Corn Fed vs Grass Fed

Promoters and producers of grass fed beef have made a lot of claims about its nutritional and environmental benefits.  One web-based marketer states, “100% grass-fed meats, from any kind of critter, are the most perfect food for man.  Grass-fed meats will supply 100% of your body's nutrient requirements in perfect balance.  Grass-fed meat is the ONLY food type you can eat exclusively and still have optimal body function.”

Not all of the claims are so sweeping, but they’ll often cite the enhanced presence of conjugated linoleic acid [CLA] in the meat of animals fed exclusively on grass.  CLA is reputed to have antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, and to combat obesity.  And environmentalists reason that it’s got to be preferable to keep an animal in the great outdoors to graze on grass, rather than confine it in a feedlot and feed it grain that was raised under intense production systems.

The American Grassfed Association—which supports producers of all livestock and poultry products, not just beef—says on its website that “a variety of research” shows products from grassfed animals are higher in beta carotene, CLA and Omega-3 fatty acids.  “Initial research has shown all of these elements to be crucial in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and other life threatening diseases.  Research also shows grassfed products to be lower in fat and cholesterol and less likely to contain harmful E. coli bacteria,” the trade group says.

One problem with these claims is that some of them appear to be contradictory.  Daniel Rule, an animal science professor and ruminant nutrition researcher at the University of Wyoming, points out the grass feeders are saying their product’s fat is healthier—but there’s also less of it.  He says, “If the consumer is eating lean beef, that means there’s just not that much fat.  If there’s not that much fat, and these fatty acids represent a small proportion of the total fat, then the consumption of these fatty acids cannot be that great.”  In other words, it’s hard to make health claims for CLA and omega-3 if the amount being consumed is negligible.

Rule’s own research has also found that when lab animals consume a diet high in fat but low in cholesterol, the animals’ own blood cholesterol did not increase.  Texas A & M University researcher Stephen Smith has conducted similar research with human subjects and has concluded grass-fed beef is not as healthy, nor grain fed beef as harmful, as some reports have suggested.  In trials, Smith found that men who ate ground beef made from grain fed cattle had increased high-density lipid or "good" cholesterol, and larger particle diameters of "bad," or low-density lipid cholesterol.  Those who ate beef made from heavily finished grain-fed cattle that graded prime also had reduced insulin.  Smith noted while there were no negative dietary consequences found in men who ate grass fed beef, the beef itself was higher in saturated trans fat.  He also said he received negative feedback from ranchers in the grass fed business from his study, which was funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Researchers from California State University-Chico and the California Cooperative Extension Service examined data from three decades’ worth of nutritional studies comparing grass-fed and grain-fed beef.  They said, yes—gram for gram, grass-fed beef has a more desirable saturated fatty acid [SFA] profile, with more cholesterol neutral and less cholesterol elevating SFA, than grain-fed beef. It’s also higher in CLA isomers, trans vaccenic acid—which the body converts into CLA—and omega-3 fatty acids, and in precursors for Vitamin A [like beta carotene] and Vitamin E, and cancer fighting antioxidants.

But, because it also tends to be lower in overall fat content, “grass-fed beef also possesses a distinct grass flavor and unique cooking qualities that should be considered when making the transition from grain-fed beef.”  And they said if the meat is lean, “regardless of feeding strategy,” it is just as effective as a dietary means of reducing serum cholesterol as fish or skinless chicken.

As for the ostensible ecological benefits of grass feeding, a study out of Australia suggests cattle finished on grain have a smaller carbon footprint than those raised exclusively on pastures.  According to researcher Matthias Schulz, meat is produced more efficiently through grain feeding.  The report was conducted by the University of New South Wales and commissioned by the Pacific nation's meat export promotion body, but they weren’t defending their own interests; most of Australia's beef is grass fed.

Similarly, a recently completed study of Upper Midwestern production systems concluded feedlot-finished beef products are less resource and emissions-intensive relative to management-intensive pastured beef production.  However, the researchers [Pelletier, N., et al], who were sponsored by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, conceded there were many facets of the respective production systems that were not among the metrics they considered.  “We do not consider costs and benefits related to variables like job creation or quality of life, nor do we address a spectrum of proximate ecological considerations, including biodiversity impacts, or concerns such as animal welfare,” they said.  In addition, they conceded pasture-based systems may produce greater carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and said the “average” systems they modeled are not as efficient as optimally managed pasture systems.

