Why Eat Grass-fed Beef

grass fed cowI WASN’T EATING A LOT OF BEEF ANYWAY, but after reading Fast Food Nation, I stopped eating beef altogether. Then, a few years later, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It put a light at the end of the beefless tunnel by describing Joel Salatin’s grass farming methods at Polyface Farms.

At the time, I couldn’t get grass-fed beef anywhere nearby, but now I can get it through my CSA, from two farms within an hour away, and from both local Whole Foods Markets. So we’re back to eating some beef.

BUT WHY CHOOSE GRASS-FED BEEF? Is it just some fad or trend? Is it some status thing for wealthy or pretentious people? Is it really better? And if so, what does “better” mean?

It’s hard to separate quality of food from impact on the environment and treatment of the animals, (and, in my opinion, we shouldn’t) but those concerns aside, there are real health and quality reasons to choose grass-fed.

Here are the top three:

  1. No antibiotics needed. Cows are ruminants. They are designed to eat grass. To digest corn, they need to be given antibiotics, otherwise they will get sick. Being fed corn messes with a cow’s digestive system, leading to more parasites and E. coli. Corn-fed cows spend most of their life on a crowded feedlot, standing in E. coli-filled feces, so they need even more antibiotics.
  2. More omega-3 fatty acids. Also, more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (associated with lower heart disease and cancer risk), vitamin A, and vitamin E. Meat from feedlot cows will have half as much as much omega-3s as grass-fed meat These nutrients come from the grass. What the cow eats ends up in the meat ends up in you.
  3. Less saturated fat and less overall fat. Corn-fed beef has the marbling that many people see as desirable. But the marbling is just saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Because grass-fed beef has less fat, it also has fewer calories.

As a bonus, it tastes better. I didn’t think I’d be able to taste any difference, but the grass-fed beef is definitely more flavorful and has an almost buttery texture.

MAYBE YOU THINK YOU CAN’T AFFORD GRASS-FED BEEF. But don’t write it off as unaffordable yet. Sure if you’re buying steaks every week, grass-fed can get way pricy. But to buy ground beef, stew meat, or bottom round roast, it’s fairly affordable (I pay between $5.99/lb and $7.99/lb for these cuts at Whole Foods). And if you buy just one cut per week, you might be able to fit it in the budget.

Another way to make it affordable is to buy in quantity direct from the farm. When I do a 25lb buy, I get a wide variety of cuts, from soup meat to filet mignon, all for about $5/lb., about $1 less than the cheapest cut at Whole Foods.

The bottom line: Grass-fed beef isn’t some fad for wealthy city-folk. It has real and serious health and quality advantages, and it doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive.

More information about the nutrition and safety of grass-fed beef:

10 comments for “Why Eat Grass-fed Beef

  1. Mark Lambert
    August 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Consumers Deserve a choice in the products they consume including beef. However, they also deserve to have the facts. Here are some key points and resources that might make you beef shopping easier and better informed.

    Key Point #1: Consumer’s have a choice
    When it comes to beef, most consumers say taste is their highest priority. However, consumers’ lifestyles and budgets have changed over time and beef production has evolved to meet those needs. For instance, we now provide consumers with corn- or grain-finished, grass-fed or grass-finished, certified organic and natural beef products. While each kind of beef offers something different to the consumer, all beef shares one common denominator that continues to spark demand: a safe, wholesome and nutritious meal.

    Consumer need to know:
    • Ways cattle are fed and raised provide range of options of beef for consumer
    • All types of beef have the same safety and nutritional benefits.
    o All beef goes through a rigorous inspection process and is subject to strict government guidelines to ensure the highest level of safety, and all beef choices are a nutrient-rich source of protein, zinc, iron and many other nutrients.

    Key Point #2: Modern beef production increases efficiency
    Modern cattle feeding operations help increase the efficiency of beef production and enable us to produce more pounds of beef using fewer resources such as land, feed and water, and are heavily regulated to protect soil, water and air quality.

