Sometimes, the most straightforward terms are the ones that have the most confusion around them. This is the case regarding “grass-fed” and “grass-finished.” The two words seem to have fairly obvious meanings, but the reality is far from clean-cut.
What’s the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished? By definition, USDA regulations allow farmers and companies to label beef as grass-fed as long as at least 50% of the diet of cattle comes from grass and forage. But what about the other 50%? Well, it can come from a variety of sources, including grain.
Grass-finished, on the other hand, means that the cow has been pasture-raised and exclusively eaten grass and forage for its entire life after being weaned. Most regenerative producers use the term grass-fed when referring to beef that has, in fact, been grass-finished as well. To us, they mean the same thing – but that’s not always the case in your local grocery store.
To ensure you’re getting the advertised product, it’s important to understand how these terms work and how they are applied differently by industrial producers and regenerative farmers.
Most consumers who see the grass-fed label on a package assume that the cow ate grass and forage for its entire life. But due to loose regulations around enforcing the term, the reality can be very different.
No matter the label, the overwhelming majority of beef cattle raised in the US start out eating grass. However, 97% of the cattle raised in the US for meat spend their last several months eating grain or soy on a feedlot.
By grain-feeding and supplementing food for the purposes of efficiency, automation, and quicker weight gain, CAFOs maximize their bottom line. This is a significant problem for consumers who buy meat labeled grass-fed without getting the nutritional benefits of 100% grass-fed beef – not to mention the ethical and environmental concerns.
The reality is those animals may have lived in high-stress, industrial conditions with routine use of antibiotics, overcrowding, and a high-calorie diet of grain … even WITH a Grass-fed Beef label! It just shouldn’t be this way.
Because the USDA considers terms like grass-fed to be a marketing issue, the regulations on which producers can claim the term are lax. So some unethical producers can do the bare minimum to get the label.
Grass-finished beef cattle eat nothing but grass and forage from the pasture, with no supplemental grain at any stage. Simply put, it means 100% grass-fed, which is how we raise cattle on our family farm and why you can eat our beef with confidence.
At Seven Sons, we believe in holding to the spirit of what it means to be grass-fed, instead of meeting the minimum requirement to get a label. We take pride in the way we raise our cattle and welcome questions about how our animals live and graze.
Grass-finished beef benefits from a more natural diet, which leads to more nutritious and tastier meat. The improved nutritional profile of grass-fed beef is especially strong when cattle eat grass and forage plants for their entire lives, instead of shifting to grain or soy at the end.
Shifting animals to finish on a feedlot means fewer antioxidants and omega 3s. It could also mean the animals are exposed to antibiotics and growth hormones.
Because grass-finished beef cattle graze for their entire lives, the practice magnifies the positive impact of regenerative agricultural methods on the environment.
Grass-finished beef, when sourced from regenerative farms, is a sustainable and ethical way to consume beef and counter the harms of industrial agriculture – which destroy soil health and contribute to environmental degradation. Additional positive impacts include improved soil carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and cattle that live outdoors as part of a healthy ecosystem.
Producing grass-finished beef (100% grass-fed) doesn’t come without challenges. A hurdle for farmers is finding and breeding cattle suited to a life of grazing. Most beef cattle breeds are optimized for feedlots, so it’s important to find the right genetics for pastured herds.
The second biggest challenge is meeting the nutritional needs of the cattle. Since grass-finished beef doesn’t receive grain or other supplements, it’s essential to establish healthy soils and regenerative grazing spaces to ensure the cattle have access to a variety of high-energy plants throughout their lives.
We’ve found ways to do this effectively through multi-species grazing, eliminating the need for fertilizers, rotational grazing, and using our pastured hens to rotate across the pasture to add fertility to our soils. This results in highly-productive pastures that have increased growth, nutritional content, and more bio-diversity.
The main differences between grass-fed and grass-finished beef depend on the farm, which is why we always encourage consumers to look deeper than the label and to know their farmer(s). Here are key differences between beef from cattle that eat grass throughout their life and beef from cattle that receive supplemental grain.
Grass-fed beef that finishes on a feedlot loses most of the nutritional benefits of a more natural diet. Once the cow starts eating grain, its omega-3 content begins to decrease.
From an animal welfare perspective, grain-finished beef cattle lose out on the benefits of a life on the pasture once they enter the feedlot. Overcrowded conditions increase the risk of disease and stress in the animals.
The transition to a feedlot also undoes the work that sustainably raised cattle do to improve the environment. Feedlots lead to more water pollution and manure spills without improving the soil to mitigate either.
People make two main arguments in favor of grass-fed beef receiving grain.
First, some believe that supplementing with grain makes the meat taste better. The second is that cattle that move from pasture to feedlot require a shorter time to raise, which makes for a lower environmental impact.
These arguments might be true for industrial producers that strive to meet the bare minimum requirements for the grass-fed label. In contrast, 100% grass-fed beef from sustainable farms has both a superior taste and leaves no environmental footprint behind because it regenerates soils and sequesters carbon.
Grass-finished beef can be a bit tougher and gamey-tasting if cattle aren’t bred for pasture, and if they’re grazing on depleted soil without high-quality forage. However, by raising hardy cattle on healthy farmland, you get tender beef with exceptional flavor and plenty of marbling.
The question of environmental impact comes down to a couple of key issues: feedlots produce a big spike in water pollution and rely on monocropping (leading to over tillage), a huge contributor to environmental degradation.
Grass-finished or grass-fed cattle that never receive supplemental grain have measurable positive impacts on the environment. We’ve seen the effects for ourselves on our farm, after transitioning to 100% grass-fed cattle grazed on regenerative pastures: increased carbon sequestration and cleaner water.
The best way to ensure you know what you’re getting regarding grass-fed and grass-finished beef is to know where it’s coming from. Choose farmers that hold themselves to the highest standards of what it means to produce grass-fed beef by using sustainable strategies and ethical practices.
If you want to learn more about sustainable farming, check out our resource page.