Grain vs. Grass

A topic that is consistently discussed in the beef industry is the differences in grain fed vs. grass fed beef products. Debates cover the diet, cost and quality of the final product. So, which is really better?

Grain fed

Excess energy from a grain finished diet is often stored as marbling. A ribeye with a slightly abundant amount of marbling would qualify for USDA Prime and would likely offer a better eating experience than one with a slight amount of marbling (USDA Select).

This is seen as the “traditional” way of feeding cattle today in the US.  On this diet, cattle can be fed a combination of grass and grains. Grain finished diets are high in energy and allow cattle to build muscle and deposit fat. Grains that may be included in the diet include corn, distillers grains, oats, barley, various forms of silage, and more.

Excess energy is stored as intramuscular fat, or fat that is within the muscle, commonly known as marbling. High levels of marbling are associated with a high-quality product that would be expected to be tender, juicy and flavorful.

The price of grain fed beef can vary based on quality grade (ex. A USDA Prime ribeye will cost more than a USDA Select ribeye). Although there is variation in price within the product, there are plenty of nutritious, affordable, great tasting beef products on the market.

Grass Fed

Typically, grass fed beef is seen as a niche market.  To fall within the grass fed category, cattle must be 100% forage fed after weaning and offered continuous access to pasture. Forages allowed on the grass fed diet include grass, legumes, some cereal grains (pre grain state), hay, crop residue without grains, and a vitamin and mineral mix. 

Due to the grass centered diet being lower energy, it takes a longer period for cattle to be ready for harvest compared to their grain fed counterparts.  Additionally, grass contains a high level of beta-carotene (what is converted to vitamin A, high levels in things like carrots, peas, spinach, etc.).  Because of this, fat associated with grass fed beef is often a yellow color, compared to the bright white color typically associated with grain finished beef.

Since grass fed beef is seen as a niche item, it often will come at a higher price point than the same cut, same quality grade, grain finished product. For example, Walmart sells USDA Choice, grain finished, NY strip steaks for $10.97/lb. They also sell USDA Choice, grass finished, NY strip steaks for $12.96/lb.

Which is Better?

Simply put, grain fed and grass fed beef are both great options. One of the awesome things about the food system in the US is that consumers have a choice. You have the opportunity to choose what cut, quality, and price point best suits you.  

Beef from both grain finished and grass finished animals offers 10 essential nutrients that are necessary for a healthy diet. Beef is an incredible source of iron, choline, protein, vitamins B6  and B12 , phosphorus, zinc, niacin, riboflavin and selenium. Additionally, all meat that is sold in the US is legally required to be processed under USDA inspection to ensure food safety. Whether grain or grass finished, you can trust that you are serving your family a safe, nutritious, great tasting product.  


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