Seeing “grass-fed” stickers and labels on your packets of meat has become quite an ordinary sight in most higher-end retailers. You notice the label and then you notice the price tag.
Beef that is being sold under the grass-fed tag will often demand a premium price but what are you actually paying for? Can you tell the difference between this steak and the one for a few quid less? Should you even care? Read on below and get ready to embrace the grass-fed lifestyle.
What is the difference?
Let's talk about grain-fed first.
Most cows in western countries lead relatively similar lives. After being born, a young calf will spend the majority of its first few months of life drinking its mothers milk and roaming relatively free eating grass and other such fauna that they find in their environments.
By around the 9th month of their life, they will be moved to more industrial feedlots known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short). It's in these heavily industrialised feedlots that you’ll sometimes come across footage of cows being mistreated, confined in tiny stalls, and generally kept in pretty miserable conditions.
Allow me to stress though that it is the vast minority of CAFOs that operate in these heinous ways while the majority of professionally managed cattle farms afford their cows a much greater quality of life.
The cows in the CAFOs are fed a special diet designed to make them pack on the pounds rapidly. These diets will typically be composed from a base of soy or corn and supplemented with dried grass and a cocktail of growth hormones and antibiotics, while this diet isn’t what a cow would eat naturally, they are of course happy to chomp it down and pack on the pounds.
This will continue for a further 7 to 9 months until the cows reach the desired weight and are transported to the slaughterhouse.
While it's far from a cows desired life and is subject to abuse from a minority of unreputable producers, these cows typically lead relatively happy lives and go on to produce the cheap and nutritious beef that forms a staple of millions of peoples diets across the globe.
So yes, grain-fed beef can be reasonably cheap, provide the cows with a reasonably happy life, and provide a good amount of nutrition but surely we can do better? For ourselves and the animals we all love and respect as steak fans.
When it comes to certified, 100% grass-fed beef though, things get a lot brighter for everyone. It's more nutritious for us as the end eater, it affords the cows a hugely increased quality of life, it's better for the farmers, and it's infinitely better for the environment. It’s a win all around!
What's important to remember is that “grass-fed” doesn’t particularly mean that these cows eat only grass. While grass does make up the bulk of their diet, they’ll also be grazing on wild herbs, flowers, clovers, legumes, and all of the natural goodies that spring up in their environment and help contribute to a varied diet. This array of natural fauna is collectively known as “pasture”.
You may have heard that being “put out to pasture” is something distinctly unpleasant for humans but, if you’re a cow, you’ll want nothing more. The good news is that this way of rearing cattle is experiencing a popularity boom in the UK with over 70 farms now holding a Pasture for Life certificate for their animals.
Can you tell the difference?
Another saying that you’ll be familiar with is “you are what you eat” and this couldn’t be more applicable in the case of a pasture-fed cow. All of the antioxidants, nutrients, and plant-produced goodness that they’re eating will accumulate in their fat and will be passed to us when they end up on our plate.
While both grain and grass-fed beef offer a great source of protein and other macro and micronutrients to us, the science behind the beef tells us that grass-fed is certainly the healthier choice as it contains less monounsaturated fat, a huge amount more omega-3s, and about twice the amount of Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
There’s also a benefit in taste. Grass-fed beef is often leaner than grain-fed and offers a “beefier” taste profile compared to its grain-fed counterpart.
Is it really better for the environment?
Absolutely. Feeding cattle purely on pasture is much better for the environment than feeding on grain.
The cows are left to forage and graze on pasture and in turn fertilise the environment and replenish its nutrients. This is doubly beneficial for farmers who regularly rotate their crops as the soils are enriched and the cows can enjoy a diet of varied forage.
This free and open lifestyle coupled with a far healthier diet has been shown to also be better for cows in that they will often require far less veterinary treatment not to mention the far less frequent vet bills for farmers.
100% grass-fed beef is a huge improvement in almost every aspect from the cows quality of life, your own health, and even down to helping to save the planet.
The UK is slowly moving towards a 100% grass-fed preference but will it be sustainable over the long term? Can this method of rearing cows in huge pastures keep up with the growing global demand for beef?
While premium steaks are almost always grass-fed, the real bulk of the grain-fed beef is pushed through your local supermarkets to the masses of the general public.
With the public opinion gradually shifting, the 100% grass-fed movement will continue to grow. It’s certainly an excellent prospect.
So the next time you’re picking up a supermarket steak for dinner, take an extra minute to check for the “Pasture for Life” ribbon. It may lighten your wallet by an extra couple of quid but it will absolutely lighten your conscious by a great deal more.