Finishing cattle on grass is not as easy, says Andy Larson, as just turning them out onto your existing pastures and watching them fill out.  Since 2008, Larson has been coordinator of the Leopold Center’s Grass-Based Livestock Working Group, which meets quarterly for seminars on aspects of grass feeding.   Most of the attendees, he says, are “your cow/calf operations, your grass finishers, and your people that are very, very specifically oriented towards being good stewards of your environment, in addition to being efficient producers of cattle.”

And if you’ve never done it before, there’s a lot for a rancher to learn before attempting to finish cattle on grass; Larson ticks off the key points: “If you are willing to be a very good grass farmer—if you’re willing to figure out what species you’ve got present in your pastures, how to improve the mix, how to improve production and intake of those pastures, and have cattle that are going to eat that forage and marble well on it—then, absolutely; you can change your operation from one side to the other.  But it’s just not going to be a snap of the fingers kind of thing; it’s a learning process.”

Economics are often a motivation; Larson says most of the inquiries he gets about switching to grass come when corn is in the $4-6 range; cattle producers either don’t want to pay that much for feed, or they’d rather sell their own corn crop and feed their animals something cheaper.  But once they’ve made the transition, they rarely switch back.  “A lot of the folks that I’ve gotten to know started out as grain oriented beef producers,” he says.  “When they switched to grass fed, it was a very conscious choice for a variety of very personal reasons.  Sometimes it’s marketing; sometimes, it is wanting to have a specific effect on the pastures or the land that they own.”

If you’re planning to feed cattle on grass, it’s crucial to line up your marketing channels in advance.  Larson says, “I’ve gotten calls from guys who say, ‘You know, I’ve got so many grass-finished, organic cattle that are ready to go to market; who do I sell them to?’”  That’s the worst-case scenario—the producer has already absorbed the cost of production, but doesn’t know where the revenues will come from.  One option is to do your own marketing directly to consumers through farmers markets, web-based sales, accommodating local retailers or buying clubs.  There are also companies that contract with producers to add to their branded grass-fed beef line; again, here it’s important to find out whether they’ll buy your beef before you start producing it. “The best advice,” Larson concludes, “is probably to sell those cattle before you even have them on the ground.”

Nor is it necessarily easy to produce palatable, grass-fed beef.  Larson says, “I’ve had grass-fed beef that tastes very different…very ‘grassy’.  I’ve also had grass-fed beef where I never would have known that it wasn’t finished on grain.  It really depends on how that producer’s total system works with the genetics of the cattle and the pastures that they have.”  He dismisses the results of taste panels as extremely subjective.  “Some people really prefer the grass-fed beef, saying it tastes ‘beefier,’ whatever that means,” he says.  “Others, who are used to corn-fed beef and have been raised on that all their lives, don’t want anything different.”

Larson guesses perhaps 1% of Iowa producers are finishing cattle on grass.  There’s a reason for that, says another Iowa State Extension specialist, animal science professor and Iowa Beef Center director Dan Loy.

“Our resource base is primarily crop production,” says Dr. Loy, “and historically the cattle feeding enterprise in Iowa has been a way to market that corn crop.”  But grass feeding is more attractive in states with less row crops relative to grassland…and in the South.  “Longer growing seasons, more forage production, I think are all advantages for grass-fed beef production,” Loy says.

Loy says there are management challenges in both grass and grain feeding.  Running a feedlot, he says, “is a very narrow margin business.  It requires collecting, and in many cases purchasing, the feedstuffs, ensuring the quality of those feedstuffs, getting them delivered, managing the diets.”  Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, “relies a lot more on Mother Nature.  It requires moisture for the grass to grow; it requires management of the cattle as well as the growing forage, and matching those needs. 

And it costs more per pound to raise grass-fed beef, because the animals don’t finish out to the same size and the rate of gain is lower.  In addition, it’s difficult to get them to grade Choice; if they’re marketed through ordinary channels, they’ll bring a discount, so their beef is typically differentiated in the marketplace and sold at a premium to compensate.

But Loy points out the U.S. experience is not uniform worldwide.  “Historically, the American consumer has preferred grain-fed beef and that’s how our quality grading system has developed,” he says.  “But if you look at other countries where that has not necessarily been an option, South American for examples, Brazil and Argentina consume large quantities of beef which is primarily grass-fed.  So it’s a matter of taste, a matter of cost, and a matter of consumer preferences.”

And is it a matter of profit?  Andy Larson says, “I don’t see a lot of grass-based producers that are doing it on a very large scale or that are getting rich, necessarily, at it.  But I don’t see a lot of conventional grain-fed producers doing either of those, either.”