You may have heard that grass-fed beef is better than conventionally raised beef that commonly lines grocery store shelves, but do you know why? Grass and forage are the most natural diet for cattle, and as grazing animals, they thrive on pasture.
Many consumers seek out grass-fed beef, believing that the label means better quality meat.
We agree that grass-fed is best, for a whole host of reasons we’ll cover in this article. But the grass-fed label doesn’t always mean you’re getting the best possible meat.
As grass-fed beef continues to gain popularity in the US, reports suggest that it’s easy for producers to game the system to get the label without doing the work.
By understanding what it takes to produce and identify the best grass-fed beef, you can avoid fraudulent claims, eat healthier, and help improve the environment.
According to the USDA definition, grass-fed beef comes from cows with a diet “Derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes and brassica), and browse or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.”
Simply put, grass-fed beef comes from cows that only receive the green and flowering parts of plants, as opposed to the seeds.
Conventionally-fed cattle can receive a lot of different foods, including grass. However, three-quarters of US cattle receive a grain-based diet, usually in a feedlot setting, for anywhere from 3-7 months.
Also known as CAFOs, feedlots are optimized for efficiency and rapid animal growth. These facilities rely on automated feeding, no access to pasture, higher-calorie foods, and supplementation.
Unfortunately, while the USDA has an excellent definition of grass-fed beef, enforcing that standard is much more challenging. The Food Safety and Inspection Service employs only a few people to verify labeling claims, making enforcing their guidelines and standards difficult.
The best way to know what you’re buying is to look deeper than the label. Ethical producers are transparent about how they raise livestock, including grazing, housing, and harvesting practices.
There are a few methods farmers can use to maintain cattle on a strictly grass-fed system, but the focus for all of them is providing high-quality forages for the cows to eat.
At Seven Sons, we take a holistic approach to grazing our animals. Throughout the warm months, our cattle go from one paddock to another in a planned system. This regenerative grazing approach allows the grasses and other green plants to recuperate between grazings.
For autumn and winter grazing, we use two practices.
The first is hay we bale and then store throughout the warmer months. However, our preferred method is to allow cows to access pastures that have been “stockpiled.” What that means is, we select specific areas of the pasture and let the grass grow throughout the warmer months.
During the winter, the grass (depending on the amount of moisture) is about 12 to 15 inches high and easy for cattle to access.
Conventional beef farming methods can vary a lot from one farm to another. Still, most conventional farms in the US move cattle into a feedlot, where they eat processed feeds made up of corn, oats, wheat, barley, and other grains, with supplements added in.
Because feedlots are a stressful, overcrowded environment for cattle, the cows need additional help to stay healthy, especially antibiotics.
It’s easy to see how raising cattle on pastures and allowing them to eat their natural diet would make for healthier cows. But the benefits of grass-fed beef go far beyond the well-being of cattle.
Whether you want a tastier steak or are thinking about your health, grass-fed beef provides a much better option than conventionally raised beef. Decades of research studies prove that high-quality grass-fed beef has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as more vitamins and minerals than grain-fed beef.
Because grass-fed cows are in their natural environment, and not crowded in feedlots, there’s less stress on the animals. The cows don’t need antibiotics and other medicines to grow and stay healthy.
Although cattle have a bad reputation in eco-conscious circles, grass-fed beef actually helps improve the environment and reduce the negative impact of agriculture. Regenerative grazing methods mean pastures sequester more carbon, which can lead to a negative carbon footprint overall.
Grass-fed beef production, paired with regenerative grazing techniques, also reduces soil erosion and improves soil diversity. This leads to cleaner water and less runoff from agriculture.
Choosing grass-fed beef should be simple, but the lack of enforcement from the USDA makes it a lot more complicated for consumers trying to make the right choice. The guidelines set by the USDA make it easier for big agribusiness producers to make misleading claims.
In fact, the package of beef you find in a supermarket labeled “grass-fed” and “product of USA” may not truly be either. Reporting shows that only 15% of grass-fed beef sold in the US was raised there.
If you want to be sure you’re getting the real deal, your best bet is to buy direct from the farmer or at least find a conscientious retailer. Stick with local producers if you can, and get curious about how your food gets from the farm to your plate.
Grass-fed cattle, raised with regenerative grazing methods, offer the best possible outcome for everyone. By choosing grass-fed beef from local farmers that practice the highest standards, you’ll get a healthier meal and contribute to restoring the ecological balance.
We encourage you to learn more about selecting and buying the best grass-fed beef in our buying guide.