Grass-fed Beef: a US Consumers Perspective

The American Grass-fed Association defines grass-fed as “food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth to harvest—all their lives”, says this University of Wisconsin Extension’s guide to grass-fed beef.
calendar icon 2 June 2009
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Farmers use a variety of systems to raise healthy animals. One new trend in meats is really a return to the way farm animals like cows, sheep, goats, and bison were historically raised.

Described as ruminants, these animals have a four-chambered stomach. Ruminant animals eat and digest grasses and other plants, like alfalfa—something that humans can’t do with their one-chambered stomachs.

Humans domesticated these valuable animals because their unique design allows them to convert grass into flavorful meat and milk. Today, most meat in the grocery store or at the local restaurant is from animals that were raised in a feedlot and fed significant amounts of grain in addition to hay and pasture.

Grass-fed meat is from animals that are put “out on grass” or fed a forage diet. This allows animals to harvest their own food and dispose of their manure in the pasture. Some farmers combine the use of grains with pasture; others choose to use pastures only. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed standards regarding the definition of grass-fed animals.

These standards state that grass-fed ruminants should consume grass and/or forage during their entire lifetime, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet should be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Environmental and health benefits of grass-fed beef

From an environmental perspective, raising animals on pasture has many benefits. High quality, healthy pastures reduce soil erosion, improve water quality (a University of Wisconsin study showed that pastures are the “best” crop for reducing runoff and erosion), increase plant diversity, and provide high quality wildlife habitat.

While perhaps not an environmental benefit, many people enjoy the view of green, flowing pastures with animals contentedly grazing. A variety of health benefits are associated with grass-fed meats. Grass-fed meat is leaner and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed beef. (See table with nutritional information.) Additionally, studies have shown that grass-fed meat contains more of vitamins A and E, conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which have been shown to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, and decrease the risk of diabetes and cancer.

Cattleana Galloway beef nutrient content comparison to other cooked meats, per three ounces, trimmed
  *Cattleana pasture- finished Galloway beef loin USDA Prime Grade beef loin USDA Choice Grade beef loin Pork loin Lamb loin Chicken breast without skin Chicken thigh without skin
Protein (grams) 27 24 24 26 26 26 22
Fat (grams) 3.5 11.6 8.7 6.6 8.2 1.3 7.0
Calories 129 201 175 165 176 119 151
*Cattleana Galloway beef was analyzed by UW–Madison Meat Science Department, 1998. (Loin was from multiple samples.)

Grass-fed flavor is a matter of individual taste

A pasture-based diet impacts meat flavor. It changes the fatty acid content of meat, and grass-fed meats are often described as more intensely flavored. The following factors may also contribute to flavor differences: breed, age, and animal gender; aging of the carcass; diet; and stress factors.

A grass-fed animal may require more time to achieve marbling than a conventionally raised animal, and they are more likely to grade choice or select than prime. Locally produced and processed animals do not suffer the stresses of a long journey before slaughter. If an animal is stressed at slaughter, it releases hormones that alter the meat. Also the animal tenses when it is stressed, so the meat will be less tender. Postmortem aging of 7–21 days allows natural enzymes to break down muscle fibers and adds to the meat’s flavor and tenderness.

Questions to ask the producer

Farmers use a variety of production practices to produce high quality meat products, and it is worthwhile to talk to the producers about how their animals are raised. Typically, beef cattle are slaughtered at 18–24 months of age. Grass-fed beef is usually produced without growth-promoting hormones or other additives, but be sure to ask the producers about their production practices if it is important to you.

Grass-fed beef may or may not be produced with corn. Some pasture-based farms feed a little grain to “finish” the animal. If certified organic beef is a preference, be sure to ask the farmer if he or she is certified for organic production through the USDA National Organic Program. One benefit of buying directly from farmers is you can talk with them about their production practices, develop an understanding of their actions, and learn the reasons for their production decisions.

May 2009

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