Grass Fed & Finished: A Look at Grass Fed Meat, What it Means & Why It's Better
Americans eat more meat than any other country in the world. While we are fortunate to live in a country where meat is readily available, our demand has led to the formation of a meat industry that cares little about health and even less about animal welfare. This sector referred to as “conventional meat,” carries a profit-over-product mentality and presents itself as an economically viable way to meet demand while turning its head to the long-term costs on our health and environment.
At Buy Ranch Direct, we feel strongly that the conventional method of raising and processing of meat is unacceptable and have committed, not only to offering a premium quality product that won’t compromise the health of our families, customers and environment, but also to help educate people on how their food choices affects their health. We hope that through understanding, value can be placed on high quality grass fed and finished meats and create a new expectation that can become a standard.
To understand where the conventional meat industry has gone wrong and why grass fed and finished meat is a better choice, we will take a look at what the conventional meat industry looks like and how it has reached its monolithic state. We will focus on the beef industry because Americans eat around 50 pounds of beef per person per year (2015), second only to chicken consumption.
What is Conventional Beef?
Raising cows for commercial beef is a three step process. Step one is the Calf/Cow Stage. This stage separates calves from the herd until they are fully weened at 180 to 240 days old and have reached around 500 pounds. The second stage is referred to as the Stocker Stage. This stage moves the cows into the main herd and allows them to graze and start to pack on weight until they are around 800 pounds. Stage three, the Finishing Stage, is when conventional beef production and grass-fed production part ways.
In conventional practices, once the cows have outgrown the Stocker Stage, they are placed into feedlots. Feedlots are confined pens with little to no vegetation, where cows gorge on high energy foods, like corn and soy. Some larger feedlots can hold upwards of 32,000 cows at a time. Cows will spend anywhere between 90 and 300 days just eating, sometimes gaining 4 pounds per day. The single objective here is to have the cows gain as much weight as quickly as possible. Conventionally raised cattle reach a market weight in 12-13 months.
The grass-fed and finished process is more aligned to how the cows would naturally grow and develop. They remain in the pasture and eat grass, legumes, hay and cereal grains and grow slowly, taking 18-24 months to reach market weight. This slower growth is easier on the land and the animal's biological systems.
Up until the 1940s, nearly all beef in the U.S. was grass-fed and finished. Once the post World War Two era of prolific reproduction, suburban sprawl and convenience came about, researchers in the 1950s began to spend time figuring out how to increase the efficiency of beef production, giving birth to the feedlot industry and decreasing the days between birth and market. Since then, most Americans meat eaters were raised on grain-finished meat, adapting our taste preferences and causing our palates to expect the nuttier flavor and greasier fat that comes from this grain-finished product.
There are several dangers of feedlot-finishing worth noting, beginning with feeding high-energy diets based on corn and soy that cause the animals to grow very quickly but take a toll on their overall health.
Cows and other grazers are considered ruminants. They are specially designed to start digesting grass and other high-fiber, low-starch food by fermenting it in their rumen — a pre-stomach of sorts — then passing it to their stomach to be further digested. When given only low-fiber, high-starch grains like corn and soy, certain gastrointestinal disorders often develop, like acidosis. Acute acidosis occurs when intestinal walls are damaged from spikes in acidity and glucose levels in the animal’s intestines due to high grain consumption. High-energy diets can also lead to the shedding of E. Coli due to higher rates of liver abscesses.
The conventional way to fight against gastrointestinal diseases is to mix FDA approved antibiotics into the problematic diet. These antibiotics are absorbed into the animals tissues and are passed along to consumers. The primary danger of this practice is not simply in the consumption of the antibiotics themselves, but is rather the frivolous application of antibiotics where a medication-free option is available. The gratuitous use of antibiotics has lead to resistant bacteria that have adapted faster than medicine, making them immune and earning the name of Super Bugs, many of which are resistant to multiple types of antibiotics (Multi-Drug Resistant Bacteria, or MDR Bacteria). Studies have shown that 18% of conventionally raised ground beef samples contain these super bugs. Grass-fed, only 6%.
The conventional beef industry makes choices to combat health concerns in their animals that can be more detrimental to animal and consumers that the sicknesses themselves. Some producers are aware that their animals need a high-fiber diet, but instead of supplementing with grasses, they feed their herd pellets that contain plastics in place of natural fibers. While studies concerning the acute health concerns of such practices are inconclusive at this point, just imagine eating a plastic heavy diet and what toll that might take on your health. Some cattle feeds also include remnants of slaughtered animals and other waste products. I could not find a definitive reason for this practice other than bulking out the feed with a low cost ingredient.
Environmental Concerns and Sustainability
The feedlot industry harms the environment and can lead to long-term effects that are not immediately noticeable.
Imagine 32,000 heads of cattle in a tight space while constantly feeding them a high starch diet. After the nutrients are absorbed, what happens to the rest? That's right, manure. Lots of it. Some ranchers have said the their biggest concern when raising cattle is not necessarily the bottom line, but what to do with all the waste, and it's not just because it's messy.
