Grass-fed vs Grain-fed beef & why does it matter?

Grass fed vs Grain fed beef and Why does it matter? - The Urban Ecolife

Just like any food you consume, it’s important to know where it’s coming from and what’s gone into the production of said food. Meat is no exception. With steak being a personal favourite treat of mine, let me explain why it is important to choose grass-fed vs grain-fed beef.


The biggest concern lies in the production and consumption of grain based products and grain-fed livestock. Only 60 percent of the food grown actually goes directly into the mouths of humans – mostly grains, followed by pulses (beans, lentils), oil plants, vegetables and fruits (Foley, 2011). A staggering 35 percent is used to produce grain-based animal feed, leaving the remaining 5 percent to be converted into bio-fuels and various other industrial products. A mere one kilogram of edible, boneless beef requires a staggering 30 kilograms of grain to compensate for feed to the cow (Foley, 2011).


You can imagine the pressure this places on our global food system when you consider the average consumer’s preference and demand for lean, boneless cuts. Why do you think there’s such a high premium on these favourable cuts? This leaves a huge black hole of waste for the more unfavourable parts of the cow, that is, the organs, bones and fattier cuts. Darn it, I let the cat out of the bag on this one. My secret has been revealed! You see, I can score myself a good kilo of grass-fed beef bone cuts (with plenty of meat still on them) for less than $5. Popped into the slow cooker and left to stew for 24 hours and I have myself a delicious and healthy bone broth and plenty of meat which I then use for stews and curries. Lucky for me, I don’t think the whole population of Australia is reading this so I think the demand for these cheaper cuts will go unchallenged for some time still.


The Ethical Picture


Moving on, the ethics of raising cattle on grain-based diets, more specifically, through the use of industrial feedlots, is confronting. It’s an unnatural substitute of food for their selective herbivore diet. It’s a known fact in the beef industry that poisoning and death can occur when introducing grains to the diet of a cow too quickly. Most herbivores are restricted to a small selection of food which they rely on in order to survive. To cows, that be grass. To the Panda Bear, that be bamboo. The Koala, eucalyptus leaves. This list goes on. You take that food source away and you have a whole species of animals that cannot survive. This is quite unlike omnivores who are fortunate to be able to eat a wide and varied diets and find it easier to adapt to external pressures (such as changes in climate, natural disturbances to their food supply, famine, etc)  that force a change in diet. Think of the raccoon, the dog or the cat, all of whom can scavenge and thrive sifting through the human trash can. You may question though, why then are cows able to survive having been fed a grain-based diet?  Let’s look at why cattle are fed grains in the first place and what are the consequences of this system.


Cattle are supplemented, alongside their standard diet of hay, straw and grass, with grain, soy and other ingredients in order to increase the energy density of their diet. It’s a common practice to ‘finish’ cattle on grain during their last days in industrial feedlots. Farmers pass on their cows to feedlots in order to manage this process. It is essentially a fattening agent which produces the fat marbling in meat cuts that is so highly touted in the culinary world. Yes, some people will insist that this is the ‘preferred’ way to eat beef and results in tastier cuts and gees, I am insulting the culinary world of steak by thinking otherwise, but they are ignoring the bigger picture and the consequences. Having come to this realisation myself, I actually turn my nose up at menus boasting the 100 day grain-fed steak the size of a human head with a hefty price tag attached to it. Australia has a huge export market for grain-finished meat because it’s so highly prized by some foreign cuisines, such as the Wagyu preference in Japan. It’s a taste that has a high price tag and because of that, is attracting even more interest from farmers as the Asian middle class continues to expand. This article sheds some light on the booming demand and interest for our Australian beef.


The truth is, raising cattle on grain-based diets requires more inputs than outputs; a fundamental flaw in the whole process that makes it an unsustainable food supply and system. There are external consequences to our environment that are often disregarded because most people simply consider the bag of feed as being the only input to the whole equation and the dollar return on the other end. When you factor in, however, the previous noted ratio of kilograms of grain-feed required to beef-output (30:1), and the correlated environmental impacts of grain agriculture on our environment, including monoculture farming, water wastage and larger rates of genetically engineered seeds being used, and the environmental impacts of industrial feedlots, the equation is suddenly unbalanced and rather hard to stomach.


Speaking of stomachs, grass-fed animals have as much as 80% less of the strain of E.coli in their guts than their grain-fed counterparts according to a study by Cornell University (Russel, 2002). It’s no wonder that feedlot cattle require large doses of antibiotics. Animals that are forced to live in high density and unsanitary environments, such as seen in cattle and chicken feedlots, are more susceptible to spreading disease. These confined conditions are also extremely stressful for the animals and we all know that stress is detrimental to our immune systems. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, this can negatively impact the quality of the final beef product. What a waste of the whole process when this is the result? Furthermore, a grain based diet is acidic to the digestive tract as opposed to the alkaline promoting benefits of a plant based diet (Pollan, 2002). This carcinogenic diet adds physiological stress on the body making it susceptible to sickness. As a result, these animals are highly vaccinated with antibiotics and hormones which are also used as a steroid agent to promote faster growth and fattening, thereby, producing a higher turnover of beef.


What are the benefits of choosing Grass-fed over Grain-fed Beef?


There are many health benefits of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is leaner by nature because the cattle are required to ‘work’ for their good; grazing on pasture all day rather than being hand-fed grains in a feedlot stall. Even if you have a preference for the fattier cuts of meat as I do, (because yes, saturated fat is good for us contrary to conventional wisdom), grass-fed beef has higher levels of CLA (Conjugated linoleic Acid) fats and 2-3 times more Omega 3 fatty acids than conventional beef. These Omega 3s are formed in the chloroplasts of the green leaves and algae found in the pastures they are grazing on. This is good stuff people. The cows are turning an inedible plant into more readily, bioavailable forms of nutrients. Their four stomachs are doing all the hard-yard for us!


