Mel Maxwell feeds beef cattle in Cookeville, Tennessee.

For meat eaters out there, many restaurant menus and butcher shops now offer up a choice that makes a distinction separating the usual steaks and burgers from grass-fed, pasture-raised beef. Is grass-fed beef, which is often more expensive than its counterpart, worth the extra few bucks? And what’s the difference in health benefits between the two?

Recently, “Marlboro Man” of Pioneer Woman fame responded some questions on agriculture, and I found his answer on this subject matter worth sharing:

Q. We have all been hearing about grass fed beef being better for you. Mainly, I believe your cattle are grass fed, but what happens when you fed them from the feed truck in the winter. Are they still considered grass fed then? Or am I way off base here? What constitutes grass?

A. Almost all of the cattle we sell go from our ranch to a feed yard and are later sold as grain-fed beef. Grain-fed cattle spend the majority of their lives on ranches grazing grass, but are finished on a grain ration in a feedyard. I personally prefer grain-fed beef above grass-fed, as I believe the flavor is better. The research I’ve read have suggests that the health differences between the two are minimal. Interestingly, in the old days, grain-fed beef was considered a premium product while grass-fed beef was considered “subpar” (and was cheaper.) Now that grain-fed beef is common in the U.S., grass-fed beef has become more of a premium product. In the end, I think it comes down to personal preference.

I bolded that sentence because I think it’s something that many folks disconnected from farming don’t realize: Most cattle eat grass during the spring and summer (except during a drought), but in the winter when grass isn’t readily available, they eat a diet of hay along with corn and other grains and nutrients. We’ve covered this topic before by talking with an Indiana farmer who raises grain-fed Angus beef – and she agrees with MM about a grain-fed diet improving the overall flavor. “We do our best to raise a premium product, and a corn-fed diet helps to aid in marbling and overall taste of the beef,” she explains. “The cattle also simply love the corn!”

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Although I knew that it’s subjective as far as taste, I didn’t realize that grain-fed beef was once thought of as superior to the then-cheaper grass-fed beef. Funny how things change based on public perception! Full disclaimer, my parents used to raise cattle for beef, but they got rid of their farm animals when I was about 7 (though the cattle guards remain on their rural gravel road), so I never really knew much about how their livestock were raised. Plus, this was many years before “grass-fed beef” became a popular discussion point.

I agree with MM that it all comes down to your own opinion. Personally, I haven’t done a side-by-side taste test, so I don’t really know which I prefer. I eat both the grass-fed beef that’s on the menu at many of my up-and-coming city’s gourmet burger joints, as well as the grain-finished beef that’s in my freezer.

Do you have a stance in the grass fed vs. grain finished debate, or do other factors (cost, source, etc.) come into play when you’re buying beef? Let us know in the comments.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I grew up in Indiana and ate grass fed beef until I moved to AZ almost 20 years ago. I lost my taste for beef here due to the lack of what I call “real flavor”. Most of the cattle here are grain fed with supplementation of alfalfa and other grasses. I think there is a substantial difference and a fried of mine who grew up in Kentucky and lives in AZ agrees with me. Just not the same. Cattle used to be allowed to roam the property to graze on grass. But with the pressure to get cattle to the market sooner, it just doesn’t allow the meat to “season”. Just my opinion.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Amy! Yes, I think it just all comes down to our taste buds and what we’re used to – and those of us who live in pasture-laden areas like Indiana and Kentucky are very fortunate!

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