Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Cows

Whenever I read somewhere that eating meat is bad for your health and the planet, I want to call or write the author and tell them to correct the headline to “Eating factory-farmed GRAIN & SOY-fed meat is bad for your health and the planet”. We always lump together very different types of cows and meat, condemning them all and ignoring facts like the one that by applying holistic grazing methods, cows can actually help to REDUCE climate change.

In this post, I want to clarify the differences between the different types of cows. 

Unfortunately, it is NOT as simplistic as “organic vs. non-organic”. There’s lots of nuances and details that make the difference. I’ll try to explain.

Let’s start by defining what grass-fed and grain-fed actually mean, because those terms are not protected.


According to the USDA, grass (forage) fed means: “Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g. legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen.”

This definition implies a few things:

  • Beef can only be called grass-fed, when it has indeed gotten grass (or the other above-named foods) throughout ALL HIS LIFE and with NO grain supplement. This means that “organic” cows getting a grain supplement as part of their diets or being grain-finished, canNOT be called “grass-fed”.
  • Grass-fed beef can be raised on very different types of “grass” with very different nutrient content. Fresh grass and herbs (a varied salad buffet), just plain grass, dried grass (hay) or silage (fermented fresh grass).
  • Grass-fed beef MUST have access to pasture, so it is not ok to keep them in a stable all year long, even if the farmers bring fresh grass to the stable. Thus “grass-fed” usually means that they have lived an “organic” life, even if the meat is not certified organic.

That being said, there are big differences in HOW the grazing is organized, with very different environmental impacts.

  • Cows can be kept wild and left to their own destiny until it is time to slaughter them. If greens are not available in sufficient quantities throughout the year, shelter and hay can be provided during winter. This method is often used in natural reserves that employ big grazers for maintenance.
  • Cows can be “holistically managed”, meaning that the available grassland is divided into different slots and the cows are regularly (often daily) rotated to a fresh slot. This “high impact – short duration” way of animal farming, as studied and promoted by the Savory Institute, intends to mimic nature. In nature animals move in herds for safety reasons. They graze on a small piece of land for a short time, highly trample it, highly manure it – and then move on to a fresh piece of land, leaving behind yesterday’s “toilet”. They only come back to the same piece of land after a significant time has passed, when the grass has grown back. In the meantime, other animals might dine on the bugs developing in the manure. This is why in holistic grazing chickens are usually brought in after the cows. Apart from animal welfare and nutritional advantages of the meat produced in that way, this system is highly beneficial for soil fertility, too. The intense trampling breaks up the soil, the plants receive a growth impulse, the manure is a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer and the rotation allows the plants to rest and recover before the next round of grazing. In fact, this type of grazing regenerates soil health and fertility. The more fertile a soil, the higher its capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, a process called “carbon sequestration”, and water, which is important to prevent both floods and drought. Some models show how intelligently grazing animals could reverse climate change to pre-industrial levels within one generation (source)!
  • Cows can simply be allowed to pasture outside during the day and/or certain periods of the year. Feed bunks with additional feed (hay, silage) might be available in addition to the grass they find themselves.

The term “grass-fed” does not say “antibiotic-free”. However, grass-fed cows usually do not get antibiotics or preventive medical treatments, since there is less risk of infection and disease due to wrong diet or overcrowded feedlots.


Grain-fed does not mean that the cows have eaten only grains or been raised in industrial feedlots. All cows, including conventionally raised cows are at least partially pastured, some of them very extensively, others more intensively. However, many of them, including organic cows, get a grain supplement or are fattened on grain the last months of their lifetime.

Grain-finished – Feedlots

Even non-organic, factory-farmed cattle is usually grazed for the first 6 months of their lives. In the case of beef cows often together with their mother (in a so-called cow-calf-operation). In the case of dairy cows, the two are separated very soon after birth. From there, the calf is prepared for feedlot by slowly introducing it to corn. In the feedlot it is then fattened (grain-finished) on corn and other grains plus some silage, vitamin supplements, antibiotics (and hormones in the US) to stimulate growth and “optimize” food efficiency. This allows to slaughter the cow much earlier than in the past (1.5-2 years rather than 4-5 years). The meat will also have a better marbling and thus be superior in palatability to 100% self-grazing cows.

