This article is only a preliminary introduction to the differences between grain-fed and grass-fed meats.  It is geared toward cattlemen more than consumers.  For more in-depth studies about the nutritional advantages of grass-fed meats check out Omega-3 Essays and the many peer-reviewed works in the  Science Links  sections of this Web site.

Grass-Fed Beef

Have you ever heard a dietitian tell folks to go down to the "Top Notch" Supermarket and stock up on all the USDA Prime beef they can find?  That's right, have you heard a dietitian tell folks to buy the fattest meat they can find?

Of course, the answer is flat out “No!”

No respectable dietitian in the world will tell you to eat beef laced with fat.  Yet the current focus in beef production is for producers to aim their genetic programs toward cattle that will top the charts in the grid game.  This means when the cattle hang on the rail they will grade choice or better with a yield grade of two or better.

For three years the Noble Foundation studied the impact of selling on the grid.  They were sure that if a beef producer hit the fat target they'd make a lot of money.  The answer though was that the money was in final weight and daily rate of gain, not carcass quality.  This study confirmed what cattlemen have known for many generations.

If there's no monetary gain from topping the carcass contest, then there must be some other reason folks are trying to get their cattle to marble.  Is it tender meat?  Well, the studies on that indicate marbling only has about a 10% correlation with tender beef.  Is it flavor?  Grass-fed folks say their beef tastes like beef, and grain-fed beef is nearly tasteless in comparison.  Is it juiciness?  Some studies indicate that if there is more fat, there is more juice.  But really good lean meat can be juicy too.

Cattle and Cigarettes

So, what possesses cattlemen to produce grain-fed beef laced with improperly balanced intramuscular fat?  Are they like cigarette makers?  Cigarette makers certainly aren't health advocates, and their customers have known for many generations that smoking was bad for their health yet they smoked anyway.  So it's not the cigarette makers’ or tobacco growers’ fault that folks die from smoking.  But that doesn't stop me from asking again, “Are beef producers like cigarette makers?”

Since the mid-1980s nutrition scientists have made some major breakthroughs in understanding man's dietary/nutritional needs.  The book The Omega Diet by Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., and her coauthor Jo Robinson, gives readers the bottom line on the most recent nutritional breakthroughs.  The news is both good and bad for beef.

The bad news is fat (grain-fed) beef is not recommended.  Also, grain-fed beef is deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids and loaded with Omega-6 fatty acids.  Since the American diet is deficient in Omega-3s and overdosed with Omega-6s and that imbalance is causing heart disease, cancer, attention deficit syndrome, diabetes, and a whole host of other aliments caused by body breakdowns rather than bacteria, this is damning news for beef.

But in a different light, beef can be a health food and highly recommended by professional dietitians.  And what is that different light you ask?  The answer is simply grass-fed beef.  Grass-fed beef is naturally leaner than grain-fed beef.  Grass-fed beef has the recommended ratio of Omega 6 to Omega-3 fatty acids.  (It's 2:1 or better.)  And grass-fed beef is loaded with other natural minerals and vitamins, plus it's a great source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) a fat that reduces the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a number of immune disorders.  Beef, in its natural grass-fed state, is a health food of the highest order.

Do the Math on Grass

But what about the economics?  Should cattlemen even consider raising beef on grass?  Here's how we view the numbers in 2001 dollars.  It takes 12,500 pounds of grass to support a cow for one year and raise a 450-pound calf.  It takes another 4,000 pounds of grass to raise the calf to 850 pounds.  If the calf is retained another 10 months, it will take another 9,450 pounds of grass to get it to weigh 1,250 pounds.  The total for grass is 25,950 pounds.  At one cent per pound that's a feed cost of $259.50, plus it covered the cow.

Compare this to a $290 feed bill at a feedlot to raise a 500-pound calf to 1,250 pounds.  And that's just for the calf post weaning.

If all this is true, then what are cattlemen doing?

From what I see, it looks like they're doing their best to raise fat beef and sell their calves at weaning to folks who will eventually place the cattle in a feedlot and turn them into grain-fed beef.

I don't understand it?  Do you?

Ted Slanker
Slanker Grass-Fed Meat