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Grain fed versus grain finished beef [moved from General Topics]

In this thread, http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... Morton the Mousse draws a distinction between grain fed beef and grass fed beef that is finished with grain (or with other things, as he nicely described in the thread above).

I am interested in someone could give me some background about why ranchers would finish a grass fed cow with grain. Is it because the grain adds a different flavor dimension to the meat?

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  1. Grain adds weight, mostly in the form of fat, faster than grass. Weight equals money for the rancher. Americans are also used to more fat in their beef than most other people. My sister-in-law and her husband were in Argentina last year and complained about the grass-fed beef which they found too lean.

    I think corn is also the cheapest form of animal food. Even lamb is often finished with grain for weight gain.

    5 Replies
    1. re: cheryl_h

      I am not asking about grain fed vs grass fed. So are you saying they would finish on grain to add weight, or are you addressing grass fed vs grain fed overall?

      I am asking about grain finished versus grass finished. Read the thread I linked to above if you aren't sure what I mean.

      1. re: Darren72

        Yes I mean finished with grain. Even grass-fed cattle are often finished on a grain diet for the reasons I cited.

        The NYTimes has an interesting article on this topic in today's Food section:

        The thread won't come up, at least on my machine. I get an error "page not found".

        1. re: cheryl_h

          I couldn't get the link to work either - it appears to be a problem with the trailing comma. If you copy it and then paste into the address space at the top of your browser page, then delete the comma, it should work.

          My understanding of the purpose of grain-finishing is that it adds fat, thereby increasing flavor and tenderness (arguably - I've traveled quite a bit in Argentina and eaten plenty of grass-fed beef. I don't think it's particularly better or worse, just different). I don't believe it's a matter of adding weight primarily to make more money - the grain diet is much more expensive than grass would be.

          1. re: cheryl_h

            Thanks for the NY Times link and for your info. I fixed the link to the earlier thread. Sorry about that.

        2. re: cheryl_h

          Corn and soy are the cheapest. Keep in mind that we're talking the bottom of the barrel corn and soy (unless it's certified organic) - both probably GMO. I've heard of gluten/soy sensitive people reacting to grain-finished pastured beef. And some studies show that grain-finished beef is less nutrient-dense than cows that are finished on pasture.

        3. This link to a blog gives a little info on grain-finished beef. You need to scroll down to find it - it's under Grass Fed Montana Beef:


          1. Grass fed is healthy for the cow and the Earth. Grass fed beef takes a long time to mature to an acceptable slaughtering weight. The best grass fed beef has a complex flavor but it is very inconsistent and often too lean. It is more difficult to prepare and only, in my opinion, for true believers. Most of the grass fed beef I've had has been disappointing.

            Finishing on grain gives the cow more weight and more fat. Fat makes the beef more consistently flavorful and tender. It also allows the beef to be graded and therefore be sold at higher prices in some outlets. I prefer grass-fed and grain-finished beef.

            1. Darren,

              Yes there is a significant difference between beef that is fed 100% grass for its entire life and beef that has been finished on grains. Like any animal (fish included) diet affects flavor of the flesh (as well as other attributes of the animal).
              Personal preference and cultural bias may sway the taster's opinion on which is more flavorful or better. And its a fact that the more time an animal spends in a feed lot, confined to eating a diet rich in carbohydrates will pack on weight. Depending on the breed and bloodline it may be predisposed to putting on the extra weight not only in muscule weight but in intramuscular fat (marbleling). This in turn affects how the animnal may be graded (select, choice, prime). And this will affect what a rancher may make on his herd. So diet can affect how the animal finshes out (size, weight, size of certain muscle groups and the like). Grains and corn do an amazing job of putting weight on ruminants. It is possible to get a bigger animal to market in less time this way. If you introduce sub-theraputic antibiotics and hormones this is enhanced even more.
              Grass fed/grass finished beef tastes like the forage. And this can change with the seasons and location. There are many types of grasses that they can eat, some native, some planted and cultivated as forage. And the argument of terrior may be introduced for much grass fed beef. Generally grass fed beef means that it has been raised on green grass, so this limits production to be timed with the seasons. So one may celebrate their supply of grass fed beef like they do tomato season, salmon season or mandarins.
              Is 100% grass fed better? Its up to the individual, but as has been written in several books, journals and articles there is a price to pay for seemingly cheaper food.