Manure is the most ecologically harmful in liquid form, where anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions generate more greenhouse gas emissions. When animals are kept at appropriate stocking rates, on well-managed grasslands, or pasture, their manure is distributed on the pasture at levels the pasture can handle. The nutrients can return to the soil and are thereby recycled, improving the land as opposed to degrading it.
This does not occur with feedlots. Most of the manure is stomped into the ground at rates the soil cannot handle, eventually rendering it a literal wasteland. When animals are free to graze in open pastures at a natural rate, their digestion rate also normalizes, leading to less volume of manure while being evenly distributed across the acreage, especially when proper rotational grazing practices are utilized.
Rotational grazing is another way that grass-finishing practices are kinder to the environment than feedlot finishing. Animals are moved from pasture to pasture after consuming an appropriate amount of resources, giving the land a chance to recuperate. As the animals graze, they often bite off the seed heads of the grasses and leaving the stalks. This exposes the growth points to sunlight which keeps the perennial native grasses coming back and smothers out the invasive weeds. Not only does this promote healthy growth, but the plants remain to help absorb harmful carbon dioxide and burying it in the soil as opposed to being released into the air.
The last major ecological factor that is affected by raising cattle is water usage. Water usage is the most hotly debated argument between conventional and grass-fed systems. Conventional supporters say that they use less water than grass-feeders due to the shorter amount of time that the animals need water from being processed younger. What is not talked about is the amount of water that needs to be diverted to barren feedlots to hydrate the animals, along with the amount of irrigation needed on separate parcels to grow the feed crops. While there are some grass-fed operations that divert tons of water to grow the grass to feed the animals at pasture, some grass-fed programs are able to use the natural water sources due to location and climates. At Diamond Mountain Ranch (the operating property of Buy Ranch Direct), the average rainfall is 7 times the national average. This helps to replenish the grasses as well as a natural spring that acts as the animal's water source. While is does require a lot of water to raise meat, about 2 gallons per ribeye, responsible choices can be made for the sake of sustainability.
What Makes Grass Fed Better?
Grass-fed and finished meat is healthier than conventional grain-fed meat because it not only contains a lower amount of fat than grain-fed, but the fat it does contain is healthier and less likely to raise cholesterol levels. It has a higher lever of poly-unsaturated fatty acids — the good fat — while containing higher levels of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. CLA is currently being studied as a cancer preventive and is already on the market as a fat burning supplement.
Fatty acids are essential to healthy aging in humans but cannot be synthesized by the body and are only available in certain foods, like seafoods and meats. While both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both vital to human development, they are not considered equal. Omega-6 is beneficial for brain function, but is also an inflammatory that competes with cells and heart-healthy omega-3 molecules. The healthiest ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ranges between 4:1 and 1:1. Grass-fed meat averages a 1.53:1 ratio with grain-fed meats averaging 7.65:1.
Grass-fed meat contain more antioxidants and essential vitamins like beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Beta carotene is essential for normal vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell-division and cell-differentiation. Grass-fed meat also contains significantly higher amounts of Vitamin E that may help prevent or delay coronary heart disease and block the formation of nitrates.
But why is it considered healthier?
The answer is pretty straight forward, the grass they're eating is more nutritionally dense than the corn and soy laden diets. Those nutrients paired with the high-fiber content allows the ruminant's digestive system to properly breakdown and absorb the nutrients into muscle tissues. After all, you are what you eat.
Changing the Expectations
As I mentioned earlier, the major hurdle faced by the grass-fed meat industry is the consumer’s preconceived notion as to what meat should be. Most of us that were raised on grain-fed meat products have come to expect the nutty, fatty flavor that results from a grain-based diet. We have been taught to prize intramuscular fat as a sign of quality. While marbling is a great way of assessing quality of the meat, it does not consider the quality of the fat itself.
A common misconception is that grass-fed meat is dry and tough because it contains less fat. While this is true in some circumstances, proper pasture management and rotational grazing offers animals lush, healthy grasses that can result in significant marbling, sometimes exceeding the USDA Prime grading requirements.
Note: There is no official grading system for grass-fed meat. If you are purchasing a cut of beef that is labeled USDA Prime or Choice, then you are buying a grain-fed product.
Grass-fed meat often does not get a chance to impress because of it's unfamiliar appearance and aroma, sometimes described as “green.” Grass-fed meats smell like grass in a similar way that high quality, fresh seafood smells like the sea. The lean meat is often a deeper and darker red due to a higher amount of myoglobin in the muscle cells. The fat is usually a yellowish tint which is due to the large amount of beta-carotene, the same thing that makes carrots orange. The yellow fat is usually the most off-putting to the uninitiated, presumably due to the common association with yellowing to degradation and spoilage.
Times are changing though. With the rising popularity of farm-to-table restaurants, chefs are starting to highlight grass-fed meats on their menus, due to their deep, meaty flavors. When asked what the best steak he has ever eaten was, Chef Dan Barber of the No. 11 restaurant in the world, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State said that it came from an 8 year old cow that was on his family farm and ate grass for her entire life. Though eating such an old cow is severely unconventional, he described the flavor as “complex and persistent, like fine wine.” While his experience is not usual, the idea of America’s changing palate is the same.
