I’m sure you’ve seen the terms ‘grass-fed’ or ‘organic’ or ‘pasture-raised’ labeled on your beef, eggs, and milk at the grocery store. Perhaps you’ve also seen the price difference between items with these labels versus those without. But what do these terms actually mean? And what impact does that have on the food we are consuming? Should we be prioritizing eating grass-fed, organic meat and dairy products or is there not that much of a difference to warrant the hefty price tag? Let’s discuss…
Before we dig in, it is important to define our terms as they pertain to the meat and dairy industry.
Grass-fed: Grass-fed means that the cattle were able to forage and graze for their own fresh food sources and are not fed any grains for their diet. Unfortunately the government (USDA) does not have an official definition of the term ‘grass-fed’, therefore it is open for interpretation. Grass-fed does not always mean organic- these are two separate certifications. See below.
Grass-milk: Milk products that come from cows fed a nearly 100% forage based diet.
Organic: According to the USDA Organic Production and Handling Standards, the term organic (as it pertains to meat/dairy) requires that cows be unconfined and have free access to eat grass for the entire grazing season (not less than 120 days) and that at least 30 percent of their feed or dry matter intake must be from grasses. This means that the rest of the 70 percent of their food can come from grains, hay, and other products. Organic cattle receive no synthetic hormones or antibiotics, and the 70 percent of time they are not eating grasses, organic cattle must be given feed that is free of GMOs, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. Buying organic meat and dairy products minimizes your toxic load, but it does not guarantee the greater micronutrient levels of grass-fed beef and dairy. To get the best of both worlds, look for an option that is both grass-fed and organic.
Pasture Raised: Cows that are pasture raised get a certain amount of their food from organic grass grown in a pasture. The organic grass is not treated with pesticides or fertilizers. Pasture raised cattle should get approximately 30% of their food from this grass.
Grain-Fed: Grain-fed cows (conventional cows) are fed mostly a grain diet consisting of soy and/or corn.
Here are a few key differences when it comes to grass-fed versus grain-fed cows.
- Both grass-fed and grain-fed cows start their lives in a similar manner. Both types of cows are born, drink milk from their mother, and are allowed to roam free and eat grass and other organic matter for the first 7-9 months of life.
- After this time period, conventionally raised cows are moved to feedlots where they are oftentimes confined to small stalls. Here is where they are fed their corn/soy diet and some grass, depending on the farm.
- Conventional cows are rapidly fattened up with high energy, soy/corn-based feed. After a few months on the feedlots, they are sent to the slaughter house.
- Grass-fed cows tend to eat feed lower in energy, therefore slowing their weight gain. This slowed weight gain delays their time of slaughter. Grass-fed cattle are typically sent to slaughter between the ages of 18-24 months whereas conventionally raised cattle are sent to slaughter between 14-18 months.
- The weight of the cattle at time of slaughter also varies greatly. Grass-fed cows are around 1200 lbs at slaughter versus 1350 lbs for feed-lot cattle.
So, what are the benefits of eating grass-fed over conventional?
Better for your health. The way cows are fed and raised can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of their beef that we consume. Research spanning three generations has suggested that grass-fed diets for cattle can greatly improve their fatty acid composition and increase the amounts of antioxidants in the beef content. This means that for the consumer, grass-fed beef tends to have a lower overall fat content. Grass-fed beef has a more desirable fatty acid lipid profile as compared to grain-fed beef. It has higher levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a type of fat that can help protect against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Additionally, grass-fed beef is higher in precursors for vitamin A, E, and other cancer fighting antioxidants compared to their grain-fed counterparts. Here is more information on the health benefits to including healthy fat in your diet.
Better for the environment. The grass-fed movement is based on the idea of holistic management. This holistic approach believes that grazing ruminant populations are key to a healthy ecosystem. Why is grazing key to a healthy ecosystem? Here’s how. By returning cattle and other ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep, buffalo) to their natural habitat, the land, for their entire lives, it can lead to restoring the soil microbial diversity, make land more resilient to flooding and drought, boost nutrient content and the flavor of livestock and plants, and help fight climate change because the grass traps CO2 gas that is given off as ruminants flatulate. Another concern for the environment is animal waste. The fecal matter from ruminant animals can create an environmental hazard because if it does not have a place to go (i.e. in small, confined stalls), it can seep into groundwater and impact the soil negatively, whereas grass-fed animals have more space and can eliminate their fecal matter across a larger area where it can decompose naturally and actually fertilize the soil.
Better for the animals. The animal welfare is overall better for grass-fed cattle than those that are conventionally raised. Because grass-fed cows are free to graze and forage on their own, they are happier and healthier. Cows are natural herbivores meaning they are meant to eat grass. Cattle are designed to be free-range and not be confined. When cows are kept in confined areas (as often is the case for conventional beef) and not fed their natural diet, they tend to develop health problems. Conventional, feed-lot systems where cattle are fed primarily a corn or soy based diet can lead to liver abscesses, hence requiring antibiotics. They can also develop digestive issues making them more prone to bacterial infections, also requiring antibiotics. Sick cows, just like sick people, require antibiotics to get better. Antibiotics are frequently given to cattle because of the close quarters and spreading infection to one another as well as having antibiotics in the feed. Because grass-fed cows are in their natural habitat and able to graze freely, they rarely get sick, therefore not requiring antibiotics.
According to an article published by Food Science and Nutrition, the consumer demand for grass-fed meat and dairy is growing and mostly driven by the perceived health benefits and concerns for the welfare of the cattle.
Lastly, let’s talk grass-milk and how the grass-fed movement impacts our dairy products. In a study conducted by University of Minnesota, grassmilk provided the highest level of omega 3’s compared to organic and conventional milk. Most conventional milk contains too much omega 6, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, and contains too little omega 3. In a US wide study of 1163 milk samples collected over three years, the fatty acid profiles in milk from cows fed almost a 100% forage based diet (grass-fed) compared to profiles from a similar nationwide study of milk from cows under conventional and organic management showed increases in the intake of omega 3 fatty acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid beneficial to our health. The differences in grassmilk can help restore a healthy balance of fatty acids and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases.
To wrap it all up and conclude…Is grass-fed meat and dairy more expensive? Yes- it can be, but I hope you can see and understand why the price difference between conventional versus grass-fed meat and dairy exists. In addition to the price difference, the taste of grass-fed meat can also be different than you are used to with conventional meat. Grass-fed meat does possess a distinct grass flavor because of the differences in the fatty acid content. I hope now you can see the benefits of eating grass-fed meat and dairy products. We can see the effects it has not only on our health but also on the environment as a whole. Rodale Institute says organic food is the best and the healthiest; it leads to healthier plants and animals which produces healthier food and therefore healthier humans. I think it’s important to not only seek to steward our health well through knowing what we are consuming and what our food is made up of/how it is processed, but also seek to steward our land well. There are clear benefits to allowing cows and other ruminant animals to graze and be in their natural habitat. Not only does it increase the quality of our food but it also helps us to steward our land well so that farmers can continue to produce healthy, whole, sustainable food for us to consume.