              1. This is for the guy who doesn't understande why feedlots feed cattle grain rather than allowing cattle to graze grass to maturity. It is because TIME is MONEY and grain finishes cattle 4-6 times faster than most native grasses. Thus, grain is cheaper to use to finish cattle from calves to maturity, than grass. Calves can gain 4-6 pounds/day on grain and calves will gain 3/4 pounds/day on grass.

                A weanling at 6 months of age, weighing 500 pounds, can be brought to its mature weight of 1200 pounds 4-5 months verses 18 months for that same calf to reach 1200 pounds on grass. TIME IS MONEY to feedlots. The calf will be devoid of most of its nutritive value when finished in a feedlot, but the feedlots don't really care what the nutritional value of the beef is.

                6 Replies
                1. re: Weldon Warren

                  Could you put some numbers on the 'nutritive value' of a grain fed versus grass fed calf?

                  1. re: paulj

                    Grass fed beef is higher in Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids and lower in Saturated Fat than grain fed beef. Preliminray results from a recent study by scientists at UC Davis indicate that the link between beef and heart disease may actually be a link between grain fed beef and heart disease. As for the impact of hormones and antibiotics on the population (grass fed cows are healthy and don't need to be fed a constant stream of antibiotics) only time will tell. Some scientists believe that recent flu outbreaks are largely due to bacterial mutation and resistance that occurs on feed lots. Grass fed beef also poses a significantly lower threat of mad cow disease, e coli and other infections associated with eating beef.

                    1. re: Morton the Mousse

                      Actually, if by "flu" you mean influenza, that is a virus and it is associated with poultry living in close proximity with humans especially in southern China and SE Asia. Cattle in feed lots using antibiotics, as well as the use in other US animal food industries, is associated with bacterial resistence.

                      1. re: Morton the Mousse

                        But are these problems caused by the actual feed, or by the feed lot environment?

                        Maybe someone can fill me in on the living conditions for grass fed beef. I doubt if they are left to roam free on forest grazing leases till they reach market maturity.


                        1. re: paulj

                          The problems are caused by both. Cows, and other ruminents, evolved to eat grass. They have an incredibly complex digestive system which thrives on grass. When you feed them corn, their stomach begins to break down (I'll spare you the unappetizing details) and they get very sick. If you just feed a cow corn and do not feed it antibiotics the corn will kill it. Consequently, feedlots place a preemptive strike on disease and cut the cattle feed with antibiotics. They do not wait until a cow gets sick, they assume that all of the cows will get sick (a fair assumption). This in turn leads to a breeding ground for bacterial resistance. Of course, the feedlot conditions, covered in layers of feces and run by hands in hazmat suits don't make matters any better. They resemble a combination of third world refugee camp and post-apocalyptic quarantine zone. So who wants a burger?

                          Conditions for pastured cattle vary from ranch to ranch, But for the most part, they are indeed left to roam free and graze. Of course, it's not that simple. Ranchers must move the cattle so that they don't overgraze and so that the grass has time to recover on a specific spot before the cattle return. There's definitely a science to pastured ranching: but when done correctly it is sustainable, productive and ideal for the cow's health and well being.

                          Recommended further reading: The Omnivore's Dillema by Michael Pollan (best piece of nonfiction I've read in years).

                      2. re: paulj

                        If you're interested in a lot of detail on this, take a look at Real Food--What to Eat and Why (Nina Planck). Just bought this book & am finding it completely fascinating. According to the author, a diet of corn, etc. is difficult for cows to digest because it's not the food they're supposed to be eating. This causes a variety of problems ...

