Whether it is prime rib on Christmas, hamburgers on Independence Day, or a tender steak to mark a special occasion, beef can be a delicious part of any meal.
Beef provides more than 10% of the daily recommended value of 10 essential nutrients. These nutrients include zinc that helps you think and improve memory, iron which carries oxygen through your blood, and protein which helps build and repair muscle and tissue.
But is there a difference in the types of beef we eat? What is the difference between grass-fed beef and grain-finished beef? Why do farmers feed their cattle grain?
Cattle are herbivores. More specifically, they are ruminant herbivores. Cattle have a four-compartment stomach that gives them the ability to break down plant material more efficiently than monogastrics. Plant cells have thick cell walls that make them difficult to digest. After grazing, cattle will regurgitate the grass to chew it again and mechanically break it down into smaller pieces. Then bacteria in the cattle’s stomach helps them break down those thick plant cell walls to utilize the nutrients.
This ability of cattle to get nutrients from tough grasses makes them ideally suited to graze land that humans can’t use for cultivation. Ruminant herbivores naturally eat grasses, forbs, and shrubs as their main source of calories. This diet produces a lean meat animal that has higher concentrations of some nutrients. The flavor of the meat of these grass-fed beef animals is more similar to venison (wild game) than what we might know as modern beef.
While grasses and forbs might be the typical cattle diet, cattle are well adapted to get nutrients from any plant matter. Grains like corn, wheat, and oats are easier for cattle to digest. Because grain is easier to digest, cattle can put on weight more quickly on a diet of grain.
Whole cuts of beef are graded on a scale. You may have heard of USDA Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select. Prime cuts are usually the most expensive because they have the most marbling. Marbling is the fatty tissue that is interlaced into the muscle. When it is cooked, the fat melts and makes the steak juicy, tender, and flavorful. Grain finished beef = more marbling = better flavor = more expensive. Choice cuts have a little less marbling and Select cuts are even leaner.
Grazing cattle on grass is a cost effective way to raise cattle. Cattle raised exclusively on grass would typically not achieve higher than a USDA Select rating and consequently could earn farmers less income. While Americans are being more and more health conscious and seek out leaner meat, they still prefer high quality flavor.
Most often, farmers will raise cattle on pasture grass for around 18 months. Then 3-4 months prior to harvest, they transition from high-forage (grasses and legumes) to high concentrates (grains, grain by-products, high-energy, low fiber feeds). This diet finishes the animals – meaning the cattle achieve the desired carcass and meat quality goals. These feedstuffs are more expensive than pasture grass so it makes sense to keep the animals on grass for as long as possible and maximize the efficiency in the last 3-4 months.
So whether is it grass-finished or grain-finished, it is important to understand how the steak on your table was raised.