Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Which is Better?

The debate over grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef is becoming a subject of keen interest for folks wanting to know more about their meat and where it comes from. For many, the two labels represent a kind of dueling scenario:

  • On the one side, you’ve got a healthy, wholesome product which is raised with environmentally sound practices (grass-fed meat).
  • On the opposite end, there exists the realities of a highly mechanized industrial food system that commoditizes animals, often with the addition of antibiotics and hormone implants, to produce cheap, plentiful meat that ends up on the shelves of most grocery stores across the country (grain-fed meat).

But is that really the whole story?  

The simple answer is that beef is overall a very nutritious source of protein, vitamins and minerals. In general, grass-fed beef tends to be healthier and more in line with sustainable ranching practices while grain-fed beef can be produced quicker and cheaper in a system which prioritizes production over good practice.

But this is only a very broad, generalized explanation. Like many things in life, there are key differences which need to be defined in order to find the truth.

Table of Contents:

  • Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Ranch-Raised vs. Conventional
    • Ranch-Raised Beef
    • Conventional Beef
  • Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Nutritional Differences
    • Nutritional Research
    • Common Misconceptions
  • Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Quality Differences
    • What’s the Deal With Fat?
    • Cattle Diet & Culinary Quality
  • So Which is Better?

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Ranch-Raised vs. Conventional

Let’s start by getting our definitions straight. Since January 16, 2016, the USDA continues to evaluate and approve claims that cattle are grass-fed, but no longer officially defines the term “grass-fed” by strict criteria. This means claims on food labels that the meat was grass-fed are a little more open to interpretation than they used to be. Here’s how we define it:

  • Grass-fed cattle are fed mostly grass and forage from weaning until harvest, without any antibiotics, growth hormones, or confinement. When an animal is fed only grass and forage from start to finish without any supplementation of grain, this is called 100% grass-fed and/or grass-finished.
  • When an animal is fed mostly grass and finished with a combination of grass and grain for the final two to three months, as we do at Augustus Ranch, this is called grass-fed, grain-finished. Roughly 90 - 95% of our cattle’s diet consists of grass, with the remaining 5 - 10% coming from grain supplementation.

Ranch-Raised Beef

One of the most important considerations here, regardless of which label applies, is whether or not the animal was raised from start to finish on the same ranch or it was sold into the conventional factory farming system. The former represents a chain of transparency where you, the consumer, can ask specific questions, often having direct contact with the person who raised the animal. The latter results in an anonymous package of meat that may have originated in a different country but is still labeled “product of the USA” due to industry loopholes that exist to mislead consumers.

There are several third-party entities which exist for the purpose of defining a particular label or standard, enabling producers to make specific claims about their products and how they were raised. In practice, this is one way to provide transparency, but only through a certification process which costs the rancher hundreds if not thousands of dollars on an annual basis.

Conventional Beef

The reality is that the vast majority of cattle in our country are raised on grass and pasture up until the point of being moved or sold into a conventional system. This means the last few months of that animal’s life are spent in a feedlot, standing on dirt and eating a diet primarily of corn and other cheap by-products. The cattle are then killed and processed in enormous facilities that can handle many hundreds or even thousands of animals per day.

This is how the vast majority of beef is raised and finished, and this is what most people think of when they hear the term grain-fed beef. It is a product of the conventional system.

So what’s the problem with conventional grain-fed beef? Simply put, it results in a product which is:

  • Cheaply made
  • Produced in massive quantities
  • Evaluated on a superficial level which removes transparency

This is not to mention that the consideration of environmental stewardship is likely sidelined in pursuit of profit in this final stage. It’s kind of like the difference between a cheap candy bar and a really good piece of artisanal chocolate. One is made in a factory with cheap ingredients and the other is crafted in smaller batches, better representing the true nature of the product. One is about quantity, the other is about quality.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Nutritional Differences

To understand the impact of grass vs. grain on nutrition, you’ve first got to know what we mean when we say grass or grain:

  • Grass refers to plants from the grass family in their vegetative state. You can think of it like a salad bar. Lots of leaves and vegetable material, but not much in the way of seeds.
  • Grain, on the other hand, is the seed of a grass plant. So grass and grain technically both come from the grass family, but represent different stages of the plant’s maturity. Corn is still technically a grass, though it has been selectively bred to produce something quite different from the typical grasses which grow in most pastures.

So what’s the point of feeding grain? Grain provides condensed energy. Energy which leads to a more consistent flavor and fat profile in regards to the culinary quality of beef.

Is it possible to produce the same quality and flavor with only grass in its vegetative state? Absolutely, but it depends heavily on many different factors, most of which are not easily repeated on a consistent, year round basis. Much of the grass-fed and finished beef in the United States is imported from other countries which have different seasons and more favorable grass growing conditions for extended periods of time (and as mentioned above, is still labeled “product of the USA” despite being of foreign origin).

Nutritional Research

The truth is that nutritionally speaking, there is not a huge difference between an animal who is fed only grass versus an animal who is supplemented with a grain ration for the last part of its life. Especially if that animal still has access to fresh pasture and plenty of space to move around. While grass contributes important nutrients such as carotenoids, vitamins, and a good balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, these factors are not simply eliminated with grain supplementation.