                    2. I have to comment as I am a beef producer. I have tried to finish grass fed, grass fed grain finished and corn fed beef. Beef science and finishing is very complicated. The purely grass fed beef can be done with certain breeds ie the Devon. Historically the European breeds did finish on grass but were later phased out as when grain use increased those breeds became too fat. Grass fed and then grain finished is a trick question. Cattle "background" on grass until ready for finish so all cattle to a point are grass fed. Then they are transferred to stock yards to finish on a high grain ration. This is for up to 180 days. This puts the marbling in beef along with a layer of back fat. You can touch up grass fed beef with lighter loads of grain to adjust the taste and adds some fat. This however is drastically different than a "hot load" as delivered in the stock yard. Antibiotics used are called ionophores. This is used in high grain rations to keep the rumen bugs in balance for high starch loads. As a side effect they increase the gain per day. These are optional as are the hormone implants. Corn is fed as whole grain + protein vitamins and proper minerals. Whole corn actually is coarse enough to keep the rumen healthy and there is no incidence of acidosis or upset as seen with more processed grains. On my label they eat whole corn, natural protein, vitamins and minerals. They get no inophores and no hormones. They don't get acidosis, or abcesses of the liver and the beef is superior in taste and texture. The most recent 2 blind taste tests prove Americans perfer grain fed over grass fed. So, my reputation is on the line when you buy my label. The grass fed on paper sounds very attarctive until you get a call- too tough, too dry, too gamey. Maybe some day it will enjoy a significant percentage of the market but my guess is it will very limited as the consumer will not pay money for tough beef. For me, its too bad cause grazing cattle is much less stressful than puttin' the grain to them!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: rockfarm

                        rockfarm, this is a great post. Thank you.

                        Out of curiosity, what part of the country are you in?

                      2. Morton's claim that feeding cows corn causes their stomachs to break down and the cows to die without anti-biotics is completely off-the-wall, as anyone who has ever lived with cattle can attest. As a young woman, I spent many summers and several years with friends who raised cattle as a sidelight to their regular jobs. The cattle lived entirely at pasture, with access to shelter in the event of inclement weather. They were given no hormones and no antibiotics, unless they were sick (a rare occurrence). For the last two months of their lives, they were each fed 5 pounds of sweet feed (corn, other grains, and molasses) once a day, in addition to being out on pasture. Their meat was incredibly rich, juicy, and tasty. The ignorant, alarmist rhetoric that is showing up in recent publications about our food is troubling. Mixed in with disturbing facts are wild and untrue accusations. It can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, but I think it's a good idea to be skeptical and try to find rebuttals from opposite points of view.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: pikawicca

                          You're right, my statement was unclear. What I meant to say is that a processed corn based diet, common in modern, industrial feedlots (as opposed to as opposed to a pasture based diet supplemented by corn and other grains that you describe) causes the cows' stomach to break down and, without antibiotics, they will die. Specifically, the high starch and low fiber content of processed corn causes severe bloat and the high pH causes acidosis, both of which can lead to death. Common symptoms associated with a corn based diet include diarrhea, ulcers and liver disease. Note how the beef rancher who posted above stated that his cows do not suffer from these problems specifically because he uses high-fiber whole corn.

                          The cattle at the ranch you stayed at during your youth were raised using sound methodology. The meat you described sounds delicious (yes, I eat meat. I love a good steak). Sadly, such ranches are increasingly rare. Had you spent that time in a large scale, industrial food lot (something that may not have existed when you were a young woman) I'm sure your memories would be a lot less idyllic. Regardless, your memories are entirely incongruous with the realities of the modern day.

                          Much of the work published concerning modern cattle rearing is hardly "alarmist rhetoric". It is fact based, well researched, investigative journalism. There is no real "rebuttal from the opposite side" as even veterinarians who work for industrial feedlots will admit that the health problems I described above are commonplace these days. The only real rebuttal is the claim that this system is necessary for keeping down the cost of beef and maintaining high production levels. No educated veterinarian would make that cattle don't suffer from health problems due to a corn based diet. You would be well advised to spend some time researching the subject, rather than dismissing factual claims based on outdated, anecdotal evidence. An excellent place to start is The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

                          1. re: Morton the Mousse

                            Actually, there is a vendor at our farmers' market who sells pastured, grain-finshed, non-feedlot beef (as well as lamb). I think that this is consumer-driven, much as the wide availabilty of heirloom tomatoes is. When consumers are educated and know what to ask for, farmers will produce it. Unfortunately, most consumers aren't well-educated on these complex issues.

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              Well said. I completely agree that dissemination of information is one of the most crucial issues in the war against industrial food production. If most people knew where their food came from they would be revolted and demand an alternative.

                              1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                Hi there,

                                Wow. I know that this thread is a couple of years old but it is so fantastic that I wanted to thank everyone so much for their input and reply so that it can be brought back for reading. It has been a fascinating read. I am just finishing "In Defense of Food" and "An Omnivores Dilemma" along with "Real Food-What to Eat and Why" are next on the agenda. I feel so fortunate to have come across these amazing books and am trying to pass the message along to read to anyone that will listen.

