In previous episodes, I’ve talked about the nutritional differences (such as they are) between grass- and grain-fed beef. But today, I want to share some updated information regarding the impact of various feeding programs on the health of the cow and on the environment–an area where there are a lot of misconceptions.
I’ve just returned from the beautiful state of Colorado, where I had an opportunity to visit some places where beef cattle are raised. Along the way, I learned a few things that surprised me. Just in case you have some of the same misunderstandings that I had, let me share what I’ve learned. Even if you don’t eat meat yourself, you might find this quite interesting.
You remember the movie Three Weddings and Funeral? Well, here are Three Myths and a Surprising Truth about grain-finished beef.
Myth #1: All grain-fed beef are raised on feedlots.
Whether a cow is destined for grass- or grain-finishing, the first year looks pretty much the same for both. After the calves are weaned, they spend another 6-12 months grazing on grass pasture. Tor the last 6 months of their lives, grain-finished cattle are fed an increasing ration of corn or other grains, which affects the rate at which they gain weight, the degree of marbling in the meat, and the flavor of the meet.
The majority of grain-finished cows are moved to a concentrated animal feeding operation (or CAFO) for this part of the process. But not all of them. There are also ranchers raising small herds, anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred, who finish their cattle on grain right there on the ranch. If your only objection to grain-fed beef is the idea of a feedlot, you do have other options.
If you live in the U.S., your state beef council may be able to connect you with a rancher who is finishing his own cattle on grain.
Myth #2: Grain-fed beef eat only grain.
I think a lot of us have the same picture of grain-fed beef operations: a bunch cows bellying up to a giant trough filled with corn kernels. I’m not sure where we all got this mental picture because (as I now know), it has very little to do with reality.
In reality, corn or other cereal grains make up only a fraction of a grain-finished cow’s diet. In addition, their feed contains a mix of dried hay, alfalfa, as well as a lot of other parts of the corn plant, including leaves, husks, and stalks. In fact, grain accounts for only about 10% of a grain-finished cow’s total intake. The rest is plant material that is inedible to humans.
This is one of the things that make ruminant livestock like cows and sheep unique. The vast majority of the food they consume can not be consumed by humans–and much of that grows on land that is ill-suited to the cultivation of human foods. For other species of livestock, such as pigs and poultry, a much higher percentage of their diet is made-up of foods that are also edible to humans.
Myth #3: Eating grain makes cows sick.
Perhaps you’ve heard that grain-fed cattle have to be given extra antibiotics because the grain in their diets makes them sick. This also turns out to be a widespread misconception. If feeding grain to cattle required the administration of antibiotics, there would be no natural or organic grain-fed beef. Cows being raised under either of these designations cannot be given antibiotics, and yet you can find grain-fed beef in both of these categories.
Like humans, cows can adjust to and thrive on a variety of different diets. Good thing, too, because even for pastured cattle, there is enormous variation in the natural diet available for forage, depending on where the cattle are being raised.
However, a sudden change in diet could upset a cow’s digestive system. If your vet has ever advised you to switch your dog to a different food, they probably told you to mix a little bit of the new stuff into the dog’s usual food and gradually increase the new food to allow the dog’s digestive system time to adjust. Grains are introduced into a grain-finished cow’s diet in exactly the same way; just a little bit at first mixed into a lot of grass and hay, and gradually increasing the mix.
Feeding grain to cows does not require antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. However, in conventionally raised cattle, antibiotic-like substances called ionophores are often used to change the mix of bacteria in the cow’s rumen. (Sort of the way we might take a probiotic to change the mix of bacteria living in our intestines.) The goal is to promote the growth of bacteria that aid in the digestive process and allow the cow to extract more energy from the same amount of food.
Truth #1: Environmental impact of grain-fed beef
And now, for the surprising truth:
Grain-finished beef actually has a lower environmental impact than grass-fed beef. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you’ve heard? I know it was for me!
However, the fact is that grain-fed cows consume less feed and water and ultimately produce more meat per animal than grass-fed cows, all of which contributes to a lower carbon footprint.
Grain-fed cows also produce less methane gas. Bacterial fermentation of foodstuff in a cow’s rumen creates methane gas, which the cow burps back into the atmosphere. Methane gas one of the so-called greenhouse gases. Because grain requires much less bacterial fermentation to digest than grass., grain-fed cattle emit less methane into the atmosphere.
The Bottom Line
My goal in sharing this information is not to say that one kind of meat is better than another–or that a diet that includes meat is preferable to one that doesn’t. The decision to choose organic or conventional, grass- or grain-fed, or even whether to eat meat at all involves a lot of different considerations, including nutrition, taste, cost, availability, animal welfare, and environmental concerns–and how you prioritize each of these. To be honest with you, it’s a decision I’m still sorting out for myself.
But with a decision this complex, the least we can do is start with accurate information. If, for example, your primary reason for choosing grass-fed beef is a belief that its carbon footprint is lower, then it’s useful to know how the two actually stack up.
Comments? Questions? Post them below.