The problems with this way of raising cattle are several. First of all, the quality of the soil and pasture the cows receive during the first 6 months has nothing to do with regeneration. The animals will also have suffered some very stressful events, such as the separation from their mothers, hot branding and mutilations. In the feedlots, they are then forced to eat a diet that nature has not intended for them – corn and soy in large quantities and on top contaminated with pesticides, hormones and GMO’s. Cows are herbivores and their stomachs are meant to transform grass and herbs into valuable proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals easily absorbable for us (we are not able to absorb those directly from the grass/herbs – we need the cow as an intermediate). They might end up eating some grain, but usually in its pre-grain state with the grass still on it (i.e. wheat grass). However, if they are fed on grain exclusively, the ph in their stomach changes, making them susceptible to bacterial infections and organ failure. They also excrete more methane gas. Since they cannot metabolize the crops very well, they gain weight and the meat will be marbled. However, more fat means more estrogens that we end up eating and that increase our own risk of gaining weight and developing symptoms related to estrogen dominance, including subfertility. In the US, it is even allowed to add hormones to the feed. If on top, those cows are raised in overcrowded feed-lots, they do not lead very happy lives. The prophylactic administration of antibiotics alters their gut flora, weakens their immune system and of course contaminates the meat and the environment, leading to resistance problematics and the development of super bugs. The cows suffer a lot of stress, which is stored in the meat, and often die a very cruel death at the end of their short, miserable life.

Organic Meat

Certified organic cows might or might not be 100% grass-fed. A lot of organic meat is partially grain-fed and/or grain-finished. This is because the farmers have an interest in increasing the animals’ final weight and thus their revenue. The difference to conventional farming is that there is no prophylactic antibiotic or hormone use and that the grains are “organic”. However, as already explained, there are huge differences even among “organic” farming methods when it comes to animal welfare, the way of grazing and the composition of the feed. Some organic cows still receive mainly corn or soy, which is not ideal, even if it is organic crop. Other organic cows do not receive corn or soy, but a mixture of local grains and legumes, like triticale or peas. So “organic” does not automatically mean “grass-fed”, nor does “grass-fed” automatically mean “organic”. In fact, some traditional farmers are raising their animals in more “organic” way than certified ones.  

Advantages of grass-fed beef over corn/soy-finished beef:

  • Contains 2-5 times more omega 3 fatty acids than corn/soy-fed beef. The omega 3 to omega 6 ratio of grass-fed beef is 1.5 : 1 while the ratio of grain-fed beef is 7.65 : 1. This is because corn and soy contain a lot of omega 6. Grass on the contrary contains plant-omega 3, which the cow transforms into usable omega 3 for us.
  • Contains 2-3 times more CLA (conjugated-linoleic acid), a potent anti-oxidant found in meat and milk.
  • Contains more beta-carotene (antioxidant and pre-cursor to vitamin A). This is why the fat is more yellow.
  • Contains more zinc and iron.
  • Contains more vitamin E, glutathione and other important antioxidants. Those also protect the meat itself from damage during transport or cooking.
  • Creates less methane gas.
  • The cows are healthier.

Additional advantages of “holistic grazing” or “big grazer” projects that keep animals wild:

  • Biodiversity: In industrial animal farming, only a handful of breeds are used – the most productive ones, such as Holstein cows. Many traditional, less productive, yet very rustic and resilient breeds only survive because individual farmers decide to take care of them. These breeds, like Galloway or Highlanders, are very suitable for grazing all year round.  However, the farmers need consumers to buy their products, in order to survive. Eating individual animals might thus help to preserve whole animal species. 
  • Helps to reverse climate change through improved soil fertility and carbon sequestration.
  • The cows live longer: 4-5 years as opposed to about 2 years in conventional and even organic farming.

It is when we transform grasslands into farmland – and it doesn’t matter whether the crops we grow are meant for human or animal consumption – that enormous amounts of nitrogen are liberated into the atmosphere. Nitrogen is much worse than the often-quoted methane. If on top the fields are fertilized with synthetic fertilizer containing nitrogen, as it is usually done in monocultures, that is the real catastrophe for the climate. Thus, eating non-organic plants can actually be worse than eating foods from grazing animals…

Here you find more arguments why eating meat is not the problem, but eating factory-farmed meat is.


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