Updated: Dec 6, 2019
This topic always gets a little sticky. That's only because consumers don't completely understand what the label means when purchasing meat at the grocery store. In this post, I will try my hardest to explain the differences so you can purchase your beef with confidence.
I'll start off by mentioning that ALL COWS spend MOST of their lives on pasture. Meaning, they are ALL eating grass, forage and hay for the majority of their lives. The finishing process differs from rancher to rancher. However, all cows are on pasture munching on grass just like you would imagine. I just want make that clear.
Now, "grass-fed beef" is beef that has been fed 100% grass, forage, hay and silage for it's entire life. Grass-fed beef may or may not have been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. These cattle also may be on a feedlot for 6-10 months continuing eating a balanced diet of grass/hay until they are ready to be processed. There is more time that goes into raising these cows because it takes longer for the animal to reach optimal slaughter weight. Which, is why grass-fed beef is a little on the pricey side. Grass-fed is, in fact a healthier way to go. When compared with grain-finished beef, grass-fed have has lower levels of fatty-acids and higher levels of omega 3s. However, it is commonly noted by some people with picky tastes buds that grass-fed beef has a little more chewy texture and bitter "grassy" flavor. From personal experience, if you didn't tell me that I was eating a "grass-fed" burger I probably wouldn't know the difference.
Let me just talk a little about medications real quick before moving on. I work in the animal medicine field. So, I do know a thing or two when it comes do medications and how they work and why we use them. As with many medications, cattle are not processed until the withdrawal period has surpassed prior to slaughter. Meaning, none of the drug residue is remaining in the meat if a medication was used. As for hormone use, it is primarily for reducing resources like land and water by processing the animal sooner. Drugs are important to continue a healthy herd program by preventing spread of disease. People seem to get a little worried when they hear about "antibiotic and hormone" use in cattle. Just remember, that animal cannot be butchered unless that withdrawal period has been met.
Grain-finished beef also spends the majority of it's life on pasture (about 89% according to Beef It's What's For Dinner's website). the other 11% they are fed a scientifically based diet in a feedlot that consists of grains, corn, inedible plant products (human's can't eat= sustainability) and other local ingredients (apples, corn husks, potato, brewer's grain). These cows normally spend 4-6 months in a feedlot setting. If you want to look at it form an environmental conscience standpoint, these cows are not hanging around as long as grass-fed which leaves a smaller carbon footprint by utilizing less land and water resources. Just like I mentioned before with grass-fed, grain-finished beef may or may not have been treated with antibiotic and/or growth hormones. The interesting thing about grain-finished beef, is that it actually contains slightly higher amounts for monounsaturated fats that grass-fed beef. MUSF are the good fats that you would get from avocado or olive oil. Eating this beef could actually lower LDL cholesterol, help prevent cardiac disease as well as type II Diabetes if eaten in correct portions. Pretty cool huh? And beef has been getting a bad wrap on clogging arteries.
Organic beef has never been treated with antibiotics or growth promoting hormones during it's lifetime. The USDA has to approve all feed to be 100% organic prior to feeding the cattle. This means that the beef could be either grass-fed OR Grain-finished depending on the cattle producer's program. This also indicates that the cattle could spend the finishing process on a feedlot.
Basically, naturally raised beef is exactly like organic beef. The big difference is the feed is not USDA approved as organic. So, we don't really know what exactly that cow was eating during it's lifetime. Could be grass-fed or grain-finished. Sometimes the label will provide more information as to how that animal was finished.
So, there you have it. Labels can be very confusing. At times, it almost seems like some of these options are almost the same. Very hard to distinguish. I think it is important to really know what you are buying and be aware of your choices. Regardless of what your personal preference is, buy ranch-raised beef from your local rancher! We pour a lot of love and effort into these cows and we are proud to provide for you and you family.