Grass-Fed + Grain-Finished = The Best Of Both Worlds For Beef

What is grass-fed beef?

Grass-fed beef comes from cows that have spent their entire lives grazing on pasture grasses and forage plants after they are weaned from their mother’s milk. True 100% grass-fed beef cattle eat only grass and forage from weaning until harvest – they are never fed grain, corn, soy or byproducts.

Grass-fed cows get all the nutrients they need from the diverse range of grasses and legumes they eat. Their diet consists of grasses like ryegrass, timothy and bermuda, as well as legumes like clover and birdsfoot trefoil. This 100% grass and forage diet is the natural diet for cows evolved as ruminants to eat.

In contrast to conventional feedlot cattle that are fed a high-calorie grain-based diet, 100% grass-fed cows get their energy and nutrition solely from grazing on pasture. Their diet and lifestyle allows them to grow at a natural, healthy pace while getting exercise from roaming freely and grazing on pasture. This all-grass diet and pasture-based system is the foundation for nutritionally superior grass-fed beef.

What is grain-finished beef?

Grain-finished beef refers to cattle that are grass-fed for most of their lives, but are finished on a grain-based diet during the last few months before slaughter. During the grain-finishing phase, cattle are fed a calorie-dense mixture of grains like corn, wheat, barley or soybeans in addition to roughage like hay.

The goal of grain-finishing is to increase the marbling and fat content within the muscle. Most beef sold in grocery stores today comes from grain-finished cattle, as the added marbling results in beef that is more tender and flavoursome. Grain-finishing also allows cattle to reach their ideal slaughter weight faster. Typically, grass-fed cattle are grain-finished for 90-160 days before slaughter.

The grain-finishing period rapidly increases intramuscular fat, giving the beef a fatty marbling that is considered desirable. This contrasts with exclusively grass-fed beef that has a lower overall fat content. However, some farms still choose to avoid grain-finishing to market 100% grass-fed beef.

Key differences between grass-fed and grain-finished

Grass-fed and grain-finished cattle have important differences in their diet and the timeframe in which they are raised. This impacts the nutritional profile of the beef.

Diet: Grass-fed cattle spend their entire lives eating grass. Grain-finished cattle begin eating grass but are moved to a feedlot and fed an intensive grain-based diet for the last 90-160 days before slaughter.

Timeframe: Grass-fed cattle take about 18-24 months to reach slaughter weight. Grain-finished cattle reach market weight more quickly at around 14-18 months.

The grain-based diet changes the nutritional profile of grain-finished beef compared to 100% grass-fed:

– Grain-finished beef is higher in intra-muscular fat, known as marbling. This can improve tenderness and flavor.

– Grass-fed beef is leaner with lower total fat levels. It has higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

– Grass-fed beef is higher in certain micronutrients like vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C and antioxidant enzymes.

So while grain-finishing impacts taste and tenderness, grass-fed beef offers some nutritional advantages. Grass-fed grain-finished aims to combine the best of both.

Why Do Some Farms Use Grain-Finishing?

Many beef producers choose to grain-finish their cattle after an initial period of grazing on pasture. There are two main reasons farmers utilize grain-finishing:

– It results in more marbling and tenderness in the beef. The grains provide a concentrated source of carbohydrates and calories that promote intramuscular fat development, known as marbling. This marbling creates a juicier and more tender beef eating experience. Grass-fed beef often has less marbling due to the lower energy content of pasture grasses.

– Cattle gain weight faster on grain. Grazing on pasture alone results in slower weight gain compared to the higher calorie grain diet. Finishing on grain for several months allows the cattle to reach an ideal market weight more quickly. Grass-fed cattle may require a longer finishing time on pasture to reach target harvest weights. The faster turnover rate on feedlots can increase efficiency and profits.

Nutritional profile of grass-fed grain-finished beef

Grass-fed grain-finished beef offers an excellent nutritional profile. Here are some of the highlights:

High in protein – A 6oz serving of grass-fed grain-finished beef can have around 25-30g of protein, providing all 9 essential amino acids. This is comparable and sometimes higher than 100% grass-fed beef.

Lower in total fat than grain-fed beef – While higher in total fat compared to 100% grass-fed, grass-fed grain-finished beef has around 25-30% less total fat than conventional grain-fed beef. Much of the fat in grass-fed grain-finished beef is heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

Higher in Omega-3 fats than grain-fed – Grass-fed grain-finished beef contains 2-4 times more Omega-3 fatty acids than conventional grain-fed beef. While lower than 100% grass-fed beef, it still provides a good amount of anti-inflammatory Omega-3s.

Rich in vitamins A, B, iron, zinc and CLA – Grass-fed grain-finished beef is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that can benefit immunity, heart health, blood sugar and more. The levels are comparable or slightly lower than 100% grass-fed beef.

– Overall more balanced and nutrient-dense – With a better balance of protein, fat, vitamins and antioxidants, grass-fed grain-finished beef delivers a powerhouse of nutrition in each bite. While 100% grass-fed can be even more nutrient-dense, the combination of starting on pasture and finishing with grain creates a well-rounded nutritional package.