A recent study by Michigan State University, which is the largest to date looking at the analysis of nutritional content in grass fed beef samples, showed that while some concentrations of minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients were measurably higher, they weren’t so high as to point to significant differences in nutrition overall when compared to conventional grain-fed beef. As Diana Rogers quotes in her article “Is Grass-Fed Beef Healthier Than Conventional”, three pennies is more than one, but it’s still not a whole lot of money!

Common Misconceptions

Some results in the study were surprising. For example, healthy CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) was always thought to be at higher levels in grass-fed beef, but due to the fact that conventional beef has more fat content (more on that below), the CLA was actually higher in conventional beef samples on average.

Omega-3 fatty acids, another nutrient which is promoted in grass-fed beef, also become a moot point rather quickly when we consider the two following points:

  1. The type of omega-3 primarily found in most red meat (Alpha Linolenic Acid or ALA) is not the same as what is most recommended (EPA & DHA, the types of omega-3 fatty acids found primarily in marine sources like salmon and sardines).
  2. The actual measurable amounts of omega-3 found in red meat are quite small overall. It’s kind of like promoting spinach for its protein content. Does it contain protein? Yes. Is it really what you should eat if you are wanting that specific nutrient? Probably not. 100 grams of spinach provides only 2.9 grams of protein.

With that said about omega-3, it is important to consider the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Many modern foods skew this ratio in favor of omega-6, which some studies indicate can lead to systemic inflammation. But how does a grass-fed vs. grass-finished diet affect these ratios?

Grain feeding animals can raise the overall omega-6 content in meat, but balancing their grain ration with something like flax while still providing access to fresh forage is a great way to not only boost the overall omega-3 content, but also helps ensure that these ratios stay closer to what nature first intended.

Are you thoroughly confused yet? Don’t worry. The biggest takeaway here is that paying attention to the source of your beef is likely to be the most important factor when finding a wholesome product. If you’re buying something that doesn’t have a clear trail of transparency, it’s going to be much harder to discern these details. The good news is that it has never been easier to buy your meat directly from the people who raise and care for the animals.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Quality Differences

Quality is an important factor to consider when talking about grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef as it relates to the culinary aspects. Many of these considerations are subjective, up to individual preferences. Some folks prefer leaner meat while others want that delicious fat which helps keep a steak moist and juicy.

Much of the grass-fed and grass-finished meat available in stores is on the leaner side. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but fat is an important part of the overall culinary equation. A lean piece of meat has a smaller margin for error in the cooking process, and can quickly overcook if not watched closely, similar to wild game.

What’s the Deal With Fat?

A note about fat: this particular macronutrient, especially saturated fat, has been unfairly demonized for decades. Overall, red meat and saturated fat consumption have been reduced in the American diet since the 1970’s, yet as a country we find ourselves in a very dire healthcare situation. The links between saturated fat and heart disease are being questioned and discredited in light of new science and interpretations of older studies.

While organizations like The American Heart Association may have good intentions, their relentless message promoting a low fat diet (the same group that puts their “heart healthy” logo on breakfast cereal) has contributed to many Americans replacing real food with modern food like substances. The bottom line is that natural animal fats have been part of the human diet for a long time, unfairly blamed for the damage that modern, industrial processed foods have inflicted on the population.

Cattle Diet & Culinary Quality

Back to the quality issue. Fat is flavor, and having an adequate amount of fat along with the meat is going to produce more predictable results when cooking. Controlled grain supplementation provides the necessary energy for the animals, ensuring that they have what they need to strike the right balance.

To state again, it is certainly possible to fatten animals on nothing more than grass, and there are some really amazing ranchers out there doing just that, but they are the exception, not the rule. It is challenging to do year-round at a volume which would satisfy most cooks.

But let’s be clear: there’s a difference between an animal which is fattened quickly, cheaply, with the use of antibiotics and other questionable practices and that of the rancher who maintains control of the quality and nutrition of their animals, keeping intact their natural environment and ability to graze while being supplemented with additional energy.

So Which is Better?

It’s no secret that it’s more challenging to raise animals 100% outdoors with grass beneath their feet, an open pasture to roam, and a natural (predominantly grass) diet. But it’s worth it. Choosing to eat ranch raised, grass-fed beef is all about choosing quality over quantity. Conventionally raised beef is cheaply made in a manner that neglects both the health of the cattle and responsible stewardship of the land.

That said, very few ranchers are able to commit to a 100% grass-fed and grass-finished diet for their livestock while still meeting the levels of health, consistency, and juiciness provided by a grass and grain-finished diet. This is why we stand by our recommendation of grass-fed, grain-finished beef, raised 100% on pasture without the use of antibiotics or hormones and never confined to a conventional feedlot setting. This is an investment in culinary excellence as well as a good life for the cows.

The best way to ensure wholesome quality is to purchase directly from ranchers who care for the animals themselves—and are therefore able to disclose the exact conditions under which they raise their beef. Regardless of the precise dietary balance, the most important factor for grass-fed cows (and for consumer transparency) is that they were ranch-raised from beginning to end in a natural setting. Augustus Ranch is committed to ensuring that our animals have everything they need to live a healthy, natural, stress-free life.