What is the difference between “grass-fed” and “grain-fed” beef? Is one better than the other?
“Grass-fed” and “grain-fed” can be misleading. The terms “grass-finished” and “grain-finished” are technically accurate and paint a clearer picture of how cattle are raised.
- The majority of beef cattle raised in the U.S. graze on grass pasture. After several months to a year, they are “finished” (meaning they reach desired weight) in an operation called a feedyard, where they receive a diet of grasses, grains and other feedstuffs.
- Some cattle spend their entire lives on a pasture, meaning they are finished on grass as well.
The USDA specifies that, to qualify as “grass-fed,” the animal must eat grass and forage exclusively after being weaned from their mothers and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
Grain-fed cattle finished at a feedyard receive a carefully planned, balanced and nutritious diet. Due to their unique digestive system, cattle can turn a variety of feedstuffs into nutrients they need to grow and be healthy. This includes grains and grasses, and in some cases, regional renewable feeds like distillers’ grains, cornstalks, wheat stubble, citrus pulp and almond hulls. These are products leftover from a primary harvest that would otherwise go to waste, but can now be used as part of a balanced diet for cattle.
Cattle diets can modestly affect beef’s fatty acid profile. For example, extended grain feeding can result in beef with increased levels of monounsaturated fat (the same heart-healthy kind found in olive oil), while feeding on grass longer (depending on the type of grass) can influence the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in beef. Experts and studies agree that there is no significant difference between grass-fed or grain-fed beef when it comes to safety or nutritional content.
While the majority of beef in the U.S. is finished on grain, beef farmers and ranchers choose to raise cattle in a variety of ways to ensure consumers have a choice. For more information on cattle diet, as well as grass- and grain-finished beef, visit: