A Look At The Grain-Finished Vs. Grass-Finished Beef Debate

If both grain-finished and grass-finished beef are nutritious options, what's the difference? Is one better for you? Do they differ in taste, tenderness, or appearance?

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For years, meat lovers have been arguing the merits of the various diets cattle are raised on before slaughter. Today, we take a brief look at the differences between steers fed grain during the last few months of their lives versus those fed grass.

Understanding What "Finished" Means

The term "finished" refers to the way producers fatten their livestock approximately 90 to 160 days prior to slaughter. Although most cattle will spend a significant amount of their lives in a pasture, many conventionally raised steers will move to a feedlot where they eat a diet consisting of grains such as corn, soybean meal, oats, and barley blends. In other words, these cattle are grass-fed but grain-finished. The question is how the food they consume in their last three months---whether it's grain or grass---affects factors such as taste, tenderness, nutrition, appearance, and price.

Taste

Taste is a crucial component in the enjoyment of food, so it's no surprise that it ranks high on the list of factors to consider when assessing the differences between these two types of beef. While grain-finished beef is somewhat bland, grass-fed and grass-finished beef tends to be more robust with a strong beefy flavor. It's also intramuscularly leaner than meat from a grain-finished steer. As a result of the reduced fat content, the meat commands careful cooking in order to produce a succulent, buttery cut with a perfectly caramelized crust.

Many consumers who are used to the taste of grain-finished steers find that it takes some time to adjust to the purer, meatier flavors of grass-finished varieties. Many others find there isn't a consistent, clear-cut difference in taste at all.

Tenderness

Just like grain-finished beef, grass-finished cattle can have varying degrees of tenderness. The key is in cooking the two types correctly for satisfying results. It's also important to note that grass-finished steers are usually lighter in weight and produce meat that's slightly coarser in texture.

Nutrition

There's great debate over the nutritional value of grain-finished versus grass-finished beef, but the reality is that all beef contains natural sources of essential nutrients such as iron, protein, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. All types also contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has cancer-fighting properties. In grass-finished cattle, the values of CLA, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin K, and certain trace minerals are slightly higher, but the nutritional value that's drastically different is the total fat per serving. Since grass-finished beef contains less total fat, it's considered the better option for consumers following diets low in bad fat and cholesterol.

Appearance

Grass-finished beef is a lot darker than grain-finished beef and generally contains less fat marbling. The fat is also far more yellow thanks to higher levels of beta-carotene found in cattle fed on grass.

Price

Due to production being on a much smaller scale, grass-finished beef can be significantly more expensive than cattle fed on grain. Even though there has been an increase in demand for grass-finished beef over the years, producers face huge challenges in the form of higher operating costs, inconsistent quality, and slack standards for beef defined as "grass-fed." With that said, it's possible to dodge high supermarket prices by buying in bulk or by buying a steer directly from producers.

In Closing

As ruminants with four stomachs, cattle are designed to eat roughage. However, cows fed on grain still produce nutritious meat with excellent flavors. For some consumers, the decision between the two kinds is an ecologically and ethically driven one in favor of sustainable grazing operations. For many others, it's simply a decision based on factors such as taste and affordability. Both types of beef offer advantages, so be sure to keep an open mind and conduct your own experiment with several samples. Lean beef is part of a heart-healthy diet, so you're good to throw a steak or two on the grill no matter which kind you choose.

What's your take on the grain-finished vs. grass-finished beef debate? We'd love to hear your opinion, so share your thoughts and this post by clicking your preferred social media sharing button now.

Further Reading

Whether you prefer grain-finished or grass finished beef, we recommend always having a high quality instant read food thermometer in your bbq grilling tool and accessories arsenal, such as our very own "Beastometer".  If you've already picked one up for yourself, spend a few minutes seeing Dave in this food holding temperatures video, and make sure you know how to test temperatures with a food thermometer the right way.  Lastly, a poorly calibrated thermometer can essentially give you false info, and if left untreated long enough, could ruin that fine piece of meat at the wrong possible time, just when you least expected it.  Keeping your food thermometers well calibrated is easy, and ensures your food holding temperatures are dead-on accurate.  See our videos and learn how to recalibrate or calibrate your Beastometer food thermometer - in just a few minutes, they will show you how to test a meat thermometer, and how to calibrate a meat thermometer, so you'll never be the victim of a faulty uncalibrated grill thermometer set.