Monday, January 31, 2011

Is “Grass Fed” Beef Sustainable?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Most people stumbling upon this blog know that there has been a move by a group of consumers towards desiring an ideal beef that comes from a cow that has foraged its whole life on a diverse diet up to the day it meets its end.

Why is this desirable? Well, the thinking is manifold. It is assumed that “grass-fed” beef is healthier, the cows were happier and healthier when they were alive, and there is less of an environmental impact when cows are munching on fibrous weeds the day before they are turned into a steak.

I am going to focus on environmental impact here, though anyone who truly cares about the environment must also take a holistic approach. I’ll do that too.

First off, there seems to be a MAJOR misconception amongst the “Small, Local, Organic” crowd about “Corn-fed” cattle. These folks, who can hardly be blamed for their cultural rearing which is totally disconnected from agriculture, believe that beef cattle mostly are born penned behind a trough of corn, and spend their whole lives force-fed grain.

This image is almost completely false.

In reality, “Grass-fed” and “Corn-fed” cattle should really be called “Grass-finished” and “Corn-finished” (or, better yet, Grain-finished, but we’ll get to that later), since, for the majority of every beef cow’s life, it grazes on pasture.

Since the days of pre-history, animals have been fed a rich diet shortly before the slaughter, as anyone who is familiar with the “killing the fatted calf” metaphor knows. It was known by small scale ranchers in ancient times that feeding pasture raised animals a richer diet during the pre-slaughter months yielded more, and tastier, meat.

So it is with modern feed-lots. Cows who have spent most of their lives grazing on pasture are brought to feed lots to increase per-cow meat yield, which is especially important during the winter months, when foraging is “slim pickings.”

So, enough background; does Grass-finished beef beat Grain-finished in either land use or energy use metrics?


In fact, I was a little surprised to learn this myself, but grain-finished beef blows grass finished out of the water by both measures. This was shown in a Washington State University life-cycle analysis that found grass-finished cattle took more than twice as much energy and three times the land to produce, per pound. Also, in terms of “cow lives” grass finished takes 4 lives for every 3 that grain finished does to produce the same amount of meat.

Also, the Program on Food Security and the Environment and Stanford university has calculated in a study published in the Protocols of the National academy of sciences that yield intensification in agriculture generally has "avoided emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon [greenhouse gas] into the atmosphere since 1961."

Knowing a little history, these results shouldn’t be too surprising for most of human history is filled with the reality of pasture land being one of the world’s most valuable, and fought-over resources. This has even been the case recently in places like Africa. It only stands to reason that our ancestors would have long ago set to figuring out how to most efficiently use this very limited (esp. in ancient times) resource.

Also, a good proxy for how much energy something costs is price. Look at how much grass-fed beef costs, and how much the regular corn-finished beef at your local supermarket costs. Got it? Now, try not to dismiss this as unimportant. Many people will say “I’ll pay more to save the environment.” -- well, just make sure you aren’t being ripped off.

There are of course many, many environmental groups who want things both ways. They want to be champions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but when the folks who can best do this are large scale producers, they for some reason don’t advocate for it, choosing to focus on hormones or aesthetic considerations. But it should be clear from a reading of just the two studies above that a major move toward grass-finishing would require clearing a lot more land and energy for grazing, even if world-side beef consumption remains static.

Something worth considering is what all that demand for grass-fed beef will do to sensitive eco-systems like the rainforests of Brazil? Is creating demand for clear cutting forests in order to graze larger numbers of cattle really more desirable than feeding them corn in one of the most efficient animal agricultural systems? Or could it be that many of the folks who passionately buy grass-fed beef have a nostalgic, but completely uninformed view of this industry and believe that feeding cattle grass must be better for the environment as well as for themselves?

Okay, now, how about the product itself? If you don’t really care about the relative environmental sustainability of your beef, but do about nutrition and taste, which should you choose?

While it has been proven by Kansas State University that grass-finished beef has higher amounts of certain beneficial fats and anti-oxidant precursors, like Omega-3 and beta carotene for example, price-sensitive customers should note that even grass-finished beef is still not a very good source for anything other than what is also in the less expensive grain finished variety, namely protein. Nutritional considerations for the price-sensitive quickly become of the “penny wise, pound foolish” variety since vegetables and wild fish are far better sources for these more beneficial substances.