Not only this but grass-fed meat is more nutritionally dense across the board. It has higher levels of antioxidants (vitamin E & beta-carotene), B-vitamins ( in particular thiamin and riboflavin) and minerals (calcium, magnesium and potassium) (Source).


Pasture raised cattle are often treated more ethically and live a happier and healthier life. Raising cattle in this manner also has the potential to radically transform landscapes. The natural process of recycling nutrients into the soil when they excrete and ‘dump’ (to put it ever so elegantly), injects the earth with high levels of nitrates for the next generation of grass to grow. Have you ever observed a field where a herd of cattle has previously grazed and returned a second time round. There are distinct patches of flourishing green grass that have been left untouched whilst the rest of the field has been stripped bare. It’s rather confusing to the human eye as we would think the dense green grass would be an ideal spot to graze on. But the cows are smart. You see, this is where a previous ‘patty’ was left by one of their counterparts. The grass is too high in nitrates for their liking, so the grass is left to it’s own devices to grow and grow until the nutrients have been properly recycled back into the earth. Next time round though, the grass will be ready for them to eat. It’s a natural process that allows for regrowth. Meanwhile, where the cows have trodden, the earth is naturally being turned and stimulates further growth so the cycle can repeat. Nature has a funny way of knowing how to take care of itself. When left to it’s own devices, the cycle will be able to take care of itself and all we need to do to is facilitate and manage the process (that is, move the cattle onto the next field to graze). They will do the work of returning nutrients back into the soil so there’s no need for nitrogen fertilisers to promote grass growth which we have a tendency to use unnecessarily anyway, with the excess leaching into our waterways.


A fundamental principle of Permaculture is that everything serves more than one purpose. So yes, raising cattle can serve more than one purpose other than just feeding us. If you haven’t watched the TedX talk presented by Allan Savoury about intentional cattle grazing and rotation, I highly encourage you to take a moment to do so.


Are there downsides to this otherwise, rather glowing picture I’ve painted?


There is a downside to raising cattle on pasture though and this mustn’t be overlooked. There’s no denying that livestock contribute to significant levels of methane in the air which contributes to greenhouse gases. As a farmer, you are also exposed to other risk factors such as being subject to the weather. One dry season and your costs skyrocket as you are required to buy in hay and alfalfa to supplement their diet. Even if you are making use of some that you’ve grown yourself, the harsh reality is that you may not have enough. This makes it even more important for farmers to be organised and forever vigilant over the management of their farm as a whole. Raising cattle on pasture requires patience, a lot of observation and careful management. Unfortunately, consumers don’t always have the patience for this.


Furthermore, there’s the added costs of land and manpower to manage this process of cattle grazing rotation. With land becoming more and more valuable and less and less available, Savoury’s thoughts make a whole lot more sense. When you have cattle stations in outback Australia the size of small European nations, you also require station hands who have a good grasp on cattle wrangling. These workers are not always easy to find and retain in such remote areas. This calls for even more support to be thrown at small scale farmers in your local area. You can imagine the effects of price in the industry when you have small scale farmers being pressured to compete with the likes of large scale production factories who are pumping out the grain-fed beef from feedlots.


The good news to this, is that there are farmers who are getting by and making a living by raising cattle on pasture. A new standard needs to be set though where they don’t just have to ‘get by’ in order to make a living, but to give them an equal opportunity to make just as good of a living to those of us who are sitting at a desk banging on our keyboards all day. We can help these farmers by supporting them in buying their meat with our dollar. Contrary to common belief, the expense of grass-fed and organic beef isn’t that much more expensive, if not cheaper than those ‘export graded’ cuts of meat you see on supermarket shelves. Buy in bulk and opt for cheaper cuts and you have yourself some remarkable savings! I’m stoked to see pasture raised/grass-fed steaks increasingly gracing the menus of some restaurants in my area. This increasing demand encourages these farming practices and helps to educate other consumers that there are other options are out there.


What will the future bring?


With the growing trend towards urbanization, alongside higher standards of living, we will see a surge in the global demand for livestock products in the years to come. Compared with the less diversified diets of the rural communities, city dwellers have a varied diet rich in animal proteins and fats, and characterized by higher consumption of meat, poultry, milk and other dairy products (Source). Developing nations are consuming more meat than ever before as imrpoved infrastrcuture for cold refrigeration becomes more widely available. As I’ve said numerous times on this blog before, as our population continues to grow, the problem isn’t going to get any easier to manage. There will be added pressure on these food systems and we need to start adapting to change now in order to secure our future. Scientists are already jumping on the opportunity to use stem cell research to grow meat in a petrie dish (Source). Whilst the cost of this research may keep it off our supermarket shelves for some time yet, this kind of reality could very well be in our generation’s future.


The choice lies in your hands though. Whether you change the way you shop or you re-evaluate just what constitutes an adequate portion of meat on your dinner plate, I encourage you to support your local farmers who are practicing these methods in whatever way possible. I’m not here to dictate whether you should or should not eat meat. I’m here to encourage a thought process so we can learn together and offer up solutions for the problems at hand. Meanwhile, I’ve got a BBQ to start up…


Foley, Jonathan A. “Can we feed the world and save the planet?” (Scientific American, November 2011)
Pollan, Michael. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (New York: Penguin Press, 2006)
Russel, James B. “Rumen Microbiology and Its Role in Ruminant Nutrition” (Ithaca, NY: self published, 2002)
Image Credit: Jeroen Bennink

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Posted on by Emily Uebergang Posted in EcoLiving

About Emily Uebergang

Urban hippie by day, wandering gypsy by night. Emily is all about sustainable living and writes like she's out to try and save the world or something. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google+