Beef: Grass-fed vs. corn-fed -
Published Friday, June 8, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:06 am
Beef: Grass-fed vs. corn-fed
Red Cloud farmer Dennis Hansen keeps track of lots of data for each cow he raises. He gave me the following statistics for Grass Fed, and for the sake of comparison, he gave me the same statistics for the calf Grass Fed's mother birthed the previous year. We're calling that cow Grain Fed. That cow ate a diet of corn, wet distillers grains, hay and protein supplement.

Grass Fed's life
>> Cow T046 gave birth to Grass Fed on April 13, 2010. He weighed 87 pounds at birth.
>> Grass Fed became a steer on May 1, 2010.
>> He was weaned from his mother on September 10, 2010 and weighed 371 pounds.
>> He was butchered on Feb. 16, 2012 and weighed 1,265 pounds.
>> From birth to death, he gained 1,178 pounds, and he lived for 674 days.
>> He gained an average of 1.75 pounds per day.

Grain Fed's life

>> Cow T046 gave birth to Grain Fed on March 11, 2009. He weighed 86 pounds at birth.
>> Grain Fed became a steer on May 11, 2009.
>> He was weaned from his mother on Sept. 11, 2009 and weighed 406 pounds.
>> He was butchered on May 27, 2010 and weighed 1,293 pounds.
>> From birth to death, he gained 1,207 pounds, and he lived for 442 days.
>> He gained an average of 2.73 pounds per day.

When both cows were in the pasture with their mother, they averaged close to the same weight gain per day. But the big difference comes after weaning:

Grain Fed gained 3.18 pounds per day on his diet, and Grass Fed gained 2.41 pounds per day on grass.

Grass Fed's life was also much longer, and he never got as heavy as Grain Fed. He lived for 232 more days and his end weight was still close to 30 pounds lighter than Grain Fed.

This is an installment of Locally Grown, an occasional series on food trends.

Read more: Cost is the reason chef uses corn-fed beef

* * *

My grass-fed cow didn't have a name.

It wasn't my pet. I never touched it, never fed it, never got within ten steps of it. I knew what the cow looked like, but I didn't know it.

When I asked my father-in-law to raise it for me more than three years ago, I knew that sometime down the road, a part of that cow would be on my plate.

What I wanted to learn from him was this: How is raising a corn-fed cow in a feedlot different from raising a grass-fed cow in a pasture? And moreover, what does grass-fed beef taste like, absent the antibiotics, hormones and grain in most beef we consume?

When I first went to Red Cloud six years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about cattle or crops. I grew up in west Omaha and didn't set foot on a farm until I was close to 30 years old.

Now, whenever we visit my husband's hometown, I go with his dad, Dennis Hansen, while he does chores. I ride with him in the feed truck as he feeds cattle in the feedlot. I ride on the planter while it drops seed for corn. I have learned what wet distillers are: a corn-based, jiggly mass that's a by product of the ethanol industry and used in cattle feed. I have learned what it means for a cow to be a “good heifer;” she has all the particular traits that make her a good choice to give birth.

All the while, I've peppered Dennis with lots of stupid questions that he has taken seriously and answered patiently.

But I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted to experiment.

I ran the grass-fed cow scheme past my husband first. I'm pretty sure he rolled his eyes.

Undeterred, I brought it up to Dennis over dinner at the farm one evening. He knew by this point that I was genuinely interested in the farm, particularly the beef.

I think he took everyone by surprise when he agreed to raise a cow for his daughter-in-law.

Cow T046 gave birth to Grass Fed, as he came to be known, on April 13, 2010. The calf weighed 87 pounds.

One of the first things Dennis told me about Grass Fed was that it would take a lot longer for him to be big enough to butcher than it would for the feedlot cows. The first time I saw Grass Fed, at about five months old, he wasn't very big. He'd just been weaned, in early September 2010, and he weighed 371 pounds.

At this point, Grass Fed was about the same size as the other cows born at the same time. But the rest of his life would be different.

Grass Fed would eat grass and water supplemented with protein pellets made of alfalfa and soybean meal. Unlike the feedlot cows, he wouldn't get antibiotics or growth hormones.

The feedlot cows eat corn, wet distillers grains, hay and those protein pellets.

I couldn't imagine Grass Fed getting as big as those cows, and it turns out he never quite did, even though he lived much longer.

Dennis put Grass Fed on a pasture between the barn and the feedlot where the cow could munch on grass and hang out. For part of the summer, the cow lived in an alfalfa field.

In the winter, Dennis hand-fed the cow every day. He took a load of hay to the pasture next to the feedlot and filled a barrel of water and a pan of protein pellets. Dennis said the human contact made Grass Fed much tamer than the farm's other cows.

I asked Dennis why he agreed to raise a grass-fed cow, and he said he'd wanted to do it for a long time.

Once, during a trip to San Francisco, a man told him about the best steak he'd ever eaten: an Australian grass-fed cut.

“That kind of intrigued me,” Dennis said. “I wanted to see how good you can make it.”

Dennis took some heat from his bovine nutritionist about Grass Fed.