    Consumer need to know:
    • Modern beef production allows the U.S. to provide enough beef to feed Americans, as well as enough to be exported.
    • The modern beef production system also provides a year-round supply of safe, wholesome and nutritious beef at an affordable price for consumers around the world.
    • If all beef was grass-finished, we wouldn’t have enough land to produce the amount of beef we do now with modern beef production. Also, we wouldn’t be able to produce it at the same quantity year-round.
    • Some consumers ask: Why don’t we use the land that is grazed to grow crops to feed people?
    o Grazing animals in the United States more than doubles the area that can be used to produce food while limiting soil erosion, preserving wildlife habitat and reducing the risk of wildfires.
    o Grazing cattle can be an environmentally friendly use of the land. But don’t forget the ultimate benefit: by grazing cattle, we are converting forages unsuitable for human consumption into a great tasting source of high-quality protein we need in a healthy diet.

    Key Point #3: Beef’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions (corn-fed and grass-fed)
    Animal agriculture contributes minimally to the production of total greenhouse gases in the United States. Cattle naturally produce methane, a greenhouse gas, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the entire U.S. agricultural sector contributed only 6.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2006.

    Consumers may hear that cattle raised in a feedlot produce more methane than cattle raised alternative ways. The fact is, all cattle release methane as part of the digestive process. And according to a report released by the Hudson Institute’s Center For Global Food Issues, pound-for-pound, beef produced in a conventional feeding system (or modern beef production) generates 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and uses two-thirds less land than beef produced using organic and grass-fed production systems.

    Consumer need to know:
    • The entire U.S. ag sector contributed only 6.4% of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2006 (EPA).
    • All cattle (corn-fed or grass-fed) release methane as part of the digestive process.
    • Conventional beef generates 40% LESS GHG emissions and uses 2/3’s less land than beef produced using organic and grass-fed production systems.

    Key Point #4: Beef Food Safety and Health
    Consumers may think of steak as an indulgence, something to be enjoyed on special occasions but not necessarily as part of a healthy diet. Yet on average, the 29 lean beef cuts have less than 175 calories and all 29 meet the government definition for lean: less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5 ounce serving. On average, all of the 29 lean cuts have only one more gram of saturated fat than a skinless chicken breast, per three ounce serving, and all 29 have less total fat than a skinless chicken thigh!

    Consumer need to know:
    • Common misperception: Organic, natural or grass-fed beef healthier for me.
    o No matter what type of beef consumers choose, they can be confident all types of beef can be included in a healthy diet. All beef has eight times more vitamin B-12, six times more zinc and three times more iron than a skinless chicken breast. There are 29 cuts of beef (including 15 of the 20 most popular cuts) that meet government guidelines for lean. This is true whether the beef is produced conventionally or as part of an organic, natural or grass-fed program.
    o Grass-finished beef contains slightly more omega-3 fatty acids (less than one-tenth of a gram more per 3.5 ounces), but no specific type of beef is considered a primary source for omega-3s. Grass-finished beef also can provide more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than other beef. CLA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid health professionals believe has cancer fighting properties; however, it is not clear if there is a health benefit in this difference.
    • According to the USDA, which sets the standard for foods to be labeled organic, organically produced food is no safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods.

    Additional Resources:

    Beef Quality Assurance – http://www.bqa.org
    Cattle Page – http://www.cattlepages.com
    USDA – http://www.usda.gov
    Explore Beef – http://www.explorebeef.org
    Beef Industry Food Safety Council – http://www.bifsco.org
    Various university studies

  2. Gigi
    August 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Very informative… Watching “Food, Inc.” changed my point of view too. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tori
    August 30, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for this article! Another great place to get your Grass fed Beef is from La Cense Beef. I work with La Cense but I always order from them. You can order from them online and they deliver it to your door in a timely manner. I love it!

  4. Tom
    January 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    There are many false statements here and if you are to read the comment by Mark Lambert most of it will be straightened out. The statement “To digest grain, they need to be given antibiotics, otherwise they will get sick” is false as well a cow or any ruminant is suited to handle grains which nature provides in abundance in the form of seed which all livestock eat naturally. Antibotics are feed mainly to increase the efficiency of the animal.

