Are You for the Grain or the Grass?

Students (all seniors) enrolled in AGRI 610 Beef Cattle Production and Management this past spring semester were asked to choose a topic about beef production and write a short article to share with the public about that topic.  The topics could cover anything from a description of their own ranch operations to a specific aspect of beef, such as its nutritional value. These articles are also being shared with each student’s local hometown newspaper.

By Rebecca Stewart

Have you ever heard people comparing the different types of meat that can be available to consumers, and wondered at the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef? If we didn’t have grain fed beef we would have a harder time keeping a year-round supply of meat, and we would need a lot more land to produce those results. However, there are some differences between these two types of beef.

Before feedlots became an industry, cattle spent their entire lives grazing pasture. Cows and bulls still do, but their calves usually go to a feedlot eventually. This changed because of the cattle. This is where feedlots came into play. What is a feedlot? A feedlot is an animal-feeding operation which is used in the finishing process of many animals, but cattle for our purposes.

Feedlots are sometimes criticized due to the living conditions for the animals, such as concerns of water contamination from feedlot runoff and concentrated waste. However, there are regulations which feedlots must follow to make sure they do not contaminate any water supply. Pastures don’t have the same issues. In a pasture, the manure can be dispersed widely because the animals can graze freely.

A misunderstanding about grain-fed cattle is that they are fed grain throughout their entire lives. All calves start out by drinking milk from their mothers. Then, once their stomach is developed and can finally handle forage, they begin to roam free eating grass in pastures. Once they are a little over a year old, they are moved to feedlots. The feedlots are where the “grain-fed” comes into play. They are fattened up rapidly with grain-based feeds, usually corn or milo.

Grain-based feeds are readily digestible with high energy content. The purpose of the feedlot is to “beef up” the animal quicker while trying to reach a weight of 1,200-1,400 pounds in order to get that juicy steak you see in the store. Many people think that grain fed cattle are left in feed yards their entire lives, but they are actually only in the feed yard for three to four months in order to become market ready.

All beef is loaded with many vitamins and nutrients. Those include Vitamin B12, B3, B6, iron, selenium and zinc. When it comes to the carbon footprint, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, grain-fed beef is lower by 18.5 percent to 67.57 percent compared to grass-fed beef. Because the feed is utilized more efficiently, a higher amount of beef is produced per animal in fewer days with feed, using less natural resources and producing less methane gas. Grass-fed beef will feed 8.0 U.S. citizens per animal compared to 10.4 U.S. citizens from grain fed beef.

Money, the one thing everyone is worried about in this world, can have a big effect on which meat you may purchase from the store. Grass-fed beef is typically more expensive. The animal will be smaller than a grain-fed animal, and it takes the farmer almost a year and a half to get the animal market ready. Basically, the consumer is paying for the extra resources and labor that went into that cow.

Everyone has his or her own opinion. Grain-fed or grass-fed meat is a personal choice. Just be sure to look at the facts and the history behind each.

Rebecca Stewart, a 2014 Central Plains High School graduate, is a senior majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. She is the daughter of Kimberly and Phillip Stewart Sr.

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