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Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Understanding the Impact

The debate between grass-fed and grain-fed should be pretty simple. Cows are grazing animals that thrive on pasture – grass is what they are designed to digest. Naturally, the healthiest animals produce the healthiest meat.

But, at the end of the day, opting to switch to 100% grass-fed is a powerful choice for a number of reasons.

At Seven Sons, we care about this because we’ve seen and experienced the benefits of grass-fed beef after transforming our farm with regenerative agriculture. And consumers are taking an interest, too, especially those who care about the impact of industrially-raised livestock on human health, animals, and the planet. 

100% grass-fed beef comes from cows that spend their entire lives on pasture eating grass and forage, while grain-fed beef comes from cows that receive supplemental grain. Most beef produced in the US is finished on a feedlot, also known as a CAFO, where cattle are fed grain to gain weight faster before going to market. 

Knowing how these differences affect the quality of your meat and impact the environment can help you make better-informed choices when buying beef.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: Comparison

It’s easy for consumers to get confused and frustrated by all the varying information available about grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Especially since most people don’t have a personal relationship with the farmers that produce the food they eat. 

Knowing the myths and misconceptions about grass-fed and grain-fed beef can help you make healthier decisions and find ethical producers.

Misconceptions & Myths About Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef

A common myth is that grass-fed beef is simply not economical or scalable. For industrial producers, this might be true – efficiency and profits would slow down if cattle were allowed to graze for their entire lifespan. 

It takes a different approach, but it’s entirely possible. To run an efficient grass-fed cattle operation, farmers use land differently and breed different types of cattle.

Through the use of regenerative grazing practices, grass-fed beef is not only sustainable but a more responsible way of supplying high-quality meat to consumers.

Our farm has seen steady growth, and we’ve helped other farmers make the shift and meet the demand for 100% grass-fed beef. It’s supporting a growing number of family farms and the communities they’re part of. All while measurably improving soil health and ecosystems on these farms.

Another misconception is that grass-fed beef tastes gamey and is too lean to be enjoyable.

Grain-fed beef producers argue that consumers prefer the milder, fattier taste of grain-fed cattle, but that preference is a very modern phenomenon. The first commercial feedlots appeared in California less than 100 years ago, after all.

The problem here comes down to responsible grazing and cattle selection. Cattle fed a diet rich with a variety of plants and forage produce nutrient-dense, delicious, and satisfying meat with beautiful marbling. 

Grass-fed beef has a better nutrient profile than grain-fed beef, with a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids and more vitamins and minerals than grain-finished beef.

cows grazing in the field

Animal Welfare Implications: What Happens When Cows Eat Grain?

One of the main differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is the health and quality of life for animals on the farm. 

Cows and other ruminants have digestive systems for breaking down tough plants, so switching to grains like corn, oats, barley, and wheat is not their natural diet. The consequences include severe health issues such as liver abscesses.

Because grass-fed cows get to move around and graze and eat a natural diet of forage, they have better health, a longer life, and a better quality of life. 

But the differences go even deeper.

Life on a Feedlot vs. Grazing on Pasture

The most common method of raising grain-fed cattle involves feedlots – industrialized feeding operations with the goal of getting cattle to put on weight as quickly as possible.

These operations crowd hundreds or thousands of cattle in an enclosed space. This puts stress on the animals and can cause health issues, such as breathing problems and nasal and eye infections.

Grazing cows (grass-fed) are in a spread-out and natural environment with access to fresh air, water, and sun. 

The environment also benefits from the interaction between ruminants by helping to increase soil's carbon sequestration and water retention.

Antibiotics and Hormone Use

Grain-fed cows often live in a high-stress environment which can lead to medical issues. Crowded and unsanitary conditions are more likely to lead to animals getting sick.

In addition, ruminant animals on a grain-based diet may suffer from infections and abscesses, requiring routine antibiotic treatment – current data shows 40% of antibiotics being products are going directly into livestock feed. 

