You may have noticed lately there is more “chatter” about the benefit of eating meat and/or dairy products from cows that graze on grass rather than grain products. That’s because more and more people are looking at grass feeding as an important component of an animal’s food composition. The quality of any food you eat depends on where and how it was grown—and that pertains to plant foods as well as animal foods. If you care about where your food comes from, shouldn’t you also care about where your “food’s” food comes from?
So what is a cow’s natural diet? When our parents and grandparents were growing up, they ate beef from animals that primarily “grazed” or “browsed” in a pasture. Grazing means eating pasture grasses such as bluegrass, ryegrass, Bermuda grass, fescue, and so forth. Browsing is what a cow eats when it nibbles on leaves, twigs, and bark. Both of those food sources are compatible to ruminant animals. Ruminant animals we eat include cattle, goats, sheep, deer, buffalo, and elk. Their four-part stomachs allow them to slowly digest grasses, leaves, and bark. Basically they chew, swallow, partially digest the food in their first stomach, regurgitate it back into their mouth, and then chew again.
The majority of beef we eat today comes from cows fed a grain-based diet. Their food sources consist of TMR’s (total mixed rations) and “concentrates.” TMR’s may contain corn, silage, hay, soymeal, and other fillers. Concentrates include cereal grains, the by-products of milling or processing those grains, and the by-products of distiller grains. Today’s cows eat an amalgamation of many feeds mixed in the correct proportions to give the animal what it needs for its stage of growth or production.
Grass-fed –Animal is grass fed with little-to-no grain.
Pasture-raised – Animal is free range and eats primarily grass but may also may have been supplemented with grains in the winter when the pasture was snow covered.
How does grass-fed beef differ from grain-fed beef?
Saturated, poly-, and mono-unsaturated fat content in grass-fed beef tends to be a little less or about the same as grain-fed beef. Omega 3 fatty acids are higher in grass-fed beef, as well as CLA’s (conjugated linoleic acid). CLA is a type of fat that confers health benefits such as better blood sugar regulation, immune system support, heart health, and aids in weight loss.
Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, after a thorough review of current research, found little evidence that grass-fed beef has any advantage for safety, human health, or impact on the environment over grain-fed beef. Both types of beef deliver the important factors of nutrition in the human diet of protein, iron, and zinc in equal proportions.
Cost and Convenience
Grass-fed beef, milk, and yogurt are more expensive than grain-fed beef, milk and yogurt. They are also a little harder to find. Most franchise grocery stores carry both options, but smaller, independent grocers will probably defer to grain-fed. Some farm markets may specialize in grass-fed vendors, or, depending on where you live, you may be able to buy direct from the farm. You’ll probably have to buy in bulk to decrease the price, and then will need a freezer to store the surplus.
I once worked with a woman who insisted she could tell what kind of grass a cow grazed on when she drank milk. She must have had a very refined palate, because all milk tastes the same to me. But I was a kid who liked school cafeteria and hospital food, so what do I know? Both grain-fed and grass-fed food products can be really good or really bad, depending on your taste buds. Try out a grass-fed product for yourself (when you can get a good buy) and see how it tastes and if it is worth the extra expense to you.
Written by: Donna Green, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Erie County, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by: Beth Stefura, Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Mahoning County, email@example.com