Laura Holt, for Agrilicious!
Over the years, sadly, the way we raise animals meant for consumption has been changing. To increase production, adjustments have been made to the natural diets of livestock. The specifics of these dietary changes vary significantly between entities producing beef and the implications can be equally varied, but for those of us interested in consuming meat, it's worth knowing a little bit about the processes of how these animals are raised and the potential effects on the humans that consume them.
What Does Grass-Fed Beef Mean?
Grass and fresh forage are a cow’s natural diet and typically what it needs to grow into a healthy adult. After 6-12 months of weaning, a grass fed cow grazes in a pasture for the rest of its life. When a cow eats only grass, the result can be significantly different than a cow with a less natural diet. Their meat is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids known in several studies to fight the degeneration of the brain and protect against cancer. The beef is also higher in vitamins A and E which have antioxidant properties. Finally, grass fed animals are often times much more humanely treated and avoid an existence confined to small spaces.
What Does Grain-Fed Beef Mean?
On the other hand, to increase production and profits some companies have moved to raise their cattle on grains. There are many issues that stem from feeding cows grains. First and foremost, grain was never a natural part of a cow’s diet, so cows raised eating grains are often less healthy than grass fed cows. They produce an inferior meat, which is higher in saturated fat and contains 1/5 of the amount of healthy omega-3 fats as beef raised on grass alone. The base of a grain fed cow’s diet is usually a cheap crop like corn or soy which takes up a lot of land to grow and also requires pesticides and fertilizers, which can run off in to our water supply. Lastly, grain fed cows are kept in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), which can be pretty scary, unsanitary places. In these facilities, the risk of cows coming down with infections is high so their feed usually contains antibiotics, which becomes a component of the beef they produce. They are often also given hormones to artificially accelerate their growth in an effort to increase production. Everything from the quality of life for the cow to the nutrition of the meat is inferior when a cow is raised on grains rather than grass.
Grain-Finished vs. Pasture-Finished
There are important distinctions to be made when indicating the diet of the last 60-90 days of the cow's life before slaughter. This period is referred to as the "finishing" stage and cows can either be grain finished or pasture finished. Grain finished cows are weaned, allowed free access to the outside to forage until they reach skeletal and muscle maturity and then they are given grains the last few months of their lives to help them fatten up before slaughter so that the meat has more flavor. Pasture finished beef follow the same pattern, but the last 2-3 months are spent naturally foraging in a pasture. It can be difficult to ensure cattle raised by this method gain the appropriate amount of fat to be deemed select or choice cuts, but the health benefits and price point arguably make it worth the effort and planning required.
If you care about where you food comes from, how it was raised and the nutrition it is providing to you don't be afraid to do your research before you do your purchasing. When it comes to the food you eat, it's always better to be informed so that you can make decisions that align with your preferences and needs.