In our grandparents’ time all of the beef in the grocery store was “grass fed” which means exactly what it sounds like, cows ate grass in the pasture for their whole lives.  Today, the standard cow that is destined to become dinner may start their lives eating grass on a farm but in order for the cattle rancher to bring the cow to market quickly, the cows are sent to feedlots typically at around 6 months old where they are fattened with grain based feed before being slaughtered. 

For the cattle rancher it makes good business sense to send the cows to the feedlot because corn fed cattle gain weight much faster than grass fed cattle and since corn is available year round, the cows can be produced year round. The cattle rancher benefits through this system because the system is designed to bring a completed product to market faster and cheaper than the traditional method of grass based cattle production.  Additionally, the current American consumer has developed a taste for the type of meat that the feedlots produce, a marbled, fatty meat with smooth and consistent flavor.

Cow Eating Grass

There is a drawback to producing meat this way however.  As you may remember from middle school science, cows are ruminants, meaning that they digest plant-based food by initially softening it within their first stomach, then they regurgitate the semi-digested mass, now known as cud, and chew it again. The process of re-chewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called "ruminating”.  Simply put, cows are not biologically designed to digest the grains that they are fed on the feedlot. 

So why do it? Feedlots have become standard practice because by feeding cows enormous quantities of grains along with protein supplements, antibiotics and growth hormones, a calf that is born at an average weight of 80 pounds can be brought up to 1,200 pounds in a little more than one year.  This astonishing feat simply cannot be achieved on a grass based diet.

The problem is that switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the cow’s digestive system that it can be fatal if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics. Common health problems in feedlot cows are feedlot bloat and acidosis. Both conditions are a direct result of the grain based feed and, if left untreated, can lead to death. In order to protect their investment, feedlot operators must continually feed the cows antibiotics until they are slaughtered.  This practice leads directly to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are the new “superbugs” that are increasingly rendering our “miracle drugs” ineffective.  

But how does the life and health of the cows we eat affect us? Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A corn fed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grass fed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat and according to the University of California website: 

“Grass-fed beef has more beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than beef produced using conventional cattle-feeding strategies, according to a research review conducted by University of California Cooperative Extension and California State University, Chico.

Cattle's diet also significantly alters the fatty acid composition of their meat. Cattle fed primarily grass have 60 percent more omega-3 fatty acids and a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent heart disease and arthritis. Omega-6 promotes inflammation, blood clotting and tumor growth. Because the two substances work together to promote good health, it is important to maintain a proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The essential fatty acids are also highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be particularly important for cognitive and behavioral function.

Raising cattle on grass boosts the beef's level of a conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a lesser-known but important group of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in beef, lamb and dairy products. Over the past two decades, numerous health benefits have been attributed to CLA in animals, including a reduction in cancer, heart disease, onset of diabetes and accumulation of body fat.”

 Simply put, cows were indisputably designed to live their lives as ruminants and when they are allowed to feed on a species appropriate diet, their meat can provide a healthful protein source for humans.  However, when cows are forced to eat a wholly unnatural diet they produce meat that can be contaminated with antibiotics and growth hormones and that contains a potentially health damaging ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids.

Fortunately, it is becoming more common to find grass fed beef at the grocery store and although it does cost more than conventional beef, the health benefits can justify the extra cost.