What’s the difference between grass and grain-fed beef?

Sharon: The difference between grass and grain-fed beef boils down to what the animals eat. For at least part of their lives, all cattle on our ranch eat grass. When cattle enter the “finishing” phase of their lives is when that can change. “Grass-finished” cattle are fed grass products, such as hay.

By contrast, “grain-fed” or “grain-finished” cattle finish out their time eating a ration made from grain products such as corn or soybeans.

Frequently Asked Questions About Grass-Fed Beef Vs. Grain-Fed Beef

When you walk through the meat section of the grocery store, you have many choices when it comes to beef.

Some products are labeled as “grass-fed” or “grass-finished.” Many wonder what those terms mean. Most cattle eat grass at least part of their lives, so how is meat labeled this way different than how most cattle are raised? And how, if at all, does it impact the nutrition of the meat compared to “corn-fed” or “grain-finished” cattle?

Corn-fed beef is meat that comes from cattle that eat corn or corn-based diets while they are being readied for market. This is typically for at least the last two or three months toward the end of their lives.

This type of diet causes the beef to be more marbled, giving it higher levels of fat and flavor when compared to grass-fed beef. Many consumers find the higher fat content makes corn-fed beef more tender and juicier than its grass-fed counterpart. Corn-fed beef is known for its rich, buttery flavor and its succulent texture.

Grass-finished beef is meat from cattle that only ate grass or hay its entire life. From start to finish, it never ate corn or any grain-based products.

The difference between corn-fed beef and grass-finished beef comes down to what the cattle eats in the last two or three months of its life.

Cattle that only eat grass their entire lives—even during the last part of their lives as they are gaining weight for market—are considered grass-finished beef.

Meat from cows that ate grass for part of — or even most of — their lives, and then ate corn or grain for the last two or three months of their lives are considered corn-fed or grain-finished beef. Most cattle in the United States are raised this way because of the nutritional values corn provides.

Most cattle spend a great deal of their lives on pasture. For that reason, most of the beef you see in stores, even corn-fed or grain-finished beef, comes from cattle who ate grass for a majority or good deal of their lives. They simply ate corn or corn-based grain products toward the very end of their lives while gaining weight for market.

Corn-fed, grass-fed and grass-finished beef are all part of a healthy diet. Corn-fed beef tends to have more marbling and, thus, to be juicier and have a flavor many enjoy. But both are nutritious sources of protein in your diet.
Corn-fed beef is good because many say it has a richer, fuller flavor than grass-fed beef and is often more tender. This is because they receive additional nutrients that only grass-fed beef can’t provide.

Additionally, corn-fed cattle tend to be larger, reach market weight much more quickly and produce more meat per animal. This helps make the overall cost of corn-fed and grain-finished beef lower than grass-fed or grass-finished beef, which is easier on a consumer’s pocketbook.

Beef is a healthy food option no matter how it is finished. Regardless of whether the animals grow up consuming grain, grass or a mixture of both, the nutrient profile of beef we buy in the grocery store is essentially the same, containing many essential vitamins and nutrients.
On average, products labeled as grass-fed and grass-finished beef usually cost significantly more per pound — and that’s mainly because cattle fed only grass typically need at least a year longer to grow to maturity than those whose diet includes corn. This extra time increases feed and labor expenses. That’s why grass-fed beef is more expensive—the extra cost has nothing to do with the nutrient profile of the meat.
Most cattle that grow up eating grass are fed corn or grain the last few months of their lives so they can reach market weights faster and while they are young. The younger the calf has a higher quality meat that is wanted by consumers. This is also a more economical way to raise beef for both producers and consumers, making beef more affordable at the supermarket.

Bringing cattle to market weights with the benefit of corn also helps put marbling in the meat, which adds to the juiciness and is a taste many prefer.

While some may claim to prefer the taste of one method or another, beef is a nutrient-rich protein source that provides essential vitamins and minerals— regardless of whether the cattle ate corn or grain at some point during its life or only ate grass.

There is plenty of nutritious goodness in every cut regardless!

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