Grass & Grains: How a Cow’s Diet Affects Your Meat

When you see the phrase “grass-fed” on beef, you may assume that the meat is higher quality than average. But what exactly does grass-fed mean, and how does this compare with grain-finished beef? There’s actually a lot of complexity to what cows are fed, and how this affects the meat and your health. This week, we’re here to address your concerns; read on to feel more confident about what’s best for you to purchase!


Fleishers carries pasture-raised beef and 100% grass-fed beef, what’s the difference?


All of our beef is pasture-raised, meaning the cows have access to open pasture and forage for grasses for the vast majority of their diet. 100% grass-fed beef indicates that the cow grazed solely on pasture, while pasture-raised beef was provided with supplemental grains toward the end of their life, while still eating grasses and retaining access to pasture. And of course, unlike conventional feedlots, none of our cows receive hormones or antibiotics.


I’ve read that corn is unnatural for cows to eat. Why feed them any corn at all?


Most cattle primarily eat grasses and forage, diets which are high in fiber but lower in how efficiently nutrients can be digested. Farmers use grains as a supplement to give cows a more efficient source of energy, so they gain weight more reliably and quickly. This can be particularly helpful if a farmer’s pasture is stricken with drought, or there’s not enough forage available in winter. Also, meat from cows that have been fed grains generally has more marbling and a more mild flavor than meat from 100% grass-fed cattle. (More on this later.)


While eating a 100% grain diet would make a cow sick (similar to you eating an entire bag of Halloween candy), in the right quantities, eating grains will not hurt cows. If introduced slowly, the microbes in the cow’s rumen adapt to digesting more starches over time. If the shift happens too quickly, this can lead to acidosis, where the pH of the rumen is disrupted and the cow becomes sick.


Note that we’ve been discussing grains, rather than corn, because most cows are fed a mixture of wheat, barley, corn, and other grains, not solely corn.


So, how much grain do Fleishers pasture-raised cows eat?


Our pasture-raised cattle are receiving less than 6 pounds of non-GMO grains per day, and only during the last few months of their lives. Again, this is used as a supplement to the grass and haylage that they’re eating throughout their lives. In comparison, an animal in a feedlot consumes 40-55 lbs of grains per day. The amounts received by our animals do not disrupt their normal digestion process, or create any of the health problems associated with feedlots.


Does eating grass make any difference in the nutritional value of the meat?


Naturally, those luscious green pastures do make a difference for the health of our cows! The most significant difference is that grass-fed beef is leaner and lower in saturated fat, making it ideal for those wanting to cut calories. Research also shows that grass-fed beef contains a much healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is important for reducing the risk of cancer, cardiovascular, inflammatory and auto-immune diseases. Grass-fed beef is also higher in beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, and it gives the fat a yellowish tint. So don’t be alarmed if you see a buttery hue in the marbling, that’s a good thing!


How does 100% grass-fed beef taste differently from pasture-raised, grain-finished beef?


Grain-finished beef is generally fattier and has more marbling while having a milder flavor than 100% grass-fed beef, which is usually leaner and has a more robust, beefy flavor. We love the bright complexity of our 100% grass-fed beef, however we also love the richness of our pasture-raised beef. Ultimately, there’s nothing right or wrong with taste preferences, and we’re grateful to have the opportunity to provide options. It’s also worth mentioning that different grasses affect the flavor of beef differently (just as different grains do), and since all of our cows primarily eat grass, the flavor of both of types of our beef change seasonally. In contrast, conventional beef tastes the same year-round.


In a nutshell, there are economic and flavor profile reasons for providing grains to cows, but on a well-managed farm, the grains provided will boost the health and well-being of the cows, not harm them. While a little pricier, 100% grass-fed beef has some additional health benefits and different flavors compared to pasture-raised, grain-finished beef, but both are far superior choices to conventional feedlot beef.


If you’re suddenly in the mood for beef, might we suggest classic burgers with special sauce, searing a steak, roasted tenderloin with rosemary, or Korean braised oxtail this weekend?