Grass vs. Grain - Getting past the marketing mumbo jumbo

As soon as this text came through I could feel my temper rising!  It was an advertisement. 

I’m not a hot head, but as an advocate for animal agriculture I really don’t like food companies using agricultural practices or the consumer’s lack of knowledge to scare people into making buying decisions on food products.

It’s kind of like fear based aggression in dogs.  The dog is afraid of getting hurt so he acts out with the dangerously aggressive behavior of biting.  He’s not actually in danger yet his emotion of fear is triggered by limited information and with that, he takes an action that leads to a negative outcome.

People sometimes react in a similar way, making a quick decision based on emotion triggered by limited information vs. facts.  The result of their rash decision making leads to misunderstandings and a negative view of the beef industry and/or the products they are buying and the companies that represent them.

In this instance, I’m talking about the big debate of Grass fed vs. Grain fed. 

Or more accurately: Grass fed and grass finished vs. Grass fed and grain finished.

So I’m on this marketing list from a competitor jerky company and recently I received this picture (see below) along with a marketing message from said jerky company telling me that these are 3 reasons why they use grass fed beef for their jerky.   

This infographic really got me fired up because it’s claims are inaccurate and WAY OVER SIMPLIFIES THE BEEF INDUSTRY.  I'll address these three points below.

To be up front, I don't care if you prefer grass finished or grain finished, eat what makes you happy.  I’m on both sides, it’s all beef to me!  Please, just be willing to seek first to understand and don’t spread misinformation. 

The truth is, our U.S. beef producers do a great job at providing us all with an abundant food supply of wholesome, nutritious and safe to eat beef.  And for that, we here at Great US Beef are very grateful!

Food companies who use limited and inaccurate information to “educate” or persuade their consumer, or worse, scare them into making a buying decision using something like a fear based health claim is a problem. 

It's not right.  

Beef has the most unique and complex life cycle of any food produced in the United States.  So of course when you compare beef to the chicken and pork industries, things can get confusing for the customer who has not studied and participated in livestock production...which is the great majority of us!  

The point is, there’s a lot more to understand than what you’ll read on a small package label or a short marketing message.  And that is also why this article is such a long one.

OK, back to the graphic and let's address the three topics:

POINT # 1

  • TRUE, grass is a natural diet for cattle.  
  • Grain finished cattle spend the majority of their life on pasture before spending the last 4-6 months in a feedlot.  There’s a range in age for various reasons, but typically grain-finished cattle are ready to go to market (slaughter) between 15-22 months of age and can be older.
  • I don’t know what “feed lines” are?  Never heard of that one before.  Maybe they are referring to the feed bunks which are the cement bunks where the feed is deposited 2-3 times daily and carefully watched over by people like the Bunk Reader, the Feed Truck Driver, the Yard Manager and possibly even the Pen Riders.
  • The statement of “little room to move around” is, in my opinion, very misleading.  While the cattle in a feedlot are not sitting in a huge 100 acre open pasture they do have plenty of space to move around and are not overcrowded.  
  • Cattle in a feedlot are carefully watched over day in and day out by all of the feedlot employees with the cattle health and well being as their #1 priority.  
  • Regarding the statement “corn fed cattle is fattened quickly” - if you consider 4-6 months quick, then yes.  Grass finished cattle typically take 12 months longer to be finished to get to market weight vs. grain finished cattle.  That means grain finished cattle reach market weight 6 to 8 months sooner.  That fact also makes grain finished beef more efficient to produce, have less of an environmental impact and cheaper at the retail counter.
  • Cattle in a feedlot eat more than corn.  Typical feedlot rations, depending on the region, may include a mixture of: corn, soybean meal, corn silage, hay, wheat, barley, vitamins, minerals, maybe a probiotic.  Cattle are great upcylers and can also utilize agricultural byproducts as a protein source such as: almond hulls, oat bran, rice bran, whole cotton seeds, soybean hulls and brewers and distillers grains.
  • The science of cattle nutrition and feeding has never been better.  
  • Due to careful selection of breeding cattle for desirable carcass traits over the last several decades the genetics of cattle have never been better.  
  • Put those two facts together and today's feedlots are feeding a high plane of nutrition so that the cattle can reach their full genetic potential of growth.  And that is why the market has been seeing some exceptional quality of beef come to market over the last few years, such as some of the biggest volumes of Prime grade beef we've ever seen.  
  • It's worth noting that there are grass fed programs that seek to imitate the results of cattle in feedlot whereby they supplement the pasture forage with additional forage and approved feedstuffs to increase the amount of calories and nutrients available to the cattle so that they can gain weight faster and put on more fat marbling.  They do this because the biggest demand for beef is still for highly marbled beef which is harder to achieve in grass finished beef.
  • When it comes to feedlots there's also the topic of added hormones.  There is much more to discuss on this topic, but in short, hormones are not always given to fed cattle because it's up to the individual choice of the producer, so a blanket statement of all cattle in feedlots receive added hormones is not accurate.  

