Beef: Grass Fed Vs. Grain Fed, Differences For The Cattle And The Eaters

Beautiful grass fed half Jersey half Angus steer that we raised on our farm. Note the fat on the tail head.

Looking for the best beef for your family yet confused about what all these labels mean?

What is the real difference between grain fed, grass fed, naturally raised, pasture raised, organic, etc.?

Grain fed beef is raised on grass and finished on grain and hay or grass. 100% Grass fed beef is raised and finished on grass only.

We are going to dive into the differences between the methods of raising the cattle, the reasons why it matters to the cattle and what differences you will notice when you eat the beef.

We will go into the differences you will not notice when you eat the beef, like nutritional differences and improving or degrading the soil.

You will see:

  • type of beef as it is commonly labeled
  • the main idea of this type of beef
  • pros and cons for the cattle
  • pros and cons for people, eaters and cattle raisers
  • no spin zone means taking out the industry spin (misleading statements)

If you are interested in raising your own beef, consider reading my article Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? There’s quite of bit of data here for you.

Grain fed beef was raised with grain

Main idea: Grain fed beef is the most common type available in the U.S.

Pros and cons for the cattle:

  • Cattle generally have all you can eat grain
  • Grain feeding cattle reduces predator problems
  • Grain fed is not exclusive, the cattle probably are eating some hay too
  • Grain increases likelihood of digestive issues
  • Grain fed cattle are in a smaller area, not range fed
  • Grain increases carbohydrates in the diet, so cattle can grow faster
  • Hormone implants are commonly used to maximize growth on grain

Pros and cons for people:

  • Faster growth generally equals less costly meat in the store
  • Grain allows people with less land to have the calories to raise their own cattle more quickly than grass/hay alone
  • Grain fed cattle have an altered ratio of Omega fatty acids, higher Omega 6 (inflammation promoter) lower Omega 3 (inflammation reducer)
  • Keeping cattle in a smaller area increases odor and potential run off problems

No Spin Zone-this beef is from feed lot cattle

Grain fed beef means that the cattle were given grain to eat when they were growing. Most beef in the store is grain fed beef.

This does not mean the cattle ate only grain, just that they ate at least some grain. Feed lot cattle would be producing grain fed beef.

The person keeping a few steers in a barn and giving them grain and hay would be producing grain fed beef.

Grain is not needed for cattle to grow, they can do just fine without it, but it does provide a boost in calories that will allow for faster growth.

Any cattle we have had love grain, it’s like candy to them. This is good news and bad news.

Good news-using grain as a treat, like training treats for your dog, works wonders to make cattle that are a bit nervous around people are now glad to see you.

Because before the grain you were the weird/new guy that they don’t want to get too close to, but now with the grain you are the yummy snack guy and they are glad to see you (and your bucket of grain).

This isn’t just cattle, most any animal is glad to see you show up with snacks.

The bad news-This grain is candy thing is where the potential for problem with grain comes in.

Just like living on candy or other junk food will make a person unhealthy, living on grain alone (or a very high amount of grain) will make the cattle unhealthy.

So, is grain for cattle bad? No, just keep it to a snack or the occasional training treat, not the main meal.

High grain rations in cattle cause problems

The problem with grain as the main source of calories for cattle is that cattle are ruminants, meaning they need plant fiber and lots of it for their digestive system to work as designed.

High levels of grain take different gut microbes than forages and will cause the whole body to become more acidic.

Scoop of ground feed
Ground feed made of corn, soy and minerals. Cattle are also fed shelled corn.

This is a problem because while the stomach is acidic the rest of the body is alkaline, this is how the stomach acids kill bad bacteria.

But if the whole system of the steer is acidic all bacteria in the animal are adapted to a highly acidic environment, even the bacteria in the poo.

High grain cattle rations produce acid resistant E.coli

So what? Well here’s where things get gross.

Industrially raised and processed meat is all about speed, not health or nutrients for the eater.

