The modern industrial food chain has provided us with an abundance of red meat products to choose from. Rows of shrink-wrapped red meat line the grocery store cooler and, unlike most food packaging, often lack the “our story” brand literature on the label. We’re left to assume that if the product is affordable and doesn’t say “grass-finished” then it came from an industrial feedlot system. Ambiguity around how beef moves from ranch to grocery store presents a heap of dilemmas for a conscious carnivore deciding what genre of red meat to buy.

If you clicked on this article, you have likely already asked yourself: Is grain-finished beef really that bad? Is all grass-finished beef really superior to grain-finished beef as the marketing insists? In this short series, we’ll take a look at what “grass” or “grain” on the label means—or doesn’t mean.

First, let’s cover the distinction between grass- and grain-finished beef. As you may already know, grass or grain on the label refers to how the animal was taken to the finishing stage of growth. The finishing or “fattening” stage requires high energy feed in order for the animal to gain an adequate amount of fat before processing. This stage gives the meat the flavor and tenderness people look for. You’ve likely heard the terms “grass-fed” or “grain-fed”. These terms are misleading because all cattle are grass-fed but not all are grass-finished.

Using the distinction of how the animal was finished is a more accurate way of talking about the beef cycle because all cattle are grass-fed for a large part or even vast majority of their lives.

Considering the language often used idealizing the grass-fed beef industry and demonizing any other form of cattle production, the fact that all cattle are on pasture for a large portion of their lives may be a surprise. 

Livestock such as poultry and pigs are capable of living their whole lives in confinement— so the vast majority of poultry and pigs live their entire lives stacked on top of each other completely removed from a natural system. Cattle have been spared from living out their entire life cycle in a factory environment because they need to graze for a majority of their lives. According to a recent USDA report, 91% of all US beef originates from small scale family ranches – not factory systems.

Small scale ranches have remained such a large part of the beef industry solely because cattle are ruminants, meaning their digestive system requires foraging and grazing in order to grow. Much if not most of the beef animal life cycle is spent on the green and growing grassland system they have evolved for as ruminants. Because cattle have ruminant digestive systems, they are not only able to but need to eat tough forage (like grass and browse) that humans are unable to consume. All livestock put together consume a diet of feed that is 86% non-edible by humans. Beef cattle in particular eat more feed that is non-edible to humans than other livestock because their ruminant digestive system requires that the majority of their diet is tough, fibrous forage like grasses and stemmy forbs. 

To address the question: “Is grain-finished beef really that bad?” A person needs to find out how long the animal lived on a ‘hot ration’ as they say in the feedlot business. The answer is likely no more than 6 months as that’s around the maximum time a bovine can tolerate the acidic grain and sugar diet before their rumen and liver shut down. Around 13% of cattle that go through the industrialized feedlot system have lesions on their liver – meaning if they were to continue on the fast-food ration much longer, they would experience liver failure (take that as you will). It should be noted that the cattle showing up with liver problems are cattle that have been in the feedlot system for a particularly long period of time.

This grim image of factory food production is a saga you’ve probably heard before, but it’s not the whole story. If beef is labeled “grain-finished,” it doesn’t mean the animal spent its whole life on an unnatural diet and it very likely doesn’t mean that it was in bad shape by the end of their feedlot stay. Many cattle that land in the grain-finished section of the grocery store spend most of their lives on grass and only a month or two in the feedlot.

Take for instance the cattle we raise on my family ranch in South Dakota. Calves are born in the spring, weaned in the fall, and sold the following fall. For the first year of their lives, the cattle roam across a large tract of native prairie, effortlessly turning plants into high quality protein. When our cattle are sold, half go into a grass-finished organic program and the other half go into the commodity food chain. The organics will spend the next several months to a year grazing a pristine high mountain landscape in Idaho where they become grass finished animals. The commodity group spends a month or two lounging in a feedlot on a ration of grain and a soupy molasses mixture before processing (if anyone is wondering, cattle do very much enjoy this diet).

The grass-finished organic cattle are sold by the package to Michelin star restaurants in New York and people who don’t mind paying $65 to $100 for a steak on the regular. The commodity group landed in Walmart after a month in a feedlot.

The organics undeniably lived out a life 100% compatible with how cattle have evolved to live. I would argue that the commodity group also had a pretty darn good life, and they were available at a widely affordable price unlike the grass-finished organic cattle. Both groups had me waiting on their every need and full schedules of grazing, contentment, and sunshine for the majority of their lives. This is the case for many cattle ranches today and was the story for the vast majority of cattle raised in the US before the industrialized system reached its fingers into the production end of the cattle business (more on this later in the series).

This is all to say there is more than one route an animal can take to the grain-“finish line” and not all are extreme. Beef that comes from large scale feedlots can be fraught with issues; however, just because it came from the commodity sector doesn’t mean the animal had a dismal life consuming only an unnatural diet.

2 Comments

  1. Shawn on June 9, 2021 at 1:29 am

    Your article was helpful; I know understand the “grass finished” tag I see on beef. How does a consumer tell if the beef of the 91 % from small ranch or the factory system?

    • Phillip Meece on June 9, 2021 at 10:50 pm

      The factory system starts as a feeding operation to finish cows for the last 180 days of their lives. There’s no such thing as a cow that was fully raised never eating grass – all cows have to eat grass for the majority of their lives.

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