Regardless, there are in fact ways to improve the nutritional profile of grain finished beef. Both alfalfa and flax are more nutrient rich than is grass, and research has shown that feeding cattle a 10% flaxseed blend with grain can not only provide us with a grain finished beef that is higher in omega-3s and CLAs than grass-fed, but improves the weight, health and quality of the cow over conventional feed lot diets.

So, it is possible to get a lot of the nutritional benefits of grass-finished beef with the energy efficiency, and reduced cost, of grain-finishing. Good news for the consumer and the environment!

What about taste? Well, simply put, 80% of consumers prefer the taste of Corn-finished beef

This is likely due to the fact that grass finished beef is leaner. As anyone who has tasted venison can attest, that ultimate free-range (and for most people, least efficient) food source (Which is often, but not always, paradoxically derided by the very same anti large-farm partisans.) does not have sufficient fat in the muscle to have as desirable a taste. Buffalo is like this too, the meat tastes a bit like the less-expensive leaner cuts of grain-fed beef that are used for stewing. When I cook buffalo burgers, I am always sure to add lots of flavor inside the patty, and to use lots of vegetable oil to keep the meat from drying out, otherwise, you get a sort of cardboard effect.

Do a blind taste test for yourselves, and tell me what you find!

Just like the old saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," we need to do a better job as a society of really thinking through issues rather than reacting to some aesthetic or emotional appeal. For those of you who still prefer grass-finished beef, that's fine -- just know the whole story behind what you are buying -- and that there are consequences to the environment and the planet for making that choice. And please, stop demonizing a very efficient system that can provide needed protein in a sustainable way to the world's growing population.

The question now becomes whether people who simply didn't know that grass-fed beef was so inefficient and of the true beneficial qualities of our corn-finished system, will now be willing to alter their opinion? That is perhaps one of the hardest thing for any person to do -- change your mind or admit you might have been wrong when confronted with new information. But if we are to truly find our way toward sustainable global systems, then we must all be willing to search for new answers -- and accept new paths toward sustainability when informed by science.

Here's wishing you a nice corn-finished steak as part of your next sustainable meal!


  1. Reasonable tone to your discussion. I farm part-time in MN - graze livestock and grow corn and soy. I have not decided which is more sustainable. The grass-covered land definitely maintains the capacity of the natural capital better and provides more ecoservices than my row-cropped land, but the row crops provide more human-available calories per acre. If we can begin to move away from the subsidized-laden energy paradigm that is our reality, we may begin to understand which is more sustainable. Of course, we will also have to step out of the world of obesity and food waste. At this moment it is hard to tell what systems are sustainable.

  2. What the energy studies completely ignore is the role of grazing animals in creating soil and the importance of a covered soil surface. In grass based systems manure can be a nutrient if the animals are managed to promote plant recovery. In the feedlot system manure is waste and is causing serious surface and groundwater pollution problems due to animal concentration.

  3. I am curious about what efforts are being made to modify the diet of feed lot cows if, as you say, it is that easy to match the nutritional profile of grass finished?

  4. Andrea - grass-based systems aren't the only way to use manure. Large scale feedlots understand that manure is a resource and often either apply it to their surrounding cropland as natural fertilizer or sell it to farmers who do.

    Korkin - I don't know yet how widespread the efforts are to blend alfalfa and flax into grain feed at feedlots. Good question, I'll put it on my list to research more about. I do know anecdotally of a few feedlots who are using alfalfa blended with grain as a common practice.

  5. Hi Sara- You said "Also, a good proxy for how much energy something costs is price".
    This is not necessarily true in the case of industrial beef being fed subsized corn. While the price of corn may seem cheap, taxpayers are ultimately paying for the difference via government subsidies.
    Another area to look at is the fact that feedlot cattle are often times given antibiotics because of the crowded conditions and ability for sickness to spread rapidly. Another reason cattle are given antibiotics is that the bovine stomachs of cattle are hard-wired to digest grass and not corn or other grains that they are fed. This leads to sickness which is taken care of by antibiotics.
    I like your article, you have some very good points.

