain finished beef. Both types of cattle spend 100% of their lives in open, free range pasture and they eat grass.
The only difference is that the grain finished cattle have a feed trough in their field and they have the option of eating grain when we put it in the feed trough. The rest of the time, they eat grass.
Our grass finished animals only eat grass (they don’t have a feed trough in their pasture).
Grain finished cattle eat grass too
Some people seem to think that grain finished cattle only eat grain. This is false. All beef cattle (even grain finished, spend the first 6 months of their lives drinking their mother’s milk, and then the eat grass in a pasture. It is only during the last 6-8 months of their lives that they are given grain.
Grass fed grass finished beef doesn’t always mean “pasture raised”
Some farmers have large cattle barns or large dirt lots where cattle can live year round. In some of these situations, they feed them grass (and hay) that is harvested somewhere else and brought to their cattle.
These cattle are labeled as “grass fed.” Technically, it’s true that they are. However, in our opinion, this is an example of why it’s important to know your farmer.
If you want an animal that’s raised in the pasture on grass, look for “pasture raised” on the label or get to know your local farmer.
“Organic” is not the same as “grass fed beef”
Beef labeled as “organic” may be fed grain as long as it’s organic grain. If you want beef that’s both organic and grass finished, you’ll need to look for both of these terms on the label.
Is grass finished beef healthier?
Nutritionally, grass finished beef has some great health attributes like more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain fed beef.
However, according to scientific experts, the jury is still out on if it’s really that much healthier. According to the American Meat Science Association
“Many people think that grass fed beef is healthier for you since if contains a different type of fat when compared to conventional grain fed beef. Grass fed beef contains lower levels of saturated fat and slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. While this is true neither source of beef has a sufficient number of omega-3s when compared to something such as salmon, which contains 35 times more omega-3 than beef.
While grass fed, beef does have lower levels of saturated fat, the difference isn’t significant. Texas A&M recently did a study of men to see if grass fed beef would lower cholesterol levels. Their results actually show that men who consume conventional corn-fed beef improved cholesterol levels while the men that consume grass fed beef saw little to no change in their cholesterol levels.”
Does grass fed beef taste different than traditionally raised beef?
Some people claim that grass fed beef has a more complex flavor profile, and it may even taste game-y. In addition, the fat in grass fed beef is typically more yellowish in color. The color doesn’t affect the quality of the beef.
What’s the bottom line?
Studies show that eating lean beef, as part of a balanced diet, supports healthy blood pressure and blood lipids.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a 3-oz. serving of lean beef (about the size of a deck of cards), has about 150 calories on average and is a good or excellent source of 10 essential nutrients like zinc, iron and B vitamins.
Lean cuts are defined as those with less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per 100 grams (3½ oz). These cuts generally have “Round” or “Loin” in their names, such as Sirloin Steak and Tenderloin Steak.
If you’re looking for a specific type of beef, like grass finished, read labels carefully. Even better, talk to a local farmer and buy directly from a local farm.
If you’re in the St. Louis, Missouri, area and looking for grass fed beef, let us know. We’re here to help answer any questions you have!
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Below are a few popular beef posts and recipes you may like. In addition, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
- Farm Life: How We Feed Cows
- What’s the Difference Between a Steer vs Bull? Cow vs Heifer?
- 27 Amazing Facts About Cows That Will Impress Your Friends
- Do Cows Have Teeth?
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
We have a weekly e-newsletter where we share about farm happenings, beef recipes, and when our next beef will be available to order. When you sign up, you’ll get a cheat sheet with 9-must-ask questions before buying beef directly from a farmer.