Grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef: what is more sustainable

As global health regulations increase, farming practices are becoming more sustainable. Over the years, there has been much talk about grass-fed over grain-fed because of the many health benefits it holds. While both have their own farming benefits, there are a few misconceptions when it comes to the meat.

Put simply, after birth, most cows start living on their mother’s milk and pasture. They’re also allowed to roam freely and eat whatever they can find. Once they reach a certain weight, conventional farming moves cows to feedlots (also known as CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations), where they are fattened on a diet of corn and soy feed, and often supplemented by growth hormones and antibiotics.

This is when grass-fed becomes the alternative option.

Bigger isn’t better

Grass-fed refers to the animal’s diet. It’s the process in which cattle are allowed to graze for their food, consuming mainly grass, herbs, flowers and other legumes. Grain-fed on the other hand is a feed mixthat consists of grain, soy, corn and other supplements. While this only describes the diet, it does not refer to the grazing process or how the cattle are raised. Free-range feeding is usually the term used when cows are left to roam freely but not necessarily graze freely. With the grazing process, controlled grain-feeding is the fastest feeding alternative for mass production as the process helps to speed up slaughter time.

Despite the fact that meat production can be harmful to the environment and the animal itself, more farmers are turning to free-range, grass-fed production because it reaps a higher return on investment. In the initial phases, it’s more costly for farmers to provide the roaming space that their cattle need, but they’ve quickly realised the importance of farming and feeding in a more humane way, as it ensures that the animal is not stressed and the meat is of high-quality before slaughter. By implementing a controlled, grain-fed process where cattle are raised in factories, it fattens the cow up and causes them to release‘cortisol’ before slaughter. The release of this stress hormone leads toflavourless and tough meat quality.

Benefits of grass-fed over conventional

Here are a few farming tips you need to know about grass-fed cows:

  • Grass gives cows more nutritional value

Grain feedingis much cheaper for mass feeding and it also speeds up the process when fattening the cow quickly and effectively. This is different with a grass-fed cow as it takes much longer for them to grow in weight. The nutrients received through grass feeding also assists with their digestion of food.

  • Grass-fed beef is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids

The rich minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids in the grass make grass-fed beef healthier for human consumption. People who suffer from heart disease and low blood pressure should be consuming more of these acids in their diet. And, while the digestion of meat is often a problem for many, it is advised that you opt for grass-fed over grain-fed because the more tender meat is easily digestible.

Here are some of the benefits of increased Omega 3 consumption:

  • Omega 3 is highly effective in decreasing inflammation.
  • Assists with depression: Omega-3 fatty acids consumption can increase mental well-being.
  • Helps you to focus: Omega-3s can be a promising alternative to alleviate attention deficit disorders (ADHD) over stimulant medications.
  • Grass-fed beef is a healthier option for consumers

Since grass-fed cows are grown in a more sterile living environment, without any chemical fertilisers, hormones or antibiotics, the quality of the beef turns out to be far superior. Because it’s raised with extra care, on a clean and natural diet, these cows are also less stressed before slaughter. Not having cortisol in their bodies ensures that the meat produced has a significantly higher amount of nutrients and healthy fats compared to grain-fed cows. The meat is also filled with flavour and colour.

  • Grass-fed farming practices are better for the environment

As you can imagine, grass-fed farming is better for the environment and for the animal because the process requires less energy (due to the technology used to feed and fertilise the feed), as well as because it promotes biodiversity in soil. When cows are located in feedlots, it allows them to graze freely and stress-free, without being fed with toxic growth hormones to help them grow faster. The fertiliser used for grain-fed also affects the area’s pollution and water because the chemicals leach into the ground and surface water, significantly impacting the water quality and aquatic life.

Final words

When it comes to farming practices, there are countless studies on what is better for the animal, human and environment as a whole. While many farmers have started to dedicate their lives to producing quality meat that benefits their bottom line and makes a difference, there are also underlying factors such as soil conditions and farmland size that affect your ability to make these changes.

Over time, guidelines for cattle farming will get stricter and meat will get more expensive for consumers. Even though free-range, grass-fed beef is costly, the difference in the meat is undeniable. Not only does it save the environment but it’s better for your health. At the end of the day, choosing between grass-fed and grain-finished beef comes down to which is more important to you as a farmer.