Definition of Grass-Fed
There’s a lot of confusion about the term “grass-fed,” and in many cases, it’s an abused term like the word “natural.” Some producers of beef will misuse this term because the rules around it are still somewhat undefined.
Most all calves are fed grass for a certain amount of time. This is one factor that allows less scrupulous producers to get away with calling their beef grass-fed. The key to a truly grass-fed product is actually the finishing. Optimal beef is both grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
“The only way to know any product that you’re buying, whether it’s produce or meat, is really to know the source of that product, and know their practices.”
Joey says. “It is true that all animals are fed grass at some point unless they’re dairy animals; there are actually dairy animals that never see a blade of grass…
But almost all beef animals are going to be on grass at some point in their life. It definitely is the grass-finished product that you’re after. And they’re difference is big.”
Joey recounts one test he performed with one of his clients, who had a herd of animals raised on grass. The animals were finished for two different grass-fed meat buying organizations.
One of the organizations accepted dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGs) as a supplement. DDGs are the corn that has been processed in a refining process that removes the starch, leaving only the dry matter from the corn.
Since there’s no starch, it technically qualifies as a grass-fed feeding supplement. The other did not accept DDGs. So one group of the animals got about two pounds of DDG a day, whereas the other group only got grass forage.
“When we processed those animals and sold them, we took a meat sample from both groups,” Joey says. “In that three-month period… [the DDG-fed] group had no health benefits left whatsoever in the meat. The group that didn’t get those DDGs still had all the health benefits that we expect from a grass-finished product.”
Some of the benefits of grass-fed and grass-finished beef include higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other healthy fats. As Joey notes, “Many times the health benefits reside in the fat more than the meat itself and the muscle tissue.”
It also has a more balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Modern food, in which processed foods and vegetable oils dominate, has led to a dramatic increase in omega-6 over omega-3.
Compared to a century ago, we now have 100,000 times higher intake of omega-6, which does not bode well from a health perspective. Substituting processed vegetable oils with healthy animal fat is a good approach that will help optimize your health.
Most Grass-Fed Beef Sold in the US Is Imported…
Surprisingly, most of the grass-fed beef sold in the US is actually imported from Australia and New Zealand1 Some grass-fed beef is also sourced from countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay.2
Joey believes the primary reason for the import of grass-fed beef is that it’s cheaper to grass finish in those countries than to finish on grain. The beef market in the US is for grain finished animals predominately, so there are very few grass-fed producers compared to conventional producers in the US.
When the demand for grass-fed is realized by the beef industry, the numbers of producers will increase and the demand can most certainly be met by US producers. In Australia, 70 percent of all Australian cattle are pasture-raised and finished, and many of the grass-fed cattle operations are indeed massive. Such is not the case in the US at the moment.
“There are not a lot of large-scale producers of grass-fed beef [in the US] though there are some,” Joey says. “I think people will probably misunderstand what large-scale is. Most producers are going to have 100 or less head of animals.
They’re only slaughtering one or two animals a month and so on, and direct it to the farmer’s market or something like that… But some of these operations do much, much more – 30 heads a month or 3,000 head a year…
Their primary difference is going to be in the last 90 to 120 day of life. Beef animals for the most part are going to be raised on grass. Although in a commercial operation, calves start getting supplemented with grain as soon as they get separated off from their mothers.
There’s grain introduced very early on in the animal’s life. Although they’re out on grass, they’re getting supplemented to a large degree by grain, whereas a grass-fed animal – a true grass-fed animal – is only going to have grass or forages throughout their life. Any growing plant is a forage for livestock.”
According to Joey, the grass-fed market only makes up about three percent of the US beef ranchers. Fortunately, that number is growing. Overall, grass-fed beef sales have been increasing by about 20 percent a year for the last six years. It’s the only growing segment of the beef industry as a whole.