“He would kid me about how I could make that cow a lot better if I gave it fifteen pounds of corn,” he said, chuckling.

I also took some heat from my friends. They were convinced I'd fall madly in love with Grass Fed. I stood my ground, though: This was food, not my cat.

I'd read two things about grass-fed beef that I wanted to know more about: that it was healthier and that it was more expensive.

Bruce Boettcher raises around 300 certified USDA organic grass-fed cows on about 6,000 acres of land in the Sandhills outside Bassett.

Boettcher has a website where he sells grass-fed beef — — and he works with local suppliers who buy his beef and sell it to Whole Foods and local farmers markets.

I asked him about the higher price of grass-fed beef: Boettcher sells his beef as a quarter, half or a whole cow, at $7.50 a pound.

Simply put, he said, grass-fed beef takes longer to produce. And because his farm is organic, he uses homeopathic remedies instead of antibiotics for animals that get sick.

“It takes a year longer to finish a critter this way than it does conventionally,” he said.

I also called Carol Kolo, a clinical dietician at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha, to ask my health-related questions.

She said grass-fed beef is lower in calories and has a lower fat content than corn-fed beef. It also has a higher ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids — good fat, Kolo said. Studies have also shown that grass-fed beef has slightly higher levels of Vitamins A and E, though Kolo said most people get those vitamins from other things in their diet, like vegetables.

A California State University study backs up what Kolo said. That study, printed in the September 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal, said grass-fed beef also has lower levels of cholesterol and higher levels of antioxidants. Animals raised on grass had about twice the levels of conjugated linoleic acid, known as CLA, which may have cancer-fighting properties and lower the risk of diabetes.

But the study also said it's not yet clear whether the nutritional differences in the two types of beef have any real impact on your health. The Omega 3 levels in fatty fish, like salmon, are still much higher than those in grass-fed beef. And people who eat grain-fed beef can get higher levels of CLA by eating fattier cuts.

The flavor, Kolo said, is different, too. Dennis and I already knew that.

Some said Grass Fed would taste gamy, dry and tough. Others said it would be tender if cooked to the correct temperature, and taste grassy and rich.

Kolo told me it was OK to cook grass-fed steak to rare or medium rare to make sure it didn't dry out. She also suggested using a dry spice rub. She said grass-fed ground beef should be cooked until it was well-done.

Boettcher said slow-cooked grass-fed roasts are his favorite way to eat the beef, though he also likes a grass-fed burger.

“It has a wild, stronger taste,” he said. “And once you acquire the taste, you can hardly eat conventional meat. At least that's how I am.”

When our cow finally did go to the butcher, on Feb. 16, 2012, he weighed 1,265 pounds.

To contrast Grass Fed's final weight with that of a corn-fed cow, Dennis compared him to a corn-fed calf the same mother cow had the year before. The two cows had similar weights at the five-month weaning time. But after that, Grass Fed gained an average of 1.75 pounds per day, while the grain-fed cow gained 2.73 pounds per day.

The grain-fed cow went to the butcher after living for 442 days and had a final weight of 1,293 pounds. Grass Fed, by contrast, lived for 674 days and still weighed 28 pounds less than the grain-fed cow.

My mother-in-law called before Grass Fed got to the butcher to make sure we got the tenderest cuts: sirloin, T-bone, rib steaks, roasts, short ribs and lots of ground beef. The meat hung for three weeks, about a week longer than normal to give it better flavor.

A few weeks later, we had the beef in our freezer. Each package is marked with a “GF” so we can keep the grass-fed beef separated from the corn-fed that's also there.

My husband and I grilled grass-fed hamburgers first. Boettcher was right: The meat tasted different, richer and beefier. It had a different texture, too, and that texture really came into play when we grilled some rib steaks a few days later. The meat wasn't tough or chewy, it was just meatier, in a way, and when cooked to the correct temperature, incredibly tender and flavorful.

My father-in-law texted me a photo of his dinner plate one night, a demolished grass-fed steak front and center. He liked the meat, too, though he said he couldn't tell that much difference from the corn-fed steaks he raises. He did say this grass fed beef is better than other grass-fed beef he's eaten.

After all was said and done, and we'd both tried the meat, I asked Dennis a question: Did he think Grass Fed had a better life than the other cows on the farm?

“In my opinion, I think he did have a little bit better life,” Dennis said. “He didn't have to fight the mud in the feedlot and the weather extremes quite as bad. I think at times he was probably lonely, though.”

I tend to agree. He'll continue to raise corn-fed cows, though he may raise another grass-fed.

What I can say for sure is that the meat from Grass Fed tasted much different than the corn-fed beef. And what I can also say for sure is that I like knowing where my beef comes from. I like the fact that I saw the cow I'm now eating when it was alive, hanging out in a pasture in south central Nebraska. I know what it ate. I know who fed it. I know it was cared for well.

The knowledge might ultimately be what made that grass-fed beef taste so different. And I'm OK with that.

Contact the writer: Sarah Baker Hansen    |   402-444-1069    |  

Sarah writes restaurant reviews and food stories for the World-Herald.

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