Grass Finished vs Grain Finished Beef – What’s the Difference?

grass finished vs grain finished beef

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As society continues to grow and we adapt to a world that offers a multitude of processed foods, many of us have become more thoughtful about just how things are processed. We take more care to consume natural, fresh goods rather than overly processed items.

This same thought process goes for beef. Even beef can have a lot of processing done on it before it finds its way to you. Then, there is the fact that we often have no idea what these animals were fed or had put into their systems.

Did you know that even if a label claims grass fed or grain fed, it really doesn’t give you a clear picture? They could have been grass-fed for just a short time and been given that label. That’s where the term grass finished or grain finished comes from!

What is the difference between grass finished and grain finished beef? Ultimately, it’s what the cattle are fed during their lives. This feeding and finished process could ultimately affect both the flavor and texture of the beef when it is processed for sale.

In this guide, we will walk you through just what is the difference between grass finished and grain finished beef and let you know everything you should about these two beef varieties.

Stick with us to learn the difference between grass finished and grain finished beef and see just where they measure up!

A Comparison Between Grass Finished and Grain Finished Beef

We’re going to break this down into an easy-to-read guide for you and try to keep it from being confusing. We’re going to first give you an overview of grass finished beef on its own. Then we will move on and provide an overview of grain finished beef on its own.

You may see us make some comparisons in these overviews as well if there’s a specific point to be made. Once we individually cover each of these, we will wrap up our guide with a quick review summary and point out the primary differences to be noted between the two!

Our goal is that the next time you go out to buy beef – whether it’s a steak, brisket, or ribs, that you can make a more informed decision about what will go on your plate.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Grass Finished Beef

Many people think that grass-fed and grass finished means the same thing, but it doesn’t. Keep this in mind. Grass fed and grass finished beef are not the same things so we want to start by clearing that up.

Grass fed beef just means that they were fed grass at some point in their lives for a time period but it doesn’t mean they weren’t also fed other unnatural things. For example, grass fed beef may not be raised in the pasture. They might be started on grass and then fed grain after that to get them to gain weight quickly.

We think it is important to notate this difference before we get too far.

Grass finished beef means the cows were pasture raised or at least spent some time routinely grazing in the pasture, rather than being raised on a feed lot. Their overall living and growing accommodations were better and so was their food.

A cow that was ever fed something unnatural besides grass or momma’s milk, cannot be labeled as grass finished. A grass finished label means that cow ate nothing but grass or forage for the entirety of their lives. They were most likely raised in a pasture where they could graze. They might have also received milk from their momma as babies.

Grass finished beef tends to have a beefier texture to it. Some might refer to this flavor or texture as gamey. It gets this way because those cattle were never fed anything but what they found in their pastures. It’s like deer or other woodland creatures that forage for plants and grass much the same way.

If you’re used to traditional grain-fed beef, you may notice a difference in texture or flavor when you try out grass finished beef. We don’t want you to think that all grain finished beef is bad as that is not necessarily the case.

With grass finished beef, your meat will be flavorful and delicious. There is just something about the freshness and the general appeal of the meat that you can’t beat.

Grain Finished Beef

Grain finished beef is a bit harder to really know the details about. It all depends on your sources and their labels. There ARE grain finished beef products that are fed unprocessed grains and are not raised in feedlots either.

You can look for producers near you that are open and honest about the grains that their cattle or fed or you can go to the grocery store and just know you really don’t know what you’re getting. If it doesn’t have specific information, it’s quite possibly from feedlot cattle.

The thing with grain finished beef is you really don’t know what was in their grain or what kind of processing the grain used went through. You know it’s possible they were raised and fed on a feedlot. You also know it’s possible they were raised in a pasture and supplemented with grain.

One other facet to consider is that some farmers even grow their own grain for feeding so this grain is more pure and less processed.

Grain finished beef can also taste great and if it’s what you’re used to, it may just be what you prefer overall but that’s because we’ve been trained for so long to eat whatever is available without considering how it was raised or processed.

One common argument about grass finished vs grain finished beef is that the fat on a grain finished beef is a healthier form of fat. The natural grasses and reduce the overall fat on the meat and reduce the saturated fat as well.

