It’s more complicated than it may seem…Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Part 1

I had a couple of questions regarding grass-fed and grain-fed beef last week so I would like to take a couple of posts to address the difference…

A link to the past...

Both of my older girls have studied Nebraska history as part of their 4th grade curriculum.  Although they each have very different personalities, it has been the highlight of both of their 4th grade experiences.  Cozad is located right near both the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail, and our community is rich with pioneer history.  One of the things that struck both of my girls in family discussions about the pioneers was the fact that the animals that pulled the wagons could eat their fill of grass each night and still starve to death along the trail depending on the season and grass conditions.

Depending on rain fall amounts, cattle can thrive on grass pastures with mineral supplements from May to October in Nebraska...

I had an interesting exchange with a lady last week talking about feeding cattle solely grass on pasture verses finishing animals in a feed yard. I would like to share one of her comments and then address it…She stated:

I don’t understand why you would need a “Ruminant Nutritionist”. Cows know how and what to eat without anyone’s help or guidance. Put them is grassy field and they’ll do fine.

While each region of our country is unique, many of them do not produce a year round supply of grass.  While it is possible to save grass pastures for winter grazing, the nutrient content of the grass is not very potent.  When you combine the lack of nutrient content of the grass with the increased needs of the animal during winter weather, you are left with a bovine who suffers without supplemental feed.

Cattle on a corn stalk field trailing toward the truck that brings supplemental feed...

The reality is that (in Nebraska), cattle must be supplemented during the winter months.  Some animals are given extra alfalfa hay while living in grass pastures or harvested corn fields, and some animals are fed protein supplements made from other sources such as wet distillers grains (made from corn) mixed with some form of roughage (corn stalks, wheat stubble, bean stubble, or grass hay).  These animals may never live in a pen in a feed yard, but they cannot rely 12 months of the year solely on the grass that a piece of land grows.  In reality, there is no happy cow grazing grass in Nebraska in January.  The content and comfortable ones are dependent on their caretaker (and the consulting nutritionist) to remain healthy (regardless of whether they live in a pasture or in a feed yard).

Consistent, high quality feed makes for healthy animals...

The strength of the bovine immune system is dependent on a comprehensive mineral supply and a balanced diet.  It is in the best interest of the animal to have a caretaker who provides for him when Mother Nature does not—whether that is wintertime in Nebraska or the dry season in Central Florida.  Most cattlemen actually provide mineral supplements to their animals 12 months out of the year to ensure good immune system function, and provide supplemental feed to ensure high enough protein intake for several months out of the year when Mother Nature does not provide.

I believe that there is a place for a ruminant nutritional consultant in all types of cattle operations—It ensures that the animals thrive no matter what the environmental circumstances…

My ruminant nutritionist...

To finish this first segment on grass fed and grain fed beef, I would like to define each term…

Grain Fed:

  • Cattle spend most of their lives grazing on pasture (where they are offered supplemental feed at times), and then spend 4-6 months being prepared for harvest in a feed yard.
  • During the finishing phase in a feed yard, cattle are fed a scientifically and healthy balanced diet of grains (corn, wheat, soybeans) and forage (grass, alfalfa, corn stalks, wheat stubble, bean stubble).
  • Cattle may be judiciously given FDA-approved antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.
  • Cattle may be given vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Cattle have room to play and have normal bovine herd interactions.
  • Cattle have constant access to clean water.
  • Can be produced year-round in North America due to allowances for varied feed supplementation.

Grass Fed:

  • Cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pasture.
  • Cattle may be given vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Cattle may be judiciously given FDA-approved antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.
  • Cattle have room to play and have normal bovine herd interactions.
  • Cattle have daily access to clean water.
  • Can be difficult to produce year-round in North America due to changing seasons and weather conditions.

    Cattle grazing a corn stalk field--waiting for the feed truck to bring them the supplemental feed that they need to thrive...

