Recently, I’ve seen a number of articles about the pros and cons of grass fed beef versus grain fed beef.
Most of the articles from the grain finished side push the idea that there really is no nutritional difference between grass fed and grain fed. I disagree, mainly because there has been extensive data gathering and research done to show that grain feeding animals has an impact on the digestive system of cattle and consequently affects how and which vitamins and minerals they absorb, how those vitamins are stored in their bodies (or not) and what types of fats the animals produce on a grain based diet. Additionally, grain feeding alters the pH level of their digestive system and thus the bacteriological make up of that system.
The other argument that you here is, “all cattle are grass fed” and grain finishing is made to sound almost after the fact. This is a very disingenuous argument. Yes, all cattle start out grass fed. That is how they are brought into the world, by cows out in the pasture giving birth and milk feeding and grass feeding the calves until they are weaned and moved onto either stocker operations and/or into feed lots. However, grain finishing will account for anywhere from a third to a fourth of the animal’s final weight. The majority of the fat content of the animal will have been arrived at by concentrated grain feeding in a highly controlled environment that looks nothing like the “grass feeding” they experienced in the first part of its life.
Cattle will spend approximately 150 days in this environment eating high concentrations of corn, soy, other proteins (chicken feathers, chicken manure, and other parts) antibiotics, growth steroids, and growth enhancers. To say that such a feed is not radically different from and impacts differently on the physiology of cattle from a diet of grass is just ignoring the physical facts. If you are what you eat, then grain finished, feed lot animals are “couch potatoes on steroids”.
The Union of Concerned Scientist have done extensive lab analysis on grass finished beef and have found that the mineral, vitamin, omega fats and pH levels are all different from grain finished beef. BCC has done private lab analysis and found the same results. Grass fed and grass finished beef is higher in mineral and vitamin content than the grain finished beef. It is higher in omega 3 fatty acids and the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is higher than in grain finished beef.
An important difference between grass and grain fed animals is the pH level in the ruminant. This is where the animal does all its digestion. In grass fed animals the pH level in the ruminant is hostile to several bacteria that can affect human health. Think of the grass fed animal as your first line of defense against certain types of e-coli, listeria and salmonella bacteria. Grain, on the other hand, changes the pH level in the ruminant and can actually make the environment conducive to several bacteria that are bad for human health. This becomes an issue on the kill floor when the ruminant and the intestines are removed.
This leads me to two more points:
Several vegetarians and vegans have preached against beef as a water user and bad for the environment. While beef consumption per person has gone down over the last thirty years, overall consumption has gone up. New, emerging middle classes in countries such as China, Brazil and India want more beef and dairy products. That demand is not going away. The question should be how do we meet that need in a sustainable way.
My answer is through grass fed. There is much research being done on how to efficiently and humanely raise cattle in such a way that is good for the environment. One of these ways is “Mob grazing”. A method that mimics the bison on the Great Plains. Unlike feedlots, grass fields are great sequesters of carbon and holders of water. The manure the cattle drop goes right back into the soil as natural fertilizer. And, yes we can do this and still feed the world!
Finally, grass fed is humane. If you’ve ever seen a feedlot . . . . . . well need I say more?