By Jessica Ivey, RDN
Raising cattle is a community effort! Did you know that beef cattle often change ownership up to our times during their lives? This process is in part guided by the cattle’s changing nutrition needs, and cattle producers along all points of the process are committed to raising cattle in a safe, humane and environmentally-sustainable way that results in a delicious and nutritious beef product. The difference between grass-finished and grain-fed beef begins during the life of the beef animal.
The beef lifecycle begins at a cow-calf operation where cattlemen care for a herd of cows that calve annually. Those calves then graze on grass and are nourished by their mother’s milk until they are weaned around six months of age. At weaning, a typical calf weighs anywhere between 450 and 700 pounds.
After weaning, many calves are sold at auction and move to stocker and backgrounder operations. The stockers and backgrounders are responsible for ensuring the calves receive a sound, veterinary-prescribed immunization protocol to maintain good health and are fed a high-energy, forage-based diet to maintain a high average daily gain in weight. Calves continue to graze on grass while receiving supplemental forages and grains, such as flaked corn, fermented corn stalks (or silage), soy hull pellets, distillers’ grains or cottonseed, as well as supplemental feed that may contain vitamins and minerals that help the calves grow and stay healthy.
Once the cattle reach a mature weight, they then head to to a cattle feeding operation, also known as a feedlot. At feedlots, the cattle are free to graze on a scientifically-balanced diet comprised of roughage grass, hay, grain (such as corn, wheat and soybean meal) and local renewable feed sources, like potato hulls or sugar beets. During their stay at the feedlot, cattle have plenty of room to roam and eat while receiving watchful care from veterinarians and nutritionists until the time that they reach market weight.
When it comes to grain-finished vs. grass-finished beef, the truth is all cattle spend a majority of their lives grazing on grass. Most beef is grain-finished and comes from a cattle that has spent time at a feedlot receiving a grain-based diet as described above. Grass-finished beef comes from cattle that spend their whole lives eating grasses or forages, although they may spend time at a feedlot eating a diet comprised only of grasses and other forages. Many claims have been made that grass-finished beef is more nutritious than grain-finished beef, but most experts agree that both provide high-quality nutrition. Grass-finished cattle tend to be leaner, but there are a number of additional variables that impact leanness, including breed, age, grade and cut. Thanks to enhancements in cattle breeding and feeding, as well as improved trimming practices, the number of beef cuts that qualify as “lean” has increased sixfold from 1989 to 2013. So whether you chose grain-finished or grass-finished beef, you can be sure that you are feeding your family a safe and nutritious high-quality protein food.
So why not cook up some lean beef for your family? Nothing is more delicious to me than a grilled tenderloin or sirloin steak, so this weekend, I’m going to let my husband cook the steaks while I prepare this delicious champagne pan sauce and risotto. Yum!