The National Cattlemen’s (do they not recognize women ranchers yet?) Beef Association provides a fact sheet on finishing cattle on feedlots on their website. So, what is “finishing” you might ask? This is what they have to say on the matter:
“Cattle are raised on range or pasture land for most of their lives (usually 12-18 months), then transported to a feedlot for finishing. These cattle usually spend about three to six months in a feedlot, during which time they gain between 2.5 and 4 pounds per day. The cattle are fed a scientifically formulated ration that averages 70 percent to 90 percent grain. On this special diet, cattle will gain about 1 pound for every 6 pounds of feed they consume.”
So, the cattle are moved from pasture to a feedlot and are fed grain to rapidly gain weight. “Finishing,” therefore means “fattening up.”
Thought #1: Eating a bunch of grain seems like a good way to gain weight (for cows, at least, who are actually better equipped than humans to digest grains).
But, how can feeding grain to cows be more profitable than letting them eat grass?
Another quote from the fact sheet: “The abundance of feed corn in this country contributes to the economic viability of producing grain-fed cattle. In fact, it will often cost more to raise cattle on pasture because it takes longer for the animal to reach market weight. That is why grass-finished beef can be more expensive than grain-fed product.”
Thought #2: Grains result in rapid weight gain and economic subsidies keep grains cheap and plentiful (not only for cows folks).
So, does finishing cattle on grain simply result in more meat, or are there other differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?
To answer this question, we go to a recent scientific review (note: the entire paper is available free of charge) of the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. First, the abstract of the paper (emphasis added):
“Growing consumer interest in grass-fed beef products has raised a number of questions with regard to the perceived differences in nutritional quality between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef, albeit with variable impacts on overall palatability. Grass-based diets have been shown to enhance total conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (C18:2) isomers, trans vaccenic acid (TVA) (C18:1 t11), a precursor to CLA, and omega-3 (n-3) FAs on a g/g fat basis. While the overall concentration of total SFAs is not different between feeding regimens, grass-finished beef tends toward a higher proportion of cholesterol neutral stearic FA (C18:0), and less cholesterol-elevating SFAs such as myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) FAs. Several studies suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer fighting antioxidants such as glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity as compared to grain-fed contemporaries. Fat conscious consumers will also prefer the overall lower fat content of a grass-fed beef product. However, consumers should be aware that the differences in FA content will also give grass-fed beef a distinct grass flavor and unique cooking qualities that should be considered when making the transition from grain-fed beef. In addition, the fat from grass-finished beef may have a yellowish appearance from the elevated carotenoid content (precursor to Vitamin A). It is also noted that grain-fed beef consumers may achieve similar intakes of both n-3 and CLA through the consumption of higher fat grain-fed portions.”
Another telling finding is the last column in Table 2 of this paper, which summarizes the differences in the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratios across the studies reviewed.
Here, what you see in each case, is a significantly lower ratio (which is what you want) of omega-6 (less desirable) to omega-3 (more desirable) fatty acids when the animals are raised on a grass-based diet as compared to grain. So, it does appear that a grain-based diet makes a difference in both the quantity (i.e., greater weight) and the quality (i.e., lower quality) of beef as compared to a grass-based diet.
Thought #3: I don’t want to be “finished off,” thank you very much. So, I think I will be avoiding the grains that so rapidly pack on the pounds for our bovine friends. I also want to eat the healthiest types of meat that I can. For that, I will be choosing grass-fed beef whenever possible.