While raising animals may sometimes seem to be simplistic, in reality it is more complicated than it may look on the surface.  When the goal is to raise healthy animals to make healthy beef, teamwork is required to ensure that the animals (both grass finished and grain finished) can survive regardless of the challenges that Mother Nature sends…


Filed under General, Nutrition (cattle and human)

4 responses to “It’s more complicated than it may seem…Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Part 1

  1. Dawn

    I recently had a conversation with a vendor at a local farmer’s market who was selling “grass fed beef”. I was asking questions about how long they were on grass = how long it took to reach the end product if the animals were only on grass, the quality and fat content of the final product, trying to compare to grain-fed beef. In the 4H program, we have been raising steers on grain from approximately 6 months of age to 15 months of age to achieve a required rate of gain over that period of time. I was told that the grass fed beef would be leaner, and surprise, were finished on grain to provide that marbling and fat covering that gives beef it flavor. In the mid-Atlantic region, similar to, though not as harsh as, Nebraska, we have an extended period where grazing alone would not satisfy the nutritional needs of the cattle. But oh my do they love that sweet grass of spring and summer.

  2. Cows can and do make it through the winter without hay and Lots of protein. It does take the right kind of cow. Large frame, pencil gutted cows need help. Smaller frame cows that put on fat can make it through the winter on much less hay or no hay. The first settlers in the Nebraska sandhills put up no hay and cattle survived. Yes, there are winters that require hay, but not all. We have turned cows into what we want, not recognizing they then need an artificial environment for survival. Cows were wild animals and like all wild animals, put on fat in the fall for survival. Fat is their supplement.
    I would like to know where the information came from that told of the settler’s cattle dying of malnutrition or mineral problems. If that is true, it was a very small area. Thousands of cattle came up the trail from Texas to northern ranches and I have not read one mention of cattle dying of a mineral or nutrition problem. There many stories of the oxen from the supply trains bringing supplies to the Colorado gold rush that were turned out for the winter. Initially they thought they would die over the winter. They did not and when found in the spring were in excellent condition.

    • Hi Chip, thanks for stopping by my blog. Your comment intrigued me and so I took a few minutes to look at the information on your website. I do not have any first hand experience with the “low cost, low input” style of ranching that you speak of on your site. I do absolutely agree that we have genetically changed our animals over the past 40 years, and that many of those changes have initiated the need for more intense care of the animals. While you mainly speak of trying to add size to our animals through genetic changes (larger frames and heavier birthing and weaning weights), I would also like to mention that many of the genetic changes that I have seen in my 15 years of involvement have worked toward improving the quality of the beef end product. In other words, how do we raise animals that will produce the best quality of beef to sell to our consumers. Colorado State University has put out several studies demonstrating that good and balanced nutrition for both the reproducing cow and the resulting calf (which, as you pointed out, definitely increases the cost and care of raising the animal) is important for the achievement of marbling and tenderness in the beef product that the animal produces. My focus at my cattle feed yard is to produce a high quality beef product that consistently provides a good eating experience. As you state on your website, it definitely costs me more money to produce this type of animal, but this the focus that I have determined best fits my personal goals in beef production.

      You strike me as an “outside of the box” thinker, and I can certainly appreciate that because I strive to do the same thing in my own life. From what I have read of your thoughts on your own website, I think that we have different philosophies and end goals for our individual cattle operations. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

      As for your questions regarding my story about my girls and studying Nebraska history—the girls and I have had many discussions with “old timers” in our area about how oxen and working livestock fared during the time of west-ward expansion. The nutrient requirements of the animals varied according to the work load expected of the animal and the weather conditions at the time. There were certainly times when work horses and oxen perished along the trail because of lack of nutrients. While cattle today do not carry the workload of those early animals, we do need for them to grow and raise a calf so that we can continue to produce beef—many times that requires the seasonal addition of supplemental feed.

      All the best,

  3. Donna Haake

    Beef labeled Grass Fed and sold on the open commercial market must meet very specific requirements. Pastures cannot have been fertilized or treated with herbicides. These same requirements apply to hay fed to cattle destined for the Grass Fed label. The live animals looked slightly different. The difference in the appearance of dressed grass fed beef and concentrate finished dressed beef is dramatic.

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