Grass-Fed vs. Corn-Fed Beef: What You Should Know

A growing number of people today can no longer ignore the way animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots. (image:  publicdomainpibtures  /  CC0 1.0)
A growing number of people today can no longer ignore the way animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots. (image: publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

A growing number of people today can no longer ignore the way animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots. And even those desensitized to human suffering are slowly hearing their conscience whisper that the way we feed and farm animals may not be very healthy and sustainable.

While all beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, most of them are soon after put into feeding lots and fattened, or as the industry calls it — “finished.”

Ever more people now seek to find a better alternative to how animals are currently farmed and seem to be trending toward pasture-raised animals. More and more people are buying grass-fed and organic beef.

Former vegetarian and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford says he eats meat again, but only “grass-fed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”

Only a decade ago, grass-fed cattle operations were almost on the verge of dying out, with only about 50 left in the U.S. Today, there are thousands.

Pasture-raised animals

(image via publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

Cows grazing on a family-owned farm. (Image: publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

Does it really make a difference? Is feeding grass better? How is this different from the industry standard of feeding corn? Essentially, the difference between grass fed and corn fed beef all boils down to one striking analogy: It’s the difference, for humans, between eating bags of spinach all day versus dense, calorie-rich cornflakes. The food that a cow eats can have a major effect on its meat’s nutrient composition and quality.

You are what you eat

(Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

You are what you eat. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Grass-fed beef is less fatty than regular corn-fed beef. The fats it does contain can be considered quality fats. Meat from cows fed with grass contains more alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid), as well as more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural trans fat that is regarded by some experts to have cancer-fighting properties.

In comparison, the beef gained from corn-fed animals differs significantly in terms of texture, fat content, nutritional value, and quality in general. Because meat from grass-fed animals is lower in fat than meat from grain-fed animals, it is also lower in calories.

Some may argue that allowing animals to be pasture-raised will make the meat more expensive because it takes longer for said animal to grow to the point where it can be processed into beef. The opposing question one may ask is do we really need to eat that much meat? What if we think quality over quantity? Eating less meat can make up for the higher price of pasture-raised beef.

Many people still shy away from buying grass-fed beef. One reason may be the lack of education most beef consumers have about the difference between grass-fed and corn-fed beef.

The wasteful reality of feedlots and the environment

The common feedlot and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not an inevitable step in the evolution of agricultural progress or any market forces. It has come to be that, as a result of public policies, large-scale feedlots are being favored over smaller family-owned farms.

While feedlots allow for a much larger number of cattle to be held in a much smaller space, the effects on the groundwater and the environment are not neglectable.”Most feedlots concentrate animal waste and other hazardous substances that can pollute the air and the water with their runoff,” noted a Wall Street Journal article asking whether feedlot beef is bad for the environment.

Thanks to federal policies, CAFOs benefit from billions of dollars allocated to them, so that they can address their pollution problems that arise due to the confinement of so many animals, often more than several thousand, in a small area. The reality is that confined animal feeding operations cost the tax-payers billions.

What makes grass-fed beef more expensive?

By Alpha from Melbourne, Australia [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What makes grass-fed beef more expensive? (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Corn-fed beef is more cost efficient to produce; the animals are battened and fed growth hormones, making them ready for slaughter in just over a year.

Grass-fed animals, however, take longer to reach a size and weight suitable for processing, which is what accounts for the higher price tag on grass-fed beef products. But that’s just part of what makes the grass-fed beef more expensive.

Another factor is that CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) benefit largely from the low cost of grain prices, while cattle operations that exclusively raise animals on pasture land hardly benefit from the subsidized grain prices. From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about US$35 billion.

The subsidy on grain prices is so large that CAFOs only have to pay a very small fraction of what it would otherwise cost to feed their livestock. If pastureland was to be subsidized in the same way as grain is, not just the farmers would benefit from it, but also the consumers of grass-fed or organic beef, as they would have to pay less for their meat. Thanks to government subsidies, it is cheaper and faster to raise cattle in industrial feedlots.

Traditionally, all beef used to be grass-fed. Due to the alignment of government policies, however, grass-fed beef began to recede as it became uneconomic for smaller farmers to run their pasture operations. Almost a century ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of 4-6 years old. Today, thanks to the grain they are fed, they can be slaughtered at a much younger age, usually when they are just 14-16 months old.

Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef. Fresian cows in pasture. (image via publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

Traditionally, all beef was grass-fed beef. Fresian cows in a pasture. (Image: publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

The cost of keeping an animal for 14-16 months is far less than the cost of keeping it 4-6 years. However, as many studies show, the cost of an elevated growth rate and batter feeding of cattle on our health might be higher than we thought.

A day in the life of…

Author Michael Pollan outlines what happens to cows that are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:

Corn or grass, which is the healthier food for cows?

To answer this question, one might consider the following example.

Take two people and put them on a specific diet for a few weeks. One person only eats refined corn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the other only eats green vegetables.  Or put differently, one person eats only food with high amounts of calories and low nutrients while the other eats nutrient-rich, low-calorie food. As we see in cows fed with corn, they contain a higher amount of fat and calories than grass-fed meat. People eating grass-fed meat will always be eating fewer calories and fat compared to their peers on a corn-fed beef diet.

A common cattle feeding lot. (image via publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

A common cattle feeding lot. (Image: publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants — such as glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) — as compared to grain-fed contemporaries.

Studies also show that grass-fed beef has a lower fat content overall. On top of that, the meat from cows fed with grass contains less harmful cholesterol than regular beef. Grass-fed beef tends toward a higher proportion of cholesterol neutral stearic FA (C18:0), and less cholesterol-elevating SFAs, such as myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) FAs.

(image via publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

Studies also show that grass-fed beef has a lower fat content overall. (Image: publicdomainpibtures / CC0 1.0)

In a nutshell

You are what you eat; the same holds true for animals. Many health issues in society, including obesity, are directly related to the quality of food we eat. Many health issues, in the long run, are in some way related to the cumulative effect of not supplying the body with enough nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Everything we eat leaves a footprint on the environment and societies overall health state.

Besides all of the aforementioned, a healthy body is the home to a healthy mind. A healthy mind is more productive, more consistent, more reliable than one always having to deal with the physical burdens of an unhealthy diet, low on healthy nutrients.

In terms of short-term budget, it seems that quantity is preferred. But when it comes down to morals and health, most people, when in full possession of their reason, will choose quality.

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