Why is Grass-Fed hard to pull off?
There is a cost behind producing high quality grass-fed and finished meats and it starts with production scale. Conventional beef producers are mostly backed by the big four meat conglomerates: Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef Packaging Company. They are able to provide conventional producers, large and small, with an outlet for their products. The 3,900 grass-fed producers, up from 100 in 1998, either have to sell directly to consumers (18%) or to grass-fed specific programs (81%). The conventional meat industry produces 30 million heads of cattle a year, compared to 232,000 in the grass-fed sector. U.S. grass-fed producers also have to compete with friendly-fire; 75-80% of all grass-fed meat is imported to the US, mostly from Australia.
After considering the volume of competition, grass-fed meat is generally more expensive to produce. It takes up to a year longer for the animals to come to market weight. After supporting the animal for the extended length of time, there is a lack of resources for a streamlined and efficient supply chain when it comes to delivering meat from ranch to table. While the consumer may see as much as a 70% mark-up from basic conventional meat cuts, the producer only sees 25-30% of that, with the rest going to the cost of operating on such a small, quality-focused scale.
Another factor that plays against the grass-fed industry is the labeling system for their products. The Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), the regulating arm of the USDA, previously stated that “Grass-fed” or “100% Grass-fed” can only be applied to meat product labels derived from cattle that were fed only 100% grass after being weaned from their mothers. Their diet must be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Well it was, until 2016 when they revoked these requirements.
Marion Nestle, a Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health at New York University says that the onus now relies on the consumer to decide what is and isn’t grass-fed. “I think it’s a good guess to assume that the USDA’s withdrawal of the grass-fed marketing claims is a result of pressure from big cattle producers. This means that the claims about grass-fed are no longer backed by government, Consumers will have to rely on certifications by independent groups and on what the producers say. Caveat emptor.”
What’s in a Label?
Prior to the revocation of grass-fed regulations, producers that held certifications were grandfathered in, but there's a catch. Prior to the revocation, the verification requirements were thin. Meat producers could make “grass-fed” claims that were only supported by a one-time application submitted to the USDA, with required documentation to support that the animals were not given any grain. However, there was no requirement for on-site inspections to verify the claims and no annual auditing of reviews to ensure that the claims are continuously compliant. There were fees though.
Since there is no longer any government regulation, producers must rely on third-party organizations such as the American Grassfed Association and The Food Alliance. Both organizations hold requirements that animals are raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots. Animals are never treated with hormones or antibiotics and that they are raised on American family farms. Matthew Buck, acting director of The Food Alliance says that even though the USDA was looking at feed, they were ignoring well-being. “The USDA grass-fed standard focused on what cattle ate, but left out restrictions on confinement of animals and use of hormones and antibiotics that industry pioneers thought were essential to a redial grass-fed product claim.”
His organization focuses on all aspects, but this comes with a cost. There’s a $750 application fee that consists of a $350 non-refundable administrative fee, plus $400 that goes towards inspection costs. Once certified, between 0.1-0.4% of annual gross sales are required payment for licensing.
“There are some ranchers marketing grass-fed beef with integrity who do not hold a certification either because they are too small to manage the cost and administrative burden,” says Buck, “because they have very close relationships with their buyers and don't think they need it, or because they just don’t believe in it.”
How do I get grass-fed that’s actually grass fed?
Your best bet is to talk to and buy direct from the producer. At farmer’s markets and online, this is usually achievable. Buying through other venues makes it slightly more difficult. Labels can say a lot, but avoid relying solely on ones that are associated with the USDA or FDA. You can also look for wording that refers to pasturing. Though it is not regulated, producers still have to abide by the Federal Trade Commission’s “truth-in-advertising” regulations. Look for the following and know their meanings:
- Pasture Raised - Grass Finished = 100% grass-fed.
- Pasture Raised - Grain Finished = conventional grain outside of feedlots.
- Feedlot - Grass Finished = conventionally raised with grass pellets in a feedlot.
- Feedlot - Grain Finished = conventional grain in feedlots
If you can't find or access this labeling information, rely on your knowledge. Look at the color of the meat, is it a deep red? Does the fat have a yellowish color? Does it cost more than the supermarket, plastic wrapped variety? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then you are probably buying grass-fed. If you still are unsure, trust your gut, literally. How does the meat make you feel?
- Because grass-fed meat is generally slightly leaner that the corn-fed meat, it does cook a little faster.
- Cook’s Illustrated ran a test with 7 grass-fed strip steaks vs. 7 conventional strip steaks. Their conclusion was that the difference was minimal, with only 4 minutes difference between the shortest and longest cook times.
- Your best bet is to take the recommended cooking time and check the internal temperature at the lowest time. You can always throw it back on the fire.
Buy 100% Grass fed and finished meats and have them shipped directly to your door.