Debunking the hogwash around Grass fed beef vs grain fed beef

I am writing this blog post to debunk a lot of the inaccuracies and misconceptions that appear on the internet about livestock production. *See my level and expertise to do this at the bottom of the post

Let’s put a few things up front

All food and fibre production has an environmental footprint. Domestic livestock (as opposed to pets) are bred for purpose and that purpose it to provide high quality healthy protein for human consumption with a low environmental impact.

It is absolute rubbish to say ruminant livestock are not ‘evolved to eat grains’ after all a grain is part of a plant. It’s like saying humans are not evolved to eat grains. What humans are not evolved to do is eat grass and this is what cows do very well.

The role of the farmer is to ensure his/her livestock has as low an impact on the planet as possible and to give their livestock the best whole of life experience they can

One of the ways farmers are able to reduce their livestock’s environmental footprint is to breed cattle that have genes that ensure they can turn what they eat into protein for human consumption as efficiently as they can. That means less grass per cow eaten per kg of meat produced. Beef cattle in this country produce 15% more beef per animal than they did 30 years ago. This means they have also reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 15% – Well done cattle (and farmers)

Cattle are ruminants and this digestive process allows them to break down the cellulose content of the grass, which then allows them to take grass through a process that turns it into meat (or milk)

To do this they have little bugs in their stomachs which break down the food. These bugs produce methane which is quite a significant greenhouse gas (25 x more powerful than Carbon Dioxide). The better quality the grass the less work the bugs have to do and the less methane they produce

So smart farmers grow high quality grass which is better for their cows and better for the environment. Feeding cows grain which is much easier for cows to digest than grass obviously means the bugs in the cows stomach do less work and hence produce less methane. All good stuff

Grain V GRass

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There is no denying grain feeding means in farmer lingo cows have a “hot” diet and this means too much grain can make the stomach a bit too hot for the bugs and they die. Not good for cows or bugs so both cattle ( and bugs) are introduced to grain feeding slowly to allow them to adapt just the same as when they are moved from poor quality grass to higher quality grass

Its also important to note cows on a grain fed diet aren’t exactly on a fully grain fed diet. Their ration is a mixture of feed stuffs that includes lots of high quality fibre like hay and silage to ensure the cow’s stomach environment is conducive for bug survival. The other thing to note is cows spend most of their lives eating grass. The grain feeding is just a finishing process

Because cows on a grain fed diet grow quicker they can be processed quicker and this is better for the environment from a whole of life methane output perspective. Lots more info at the bottom of the page**

But let’s not get too carried away about methane – both systems are environmentally sustainable in their own way, and the choice between the two types of beef (Grass and Grain) is purely based on taste personal preference

At AGvision this week thanks to Kylie Schuller an expert in this space I had the opportunity to get a clearer understanding and have a taste test. The eating quality characteristics of meat (texture, juiciness, flavour) are indeed entirely dependent on the feed that the cattle eat.

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Kylie Schuller from Andrews Meat giving students the low down on grass fed vs grain fed with Sally Strelitz  Marketing and Communications Officer University of New England

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Students at AGvision do the taste test – Grain Fed vs Grass Fed

What is marbling

The take home message from all of this is

A balanced diet containing red meat as a nutritious protein is good for you

My expertise

I have been in agriculture for close to sixty years. In the main ensuring cows can produce safe, affordable and nutritious milk. I also spent 20 years on a mixed farm that grew crops and produced lamb and beef

I am not a scientist but have completed a ‘high level’ science and medical degree

Grain fed facts

Cattle are considered grain fed if they have been on a grain based ration for at least 60 days for a male and 70 days for a female. To be classified as grain fed, cattle must also be sourced from a feedlot that is accredited by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and audited by AUSMEAT.

Depending on the market requirements cattle are generally entered into a feedlot at around 12 months of age, and fed for a specified period of time. They fed a variety of grains (e.g. wheat, barley, and sorghum), roughages (hay, straw) and bi-products (brewers grain, cornflakes) in a ration that is formulated by a nutritionist to ensure the animals are receiving optimal amounts of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals for their stage of growth and development.

