Grass Fed VS Grain Fed Beef

"We need to treat the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject"  - Sir Albert Howard

Today in the US and South Africa more than 95% of commercial beef is finished in a grain feedlot. So rather than living on grass, forbs and legumes as evolution intended ruminants are turned into 'grainivores' in order to get them fattened up as fast as possible. The big problem with this is that not being adapted to a grain based diet they immediately start to get sick and they have to be placed on antibiotics in order to "get better" and carry on gaining weight (they are also frequently fed growth hormones and animal products).

Feedlots have a significant impact on the environment, they manage to take nature's fertiliser and turn it into a waste product, poisoning water sources and the atmosphere.  Secondly, unlike grass finished beef, they are not part of a natural ruminant carbon cycle that draws carbon out the atmosphere and cycles it into the soil. Have a look at the different carbon cycles of Feedlot vs Grass finished  (Feedlot Carbon Cycle).

This unnatural creation arose shortly after WW2, in the US there was an excess of oil and ammunition plants that could easily be converted into fertiliser factories. The resulting cheap, synthetic fertiliser resulted in a jump in corn production and the corn price quickly dropped. As a consequence the farm gate price for corn was protected by government subsidies and overproduction became the norm. To deal with this growing mountain of cheap corn they started feeding it to animals. The cheap price of feed, the reduced growing time and the factory like conditions of the feedlot system made a smooth beef production line which, together with the profit margin, delighted industrial agriculture. The rest as they say is history and the outcome is an unnatural system that results in significant environmental problems.

Feedlots display a flagrant disregard for animal rights.  Animals have to live in confined areas on top of their own dung and urine and without protection from weather extremes.  In the case of ruminants they are fed food they aren't supposed to eat.  Feedlots also impact negatively on humans, they expose people to the hormones and antibiotics that are fed to the animals to keep them healthy and growing fast and change the nutrient value of the meat they produce. The saying "You are what you eat" applies equally to the plant, the cow and the human.

Changes in the Feedlot

There are some significant differences in the fats and composition of grass fed beef and grain fed beef.

Grass fed beef contains:

  1. less total fat
  2. less saturated fat
  3. more omega-3
  4. more CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid)
  5. more Vitamin E
  6. more beta-carotene
  7. more antioxidants

All of this makes grass finished beef (and lamb and goat) a wonderful source of these and other nutrients especially considering that humans are unable to directly access nutrition from the grasslands of the world.