The only way to prevent these problems is to change what the cows eat and provide them with a diet in tune with their digestive system. Unfortunately, big producers are unwilling to make changes that slow down cattle production, despite the consequences for animal welfare and public health.

Additionally, because the animals aren’t allowed to mature at a natural rate, they often receive hormones (growth promotants) to make them grow more efficiently. 

Grass-fed cattle don’t receive hormones because they can develop in their natural environment at a natural pace. Conscientious farmers do sometimes need to treat an animal with antibiotics when it’s ill or suffering. Seven Sons has a process for managing that, relocating treated animals from our production herd so they don’t diminish the strict quality of our beef.

cows on the field before storm

Environmental Impact

Farmers and scientists may not have a consensus on the environmental impact of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. But there’s no debating the fact that agribusinesses contribute to soil degradation, lack of biodiversity, and water runoff, especially in the case of major producers.

But how do the differences really shake out?

Land Use & Ecosystems

Feedlots come under EPA regulation because these industrial farming outfits have a significant negative impact on the land they’re built on. Although each feedlot uses a smaller amount of space per cow than the equivalent pasture, the land a feedlot sits on becomes an environmental mess. 

Even as far back as the 1970s, studies showed that feedlots tend to compact the soil, reducing the nutrient turnover that normally occurs between plants and dirt. In addition, the high concentration of nitrogen in feedlot manure means that plants in the area are more susceptible to diseases and pests, along with stunted growth and development. 

Although grass-fed beef requires much more space, studies prove that regenerative grazing practices improve the land. Rotational grazing methods mean that no one area of the pasture is overgrazed. Instead, pasture plants grow deeper roots, and rest periods allow the plants to bounce back stronger. 

The movement of grass-fed cattle and other ruminants through a paddock also encourages greater biodiversity and healthier soil. A variety of plants and bugs thrive, which in turn sustains wildlife populations like birds, reptiles, and small mammals. 

Water Use & Pollution

Water use is another area where it’s easy to see the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef production. The effect of grain-fed beef on water supplies isn’t just a question of how much water the cattle need – it’s also how feedlots impact the water supply.

With more droughts occurring, corn and grain farmers will need to turn more and more to irrigation. Since nearly 40% of U.S. corn production goes to animal feed, the water cost of grain-fed beef will continue to rise.

Water use considerations for grain-fed cattle don’t stop at the volume needed to raise and feed the cows. The entire water footprint of industrial cattle operations is much larger than grass-fed beef, especially concerning pollution.

Studies consistently find that feedlots and other CAFO systems lead to dangerous and harmful levels of runoff into the water supply. This doesn’t just affect local groundwater either. 

Although grass-fed cattle still need access to plenty of water, sustainable agriculture practices like managed rotational grazing actually contribute to reducing runoff by improving the ability of the soil to retain water. 

We’ve seen the results firsthand at our farm, as the improved soil health of our pastures contributes to cleaner rivers and streams

Wind turbine generators

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

There’s no question that conventional beef production results in high greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show spikes in nitrogen and carbon emissions both from the cows themselves and the use of fossil fuels to grow and transport feeds. 

The EPA estimates 10% of American emissions come from agriculture, and the lion’s share of that comes from livestock production. However, these numbers have been misused to greenwash the corporations causing the most harm. 

The reality is that faster maturity and a shorter lifespan for the cattle don’t reduce emissions in conventional beef production, because it relies on intensive grain production. 

Regenerative grazing practices and sustainable agriculture systems mean the pasture sequesters more carbon than the cattle emit. It’s a net benefit for the planet, with powerful implications for healing damaged farmland.

Over time, improved plant quality and diversity lead to more efficient carbon sequestration, locking away greenhouse gases in the soil. In fact, some scientists, like Allan Savory, believe that livestock grazing will be essential to help manage climate change.

At Seven Sons, we devote a lot of time to debunking myths and misconceptions about grass-fed beef, because so many consumers just don’t have the information they need to make the right choices. 

When you understand its full potential for the environment, animal welfare, and the finished product you consume – it’s easy to understand why we advocate for and make it our life mission to produce grass-fed beef.