With grain finished cattle, if you know where the grain came from and what the grain consisted of or how it was made, it could be a perfectly healthy form of grain. This is where it might be worth your efforts to find a local beef producer and familiarize yourself with their practices.

The difference in healthy grain finished and unhealthy grain finished beef is really understanding where the beef came from and how it was raised. It means knowing the difference between pasture raised and feedlot cattle, even if they were grain finished.

In the case where they are pasture raised, they typically get a steady diet of grass and forage that is supplemented with grain. The grain is not usually those grain pellets that you have no idea what was put in them when they were prepared.

Grain finished cattle are often meatier and may have thicker or higher fat levels overall. They won’t taste as grainy as some grass finished beef might. You might find that you prefer grain finished over grass finished and ultimately, it’s a matter of preference!

Grain finished beef tends to have bold flavor and hold spice a bit deeper. They might also be juicier because they are not as lean. Grain finished beef also tends to grow or fatten up more quickly so they can send it off for processing more quickly.

Grain finished beef typically reach selling weight before they are even 2 years old! Grain finished beef tends to have more marbling in the meat and potentially even a sweeter flavor.

Tying It All Together – Grass Finished vs Grain Finished Beef

Now that we’ve loaded you down with all sorts of information about grass finished and grain finished beef, let’s round up with an overview and ultimate comparison.

Grain finished beef is what most grocery stores and even many butchers will have on hand. They don’t have any special labeling and may or may not have been grass fed along the way or raised in a pasture. Unless you know the producer, you don’t really know if it’s feedlot beef or something else.

Grain finished cattle are often ready to be slaughtered quicker than grass finished. Grain finished might go to sale anywhere from 15-22 months old while grass finished cattle probably won’t reach the weight to sale until somewhere between 20-26 months old.

Grass finished beef tends to be a little more grainy and gamy because of the food that they were provided.

Grass finished beef is typically more lean and the fat that they do have on their meat is less saturated. If you are used to the flavor of grain finished beef, grass finished beef will taste differently to you.

When prepared, grass finished beef will not have as much juice but may have a strong beef-like flavor to it. You will only need to lightly season this type of meat because it has a lot of natural flavor already.

You will probably pay more for grass finished beef. There is a higher cost to raising this beef as it takes longer to raise them to the appropriate weight and there have to be accommodations for them to graze and be sheltered. Grain finished beef is typically less expensive to raise and prepare for sale.

So, Is One Better Than the Other?

It could be argued that grass finished beef is a better option unless you know where your grain finished beef came from and just how it was raised. We’re not here to tell you just exactly which is right for you. Only you can make that decision.

If you prefer to eat natural, unprocessed food and you want your meat to come from a similar source, grass finished beef might be right for you. However, if you know how the cattle were raised grain finished beef might still be a good option here.

Flavor wise, the general consensus is that grain finished beef tastes a little bit better, on average, than grass finished beef.

If you prefer to just purchase from your local grocer and you want the best price, grain finished beef is most likely the best option for you.

When it comes to health consideration, grass finished beef is typically recommended. It has less processed nutrients within it. It also probably was raised in an open pasture where it could live and roam freely rather than being raised in a stressful feedlot environment.

Over time, grass finished beef has become more popular and more affordable. While it does still cost more per pound than grain finished beef, the gap is not as large as it used to be.

It’s probably worth noting that grass fed vs grain fed isn’t an indication of beef quality per se.  It’s more of an indicator about how the cattle were raised and dieted, and from there you can decide which you prefer.  Things like the type of cattle breed, like wagyu or angus, or USDA Prime beef are better indicators of quality.

Final Thoughts

Grass fed, grass finished, and grain finished beef are not the same in any way. They are all unique and different from one another. Their differences primarily boil down to how they were raised and fed for the majority of their lives before going to sale.

Beef is beef but there is a difference in how that beef is raised and prepared before it comes to your table. The end results are also different. You will notice some differences in cooking and flavor when you put them to the test!

Which do you prefer for your beef?  Can you tell the difference in flavor?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.