So what do “grass fed beef”, “100% grass fed beef”, and “grass finished” mean? Is there a difference or is it just different ways of saying the same thing? Yes. There is a big difference. And, it can drastically affect the nutritional benefits of beef. The benefits of cattle fed only a diet of grass are well established. And, I want to try to explain what these phrases mean.
First you have to understand that cattle are Ruminates. This means that they have an interesting stomach. There is some debate as to do they have 4 stomachs or one multi-chambered stomach. Well the point is that cattle have a chamber, called the “rumen”, where the grass they have eaten is broken down by symbiotic bacteria. Grass is composed of cellulose, hemi-cellulose, lignin and other materials much of which is indigestible to most organisms, the bacteria are able to break this down into substances that the cow can use. Since much of what they eat is dark green and leafy they get lots of Omega 3 fatty acids (which are the “good” fatty acids) so the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios are in a healthy balance. So, now that we have that out of the way let’s move on to a cow’s life cycle and how it gets food.
There are basically 3 stages to a cow’s life (well a cow that is to be “harvested”), cow/calf, stockers, and finishers. At the 1st stage the cow is born and gets much of nutrition from its mother from milk and some grass that it eats. A calf is weaned from its mother at around 7-10 months of age and is referred to as a “stocker”. Calves at this point weight around 400-500 pounds. Now at this stage most stockers are fed a diet of grass (and hay if needed). Most will spend another 6-8 (or longer) months at this stage. When they weight 800-900 pounds they are called “finishers”, this is the finally stage and where a lot of the problems with “unhealthy” beef come from. Most commercial operations will buy finishers to put in a “feed lot”. These are generally facilities were most of the cows diet consists of grain. When the animal is around 1100-1200 pounds when they are harvested.
So, now you know a bit about cattle and beef production. Now a little about grass, most people just think of grass as the stuff growing in their yard. Well cows are on pastures not yards. A good pasture will have lots of different types of plants growing, this includes grasses, legumes (usually clover), and other plants (what in yard would usually be called “weeds”). The cows eat these and convert them to proteins and energy. A word here about a special grass you may know of called “corn”. Corn plants are actually a grass however; the corn seeds are not and are loaded with carbohydrates. Like humans cows should not eat too many carbohydrates.
Now in the cow/calf and stocker stages most animals are fed a diet of grass (some producers will introduce grain feeds at the stocker stage). And, if they have been on a diet consisting of mostly grass they still have the healthy ratios of Omega 3 and Omega 6. It is generally in the finisher stage that the animals are fed a diet of mostly (if not almost entirely) grain. This is what causes the ratios to become out of balance in favor of Omega 6 fatty acids. Even being fed a diet of grain the last 60 days before harvest can destroy the correct ratio in the animal.
So, I say all this to bring us to the final points. If the beef you are purchasing was not grass-fed and grass-finished you will not be getting the benefits of “grass fed beef”. Now as you can see a producer can call their beef “grass fed” because it was but, still finish the animal on grain. Now one must also consider hay. Hay is grass that is cut, allowed to dry, and then baled for storage. But is hay still grass? I don’t think so mostly because it losses some of the nutrients that fresh grass has. But then there are a lot of opinions out there about this. In fact the USDA label “grass fed” has some “loop holes” that can allow an animal to be confined and fed only hay. Want to be even more “confused”? Then read on.
Going back to corn. As I said corn plants are a type of grass. So a producer can feed corn plants, including the ears full of corn seeds, to an animal and still call it “grass fed”. Another aspect of corn is what is called corn silage. This is when the entire plant is cut down to be stored for later use. The difference between silage and hay is that silage is not allowed to dry. Part of what it does is ferment which helps preserve it. This can be fed to animals at any time of the year (but usually in the winter). And still the animal can be referred to as grass fed.
So, now you have some idea of why we refer to our beef as “grass-fed, grass finished”. This not only means we do not use antibiotics or hormones in cattle we produce. We also, work hard so our cows are fed a diet of almost* entirely fresh grass. That’s so you our customers can get a healthy and delicious product.
*I say “almost” because on the rare snow days (well usually ice) the cows will be given hay. During the 2011/2012 winter we didn’t even have to feed any hay. It isn’t easy to make sure the cows have fresh grass in the dead of winter but we do it and enjoy it (ok that last statement about “enjoy” is a lie).
PS. We also do not feed our cows any type of silage. To be honest I know what it is but haven't a clue as to how to "make" it, nor do I wish to learn how.
FARM QUESTIONS BY CLIFTON
Here in Farm Questions I will answer any questions you may have about farming to the best of my abilities. Also, I will post more detailed explanations of things we do on the farm and give advice if I can. Remember: advice is free, but good advice will cost you. Just kidding. (no I’m not). So help me make this an interesting part of our web site and ask any question you want. I promise not to make fun of you.