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Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef: What’s the Difference?

Grain-fed, grass-fed, corn-fed, pasture-finished - reading the labels in the meat section of the local grocery store can leave you with more questions than answers if you aren’t up to speed on all the different kinds of beef available on the market.

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to learn about the different varieties and explore options with this guide to grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Learn about the health benefits, environmental impacts and rich flavors and textures found in grass-fed beef like the non-GMO, humanely raised products offered at Acabonac Farms.


Key Takeaways

  • Grass-fed beef has lower overall fat content than grain-fed beef and contains higher levels of vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Grass-fed cattle operations can improve soil health and have lower greenhouse gas emissions than grain-fed operations
  • Grass-fed beef has a richer, meatier flavor profile than grain-fed beef
  • Grass-fed beef typically costs more than grain-fed beef due to high resource costs and small scale

 

What Is the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?

Grass-fed cows in a wide open green pasture

What is Grass-Fed Beef?

While only a small percentage of cattle can be called “grass-fed,” most cows spend a good portion of their lives eating grass. In fact, for most of their lives the diet of grass-fed and grain-fed cattle looks pretty much the same.

Cows spend the first six months or so of their lives drinking their mothers milk until they’re weaned and sent out to pasture. They all spend 8 months to a year there, grazing on food like grasses, hay and other forages.

For grass-fed cows, these pastures will remain their home for the rest of their lives - usually another two years or so, when they reach the desired weight. Grain-fed cattle, on the other hand, get moved to facilities known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.  


What is Grain-Fed Beef?

95 percent of cattle in America are grain-fed, meaning they spend their final 4 to 6 months at a CAFO receiving a diet of cereal grains - typically some combination of corn, oats and barley.

If grass and forages are suitable for a cow’s diet in their early months, why are so many moved to an alternate location and given a new diet before being slaughtered?

As cows age, they become less able to convert their food into fat and muscle. To counteract this aging process, grain-fed cattle receive a higher-energy diet in order to quickly reach their ideal weight.

This change in diet can lead to some big differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef as well as the processes used to produce them. This chart shows some of the advantages and disadvantages of grass-feeding:

 

Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef

Disadvantages of Grass-Fed Beef

  • Contains less fat and more vitamins and antioxidants than grain-fed beef
  • Uses land in a more sustainable way and introduces less stress on cattle
  • Has a richer, meatier flavor
  • Higher resource costs mean higher prices
  • Can be harder to find at many supermarkets
  • Different fat content means first-timers may need to adjust their cooking approach


Are There Health Benefits to Choosing Grass-Fed Over Grain-Fed Beef?

Nutritional Comparisons of Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef

The health benefits of grass-fed beef are a major factor for many folks who have made the switch, as more and more people are seeking healthier options at the dinner table.

One of the biggest differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is fat content. One study found grass-fed beef contains lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef has also been shown to contain higher levels of antioxidants like vitamin E, beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

These differences can have important health implications. A 2022 study found the differences in fatty acid content and other nutrients caused by grain-finishing cattle are so significant that switching to grass-fed beef could help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease and inflammation.

Is Grain or Grass-fed Beef Better for the Environment?

Health consciousness isn’t the only thing encouraging people to make the switch to grass-fed beef, either. Things like animal welfare and the high environmental impact of cattle farming have led many to explore alternatives to grain-fed beef.

CAFOs can be harmful to soil health and cause increases in certain pollutants with demonstrated harmful effects on the environment. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the benefits of grass-feeding cattle over confined feedlots included:

  • 87 percent lower sediment erosion
  • 13 pounds per acre reduction in phosphorus runoff
  • 30 percent lower ammonia emissions
  • 8 percent lower total emissions for methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide

Grass-feeding can also make better use of available land than grain-feeding, which requires quality farmland to grow feed for cattle. Grass-fed cattle graze on land that couldn’t be used to grow food for people, leaving higher-quality farmland open for other uses.

 A University of California-Davis study also points out that animal byproducts, which accumulate rapidly at feedlots and represent a major waste-disposal problem, instead become an asset as nutrients enrich the soil and encourage new growth of forages for cattle.

This cycle is a key part of a system known as regenerative agriculture, the backbone of Acabonac Farms’ approach to raising cattle. Regenerative agriculture aims to create long-lasting changes in sustainability by focusing on soil health as a key factor in a farm’s overall viability.


What is the Taste Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?

For some people, it all comes down to taste. But what does grass-fed beef taste like? Do grass-fed steaks like those offered at Acabonac Farms really taste better?

A cow’s diet in its final few months has a big impact on how a cut of meat tastes, with many who have made the switch describing grass-fed beef as meatier, richer and sometimes even comparable to game meats like venison. Generally, grass-fed beef flavor is considered to be more intense than a comparable cut from a grain-fed animal. 

There are aesthetic and textural differences in each type of beef as well. The fat found in grass-fed beef is yellow in color, rather than the white fat found in grain-fed beef, and grass-fed beef is known to have a leaner, chewier texture by comparison.

One common misconception about grass-fed beef is that it is more difficult to work with in the kitchen.  Grain-fed beef’s higher fat content needs longer cooking times and higher temperatures to prepare safely. Simply lowering temperatures and cook times will prevent most issues with preparing grass-fed beef.

 

Cost Difference of Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef

There’s no question that grass-fed beef commands a higher price than grain-fed. The reasons for the price difference comes down to two factors - resource costs and scale.

Grass-fed cattle typically spend longer on the farm before being processed, and require more land than their grain-fed counterparts. This translates to higher costs per animal than CAFOs.

Grain-fed operations also typically have more animals than grass-fed cattle farms, and are able to operate on small margins per cow. Grass-fed farms are usually small, independent producers who must charge more per unit sold to cover costs.

 

Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef Online

Whether you’re seeking health benefits, you’re looking to move to a more sustainable supply chain for your food or you’ve decided to try out grass-fed beef’s rich, intense flavor profile for yourself, the question remains the same - where can you find quality grass-fed beef?

While some grocery stores might offer a limited selection of grass-fed products, the vast majority of beef found in a typical market is grain-fed and it can be difficult to determine the source for products at the store labeled “grass-fed.”

The best tasting grass-fed beef can be purchased online through local farms like Acabonac Farms. Going straight to the source means better supply chain transparency, lower prices and a higher-quality product making its way to your dinner table.

 

Frequently Asked Questions About Grass-Fed Beef

Is grass-fed beef healthier than grain-fed beef?

Grass-fed beef has a lower fat content than grain-fed, and the fats that are found in grass-fed beef are typically healthier fats than those found in grain-fed. Grass-fed beef has also been found to contain higher levels of vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids which some studies have shown help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease and other serious ailments.

Is grass-fed beef better for the animal?

Grass-fed cows typically have a great deal more space to move around, which translates to less stress on the animal as it grows and matures. Grass-fed beef operations also generally keep the animals at a single location for their lifespan rather than transporting from birthing facility to pasture to feedlot to processing plant, which can be one of the biggest sources of stress on an animal.

Why is grass-fed beef generally more expensive?

Grass-fed beef is typically more expensive because it requires more resources to produce and it is typically produced at a smaller scale than grain-fed beef. Longer time spent finishing cattle and larger space requirements increase costs for grass-fed beef producers, and smaller operations mean larger margins are necessary.

How do I identify true grass-fed beef at the store?

100 percent grass-fed beef can be difficult to find at most grocery stores, and even supermarket beef labeled as grass-fed might be finished with a grain diet in some cases. The easiest way to find true grass-fed beef products is direct from a supplier like Acabonac Farms.

Is corn-fed the same as grain-fed?

Corn-fed is one form of grain-fed beef. The three most common grains used with grain-fed cattle are corn, oats and barley.

Is pasture-fed the same as grass-fed?

Pasture-fed does not always, or even typically, mean an animal has been raised entirely on foraged food. To qualify as pasture-raised, an animal must only spend a portion of the year living off of grass and other forage. Grass-fed animals, on the other hand, must subsist entirely off of forages for their entire life cycle.

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