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Jul 26, 2006 05:53 PM

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

In this thread, 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 ...