Friday, March 5, 2010

Grass or Grain Finished

I received a great question from Robert about grass or grain finished meat. I took the opportunity to blab away a little too long and Blogger decided to put a cap on my comment. Nonplussed, I decided to just plop the whole comment here for anybody else that may get something out of my exchange with Robert.
Beef from an animal solely raised and finished on pasture.
Robert wrote:
From the comment above you wrote, "Healthy fat sources include saturated fats from grass fed (and finished) meats..."

From what I've read over the last couple years, grass-finished meat is supposed to be better for you regarding the EFA proportions.
A downside to that seems to be the leanness of the resulting (grass-finisished) meat.

I was going through my Nourishing Traditions book recently and was surprised to find in the "Beef & Lamb" section this statement:
"It is entirely appropriate for these animals to be fattened on grain during their last few weeks. Such practices imitate natural processes, as ruminant animals get fat on seeds and grains in their natural habitat during summer and fall. Grain feeding is an ancient practice that ensures that red meat contains ample amounts of fat.

It sounds as though they mean that during those last few weeks, the animal is on pasture, but is given a good amount of grain as well.

None of the grass-finished (red) meat producers I'm familiar with have mentioned this grain feeding during that last few weeks. Maybe some of them don't do it because they still don't have the whole picture: that it's not just about omega 3's and 6's, but about total fat content as well.

As long as the EFA ratios didn't get badly warped, I wouldn't be one to complain about fattier meat. I'll take all I can get.

What are your thought on this?

Hi Robert,

Grass-finished meat can be leaner than grain finished beef, but there are wide variables to consider. If a farmer is raising beef cattle, using the modern genetics we find in our common breeds today, there can be some difficulty in getting that animal to 'finish' on grass. These beef cattle have been bred to fatten on grain, quickly and cheaply. The 'industrial' beef cattle are mammoth, fat, barrel-bellied creatures that are used for the quick amount of time they can get to slaughter and the size they are able to pack on, making the financial return greater.

I have made the mistake of purchasing beef from farmers who are working to do the right thing, feeding on pasture, but who don't quite have their genetic lines figured out yet. It was a tough experience - literally. The meat just didn't have the flavour, texture, or taste that I was used to.

We move a lot, so that means always sourcing new farmers for our meat. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what the difference was in the beef animals I was filling my freezer with.

I'm sure you know that before about 10,000 years ago no animal, including us, were eating grains. So, when we start looking at wild game and grass finished meats, we see that while the meat is leaner in comparison to the cows fed grains, we can also see that perhaps that overly-fat beef is not the ideal.

Having said that, my previous point about genetics, is this: find the right farmer using the right lines and you will understand everything with one bite! I've learned to ask farmers what breed of beef cattle they're raising and asking for a sample steak before I purchase the whole darn thing. I have farmers that raise Dexter, Galloway, and even a heritage Angus herd. Normally, the newer angus lines leave me unimpressed with the grass finishing, but the beef from the older genetic lines is beautiful.

My last point is that cows are meant to eat grass. Their physiology requires grass, they have no effective way of dealing with grain in their diet and thus they develop acidosis. The farmers that I know that don't finish on grain refrain from doing so because it took them an incredibly long time to get that animal to weight on pasture. They certainly wouldn't want to ruin the final product by burgeoning that animal with a grain diet.

Just to be clear, grain is fed to fatten an animal fast. Grain causes inflammation and changes in the animal's rumen that can, and does, cause acidosis in the animal. I worked on a farm last year and we did a lot of butchering animals that were raised there (on pasture) and others that came from local farmers who were feeding grain or just finishing on grain. The difference was fascinating. The grass fed beef smelled pleasant, and had a firm texture with yellowed fat. The grain fed animals all, without exception, smelled sour and they were tough to butcher as the meat had a an almost greasy consistency because of the difference in fat texture. I wish everybody could see the difference because when you do, something instinctual tells you that there's something wrong with that grain-fed meat.

Does that steak look too lean to you? Look at that deep yellow, vitamin A rich fat! That animal never saw an ounce of grain its entire life. If I could, I would give you some of that steak and you would just inherently know that is the way meat should taste and make you feel.

There are a lot of great studies you can access online regarding inflammation, acidosis and all that good stuff. The Journal of Animal Science is a good jumping off point. Here's a study you may want to start with that showed the differences between finishing steers on pasture or grain were significant.  While we want fat, healthy fat, there is a difference between overall fat and the types of fat animal products are composed of.  The key is in the quality of that fat.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate you stopping by.


    I have been trying to understand the difference, and why it's important, for so long. I have so much to learn...

  2. We all have so much to learn! Now you have to buy some good meat!