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When it comes to the choices we make in our diets, opting for grass-fed or corn-fed beef can have far-reaching implications – beyond taste and nutrition.
Most people eat conventionally raised beef. That’s a problem because the majority of conventionally raised beef comes from cattle that are finished on a feedlot.
This means that even though they grazed on pasture for a period, they spent about a third of their life eating corn.
What difference does grass-fed vs. corn-fed beef make when it comes to your health?
You might be surprised to learn just how steep the tradeoff is when it comes to supplementing cows with grain instead of grass – not just from a nutritional standpoint but also in terms of environmental impact and animal welfare.
Beef is generally a good source of vitamins, minerals, and protein, regardless of how it was raised. However, corn-fed beef comes with some undesirable extras. This is due to the impact of a corn-rich diet on the cow.
Although almost all beef cattle eat grass for at least part of their lives, corn-fed cows can spend up to 6 months eating grain. Corn helps cattle gain weight faster, which is desirable for producers – not the cattle or the consumer. The problem is the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef decline as soon as the cow enters a feedlot.
Cows are ruminant animals, meaning their digestive system is meant to digest tough plants like grass and weeds – not corn, which is high in calories and relatively low in fiber.
Corn-fed beef lacks a healthy balance of omega-3 and 6 and the rich CLS vitamins. In addition to that, corn-fed beef will also have more of an accumulation of residual toxins from antibiotics and chemicals in its fat and organs, such as the heart. This is very different from the rich, nutrient-dense fat you get from grass-fed beef.
Grass-fed cows get more nutritionally complete food because they eat what the bovine digestive system is made to digest. Although grass-fed beef has a reputation for being leaner than conventionally-raised beef, this is not the case when producers manage livestock responsibly.
In fact, grass-fed beef should be rich in flavor! That’s the norm at Seven Sons.
The key difference is that the fat is nutritionally superior, with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients.
At Seven Sons, we’ve found that by maintaining healthy, vibrant pastures and choosing cattle adapted to eat a grass-only diet, our beef tastes better than anything you can buy in the supermarket.
A lot can be said about the positive impact that grass-fed beef has on the environment. We’ve seen an ecological transformation on our own farm with regenerative grazing practices. By implementing rotational and multi-species grazing, we have increased levels of biodiversity in our soil as well as higher rates of carbon sequestration.
However, the massive scale of corn-fed beef production is a problem for the planet. Between a third and 60% of annual corn production in the US goes to animal feeds, most of that to conventionally raised cattle. This large-scale corn production has a substantial negative environmental impact.
Intensive corn production contributes to air pollution, from a combination of aerosolized fertilizer and pesticides. Runoff from fertilizers used to produce corn at an industrial level also contributes to water pollution, leading to toxic algae blooms and other issues.
And as the dust bowl demonstrated 100 years ago, intensive corn production – over tillage – also leads to disastrous levels of soil erosion and the breakdown of soil quality. Poor soil quality results in decreased carbon sequestration and a lack of nutrients, directly affecting the nutritional benefit of anything grown.
In fact, according to David Montgomery in his book Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations, we lose an estimated twenty-four billion tons of soil per year. At this rate, we have about 60 harvests left.
Although many conventional beef producers would argue that cattle are happy eating corn, the welfare of corn-fed cows is much lower than grass-fed cows.
Most corn-fed cattle spend at least some of their lives on feedlots. Animals living in these crowded conditions have little room to move around, and waste like manure and urine accumulates quickly. Because of this, animals are under constant stress and vulnerable to disease. This is an ethical issue and a public health one – the overuse of antibiotics on livestock operations has implications for human health, too.
When it comes to corn-fed cattle, the animal welfare issues don’t end at feedlots. Cows are ruminant animals, meaning their digestive structure, called a rumen, has several specific features to allow it to digest grass and convert it into energy. Ruminant digestive systems need grass and other tough, green plants to function properly.
With a corn-based diet, cows are more likely to develop conditions like acidosis and bloat because the corn turns the normally alkaline sections of the digestive system acidic.
A high-corn diet also increases the risk of liver abscesses in cattle. Some studies show that between 12 and 32% of feedlot cattle have abscesses so severe that the liver can’t be sold for human consumption. It’s hard to imagine that a cow with constant health problems is living a high quality of life.
In comparison, grass-fed cattle who spend their lives in well-maintained pastures are less prone to infections, less stressed, and have a better quality of life overall. Grass-fed cattle also live longer than corn-fed cows because they reach maturity later on their natural diet.
Many cattle farmers turn to feedlots and corn feeding because it means that cows reach market weight faster. But there’s no question that corn-fed beef comes with serious drawbacks.
The environmental impact of intensive corn agriculture to support feedlots, along with the lower nutrition and stressful living conditions for cattle, mean that conventionally raised beef has a hefty price tag for everyone.
While agribusiness increases profits, the costs are passed along to consumers in the form of diminished health, environmental degradation, and ethical compromise.
We’re doing everything we can to be part of the solution on our farm and support other farmers in the transition to regenerative agriculture. We’re also educating consumers about their options for healthy, sustainable beef – visit our resources page to learn more.