Years ago, producers raised beef cattle on an all-grass diet because there were no other options. After years of advances and changes in diets, the industry is leaning back toward grass-fed beef because of consumer demand.
In the 1800s, the term “fattening” of cattle was first used to describe the process of preparing beef for market. It led to the development of feedlots across the country where grain was used to feed cattle and fatten them up before being sold for meat. This was standard procedure for decades until farms such as Rain Crow Ranch near Doniphan, Missouri, changed all that.
“It was always our dream and passion that somehow we could make our farm profitable enough to allow any of our children to stay on our farm and make a living,” said Dr. Patricia Whisnant, an owner of Rain Crow Ranch. “A farm is one of the best possible living classrooms. It is a great place to learn lessons of character, responsibility and respect.”
Whisnant and her husband, Mark, co-own the ranch with their six children where they raise and finish beef cattle on grass. Farms such as Rain Crow Ranch are becoming more plentiful as consumers demand beef that is grass-fed and raised on a family farm.
“Over the years we have come to know many of our customers by first name as well as many of their stories and how they came to support the grass-fed message,” Whisnant said.
Grass-fed beef is becoming more popular among consumers around the country because of concerns about animal welfare, claims of health benefits and changing tastes.
In recent years, grain-fed beef has been the industry standard, and this method of finishing beef cattle is still used in massive operations in the U.S.
“We prefer grain over grass because it has a higher fattening quality, and it’s easier to fatten cows up to sell for meat,” said Sam Thomas, owner of Lanzant Farms in Birch Tree, Missouri. “We believe that the most efficient way is the best way.”
Both choices are nutritious and, as Figure 1 illustrates, there isn’t evidence available to confirm one is better than the other.
“We do utilize a mixture, both grass and grain-fed,” Thomas said. “We aren’t a feedlot operation and our cattle live their lives in the pasture.”
It is the method of finishing the beef that creates a confusing choice for the consumer
Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef cattle spend nearly their entire lives in the pasture on a grass diet. As the cattle reach market age, it is the decision of the farmer to finish fattening them up on grain, which is quicker, or continue with a rotational grazing system and grass diet. Owners of grass-fed cattle say the real difference is in the taste of the meat.
“I preferred the more natural taste and was thrilled to discover the many health advantages grass-fed beef has over ordinary grain-fed beef,” said Mike Salguero, owner of Butcher Box, a monthly subscription service for grass-fed beef and other organically raised meats. “We wanted to give people that certain taste of beef few have access to. We flew out to farms and taste-tested every cut from every farmer to find the very best.”
The market is growing for grass-fed beef. So much so that large-scale operations are finding the grass-fed market beginning to compete with them. According to Grassfed Exchange, two major companies have run ads to try and counter the growing grass-fed market for beef by portraying benefits of grass-fed to be minimal.
“Over the past three to four years, grain-fed beef production in the U.S. has been averaging around 29 million head annually, which is our total grain-finished beef supply for both domestic and export markets,” said Allen Williams, a nationally recognized expert in the grass-fed beef industry, in an article on the Grassfed Exchange blog. “Current beef cow numbers will not support more production.”
Williams went on to say that each state has a minimum of 200,000 idle acres, which would allow for grass-fed beef to grow in production.
With the industry and markets trending more toward grass-fed beef, consumers are likely to see more small farmers focus on grazing cattle. Grass-fed operations generally start out marketing directly to the consumer before increasing in size. Many in the industry believe grain-fed production still has its merits and won’t go away. However, with population increasing, it will take a mixture of grass- and grain-fed beef to feed people. Still, for the future of the cattle industry, it appears that grass may be greener on the other side.