Beef is one of the most vilified foods on the market. It’s blamed for global warming, contributing to heart disease, and using up to a million gallons of water per cow. Some of these accusations may contain grains of truth, but only when regarding industrial beef. Also known as feedlot beef. 100% grass fed beef is not guilty of any of these problems.
“Grass-Fed” Beef is not the same as 100% grass fed.
The meat industry has been calling beef “grass-fed” despite being fed in a feedlot for the last several months before slaughter. You can read more about this scam in my article Grass-Fed Feedlot Beef. For simplicity, I’m going to use the term grass-fed to refer to 100% grass-fed and finished beef in this article.
100% Grass Fed Beef is Healthier
Meat from grass-fed animals have up to four times as much omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. As soon as cattle are taken off grass and fed grain, the omega-3s begin to diminish. This is because grain tends to be low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s. Grass is the opposite. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s.
Grass fed beef also contains up to four times as much vitamin E as feedlot beef. Even feedlot beef fed high doses of synthetic vitamin E only contained half as much vitamin E as grass fed beef given no supplements. Interestingly, most Americans are deficient in vitamin E. I wonder why.
Grass fed beef also contains less fat than feedlot beef. Grain makes cattle gain weight fast, that includes gaining much more fat. This fat is different from the fat of grass-fed cows. As i mentioned earlier, there is more omega-3s. There is also three to five times more conjugated linoleic acid or CLA in grass fed beef.
Many of the nutrients in grass fed beef have been proven to protect us from disease. Omega-3s, vitamin E, and CLA have been shown to reduce our risk of cancer. Grass fed beef has also been shown to be higher in beta-carotene, the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, and the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
100% Grass Fed Beef is Safer
In a study done by Consumer Reports, they tested beef from various sources. They found that conventionally raised beef was more likely to have bacteria overall. Three times as many samples of conventional beef tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria as did the grass fed pasture-raised samples.
When cattle are fed grains, their rumen goes from alkaline to acid. This allows bacteria to become acid resistant. Once they are acid resistant, they can survive in our digestive tracts. E-Coli O157, the most notorious, is acid resistant. It flourishes in the acid rumens of feedlot cattle.
According to a study published in the April 2011 edition of Clinical Infectious Disease, nearly half of us meat and poultry is likely contaminated with Staph. This despite the widespread use of antibiotics in the raising of livestock.
Ammonia in Your Beef?
In 2001 Beef Products Inc. (BPI) began taking low-quality trimmings usually relegated to pet foods and began injecting this beef with ammonia. The ammonia effectively killed e-coli and salmonella, but it had side effects. Namely the odor and taste. The USDA accepted BPI’s own study as evidence that the treatment was effective, no testing required. This created tension inside the USDA, leading a USDA microbiologist to call it “pink slime”. Interestingly, beef prepared using ammonia is banned for human consumption in the European Union and Canada.[5, 6]
In an effort to make their product appear more palatable, BPI requested the ammonia be listed as a processing agent, this means that they no not have to list it as an ingredient. It’s known as lean finely textured beef, ammonia is not mentioned. Chances are, you’ve eaten finely textured beef recently. In 2012, up to 70% of ground beef sold in the US contained finely textured beef. That number dropped off for awhile after the “Pink slime” scare, but has recovered. Meat containing 15% or less finely textured beef is called simply, ground beef.
School lunch officials used finely textured beef in order to save money, approx. 3% over regular ground beef. However, school lunch officials reported that BPI products began failing tests for salmonella. Up to three times as often as suppliers which didn’t ammoniate their meat. The contamination was not a failure in the ammonia treatment. Pathogens die when treated with enough ammonia. The problems showed up when BPI began lowering the ammonia content. This came in response to complaints by customers about the taste and smell of the beef.
Regardless of whether beef treated with ammonia is safer than beef not treated, I would rather not eat ammoniated meat. You can be reasonably sure that local 100% grass fed beef is free of ammonia. I don’t mind cooking my beef, and i’ll take my chances. After all, I know my farmer. I don’t know BPI.
100% Grass Fed Beef is More Sustainable
From an energy standpoint, grass-fed animals are cheaper to raise. Properly managed pasture requires only 1 calorie of fossil fuel to produce 2 calories of food. Herbivores can eat these plants, humans cannot eat them. Raising grass fed beef does not require a lot of energy, the cows are harvesting their own food. The cost is in management, not fossil fuels.
Grass will grow in drier climates where crops and even trees do not grow well. Grass can survive on less water than crops and trees. This is because healthy grassland absorbs much more water. Instead of running off to the nearest stream, this water is used by plants or seeps down to refill aquifers. Soil with more organic matter has the ability to hold water from rainfall and slowly release it, reducing the severity of floods.
Grazing land soils in the Great Plains contain over 40 tons of carbon per acre, while cultivated soils contain only about 26, on average. I would not consider most of those grazing lands to be well managed. Yet they still contain nearly twice the soil carbon. This carbon is captured by grasses, legumes, and shrubs then stored in the soil when the roots are shed after grazing.
Once an herbivore eats grass down the process begins again. The grass goes into fast growth, breathing in carbon dioxide(CO2), breaking the carbon atom off and exhaling oxygen(O2). It does this until it’s either eaten again, or reaches full potential and goes dormant. Grasses going dormant is why undergrazing is just as bad for grasslands as over grazing.
Corn-Fed Beef is not Sustainable
While grass requires only 1 calorie to produce 2 calories of food, many crops, such as corn, require from 5 to 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie of food produced. The only reason this is even remotely feasible is because fossil fuel is cheap.