  6. Sara I disagree with a couple of your points and was hopint you could respond accordingly.
    First of all feedlots do not usually have a way to utilize manure efficiently. Animal feed for feedlots is mostly produced in the midwest, whereas most feedlots are located in more populated areas (i.e. the east). Transporting manure is exorbitantly expensive, so it is usually not viewed as a resource for most large-scale feedlots.
    Secondly, while grass-fed cattle have higher enteric methane emissions, it has also been established that grasslands are a methane sink (
    Secondly, methane is not nearly as big a GHG culprit as Nitrous dioxide, which is emitted in vast quantities from row crop agriculture (due to higher N inputs).

  7. I'm interested to see that my last post was either deleted from this blog or never posted in the first place. Sara... to be frank you're pandering to the feedlot industry here. I do research in soil molecular ecology and GHG emissions from agriculture soils. To totally emit the carbon sink potential that properly managed grazing can cause in soils is irresponsible. Furthermore, tilling to grow any crop releases vast amounts of CO2 (let alone the fossil fuels required to make, distribute and apply all manner of inputs to row crops). And contrary to your post, manure IS NOT effectively distributed from feedlots. There's a vast problem with manure buildup in some areas and nutrient deficits in others. It doesn't make economic sense to transport that manure to the needed areas since it's much cheaper (with relatively cheap oil) to just make fertilizers. This compounds sustainability problems, because now you have to use the incredibly inefficient Haber-Bosch process to make nitrogen that was present in manure. Secondly that waste manure continues to emit both methane and nitrous oxide far longer then the life of the steer that produced it. Meaning life-cycle analyses aren't accurate for feedlot beef, if they stop accounting for things after the animal is slaughtered.
    Also take a close look at your studies. I mentioned properly managed grazing before, NONE of these studies compare grain-fed with proper grazing management. Rather they compare to continuous set stock grazing, which is incredibly inefficient, but managing grass/legume growth effectively is FAR more efficient than any feedlot could ever become. Also if you do a Google scholar search you will notice that there are a number of articles supporting Grass-fed as the healthier and more environmental choice. Look who funded them and look who funded the others. In my own experience I seem to also notice a trend that the studies supporting grass-fed beef are in higher impact peer-reviewed journals compared to the grain-fed beef studies which are often just conference studies - this strongly suggests the quality of research supporting grass-fed is much better. I hope you are courageous enough to post this entry and I look forward to your counterpoints.

  8. A couple of points that I think this article misses entirely that weigh in favor of grass fed beef:
    1. Mad cow disease. Numerous cases of agribusiness attempting to bring sick cows to slaughter which were later tested positive for mad cow disease have cropped up in recent years. Given that ground beef is generally mixed from thousands of cows, that's a lottery that I, personally, am not willing to play. The general food supply is far too contaminated to eat feedlot cows.
    2. Sick cows in general. Antibiotics and growth hormones present in grain finished beef are simply awful for the cow, and by extension, the humans eating the cows. Although this is not an intrinsic benefit to grass fed beef, many (I'd dare to say even most at present) grass-finished beef farms do not give their cows antibiotics or growth hormones. You'll generally have to actually find a semi-local farm and follow up with them to get your beef to be sure, but that's life -- if you want quality, you can't simply pay for it; you have to work for it.
    3. Reduced effects of bioamplification from pesticides. This is one that's overlooked by pretty much everyone, and I can't imagine why. Anyone remember their school biology textbooks about why DDT was banned, and how it almost caused eagles to go exinct? Let me remind you: If you put pesticides on crops, and feed those crops to animals, those animals eat the pesticides...and many of those pesticides remain in their bodies, trapped in their fats. So, now, instead of consuming the pesticides from one pound of crops in your one pound of corn, you are consuming the pesticides from eight pounds of corn in your one pound of meat. This is somewhere around an order of magnitude increase. You don't want it.
    4. Sustainability, albeit at a smaller scale. You claim that grass finished isn't sustainable here because the Amazon is being chopped down to accomodate it. The Amazon is being chopped down for every reason -- this is not unique to grassfed beef, and it's more a consequence of the lack of environmental protections than anything else. That said, yes, it does take more land and energy to produce grass fed beef -- but it doesn't take nearly as much fossil fuel energy, and the land is totally wrecked by modern monocrop agriculture.