What is Grass-Fed Beef?Written by Charlie Sprague February 14, 2022
What is grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed beef comes from cattle that are fed only on grass, pasture, and other forages. The name implies that the cattle are grass-fed from birth to harvest, however this is not always the case (be on the lookout for 100% grass-fed or grass-fed and finished to ensure that you’re getting beef that has never been fed grains or commercial feed). It takes a lot of work and a whole lot of land to produce fully grass-fed beef, but this premium meat is without a doubt worth the effort.
Grass-fed vs Grass-fed and finished (or 100% Grass-fed) vs Conventional
Technically speaking, all beef is grass-fed beef. Calves spend the first parts of their lives in the pasture with their mothers, where they feed on milk and graze on grass. It’s where the cows go afterwards that makes the difference. The vast majority of calves raised in the US are sent to feedlots and fed on commercial feed and grains for the last parts of their lives.
Grass-fed and finished/100% Grass-fed
When you see “grass-finished”, “grass-fed and finished”, or “100% grass-fed”, you can be sure you’re getting beef from cows that have only ever eaten grass. Cows’ digestive systems break down grass much more efficiently, meaning that cows absorb more beneficial nutrients on a diet of grass.
This also leads to the meat produced by grass-fed cattle being higher in omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts. Grains are high in omega-6 fatty acids, while grass is higher in omega-3s, leading to a better ratio between the two in the finished product. Omega-3s are incredibly important nutrients in the body that help with regulating blood clotting, aid in the cell membranes’ function, and support brain and heart health overall.
Grass-finished beef is also less likely to contain antibiotics, given that cows fed on grass are less likely to develop the diseases that conventionally raised cattle fall prey to. If completely antibiotic-free meat is important to you, though, you’ll need to be on the lookout for the “raised without antibiotics” or “organic” labels on your beef.
As for flavor, grass-fed beef tends to have a much more “meaty” taste than conventional beef. Some describe the taste as almost gamey, due in part to the elevated level of omega-3s in the meat. In comparison, conventional beef has almost a sweetness to it from the grains they’re fed. Grass-fed beef is also much, much leaner than conventional beef, with less intramuscular fat (IMF), and more subtle marbling.
Roughly 80% of beef production in the US is grain-fed, known as the conventional method for beef production. Their high-energy diet allows them to reach their target production weight much quicker than grass-fed cows, and in much higher quantity. Meat produced from grain-fed cows is fatty and visibly marbled, and much higher in omega-6s than omega-3s.
Is all grass-fed beef organic?
Grass-fed and organic are not mutually exclusive. Organically raised cows may or may not have been fed grains in their lifetime, but are subject to stricter USDA guidelines than grass-fed or conventional beef.
To receive an organic certification from the USDA, farming practices need to meet a certain set of qualifications:
- First, cattle must be raised by organic management from before the birth of the calf to their harvest.
- They cannot receive any antibiotics or growth hormones. Producers must remove animals that become sick and get treatment from the National Organic Program.
- Their food must be fully organic as well. Food treated with pesticides disqualifies them from being organic. There is no rule about food being grass and forage only, so grain-fed cattle can also be organic.
- Organic cattle need free access to certified organic pasture for the entire grazing season, or at least 120 days. Grazing needs to constitute at least 30% of the cow’s diet.
- And finally, all processors that process the meat have to be certified organic facilities.
If all of these qualifications are met, the meat can then be labeled with the USDA’s Certified Organic label on any packaging.
Grass-fed beef around the world
Grass-fed beef follows different sets of guidelines around the world as to what qualifies it as fully grass-fed. Other factors, such as available forage and pasture time, affect the grade of the final product.
The USDA is more lenient for what we consider grass-fed. During the growing season, the cattle should have access to pasture. The feed requirements can comprise grass, forage, and cereal grain crops. The definition of “pasture-raised” is not regulated in the US, so any amount of time in the pasture qualifies as pasture-raised.
The USDA has three categories for quality of beef: Prime, Choice, Select. The US grading system strongly emphasizes intramuscular fat. This fat is found more in grain-fed beef because of the castle’s high-energy diet. Grass-fed beef rarely grades on this scale.
Australia & New Zealand
The Meat Standards Australia (MSA) system takes tenderness, juiciness, and flavor into account. Intramuscular fat, while a factor, is not a prerequisite to receiving a grading. Australia is the largest producer of grass-fed beef, due to mild winters and ample land available for cows to graze on.
To qualify as grass-fed In New Zealand, cattle must have unrestricted access to the pasture at all times. The cattle must be on a diet of grass (hay, silage, lucerne, feed crops) and supplementary feeds. Beef cannot be labeled as grass-fed if they do not spend time in the pasture. In addition to this, GMOs are illegal in New Zealand, and added hormones and antibiotics are never given to grass-fed cattle. This leads to New Zealand having some of the most consistently tender and flavorful grass-fed meat around.
Argentina and Uruguay are also major exporters of grass-fed beef. South America in general sees mild winters and warm summers, with plenty of pasture for cattle to graze.
Argentinians are serious about their beef, and have high standards when it comes to raising cattle. In fact, the vast majority of beef that comes from Argentina has been completely grass-fed and finished, with cows spending their entire lives feasting on the grasses of Las Pampas, or grasslands. Argentina is fairly new to grading their beef on a regulated scale, but has recently put in place a system to track the marbling, tenderness, and color of the beef.
In Uruguay, animals are strictly monitored and tracked with a specialized numbering system known as the DICOSE system. Each animal has an individualized number that stays with them from birth to harvest, even when changing hands between farms. Uruguayan farmers can apply on a voluntary basis to have their beef certified by the government on a number of factors, including “grass-fed”, “open range”, and “source verified”. Certification raises the value of the meat and helps differentiate their products as a higher quality choice.
Does grass-fed beef require any special cooking techniques?
Grass-fed beef can be cooked just like your favorite conventional steak, but it’s important to keep in mind that grass-fed beef is much, much leaner. Because it’s so lean, it cooks quicker than grain-fed beef, taking around 30% less cooking time.
Allow the beef to come to room temperature before cooking, preheat your cooking pan or grill, and use butter or oil to keep from sticking, basting the meat while cooking to brown evenly and prevent the meat from becoming too dry. The leanest cuts are perfect for light marinades that add extra moisture to the meat but don’t mask the flavor. Remove your steak from the heat 10° below the desired temperature, as the meat will continue to cook while it rests.