POINT # 2

  • "Feeding pastures has been shown to sequester carbon, lowering greenhouse gases."
  • A more accurate statement would be, pasture management (some call it holistic or regenerative) but basically proper pasture management is GREAT for the environment and can sequester carbon.  Our vast plains and grasslands are thought to be carbon sinks, though we don’t yet fully understand how much carbon they do hold. 
  • Cattle as well as other ruminants, grazing on pastures, when properly managed, are GREAT for improving soil health which contributes to plant health which in turn supports more biodiversity on the land. 
  • Cattle are also useful when it comes to fire suppression by grazing down plant material that would otherwise become overgrown dead fuel for wildfires.  
  • “Grain requires additional infrastructure to produce, taking away space for carbon reduction.”  Well, there’s no guarantee that the landowner of the infrastucture would use that land for pasture vs. a processing facility.  This calls into question the county zoning rules governing that parcel of land as well as the economic goal of the land owner. 
  • And what about all the urban sprawl?  Urban expansion has taken vast tracts of grassland and agricultural land and turned them into housing tracts and city space.  This is a complex issue worldwide as we figure out how to be environmentally sustainable with a growing world population and just as importantly, how do we feed that growing population in a sustainable way?   Grain finished cattle are produced more efficiently, at a lower cost and yield beef that is as healthy and nutritious as grass finished beef.  You also don't need abundant year round pasture available to produce grain finished cattle, which is something to consider when looking at regional climates across the U.S.

POINT # 3

  • “Grass fed beef is higher in nutrients & minerals and contains 3x Omega-3s.”
  • The truth is there there’s been no significant difference shown in the nutritional content of grass finished vs. grain finished beef.  Some antioxidants and other nutrients are sometimes higher in grass finished beef, but these differences are not always significant and are variable, depending on the location/type of forage/grass the cattle are eating, whereas feed yard rations are generally more standardized.
  • Beef in general – whether grass-finished or grain finished – is not considered a good source of omega-3s, especially when compared to fish.  
  • Studies vary, again based on the location/type of forage/grass the cattle are eating, but a 3ounce serving of grass finished beef will have about 0.015 to 0.055 grams of Omega-3’s vs. grain finished beef with 0.020 to 0.003 grams of Omega-3’s.
  • A 3-ounce serving of wild-caught Alaskan salmon has about 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, much greater than the 0.015 grams of omega-3s in grass-fed beef, according to the National Nutrient Database.
  • You would have to consume 100 times the amount of (grass-fed) ground beef to get the same amount of omega-3s as the similar portion of salmon, so in the scheme of things, you can’t eat enough (grass-fed beef) to make a significant impact on your (omega-3) intake.
  • Articles referencing the Omega-3s are linked below:
  • https://animalscience.tamu.edu/2013/12/07/ground-beef-from-grass-fed-and-grain-fed-cattle-does-it-matter/
  • https://www.iowafarmbureau.com/Article/Grassfed-vs-grainfed-beef-Whats-the-healthy-choice#:~:text=A%203%2Dounce%20serving%20of%20wild%2Dcaught%20Alaskan%20salmon%20has,to%20the%20National%20Nutrient%20Database.
  • Yes, grain finished beef is higher in fat and calories.  While at the feedlot the animal is putting on more fat and muscle because it's consuming more calories.  That fat leads to the intramuscular marbling that makes U.S. beef so darn delicious.  And to be honest, you don’t see a lot of grass finished steaks at high end steak houses and restaurants because for many chefs, they find that it just doesn’t taste as good as grain finished and so they don't sell much of it.  And if you do find it, often times you may see that the steak is finished with steak butter, adding the fat and flavor it was missing because it was leaner than the grain finished beef.
  • Fat content will vary depending on the cut of beef.
  • There are PLENTY of lean beef options in both grass and grain finished.
  • https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/nutrition/lean-beef

Whether you prefer grass finished or grain finished beef, just remember to THANK our American Farmers & Ranchers for producing some of the best beef in the world for us all to enjoy!

1 comment

Steve Daugherty

Kate,

Your response was extremely well thought,
out citing known facts of beef production & nutritional value, & very well articulated!! And you’re right, many food & boutique pet food companies have been misleading consumers in their marketing campaigns in order to sell their products, which hurts the more traditional food & pet food companies. So, I’m happy that you called them out in a well-reasoned piece.

You EARNED an A+++ grade on your essay!

Great job!

Doc

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