What’s in a food label? Grass Fed

Dec 17, 2015

By Contributing Author : Janeal Yancey, Ph.D., University of Arkansas JanealYancey

To use the Grass-fed label on a beef package, the USDA requires that the cattle were…

  • Only allowed to eat grass or hay for their entire lives
  • Never given grain or grain byproducts
  • Allowed access to pasture during the growing season

That basically means that, in the summer time, they were turned out on pasture and ate grass and in the winter time, they were fed hay because the grass wasn’t growing. They are never fed grain (corn, rice, barley, oats etc…).

You may be asking yourself, “So, what does that mean about the beef that is not labeled Grass-fed?”

That’s one of the things that makes this particular label confusing. Some people may think that beef that is not labeled as grass-fed come from cattle that never see a pasture. That’s not really true at all.

In the US, all cattle are grass-fed.

Cattle are ruminants. Their bodies are able to digest grass and convert it into energy that they can use to grow, fatten, make milk, or raise calves. Their digestive systems are much more diverse than ours. We can’t metabolize grass, but cattle can. That’s part of what makes cows so awesome!

Calves are born and live with their mother’s for 5 to 7 months. They may be fed some grain to supplement them, but for the most part, they drink their mother’s milk and eat grass. Their mothers will eat mostly grass, too. Once they are old enough to be weaned (teenagers), they are usually sent to a stocker farm to grow for a few more months. How much grain vs. grass they get at this step depends on the time of year and the weather. If there is grass growing, they will get to eat it. If not, they will eat a combination of hay and grain.

For the final few months of their lives, cattle that comprise most of the beef in the US, will be fed a greater percentage of grain in a feedlot. In the cattle industry, we call the high-energy ingredients used in these diets concentrates because the energy is more concentrated; whereas, grass and hay are called roughages. The high-concentrate (grain) diet allows them to gain weight more efficiently and gives the beef the flavor and tenderness we expect in the US. Even then, they have to get fiber (roughages), too. So, they get hay, silage (fermented hay) and other forms of roughage. It would be unhealthy for the calves if they only ate corn. Their diet is closely controlled by nutritionists.
I have a post about the steps cattle go through to become beef.

Personally, I prefer the flavor of beef from cattle that have been grain-finished (fed grain for the last few months before harvest). Some people prefer the flavor of beef from grass-finished cattle (fed exclusively grass and hay). The great thing is that we have the choice.

Sometimes, labeling claims like organic and natural are confused with grass-fed, but those labeling claims have different meanings that I covered in previous posts.  Most of the time, grass-fed labels are accompanied by claims about being raisedwithout hormones or raised without antibiotics, but those labels have different meaning and will be coming up soon in my labeling blog series.

Dr. Yancey is a mom of two fabulous little girls and an advocate of the meat industry. She has a passion for providing education and information to anyone who has questions, follow her blogs to stay informed!

Robert Delmore, Professor, Colorado State University discusses the difference between grass and grain finished beef.


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