Finished With That Grass?

If one good thing came out of the pandemic, it’s that many people have begun to take a harder look at where their food comes from, buying local and even producing some of their own food on homesteads. We are lucky to live in a world where we have so many options when it comes to varieties and growing practices of food. Whether you are looking for raw products, organic, grass fed, or just good ol’ traditionally grown, you have options, all with pros and cons depending on your goals. Unfortunately, that also leads to people flippantly using certain terminology or desiring certain products and not really understanding why, sometimes asking for products that simply don’t exist. They saw something in a farm or homesteading group and without doing their research, decided that was the product they had to have. 

No matter our preferences, I think it’s important that we all be on the same page when it comes to terminology used in food marketing so we can be informed consumers. I’d like to start highlighting some terms that I frequently hear or see that may not always be used correctly or even have any sort of defined regulations attached to it. The first term I’m going to highlight is “grass-finished.”

I am asked on almost a daily basis if our cows are “grass fed.” You can see my previous blog about grass-fed milk here: Short answer: no, our cows are not 100% grass fed. Something that’s being more frequently asked recently is if our milk was grass fed AND grass-finished. To put it simply, grass-finished is not a term that applies to milk production. Grass-finished applies to meat and how the animal is fed in the last stage of its life before being harvested or butchered. There’s no “finishing” when it comes to producing milk. 

According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: “Grass-finished cattle spend their entire lives grazing and eating from pastures. These cattle may also eat forage, hay or silage at the feed yard. As well, grass finished cattle may or may not be given FDA-approved antibiotics to treat, prevent or control disease and/or growth-promoting hormones.” 

“Finish” primarily refers to fat cover and marbling, or intramuscular fat, in the animal. It can also refer to the animal being mature in terms of its skeletal and muscular growth. When an animal is “finished” it’s ready to be processed. Finish is a big part of what makes meat flavorful. How that animal is finished, whether by grain or by grass and forages, will affect the amount of fat on the animal and the flavor of the meat. Personally, we prefer the flavor of grain-finished beef. 

Some consumers choose grass-finished because they believe it is more sustainable for the environment. Is that true? Yes and no. Grain finished beef has actually been found to have a lower carbon footprint because the cattle reach harvesting weight at a younger age. However, grass-finished cattle can contribute to sustainability by using forages from grasslands that sequester carbon.

Nutritionally, grass-finished and grain-finished are essentially the same, any differences are primarily in fatty acid content. In general, grass-finished beef tends to be leaner than grain-finished. However, grain-finished beef is typically higher in monounsaturated fats, the same type found in avocado and olive oil, and may be more conducive to better health outcomes. 

I know that some consumers choose grass-finished beef because they assume the quality of life of that animal is going to be far better than something grain-fed. The fact is, there are good and bad producers in every production system, and most beef animals, grain-fed or not, spend the majority of their lives grazing. Just because an animal only eats grass or forage products its entire life, doesn’t mean it was necessarily treated more humanely. Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with feedlots or stockyards, but even grass-finished animals could potentially spend the last few months of their lives in a feedlot, not in lush green pastures as people envision. There are also grain-fed animals that live peaceful, spoiled lives. If the animal’s quality of life is important to you in your food making decisions, the best thing to do is to buy local, know your producer, and ask them how their animals are raised, grass-fed and finished or otherwise. 

All that said, I didn’t write this to shame or ridicule, but to inform. An informed consumer that is willing to learn is one that will be taken seriously in the marketplace. 

So what do you prefer? And what term should I cover next?

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