Raising grass-fed cattle seems such a commonsense idea that people cannot be blamed for immediately asking: “Wait, aren’t all cattle grass-fed?”
Yes and no. Most meat found in supermarkets comes from cattle that begin life eating grass. But after a short period of time, typically measured in months, cattle are taken from pastures to feedlots. There, they eat grains to bulk them up quickly before slaughter.
Grass-finished cattle means exactly what it sounds like. Ranchers, such as those at Acabonac Farms, allow cattle to graze on pastures, eating grass throughout their lives.
The difference between the two is vast. The most important is that grass-fed cattle produce leaner, healthier meat.
The Cattle Industry
In his book “In Defense of Food,”author Michael Pollan pointed out that the diet of the animal a consumer eats has a direct bearing on the nutritional quality of the food itself.
“This should be self-evident, yet it is a truth routinely overlooked by the industrial food chain in its quest to produce vast quantities of cheap animal protein,” he wrote.
They overlook it for several reasons, all economic in nature.
Grains make cattle grow faster. It can also make them sick, which is why some cattle are given antibiotics. But the grain diet makes cattle beef up, which means ranchers can slaughter them faster. That means faster turnaround, more sales and money saved on keeping the cattle alive longer.
This also has made beef, once affordable only for the well-to-do, something anyone can buy. That means a bigger consumer market.
However, as more people become aware of the health concerns involving the industrial food chain, producers have reacted by packaging products under different labels meant to designate them as healthier. That’s also led to confusion.
“Organic” Does Not Mean Grass-Fed
If a beef product is labeled “organic,” that does not mean the cattle was grass-fed, much less grass-finished. If the grain they were fed is organic, then they can be labeled as such.
And even “grass-fed” does not mean “grass-finished,” as all cattle are grass-fed in the beginning of their lives.
Rather, the label you want to see is “grass-finished” or “100% grass-fed.” Sometimes, this can only be found at specialty markets or by ordering directly from a ranch that specializes in grass-finished cattle.
This same issue applies to chicken. A product labeled “free range” does not mean that the chicken had access to grass. It some cases, they are in fenced yards that only have dirt. They are still fed grains.
Why Grass-Finished Cattle?
Grass-fed and grass-finished cattle produce beef with higher levels of healthier fats, vitamins and antioxidants, according to Pollan. Those healthier fats include omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and less of saturated fats.
Grass-finished cattle also produce meat with more vitamin K2, which is important to develop and maintain both heart and bone health.
As significant as those factors are, there is more. For example, grass-fed cattle allowed to roam pasture land and behave as nature intended leads to much less stressed-out cattle. That, in turns, leads to healthier and more tasteful beef, according to a study from Colorado State University.
There are environmental impacts as well. A study by the National Trust in the United Kingdom found that ranches which produce 100% grass-fed cattle reduced greenhouse gas emissions. They also increase food security by using “marginal land” (land not used for intensive crop production) to create healthy food.
Overall, there are many reasons - both for your health and that of the world around you - to seek out grass-finished or 100% grass-fed beef. As Pollan wrote in his book, “Your health isn’t bordered by your body, and what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.”
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