Grain feeding greatly increases the ability to produce a consistent product in terms of yield, quality and supply:

  • Marbling is greatly increased in grain fed cattle due to specialised nutrition
  • Grain feeding helps to even out inconsistencies in supply caused by Australia’s volatile environment.
  • Grain fed beef is often described as having a buttery flavour

Key Ideas surrounding Grain Fed beef:

  • Grain fed cattle produce 38% less CO2 per kg of beef than grass fed cattle
  • Grain fed cattle spend majority of their life in a paddock
  • The feedlot industry represents around 2% of the Australian cattle herd at any one point in time. 
  • Higher incidence of marbling, which means higher levels of good cholesterol.
  • Like the grass fed industry the Australian feedlot industry is predominantly owned and run by families. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirms that 98% of feedlots are Australian owned and that 91% of farms are owned by families. 

Grass Fed Beef:

Grass fed cattle live and survive solely on pastures for their entire lives. Grass contains a pigment called “carotene” which is absorbed into animal fat giving it a distinctive yellow hue. Due to the variation in grasses eaten, grass fed beef is often described as having a complex beef flavour.

The ability to produce high quality beef off of grass is entirely dependent on the environment. If grass is in limited supply or of low quality (due to extreme heat, lack of rainfall etc.) then beef production is of a lower quality. Therefore most superior grass fed beef comes from areas with a consistent high rainfall, and moderate temperature ranges.

Key Ideas surrounding Grass Fed Beef:

  • Grass fed beef can be lower in overall fat content than Grain fed beef. 
  • High in Vitamin A and Vitamin E, due largely to the beta carotene in their diets. 
  • Grass fed cattle have high levels of vital antioxidants 
  • Healthier balance of Essential fatty acids – but this very much depends on the types of pastures they are fed (having done these on farm pasture trials myself I can certainly testify to that) 
  • Grass fed cattle help reduce land degradation, desertification and soil erosion and maintain more than 50% of Australia’s landscape

 Love these infographics which you can find here

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2 thoughts on “Debunking the hogwash around Grass fed beef vs grain fed beef

  1. Very interesting article, and I always appreciate it when someone brings a different perspective to agriculture and the environmental impact thereof. I agree with most of what you have mentioned here, but I would just like to point out that I believe that one of the larger environmental issues associated with grain fed, feedlot beef, is the manner in which the grain (and other feed – e.g. silage and hay) is produced. Sustainability is a holistic concept and in order for sustainable goals to be met, the entire production system needs to be examined. A large amount of the grain that is fed in feed lots (I am from South Africa, so I don’t know how different the situation is in Australia, but from my relatively limited reading on the matter, it seems true for most feedlot type systems) is grown in large, single crop systems. These systems have negative effects on soil biology, and often result in huge amounts of GHG emissions due to high fertiliser and fuel usage. They are also most often the systems that use the highest amounts of chemical herbicides and pesticides, which also have a negative environmental impact. I speak in generalisations, as I know there are many farmers who have addressed such issues, and have adopted many sustainable practices.

    Food production is necessary to support society, I sometimes think people forget this. Instead of having a go at farmers for being terrible people, and not caring about the environment, consumers should use their ability to choose what they buy to support agricultural products that have been responsibly produced. Farmers should also be challenged to farm more efficiently, using natural resources in a responsible and sustainable manner. This is what I believe we should be challenging more farmers to do, and from what I can see from your blog, this is what you are doing, so great job.

    People reading this might be interested to read an article I wrote addressing a similar sort of topic, but with regards to milk production (http://traceandsave.com/Blog?BPID=63) and other blogs and articles on our website: http://traceandsave.com/Blog

    • Thanks Craig I am now reading your blog and am thrilled you drew it to my attention – you are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness about farming and food issues and celebrating the work of our farmer innovators, early adopters and pioneers

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