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Grass Fed Beef | What You Need to Know

October 18, 2017

Grass Fed Beef | What You Need to Know

Grass Fed Beef What You Need to Know

The term “grass fed” has really stormed its way through the beef industry. In fact, the terms has created a strong buzz with people who wish to eat ranch raised, hormone/antibiotic free, all natural meat. But, with so many broad meanings to what the term truly means, there is still much confusion in the market place.

Did you know that when you are buying meat on-line or in a supermarket, the “grass fed” term on the package does not necessarily mean that what you’re buying is 100% grass fed beef? In fact, the US government has recently done away with the standards relating to grass fed beef and no longer requires producers to live up to a specific protocol when using that term. The term “grass fed” still remains legal to use for marketing purposes, but in reality, it may not mean what you think it does. The question remains, is that good or bad?

Digging a bit deeper, the term “grass fed” beef began to represent the concept of beef raised in open spaces on a ranch (grass as the primary diet) versus raised on a feedlot. Designed and overused by marketers, the term has resonated with consumers who are focused on natural and healthy alternatives. On the other hand, the term “grass fed,” to an experienced beef buyer brings out thoughts of tough, stringy meat, with no flavor, from an old cow who’s time has passed.

Experienced beef buyers have a hard time paying such high prices for beef that is inconsistent, lacks flavor, and oftentimes not enjoyable. This article is designed to provide information to educate and clarify the grass fed concept.

Tail of Two Extremes

To help decrease the confusion we will create two terms to represent two extremes of the grass fed beef concept, while making the terms more descriptive and representative. On one side of the equation you have “grass only” beef and on the other side you have “on the grass” beef.

Grass Only

Cattle that are raised on “grass only” have spent their entire life cycle consuming only grasses, hay, and forage matter that they have found on pasture. No supplemental grains have been used to improve the cattle or increase the yield and quality of beef. There have been studies that speak to the incremental health benefits of cattle having grass in their diet.

According to a study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef, albeit with variable impacts on overall palatability.”

Dairy cattle are an easy place to find cows that are grass only. Once the cows reach an old age and have dried up, they are often used for ground beef. However, due to their age, obtaining steaks is prohibitive by law. Grass only steers provide steaks and other beef cuts. In order for a “grass only” steer to be ready for processing, it typically has to reach an age of between 26-36 months.

“Grass only” steak and ground beef is typically leaner, but due to the age it is considered less tender and lower quality, in terms of tenderness and texture. Additionally, it is difficult to produce a consist product when the cattle are grass fed only. At times the final product may be usable, but in other cases the combination of the age, lack of marbling, and other effects may make it undesirable to eat. Not to mention, cattle over 30 months of age cannot legally yield T-bones, due to the risk of mad cow disease.

On the Grass

Cattle “on the grass” means spending their entire life on grassy pastures. A large percentage of their diet consists of grass, hay, and other forgeable plant matter. The difference is that these cattle may be supplemented with small amounts of all-natural grain to naturally improve the health and development of the animal. The purpose of supplementing is to produce high quality cuts of beef while still obtaining the benefits of being on the grass their entire lives. By supplementing with all-natural grain, producers can help decrease the time taken to process the steer. Thus, creating a cut of beef that is leaner and healthier than grain by itself. This gives beef the flavor and tenderness produced from a younger animal. 

Research shows that there are benefits for the cattle being on the grass but no additional health benefits for a grass only diet.

What’s the Best Type of Beef to Buy

Of course, the answer is always “it depends.” When you buy beef, you’re buying flavor, texture, tenderness level, and quality. Maybe it is leanness, price, or even convenience. Each method of raising cattle has a different final product, and having the right information helps you understand what type of cattle matches the type of beef you want to eat.

Generally, “grass only” beef is less tender with less marbling, but very lean. Beef that was raised on the grass (but supplemented with small amounts of all-natural grain) is more tender, has a more appealing texture, and has slightly more marbling, but still leaner than grain fed only.

What’s important to most people is that their beef came from cattle that were:

  • Raised on a pasture and not in a confined environment
  • Given a mostly grass diet
  • Stress-free and lived in pleasant environments 
  • Processed in the most humane way possible 

What’s important to most people when eating beef is:

  • That it’s aged
  • It’s tender and with an appealing texture
  • It’s flavorful and not tough or dried out
  • The beef is consistently high quality, with all cuts available

In our experience, to produce beef that meets people’s expectations and is consistent with what people typically want in an all-natural meat, is to get it from cattle who were:

  • Raised in a naturally stress free environment
  • Given roughly a 95%-98% grass diet
  • Supplemented with about 2%-5% all-natural grain
  • Administered NO hormones, antibiotics, steroids, or other drugs of any kind

Get to Know Your Cattle Rancher

Knowing where your beef came from is really the only way to truly know what you’re getting. Having the ability to contact your beef supplier directly, visiting their website, following them on social media, or even being allowed to visit their ranch are all important factors in choosing who to let feed you. The more you are able to ask, the better decisions you will be able to make when it comes to eating the right beef for you.

After all, food is a very intimate aspect of our lives. What you put in your body directly affects your health, mood, and even your overall well-being. Think about your diet in these terms. What we put into our mouths is essentially what becomes a part of us. Knowing where your food comes from and how it was produced is key to remaining conscious of the overall health of you and your loved ones.

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