Written collaboratively by Pete Bauman and Dr. Allen Williams, Grass Fed Insights, LLC.
What makes grass-fed beef different from conventionally raised beef? This is perhaps the most-common and sometimes most-complex question that arises amongst those hoping to understand the similarities and differences between conventional and grass-fed beef. There are two similar and important terms that are primarily used when discussing grass-based livestock production as compared to conventional livestock systems: grass-fed and grass-finished. While similar, both terms have implied meaning and both can be interpreted in various ways, which we address below. It is also important to mention that grass-fed/grass-finished methods are not relegated to beef production only. Producers across the country are expanding methods and markets for pastured swine, poultry, bison, sheep and other livestock. Finally, grass-fed/grass-finished operational philosophies are often consistent with those promoted through ‘regenerative’ and/or organic agriculturists. For the purpose of this article series, we will primarily evaluate the grass-fed/grass-finished livestock industry through our understanding of beef production.
Conventionally Raised Beef
For starters, there is no standard definition of ‘conventionally’ raised beef that can be utilized to draw a specific comparison. In fact, conventional beef production is a continuously changing, continuously evolving industry that also lacks defined parameters. For the most part, conventionally raised beef is most-accurately represented as the dominant portion of the beef industry that includes cows and calves primarily on pasture through the weaning phase and the grazing and/or feeding and finishing of beef calves with grains and other foodstuffs to achieve a desired grade of finish. Also included in this broad definition are ‘stocker cattle,’ i.e. yearlings that are fed roughage and return to pasture until they are roughly 18 months-old before they are finished in a feedlot.
Generally speaking, the conventional model of beef production is a fairly young industry, with the cattle finishing sector moving off pastures and into feedlots around the 1950s. Within conventional systems, fed cattle are often slaughtered somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds and around 18–20 months-of-age with an average daily rate of gain that can range from 2.5–4.0 pounds/day (give or take). This system has evolved over the last several decades into the more-prominent role of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or feedlots, designed to hold from several thousand to tens of thousands of beef animals for finishing.
Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Beef
Conversely, while hard definitions are elusive, most in the grass-fed/grass-finished beef industry would agree that the basic premise, or intent, of grass-fed is that an animal be primarily or exclusively fed non-grain feedstuffs during its lifetime, with an emphasis on free-range grazing. To most in the industry, the term grass-fed implies the individual is also grass-finished, meaning that the animal is brought to a desired carcass weight and yield grade (such as prime, choice and select) via a non-grain, forage-based diet. In these systems, cattle are often slaughtered somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds at 24–28 months-of-age with a typical average daily rate of gain of 1.5–2.5 pounds/day (give or take).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standard for a ‘grassfed’ beef animal is that it be 50% grass-fed. This 50% standard can be achieved in any number of ways, some of which are not consistent with the core standards of what grass-fed/grass-finished should be. For instance, a pasture-raised 15-month-old stocker steer could be put on a grain-based finishing diet for six months and still technically quality as grass-fed, although certainly not grass-finished. Conversely, a 15-month-old steer that was backgrounded on corn silage and grain rations could be turned out on grass for several months before slaughter and could be technically claimed as grass-finished. Finally, one could feed/finish beef on a grass-based, non-grain diet in a feedlot system that mimics conventional feedlots. In any of the above scenarios, the core intention of grass-fed/grass-finished would not have been achieved to the satisfaction of most producers or customers in the grass-fed/grass-finished industry. The Bonterra Partners report addresses the general confusion surrounding how animals are finished into four basic categories: 1) Conventional (confined animals finished on grain); 2) Pasture-raised (pasture animals finished on grain); 3) Grass-feedlot (confined animals finished on grass) and 4) Pure grass-fed (pasture animals finished on grass). However, even within these categories lie several criteria where an individual beef operation may not be an exact fit.
Generally, the whole of the grass-fed beef industry hinges on the premise of meeting a market demand by offering the customer an alternative beef product that is raised and slaughtered under certain expected criteria. Oftentimes, consumers of grass-fed beef are also concerned with other issues. The Bonterra Partners report cites the broader issues of human health, animal welfare, environmental protection, systems health, biological diversity, soil health, climate and food quality as topics that are important to grass-fed beef producers and consumers, and thus this consumer group views the grass-fed industry as providing products that are more or less consistent with their personal lifestyle choices. Therefore, other terminology tends to creep into the understanding or expectations of grass-fed/grass-finished. For example, it is often implied or perceived that grass-fed livestock also meet the general expectations of all-natural, vegetarian, hormone-free, etc. In many cases, these expectations are accurate, but not always. It is important to note that consumer perception and desires are quite important. Many consumers who purchase grass-fed beef would not purchase grain-fed beef, so without this option, the beef industry would lose that market share to other competing proteins.
Information provided in this grassfed beef article series is primarily derived from an April 2017 independent report titled “Back To Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef” authored by Renee Cheung of Bonterra Partners and Paul McMahon of SLM Partners. To learn more, view the full report.