Is the Grass Greener on the Grass-Fed Side?

— Written By Michelle Shooter and last updated by

As an Extension Agent I am often asked questions about the amount of animal production that surrounds us in Hoke County. While I am always thankful that people are curious, I still am surprised when people relay false facts about animal agriculture. Recently I have had several calls and questions about grass-fed beef and thought it would be good to discuss. As with any thing, please make sure you research your choices using reputable sites or university-backed research, not information heard at the water cooler.

With obesity and high cholesterol levels at a crisis point in America, people have struggled to find ways to eat healthier. One common staple in our diets that is consistently under debate is beef. Grass-fed beef is a term for beef animals that have been fed a diet of strictly grass or forages and without any concentrates (corn based feeds). Most conventional beef is finished on corn-based feeds. Conventionally fed animals are fed to roughly 1,000-1,300 pounds, are somewhere between one to two years of age, and achieve a minimum fatness, or “finish” level before they are slaughtered. Grain-fed beef is the standard in the United States because of its flavor, tenderness, and cost-effectiveness. Whereas a steer fed corn can be finished in a year and a half, a grass-fed steer will take up to three years to finish.

This difference in feeding and finishing grass-fed versus conventional beef results in a higher price, a difference in taste, but also research has shown grass-fed beef generally results in less overall fat per serving, slightly higher levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), slightly higher levels of the “good” fatty acids (Omega-3), and slightly lower levels of “bad” fatty acids (Omega-6). Significant differences are hard to find in research-based articles.

Grain-fed beef has the traditional milky white fat layer and has a milder flavor. It is also generally more tender. The reason for this tenderness is that the small layers of fat in the meat, or marbling, is much more prominent in a grain-fed animal. This fat (marbling) in the muscle itself is what gives beef its flavor and tenderness. When you see USDA Choice on a steak at the grocery store it is referring to the amount of marbling in the meat.  Grass-fed beef is different in many ways. The fat on the meat has a very distinctive yellow tint. This is not because it has spoiled or has been left out on the counter too long, but because of what the animal has been eating. Grass-fed animals do not marble as well as grain-fed animals, so the meat is usually not as tender. The biggest difference however, is in the flavor. Grass-fed beef has a very distinctive taste, some people love it and some people don’t.

I encourage you to try grass-fed and compare it to conventional beef, let me know if you like it. You and your family may enjoy it, or you might decide that conventional beef is the taste you prefer. As always, if you are concerned about your food or where it comes from, we suggest you research your choices using reputable sources and/or buy local. We have several wonderful animal producers in the county that would love to share with you how they raise their animals and why they use certain methods. Call the Extension center for more information about buying local beef, bison, chicken, and eggs.

For more information about this subject, please contact me, Michelle Shooter, Extension Area Livestock Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center, at 875-3461 or by E-mail at Michelle_Shooter@ncsu.edu.

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