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Grass-Fed vs. Grass-Finished

August 10, 2019
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In the past month a few people have independently asked me if my cows are grass-fed.

“Ah ha,” they say after I reply in the affirmative, “but are they grass-finished?”

In a better world there would be no need for such hair splitting. In a better world grass-fed beef would come from a cow fed only grass, as most people assume.

But apparently there are unscrupulous farmers out there, and some of these will claim that their animals are grass-fed while supplementing with grain. So while their cows technically do eat grass their whole lives, they are also getting other stuff, meaning there are plenty of feedlot beef cows that meet this laxer definition. The idea, then, is to ask about finishing, since in conventional agriculture this final period of a cows life is what it gets plump on grain. The hope is that any animal labelled grass-finished will really, truly have only ever eaten grass.

It’s all so unnecessarily complicated.

While I’m sure some small farms contribute to the confusion, it overwhelmingly comes from larger brands, which label beef and dairy things not just grass-fed but also pasture-fed or pasture-raised, a term that could mean anything.

The problem is that if you are unlucky enough to come upon those hopefully rare small farmers who are willing to intentionally mislead about their practices, there’s a good chance they’re also prepared to outright lie about them. So here are a few other questions you can ask:

-How often do you move your cows? The answer to this should be something like every day or maybe every other day.

-Do you finish cows in the fall or winter? If so, what do you feed them? In my admittedly limited experience, getting animals to finish well our of season requires very high quality hay

-Are there any particular tricks to cooking the beef from your cows? The aim should be a good level of fat on the carcass, yielding cuts that are substantially similar to their conventional counterparts. Don’t believe that grass-fed means extremely lean, tough beef that needs to be cooked entirely differently.

It’s also great to visit the farm if possible. It will give you a better sense of the practices being used than any phone call. Also, as a farmer, I find visitors a good opportunity for self-reflection, because it naturally invites questions about which areas I’m proud to show off and which I find embarrassing. 

In conclusion, all our beef is 100% grass-fed and 100% grass finished, as long as you’re willing to call things like clover, dandelion, and burdock grass. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Garth Brown

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