                                Incredible stuff; thank you.

                                Happy eating, Oana

                            2. re: Morton the Mousse

                              I apologize for the second post back to back but I forgot to address the above comments:
                              As far as grain and its effects: the coarser the product the less incidence of bloat
                              Does whole corn cause diarrhea...lets clarify, scours is diarrhea in cattle and can be deadly. They can be immunized against IBV-infectious bovine diarrhea. Does corn cause less formed stools-yes. Is it a problem NO. Actually it helps in feef lot manure managent as its much less to deal with than the bulky stools from grass fed animals that have to be composted 6 mo and then spread on fields, not to mention kept out of the water table.
                              The more processed the corn or grain the more its available to be fermented in the rumen. This may lead to acidosis and bloat and liver abcess. Hopefully the diet has been balance so this is minimized. That actually is why the whole corn rations are healthier as they maintain rumen function more normally.In fact the incidence of acidosis is almost zero. I would say however processed corn and grain do not EQUAL death nor do they mandate the use of ionophores.
                              I have not run across "ulcers" in beef cattle, but I would say that in the pig literature there is reference to ulcers in the context of the level the corn is processed.
                              The corn "fiber content" is not the issue its when the starch becomes available to the animal. Whole corn starch is released and diegested in the hind gut not in the rumen.
                              I would not say the womans memories are incongruous with modern day, its actually how my family and all of our friends live
                              As far as the vet commnets: I communicate almost weekly with beef specialists at Purdue University and would not hesitate to refer you to them to field your concerns...they know the industry and science inside and out. I suspect they would refute and take issue with the line of reasoning in Morton's post.

                          2. To answer one request, we are located in New Hapshire and can be found at rockfarmbeef.com. I love the discussion...I am however concerned by some comments. Raising beef animals for producers is serious business and also a science not a conspiracy. I am not going to address the one cow farm who produces whatever nor will I defend the unscrupulous producers that I am sure exsist, I am focused on the industry from small producers like myself up to reputable feedlots. Beef is serious business and big money to work with behind the scenes. My feeder calves are treated like gold as are most producers. They have to be because this is about money and returns. I appreciate people want quality and should insist on it. If I was to buy beef from a farmer I would focus on the following checklist:
                            Source verified: documented farm of origin
                            DOB verifed: make sure you know the age-should be processed by 18 mo of age
                            locally grown
                            dry aged
                            beef quality assurance certified farm/preconditioned calves
                            100% money back guarentee
                            USDA inspected
                            vacuum sealed

                            Other USDA approved and defined options include you might find:
                            no antibiotics
                            no hormones
                            corn fed
                            grain fed

                            "Natural" as defined by the USDA is: no added color, no added ingredients, and minimally processed... that's it

                            "grass fed" is not a USDA label claim but may be coming so buyer beware its currently whatever

                            Be prepared to pay a premium for beef that stacks up. Be skeptical of the farmer offering beef that he can not answer the above checklist.

                            Surveys show that the consumer wants
                            #1 tenderness
                            #2-3 juicy and taste

                            The only way to get the above is: genetics, rich feeding program and young age...

                            Now to address the Corn comment: Factual? anyone who would like can goggle "feeder cattle Whole corn" and find nothing but positive agricultural university research. I would challenge anything that says otherwise and would like a black and white reference so I can read this.I would say given the massive amount of informatin on beef science that "journalism" is not my first resource. The proof is in the pudding, I have no dead or sick cattle with rotten stomachs...Actually as a scientist I am not sure what a rotten stomach is.

                            Does the incidence of stress related illness and crowding cause illness? Of course, in humans or cattle.Should cattle be in humane clean and well managed facilities, of course Can acidosis and bloat occur in the high grain diet? Of course. However, can bloat occur in pasture fed animals, absolutely!
                            Do producers strive for high standards and the best outcomes of course. Is the industry standard 2.5% loss due to death yes, its figured into the bottom line.

                            The real dilemma will always be not how to feed the fine food niche market buff but really how to produce food for the masses at affordable prices and without loss to insects, fungus, illness, natural disasters and so forth.

                            I look forward to the responses!