When a steer on a high grain diet is slaughtered and the super fast processing in the industrial processing facility spills poo on the carcass, that poo is full of bacteria that are used to an acid environment.

So when you hear of e. coli in a person from beef, guess what just happened?

They ate industrial beef that had acid loving e. coli in it (from the poo that spilled on the meat during processing) that did not get killed in cooking.

Since the e. coli loves acid, your stomach acid, which normally kills invaders like this, doesn’t work and you get sick.

So why feed all this grain?

It’s cheap and the cattle will reach market weights sooner on high grain rations, like eating junk food all the time makes you fat.

Want to avoid most of the problems? Get your beef locally

Want to get carefully processed steaks or pack of burgers? Get your meat from a local butcher shop that processes the beef in house.

Local processors are your neighbors and they care about their customers and their reputation.

Local butchers do not have a team of lawyers to hide behind or other people to pass the blame to should things go wobbly, so they take time to do things right the first time. Support your local butcher.

Grass fed beef can still have grain

Main idea: Nearly all cattle in the U.S. are grass fed at some point in their lives.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Grass (and other forages) is the natural diet for cattle
  • The cattle are outside on pasture
  • Cattle interact normally, they can move away from a mean peer
  • Grass eating means being further from the barn=closer to predators
  • Cattle will be out in the elements, rain, wind, heat, etc.
  • Harder to monitor and treat for health issues

Pros and cons for people

  • No manure to haul
  • Need to have more land available to grow the grass
  • Need fencing that requires initial cost and maintenance
  • Grass only grows part of the year in most places, feed must be brought to the cattle at least part of the year
  • Healthier living conditions=lowered stress on cattle=tastier beef
  • Grass fed cattle have the correct Omega 3 to 6 ratio balance
  • I feel better about what I’m doing for my cattle

No spin zone-Grass fed does not mean grass only!

Grass fed beef means that the steer had access to grass. This doesn’t mean only grass, just that it could eat at least some grass.

Cattle that are listed as grass fed could still be eating some grain.

Most cattle raised in the U.S. would at least start out in this category, as calves.

Things change when the cattle are sold and raised to finishing weights in a different system, which could be grain or grass or any combination of the two.

Ask the farmer/rancher about the cattle’s diet

To me, this is where things (labels and categories) start to get confusing, and where knowing your farmer (or rancher) would really help you out.

Grass fed does not mean the diet was exclusively grass, it just means the steer ate grass sometimes.

When and how much depends upon the operation (this is the part where you would ask your farmer!).

Does grass fed mean mostly grass and a tiny bit of grain every week or so to keep the cattle friendly?

Or does grass fed mean a mostly dirt lot with a few leaves of grass here or there, so the cattle are hardly eating any grass at all?

These two examples are the extremes but hopefully you get the idea.

Do not assume anything about the beef you are buying-ask. Get the details. Ask about feeding methods and decide if the answer is acceptable to you.

If you are at the grocery store and see grass fed on the package of beef, assume that steer was fed grain.

If that steer never got any grain, the label would say grass only or 100% grass fed, since that is viewed as more valuable (and can be priced higher).

Info graphic showing the differences between  grain fed, grass fed, organic, and 100% grass fed and finished beef.

Grass finished beef cattle are not feed lot cattle

Main idea: Grass finished beef is from a steer eating grass right up to butchering day.

Pros and cons for cattle:

  • Cattle eating grass have a healthy digestive system
  • On grass cattle can behave in a more natural way
  • More likely to be around predators
  • Outside in all manner of weather conditions

Pros and cons for people

  • Grass finished beef has the correct Omega 3/6 balance
  • Higher levels of CLA in the meat
  • A natural environment for cattle makes tending them easier
  • No manure hauling
  • Need to provide water to the herd
  • Requires more land
  • Requires adequate fencing

No spin zone-Grass finished does not mean grass only!

Grass finished beef means that the cattle were finished, reached butchering weight and condition (fat cover) while on grass.

