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From Pasture to Plate: Understanding the Differences Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef

It may be the question we get more than any… ”which is better, grass fed vs. grain fed?”

The debate between grass-fed and grain-fed beef has been sizzling (get it?) for years, but what exactly are the differences between these two types of beef? Let’s uncover the distinctions between grass-fed and grain-fed beef and delve into the potential health benefits, flavors, textures, and other differences associated with each.

Please note, we’re referring to the common ways of raising cattle in the US, not the way we do things at Hi Bräu. Our grain finished is not raised in feedlots with an almost exclusively grain diet. Our grain finished cattle are given a locally made grain mix as “ice cream”. They live on pastures for their entire lives with constant fresh grass or hay, and are only given the grain as a dessert each day. We’ll circle back to that at the end, but just know that most of this blog is referring to the way 98% of cattle are raised in the US.

First, let's first grasp the fundamental differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef:

- Grass-Fed: Cattle raised on a grass-fed and finished diet primarily graze on pasture grasses, forbs, hay, and other forage plants throughout their lives.

- Grain-Fed: Grain-fed cattle are typically raised in confined feedlots and are fed a diet primarily composed of grains, such as corn and soybeans. This is the way that about 98% of American cattle are raised, and unless otherwise labeled, it’s what you’ll find at any grocery store or butcher shop.

Now we should note that everybody has biases. That being said, we think we’re pretty neutral. The reason is simple: we raise both! If we truly thought one was clearly better than the other, that’s what we’d do exclusively. We’re proud to raise, serve, and eat both types of beef ourselves.

Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef

1. Lower Fat Content

Grass-fed beef is leaner compared to its grain-fed counterpart. This lower fat content translates to fewer calories per serving, making it a suitable choice for those looking to manage their weight or reduce calorie intake.

2. Higher Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Grass-fed beef is known to contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3s are essential for heart health, brain function, and reducing inflammation in the body.

3. Enhanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

Maintaining a balanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the diet is crucial for overall health. Grass-fed beef naturally provides a more favorable ratio, as it contains lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids compared to grain-fed beef. An imbalanced ratio has been linked to inflammation and various chronic diseases.

4. Increased Antioxidants

Grass-fed beef is richer in antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and glutathione. Antioxidants play a vital role in protecting cells from oxidative damage and are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

5. Higher CLA Content

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a group of fatty acids found in higher amounts in grass-fed beef. CLA is believed to have several health benefits, including potential anti-cancer properties and improved weight management.

6. Lower Risk of Antibiotics and Hormones

Grass-fed cattle are less likely to be exposed to antibiotics and growth hormones, which are more commonly used in grain-fed operations. Choosing grass-fed beef may reduce your intake of these substances, potentially lowering the risk of antibiotic resistance and hormone-related health concerns.

7. Robust Flavor

This is a tricky one. When grass fed beef is raised on poor grass, it often tastes and smells “gamey” and is not very good. When it’s raised on high quality grasses and finished properly however, the flavor is often described as traditional, stronger, and overall better. It’s like eating the same meal, but one was made in a cafeteria and one was made by a Southern grandmother. This is a personal preference, but we at least wanted to mention it.

8. Better for the Environment

Beef raised solely on grass has a lower environmental footprint. There are no environmental costs of trucking in feed that was raised hundreds of miles away. Further, a properly managed grass cycle supports a biodiverse soil and helps to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. It’s also less prone to manure runoff, odors, and increased fly populations.

Benefits of Grain-Fed Beef

While grass-fed beef offers numerous health advantages and great flavor, it's important to acknowledge that grain-fed beef has its own set of benefits:

1. Marbling

Grain-fed beef is prized for its marbling – the intramuscular fat that enhances flavor and tenderness. This marbling contributes to the smooth, buttery taste and juiciness of grain-fed steaks, making them a favorite among many consumers. It’s possible to have a well marbled grass fed steak, but it’s more likely and more consistent with grain fed beef. Marbling is often considered the measure of a good steak (which we disagree with, but that’s for another blog), and grain consistently has better marbling than grass fed. Speaking of consistency…

2. Consistency

Grain-fed beef often boasts a consistent flavor and tenderness due to controlled feeding practices. This predictability is appealing to chefs and consumers who prefer uniformity in their meat products. Grass finished beef is far more likely to show variability due to differences in grasses, the time of year finished, and genetics.

3. Accessibility and Affordability

Grain-fed beef is more readily available and tends to be more affordable than grass-fed beef. This accessibility makes it a practical choice for consumers on a budget. Please note though that this is a generality and does not apply for Hi Brau Beef. We price our grass finished and grain finished varieties about the same.

4. Efficiency

There’s no more efficient system of raising cattle that in feedlots with grain. That’s exactly why the industry almost exclusively uses these practices. It allows the production of beef with the least amount of resources and in the shortest period of time. It all boils down to cost: it’s cheapest to produce beef on grain, and therefore cheaper for consumers.

5. Tenderness

Again, a point of preference. In general, grain finished steaks are consistently more tender. They don’t use their muscles as much as a grass fed animal that has to move from pasture to pasture for new grass. Though grass finished beef can certainly be as tender, if not more, than grain finished beef, grain finished will usually be the more tender option.

6. Flavor

“But wait, you put flavor as an advantage for grass fed!” You’re right, but hear us out. Grain fed beef has a milder, smoother flavor. To some people, that’s how beef should be. We’re big on personal preference as the measure of a good steak, and it wouldn’t be fair to not point out that good flavor is in the eye of the beholder.

7. Accessibility

Frankly, it’s hard to find grass fed beef and even harder to find good grass fed beef. It’s easy to find a pretty good grain finished beef. Grain finished beef is in every grocery store you’ve ever been to, and you can often find a pretty good cut on the store shelves.

So which is better?

Come on, you know it’s not going to be that easy! The choice between grass-fed and grain-fed beef ultimately comes down to your personal preferences, health goals, and budget. Both types of beef have their merits and offer unique nutritional profiles. Grass-fed beef stands out for its lower fat content, higher omega-3s, antioxidants, and potentially lower exposure to antibiotics and hormones. On the other hand, grain-fed beef is favored for its marbling, consistency, and affordability.

If you want health and environmental benefits, or just want a great tasting steak, grass fed is probably a better choice. If you’re looking for a tender piece of meat with extra marbling for a lower price, then look for grain finished.

We told you earlier we’d circle back to Hi Brau’s grain finished beef. Here’s the deal: since our grain finished beef is still pasture raised and only receives a portion of its diet in grain during the finishing phase, it’s more of a cross between grass fed and grain fed. You can expect better health advantages than traditional grain fed beef, as well as better flavor. It still likely won’t have the marbling of a fully grain finished animal, but it will have more than most grass animals. It’s a pretty good balance between the two.

No matter which way you’re now leaning, we hope you’ll try both. We have a convenient Crafted Beef Flight that has a bit of all kinds, and we also try to keep grass fed and grain fed in stock so that you can try individual cuts of each. Good beef and good food in general is an experience; a journey. Take your time, shop around, and see which type fits you better. We’re always here to help if you have any questions.

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