Environmental impact

The environmental impact of grass-fed versus grain-finished beef has become an important consideration for many consumers. There are a few key differences:

Land usage – Grass-fed cattle require more land to graze than cattle kept in concentrated feedlots. However, well-managed grazing on grasslands can encourage biodiversity and prevent soil erosion compared to overgrazed or degraded grasslands.

Carbon emissions – Grass-fed cattle may produce more methane from enteric fermentation compared to grain-fed, contributing more to greenhouse gas emissions. However, grasslands can sequester carbon in soils and plants, potentially offsetting some emissions. Manure from grazing animals also fertilizes soils for additional carbon storage. Feedlots concentrate waste and require fossil fuels for transporting feed.

Overall, the carbon footprint depends on specific practices. Well-managed grazing on non-degraded land may have lower net emissions than intensive feedlots. But poorly managed grazing leading to overgrazing increases emissions. More research is still needed to fully understand the long-term climate impacts.

Animal Welfare Considerations

The animal welfare impact of grass-fed versus grain-finished beef production is a complex issue with arguments on both sides.

Pasture Access

Cows evolved as grazing animals, spending their days wandering and grazing on open pasture. Grass-fed cattle get to live in a more natural environment with fresh air, space to roam, and a varied grass diet. In contrast, grain-finished cattle may spend the last months before slaughter in crowded feedlots with limited mobility. However, some grain-finishers use rotational grazing and move cattle between pasture and feedlot pens to reduce crowding.

Diet Impact on Health

The rich forage diet of 100% grass-fed cattle provides exercise for the cow and nutrients like CLA and omega-3s that support good health. Grain-finishing may increase acidic conditions in the cow’s rumen that can lead to liver abscesses and other health issues. However, adding some grain at the end can help cattle gain weight and condition for better resilience. Responsible grain-finishers monitor cattle health closely.

End of Life Protocols

All beef cattle must be rendered unconscious before slaughter in the U.S. However, grass-fed producers often use lower-stress methods like herding into a pen versus noisy truck transport. Stress hormones at slaughter can affect meat quality. Grass-fed cows may have marginally better end-of-life treatment, but humane protocols can be used in both systems.

Cost Comparison

Grass-fed beef often costs more than conventional grain-finished beef at the grocery store. On average, grass-fed beef costs $5-8 more per pound compared to conventional beef. This price difference comes from a few factors:

– Grass-fed cattle take longer to reach market weight since they grow more slowly on an all-forage diet. This increased time adds to the farmer’s costs.

– Grass-fed beef has a lower yield – the amount of meat per animal is lower compared to cattle finished on grain. So each pound of meat costs more to produce.

– The demand for grass-fed outpaces the available supply, also driving up retail prices. Only a small percentage of U.S. beef is 100% grass-fed.

On the farmer’s end, producing grass-fed beef costs more:

– Managing cattle on pasture requires more labor, land, and infrastructure like fencing. Pastured cattle spread manure themselves, while feedlots manage manure waste.

– During winter or droughts, farmers must supplement grass with stored forage like hay, which is expensive to grow and harvest.

– Organic grass-fed certification adds even more costs with required inspections, paperwork, and compliant feed.

So the increased retail price of grass-fed beef reflects the higher costs of raising cattle on pasture versus conventional methods. For consumers, the extra dollars provide meat from cattle raised more sustainably. Farmers receive a premium for good stewardship of animals and land.

Taste advantages of grass-fed grain-finished beef

Grass-fed grain-finished beef offers a uniquely satisfying flavor profile and tenderness that sets it apart from 100% grass-fed or conventionally raised beef.

The natural, open-pasture diet during the grass-fed stage lends the beef a richer, meatier taste compared to conventional beef. The natural grasses contain omega-3 fatty acids that seem to translate into more robust beefy flavor.

Finishing the cattle on grain for the last few months before processing helps ensure ideal marbling and tenderness. The grain finishing phase lays down marbled fat evenly throughout the muscle. This gives grass-fed grain-finished beef a fine texture and mouthfeel with buttery, juicy qualities.

Compared to 100% grass-fed beef which lacks the tenderizing effect of grain finish, grass-fed grain-finished beef is noticeably more tender, while still retaining the depth of flavor imparted by the grass diet. The result is a steak with the best of both worlds – robust grass-fed flavor yet fork-tender with marbling for succulence.

For beef lovers who find 100% grass-fed slightly chewy or bland, or find conventional grain-fed rather dull-tasting, grass-fed grain-finished hits the sweet spot in terms of rich taste and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

Cooking Tips

– Grass-fed grain-finished beef has less fat, so take care not to overcook. Use a meat thermometer and stop before well-done.

– Add moisture during cooking by braising, using a marinade, or topping with butter.

– Slice across the grain before serving to shorten muscle fibers and create a more tender bite.

– Allow meat to rest 5-10 minutes after cooking – this allows juices to redistribute for maximum tenderness.

Following these simple guidelines will lead you to tasty, nutritious grass-fed grain-finished beef.

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