Once again this is not a diet of exclusively grass, it just means the steer ate grass up until maturity.

Grass finished beef could include grain in the ration, as long as the grass was available the entire time as well.

Grain finished beef finishes faster

Main idea: Grain finished beef is from a steer eating grain right up to butchering day.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Never have to walk far for food and/or water
  • Cattle get more heath problems with high levels of grain

Pros and cons for people

  • Cattle finish (get to selling weight) faster by eating more calories/day
  • Easily puts a nice fat layer on the beef (fat = flavor)
  • Grain must be moved to the cattle
  • Grain must be available daily
  • High grain levels increase digestive problems to be monitored
  • Low priced grain can be fed to cattle to increase crop value

No spin zone-Grain finished means high levels of grain in an animal that is not biologically designed to eat grain.

Grain finished beef means that for the last few months before slaughter the steer was given plentiful, probably all it wanted to eat, grain.

The reason for finishing cattle on grain is the grain provides plenty of calories to give ample fat cover on the body and marbling in the meat.

The beef must have fat in the meat for flavor.

How much fat is right for the eater? This is an individual taste thing.

Some people like fattier meat and others do not. Generally, it seems to depend upon what you grew up eating as to what you prefer.

Dairy cross steer, he was raised on grain and hay.
This is a grain fed dairy and beef cross steer. He was raised on grain and hay.

Organic cattle can eat grain

Main idea: Organic beef is from a steer eating only organic feeds.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Organic cattle are raised with their biology in mind
  • Not eating chemicals and pesticides common in other crops
  • Non GMO feeds only (not having to eat creepy stuff)
  • Do not always get pasture
  • Can still be a confinement operation

Pros and cons for people

  • Less likely to get chemical/pesticide contamination in food
  • Non GMO source of beef=no creepy stuff in your beef
  • Many organic cattle are on pasture
  • More money per steer = family farm profits more likely
  • Takes more knowledgeable management
  • More money to purchase feed/hay
  • More difficult to source feed/hay

No spin zone-Organic beef can be raised in confinement!

I hate to say this because of all of the wonderful, good hearted animal loving farmers and ranchers who are raising animals in exactly the way you (as a consumer) think they are raising them.

These are the people you should be buying your beef from!

But, and this is a big but, once organic started showing real money making potential the people only concerned with larger and larger profits got into organic (not because they believe, they just want your wallet).

Next thing you know they had successfully lobbied to get watered down regulations to make it easier for themselves! Truly sad, but still true.

This section has the potential to ruffle some feathers, so to speak, especially if you have been spending extra money on organic meats.

Organic just means fed with organic feeds, it does not mean raised on pasture. Grass is not mandatory in organic cattle production.

Are you surprised? Unfortunately, I’m not surprised, I’m just disappointed.

I feel this is deceptive and many consumers are paying for something that they are not getting.

I don’t think organic beef is bad, not at all, I just think that the advertising leads consumers to conclude all organic livestock (cattle, chickens, sheep, whatever), are on pasture and that is not the case.

It might be the case that the beef you specifically sought out and paid extra for was raised on grass, but it’s just as likely that it was not.

Organic Livestock Requirements is a PDF with a quick overview of the organic standards for livestock in an easy to read and understand format put together with the customer in mind.

100% grass fed and finished beef only ate forages

Main idea: 100% of the time this steer ate only grass and other forages (or hay) but never any grain.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Eating their natural, biologically appropriate diet
  • Live in naturally functioning group=normal behavior expression
  • Outside in all kinds of weather
  • More exposed to predators

Pros and cons for people

  • Healthy, nutrient dense beef
  • Improves soil health
  • Less health concerns for the farmer/rancher to manage
  • More land needed
  • More time needed
  • Some cattle (genetically) do better on grass alone than others

No spin zone-100% grass fed and finished beef will cost you more money.

As a consumer, you probably don’t want to read the cost you more money part but I will write it anyway. 100% grass fed and finished beef will cost more.