  5. cat
    January 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Tom: Maybe “corn” would have been more accurate than “grain” (and I did change it above), although calling corn a grain in this situation is accurate.

    Although cows do eat a minimal amount of grain in the form of grass seed when they graze, it isn’t anywhere near the quantity they are given once they are weaned and living on feedlots.

    In his 2002 New York Times Magazine article (http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/power-steer/) (and also in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Michael Pollan delves deep into the world of cattle and feedlots. In this article he states:

    “Calves have no need of regular medication while on grass, but as soon as they’re placed in the backgrounding pen, they’re apt to get sick. Why? The stress of weaning is a factor, but the main culprit is the feed. The shift to a “hot ration” of grain can so disturb the cow’s digestive process—its rumen, in particular—that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics.”

    “During my day at Poky, I spent an hour or two driving around the yard with Dr. Mel Metzen, the staff veterinarian. Metzen, a 1997 graduate of Kansas State’s vet school, oversees a team of eight cowboys who spend their days riding the yard, spotting sick cows and bringing them in for treatment. A great many of their health problems can be traced to their diet. ‘They’re made to eat forage,’ Metzen said, ‘and we’re making them eat grain.'”

    “…[A]nother vet said that a sustained feedlot diet would eventually ‘blow out their livers’ and kill them. As the acids eat away at the rumen wall, bacteria enter the bloodstream and collect in the liver. More than 13 percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.”

    So while I understand that conventionally raised cattle regularly eat corn and grain, it’s because that is what they are being fed (along with drugs to help them survive it) so that beef can get from field to table faster. And unless cows have evolved in the past nine years making Michael Pollan’s research irrelevant, I stand by my statements.

  6. Tom
    January 14, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    There is a balance between corn and roughage(grass) that must be maintained in the animal’s rumen. A feed with too much starch causes the ph of the rumen to drop below 6.2. This is the point at which there is an imbalance kicking the starch eating bacteria in the rumen into overdrive, this causes acidosis which is not treated with antibiotics, it causes paralysis and death, so there is a limit at which corn can be fed. Antibiotics do not have to be fed to a feedlot animal. Cattle are fed a balanced diet for their health and efficiency. This time of their life is usually about 90 days, the majority of the time they are grown on grass.

  7. cat
    January 19, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    From the article I mention above: “’In my grandfather’s day, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter,’ explained Rich Blair, who, at 45, is the younger of the brothers by four years. ‘In the 50’s, when my father was ranching, it was 2 or 3. Now we get there at 14 to 16 months.’”

    The steer Michael Pollan followed spent 6 months grazing and 8-10 months on the feedlot, Poky Feeders, in Kansas.

    Can you give me more information about how you came up with 90 days and which feedlots follow the practices you mention?

  8. Tom
    January 23, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Those steers that were 4 to 5 years old would have been tough eating, that would have been like eating an old cow. Feeding grain allows for marbling to form, fat within the muscle, which makes meat more tender. I eat both grass fatten and grain fatted beef both are good but inorder to produce the quantity of beef demanded at a resonable price there needs to be grain fed beef. The growing of a steer is quicker and cheaper then the finishing. Finishing when the steer puts on the internal and external fat that gives tenderness and flavor. Most finishing feedlots prefer a steer that is 900 pounds, these animals have been backgrounded usually on wheat pastures or grass pastures, backgrounded is the growing period after weaning and before finishing. The pounds of gain on a good steer could be over 4 pounds per day and a finished weight of 1250 pounds, this gives you a 87.5 day finish program. The 90 days was a target for tha average days on feed for a big feedlot where we worked at one time. Grass fed is good and so is grain fed the comment by Mark Lambert is good with sorces that are respected, don’t run one down to build the other up.

  9. cat
    January 23, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I didn’t run anything down, just wrote a post about reason to buy grass-fed beef. When you questioned my information, I posted quotes from one of my sources. I have no problems or complaints about Mark Lambert’s comments. The point is for people to have information to make thoughtful choices.

Comments are closed.