Grass Fed vs. Pastured

Grass fed, grass finished, and pastured, oh my...

Savvy shoppers often ask us if our beef is grass finished - yes, it always is. All our animals live their lives out on pasture, but only the beef and sheep are grass fed. When we use the term 'grass fed' we always mean 100% grass fed and grass finished. If we say our beef is 'grass fed' we mean that animal never got grain or grain byproduct at any time in the cow's whole life. And neither did its mother while she was lactating. Unfortunately this is not the case for all farms.

So, are our pigs grass fed? In our book, no, even though they eat a lot of grass and other pasture plants in its life. "Grass fed" should refer only to animals that have never had any grain ever and our pigs do get a non-GMO grain supplement to meet their energy and protein growth requirements. It is possible to raise pigs without supplements, but they grow slowly, are always hungry, and the pork doesn't taste as good as that from a properly 'happy' pig. Cattle and sheep have digestive tracts well suited to breaking down coarse feeds (grasses). With the right management of their grazing behaviors it is fairly straightforward to raise really wonderful beef and lamb exclusively on grasses.

The grain-fed devil in the grass fed details

As with every term in the small farm arsenal, "grass fed" is in the process of being co-opted by Big Ag and unscrupulous vendors looking to make a quick buck. When grass fed was more of a niche market most producers used it as a short-hand for 'exclusively grass fed & finished', or in other words, 'no grain, ever'. But over time many farms and marketers have pushed the boundaries of the term and claim grass fed status on meat from cows fed all kinds of supplements (soy bean hulls for example). Or they claim grass fed because the cow started on pasture, as virtually every cow does, and then finished on grain. The concern about being duped is both real and unfortunately, legitimate. The more honest term for meats from animals raised out in fields but supplemented with grains is, 'pastured'. And if you look around the web you will find this, particularly for pork and poultry. But with careful reading one can certainly find "pastured" beef and lamb options out there too, provided by upstanding farmers who want to be honest with their customers about production practices.

When shopping for legitimate grass fed meat, asking the "grass fed and finished" question about beef/lamb is a good. Another that's just as good (and in some cases better) is to ask about rotational grazing. Every competent farmer who uses grass to finish animals should be able to bore you six ways from Sunday with details about rotational grazing you'd never even dreamed of. Rotational grazing practitioners deploy a number of names and acronyms to describe their work (MiG, High Density, Adaptive, etc). But the important thing to listen for when speaking to a grass farmer is, frequency-of-move. In a humid climate like the northeast where we live the answer to, "how often do you move your cattle to fresh grass"? ought to be, "roughly once per day" (this is what we do at Cairncrest Farm). More than that is great. As infrequent as one move per 3 days is fine too, depending on conditions. Less often than one move in 3 days, and we begin to wonder about commitment to the principles of good grass feeding/finishing. The importance of regular moves to fresh grass has to do with the quality of the forage available to the grazing animals. If they're given free reign to graze anywhere they please, over time the best plants get over-grazed and the worst/least palatable never get grazed. This slowly degrades the quality of the pasture and the beef can then develop off flavors from the animals subsisting on stunted plants.

What about pastured?

Most smaller, eco-farm type enterprises do use the word 'pastured', typically in relation to pigs and poultry, but occasionally with beef and lamb too. In order to meet the modern customer's expectation of how meat should taste, both pigs and poultry must be supplemented with more digestible feed than can be found in the roughage of grass. Typically this supplement is grain based, but occasionally an enterprising farmer finds a human food discard stream that is not grain and can meet nutritional needs for hogs and/or birds (expired dairy is one possibility). While they live on pasture, pigs and poultry raised outside are called, "pastured", but not "grass fed" because they are given a supplement of some sort. We estimate that during finishing our pigs eat roughly 50% of the volume of their feed as pasture and 50% as grain ration. Meat chickens grow so fast they get more than 90% of their feed from the grain bin. Hens that lay eggs are more competent foragers than meat birds, but they still get 80% or more of their meals from the grain trough.

It's worth noting that the numbers here don't tell the whole story about how "good" pasturing is. There is a world of difference between a "pastured chicken" and a "free-range chicken" raised in a barn. Free-range may sound like the birds can go wherever they please, but this is emphatically not the case. They're confined to the inside of a big barn for their entire lives. They live on top of a 'litter' of their own droppings that contaminates the air they breath with ammonia and sticks to their skin and feet. Pastured chickens are contained within shelters (every predator known to man loves chicken dinner), but the shelters skid to fresh grass every day so there're always greens and bugs around for the chickens to peck at as well as clean ground to sit on. Air circulates readily through the shelters which is good for both the bird's health and the respiratory health of people who work with them.

And it's similar with hogs. From an animal welfare perspective raising hogs inside a barn for their whole lives pales in comparison to giving them space on a pasture to romp and roam, root about for grubs and tubers. Pigs are happiest when they can lie in the shade on hot days and get out in the sun on cool days. Pigs should be given as much space as necessary to fulfill their various instinctive drives for grazing, rooting, frolicking, and napping. We believe strongly that only pasture can provide the space for this to happen. We do rotate our pigs with portable electric fence the way we do with cattle and sheep, but we move them less often. Pigs get 1 to 2 weeks per paddock before they move to fresh ground. They're incredibly hard on pastures because they dig up the grass to eat worms, grubs and the plant roots themselves. By keeping them on a slower rotation we limit the amount of pasture they plow in a given year. Once they move on, the pasture recovers well because the supplemental feed we give them brings in fertility from wherever the grain grew.

So, to summarize what we mean when we use terms -

Grass Fed - always and at all times 100% grass/pasture plants. No grain. No grain byproduct ever at any time in the whole life of the animal.

Pastured - space provided outdoors on grass. Pastured animals do eat grasses, but it is not their sole source of calories. Supplements of grain or other highly digestible feeds are provided to pastured animals.