Corn is amongst the greediest of plants. It uses more fertilizer than any other crop grown on earth. One reason is over-fertilization. Farmers apply up to twice the needed amount as a form of crop insurance. Sometimes this is necessary because the volatile nitrogen can be washed away by rain, evaporate into the air, or seep into the groundwater.
Cows are among the most inefficient at turning corn into meat. It takes on average 8 pounds of grain to put on 1 pound of weight.[8, 9] Pigs need only 3-4 pounds and chickens only need 2-2.5 pounds. This is one reason for the rise in consumption of chicken.
Corn is not a natural food for cows. A cow digests food using fermentation. This is fine when the food is grass, but when a cow ingests corn, that fermentation becomes acidic. This can lead to acidosis, like heartburn. Feedlots have to give their animals special antibiotics to buffer the acidity. They also have to routinely use antibiotics to treat sick animals that probably wouldn’t be sick if they were still out on pasture.
Bloat is serious condition where the fermentation process is hindered by too much grain and not enough roughage. A layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen, which stops cows from burping. This gas continues to build up until pressure on the lungs suffocates the animal. Treatment requires shoving a tube down the animal’s throat to expel the gas. Does this sound humane to you?
100% Grass Fed Beef is More Humane
A calf born on a sustainable farm had a pretty good life. Farmers raising 100% grass-fed cows are focused on keeping their animals calm. Calm animals grow better, and taste better. This focus guides every part of the operation.
Most farmers aim to have their calves in spring. This is when the grass is at its best quality. If it’s a nice day, the cows can have their calve out on pasture. Out there the warm sun dries the calf gently and sanitizes the pasture.
Spring calving is also better for the mother. Spring grass is the most nutrient dense. That’s exactly what a newly lactating cow needs. Once she gives birth, her nutritional needs accelerate. But that’s why spring calving is so appropriate, her need accelerate at the same time that the grass is most ready to meet those needs.
When it comes time to wean, the farmer reduces stress by keeping as many things the same as they can. Once separated, they put the calves and mothers back in the same field as before, separated only by an electric fence. This allows them to see each other, but the calves can’t nurse. After a few days, the calves can be moved to another field and will hardly notice that their mothers are gone.
These cows stay on pasture right up until the day they’re shipped to the butcher. This is probably the only time they’re transported by truck, unless they were bought at a sale barn. They’re driven to the local processor, usually up to an hour or two away.
Many processors will take animals the day before butcher, to be kept overnight in tiny concrete stalls. This makes it easier on the farmer, but not the animals. Sustainable farmers like to bring their animals the same morning as they will be butchered. This is less stressful for the animal and more sanitary. Infact, one of the processors I used years ago insisted that we bring animal on the day of butcher instead of the night before. This was to prevent them from laying down in their own poop.
This part might be a little stressful, but not nearly as stressful as conventional cows going to a massive slaughterhouse. Remember, grass-fed cows are used to people. They’ve been moved everyday. All of their experiences with humans have been positive. Unlike conventional cows. Cattle prods were made to move cows.
Feedlot Beef is Not Humane
A cow destined for a feedlot has a much rougher life. Conventional calves are born all year round. Feedlots need a steady supply of feeder calves all year. Some lucky calves are born during spring, others are born in the hot summer or during the cold of winter. Maybe the barn is heated, or maybe not. During winter, there is no fresh grass to be had for a couple months. Only dry hay. Not the most palatable thing to start off on.
Once the calves are born, life is pretty good, for about six months. Then it’s time for weaning. Most cattle ranchers accomplish this by separating the calves and locking them in a weaning barn. This sudden separation and change in location causes much stress for the calves and their mothers. You can always tell it’s weaning time by all the mooing and racket. Imagine if someone kidnapped your child. This is how the mother cows feel. One minute their calf is with them, the next minute it’s gone. That’s stressful.
Weaning is perhaps even more stressful for the calves. Weaning is a series of new and scary experiences, all at the same time. For the first time in their lives they are separated from their mothers, locked in a barn stall, taught to eat from a trough, and fed a new diet of corn. The stress of weaning and the change in diet make the calves prone to getting sick. This is when the medications begin.
Shipping fever, a viral infection common in feedlots, is the biggest killer of beef cattle. It’s caused by the stress of shipping calves long distances, which weakens their immune systems. Immune systems that were already weakened from weaning and their new diet. Then they are crowded together in large pens with cattle from other ranches. This exposes them to a host of new viruses. Considering their living conditions, can anyone be surprised that feedlot cattle get sick?
Life in the feedlot is the real tragedy. Cows are herded into pens with around 90 others. When i say herded, i don’t mean gently prodded along. The aforementioned cattle prods are used on any cows who don’t cooperate. Ranchers are not asking permission. They’re not interested in what the cow wants to do, only what they need to do to grow the cows as fast as possible.
Once the cows are securely in their pens, they stay there for the next several months. These pens are about the size of a hockey rink. That may sound big, but when you have 90 cows, each dropping up to 50 pounds of excrement every day, that pen gets filthy in no time. You may have seen pictures of cows in feedlots standing on small hills, those hills aren’t made of dirt. While some feedlots try to clean their pens as often as every week, that still can’t keep up with 90 cows dropping manure every day.
Choose Local Beef
When you buy from a small local farm, you can be sure what you’re getting. Ask the farmer how they raise their beef. Do they feed any grain? Do they move their cows every day? Do they give them antibiotics or hormones? Can you come visit any time?
Go visit the farm. See the animals out on pasture. Get to know your farmer. Only by knowing them personally will you be able to trust them. You don’t need a fancy label or expensive certification to know your meat is good. Certifications aren’t guarantees. They may send an inspector out once a year, but who knows what the farmer does the other 364 days of the year. Not someone relying on that certification. Customer inspection is the best inspection.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, 2016