This is important to understand, especially if you have no experience raising livestock.

Raising ruminants, like cattle, completely on forages takes great management, time, skill, observation and daily on the fly adjustments.

There is a learning curve here when figuring all of this out, sometimes a steep one.

Since we are dealing with biological systems in both the cattle and the forages, a lag between ideas and implementation and seeing the results.

Sometimes multiple years of not being able to see the results, even when you are operating effectively and efficiently.

100% grass fed Jersey/Angus cross steer we raised. His mom is our family milk cow.
Another picture of our completely (100%) grass fed Jersey/Angus cross steer with a dairy cow in the background.

An example with land: it takes a few years (at best) to return an area of land to high productivity if it was significantly degraded.

There are still bills for the farmer to pay while all of this is happening (and no money is coming back in yet).

A second example: certain types of cattle do well on all grass and others do not.

Depending upon what the farmer is starting with, there could be significant costs involved in getting genetics that will perform on grass alone and waiting until the results are marketable.

A cow bred today will have a calf in 9 months, that will be finished on grass (if the genetics and forages allow) in 24-26 months.

That is nearly three years to sell the results from the change made today!

Not all changes can be made immediately.

The decision to change can be made anytime, but the best time to put that change into your management system is scheduled by the cow.

Remember, in the exclusively grass fed system especially, we are working with nature’s, (not the farmer’s) time table.

Cattle genetics are a long term game.

Great sources of information on raising cattle on grass are Greg and Jan Judy of Missouri, this is a link to their site. They also have a very informative channel, books and host in person grazing schools.

Raising beef takes long term thinking

Most beef cattle in the U.S. are born and raised until weaning (when they don’t need their mom anymore) on one farm or ranch, then sold as feeders or stockers to someone else who will fed them until they are full size.

The feeder cattle are sold to generate yearly income for the owner of the brood cows (the moms).

Since it takes 18-24 months to finish out a steer (get it to butchering weight and condition).

The original owner of the cattle will not get paid for nearly two years and will have extra feed expenses keeping the feeders at home through the winter months.

Many farmer/ranchers and people raising beef for themselves don’t want to keep the brood cows or deal with reproduction.

They buy a weaned calf and leave the baby raising to someone else.

Another reason for getting feeders is to just have a few cattle for a short time then get a few more later, like to keep the pasture eaten down in the summer.

This way you don’t have animals in the winter when you would have to haul hay and would rather be on a beach in Florida for vacation.

Some farms/ranches do feed their cattle to butchering weight, called finishing the cattle, but that requires the land, management and feed to do it.

We raise our own beef from calves born here, but we just have a few cattle and we have the land and time to do it.

One of the main benefits of feeder cattle is that a family with more of a limited land base can raise their own beef from a few feeder steers.

If they had to have the steer for it’s whole life, people with smaller amounts of land can not give the steer enough to eat so they can’t get the animal.

But buying the feeder steer that is half grown means now more families can use the land they have available.

Since they have enough grass for the feeders for the summer but could not provide the grazing for an entire herd, even a small one, having feeder cattle for the summer only works great.


For the eaters: Quality beef is worth it

Consider that you are paying for food to build your body, literally you are what you eat, and what you eat eats.

Living on a tight grocery budget? Dig deep and track all expenses, every penny, you’ll see changes that can be made to free up more of your money for more important uses.

The right way to raise cattle is situational

What is the right way to raise cattle?

The way that serves everyone, the cattle, the farmers and ranchers and the eaters and neighbors, to the highest and best purpose of all involved.

There is no one best way-there are a few guidelines (health of the people, cattle and environment being tops) and then see what works in your area and in your situation.

To say one method suits all is completely inappropriate and actually leaning more towards crazy.

Our world is a beautiful, wondrous place.

Any method of raising cattle (or any other animal or plant) that helps promote animals and people living full, healthy lives is the method to use.

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