Left to their own devices, all cattle would eat grass their whole lives. Unless otherwise labeled, however, beef sold in stores (including most organic beef) is from cattle that are brought to feedlots and fattened up on grain (mainly corn) and other feed. The once much-heralded corn-fed* beef, prized for its mild flavor and tender flesh, is facing competition from the more flavorful, traditionally raised, and healthful grass-fed beef.
What Is Grass-Fed Beef?
The label "grass-fed" is a bit of a misnomer, since all cattle have in all likelihood, at some point, eaten grass. "Grass-fed" is meant to denote that the cattle have only eaten grass and not been given grain as either supplementary feed or at the end of their lives in feedlots to fatten them up for slaughter.
Different people have tried different labels to indicate how much grass - or, just as importantly, how little grain - the cattle ate. "100% grass-fed" is gaining traction, as is "grass-finished." USDA grass-fed beef has only been given a grass and hay diet and has access to pasture year-round. The USDA program is voluntary, however, without third-party verification. Labels that read "100% grass-fed" or "grass-finished" and are verified by a third party, such as the American Grassfed Association, guarantee the beef so-labeled has only been fed grass and hay.
Why grass and hay?
The grass grass-fed beef eat is on pasture, so the grass needs to be growing for them to eat it. In most parts of the country, hay, which is a dried grass, is used to supplement the cattle's diet early or late in the year when there isn't enough (or any) grass for them to eat.
Grass-Fed, Organic, Pastured
These terms are not interchangeable.
- Grass-fed beef, as explained above, has been fed a diet of grass and, perhaps, hay.
- Organic beef has been fed an organically grown diet and never received any antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Pastured beef comes from animals that have lived, as you might guess, on pasture. Since all beef cattle spend part of their life on pasture, terms like "all pastured" or "100% pastured" are used to denote animals that were never sent to feedlots. Still, pastured has slightly less importance for beef than it does for animals that are sometimes raised in pens, like pork or chicken.
Beef can be all three, or just one (although all grass-fed beef, to my knowledge, is also, by practice, pastured).
Why Choose Grass-Fed Beef?
There are a few reasons grass-fed beef is gaining so much attention. Studies have shown that beef from cattle that have been raised exclusively on grass has less saturated fat and more nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, than does grain-finished beef. Many people also like to buy meat from animals that haven't been sent to a feedlot, for both environmental and humane reasons.
To my mind, however, the best reason to buy grass-fed beef is that of its superior flavor. It has a deeper, stronger, just plain beefier flavor than corn-fed or grain-finished beef.
How to Cook Grass-Fed Beef
Depending on the rancher and specifics of how the cattle are raised and butchered, grass-fed beef isn't always as tender as grain-finished beef. It tends to be a bit leaner, and so should be cooked at slightly lower temperatures and for a bit less time than grain-finished beef, especially on the grill.
I won't lie, if what you crave is a soft filet mignon you can cut with a butter knife, you may be disappointed if that's how you first try grass-fed beef. If, however, you start off with a grass-fed hamburger and then try a pot roast and then a rib roast and then move to grass-fed steaks, my guess is that you'll appreciate the increased flavor and forget about the wee bit of extra chewing the meat may require.
Where to Find Grass-Fed Beef
Packages of grass-fed beef are showing up at more and more mainstream grocery stores (I can find locally raised, pastured, grass-fed ground beef at both the butcher and a major grocery in Brainerd, Minnesota when I visit in the summer).
Locally raised grass-fed beef from small family farms is more likely to be sold at local butchers and farmers markets.
Full Disclosure: I once dated a guy who was the bass player in a band called Corn Fed, in honor of their Midwestern roots. They weren't half bad.