(Condensed information about cattle diet and the benefits of keeping to natural order; written for personal use.)
Grass-fed and grass-finished are two terms that once described a similar concept. The confusion originates with the labeling used on packaged meat products, and the realization of demand for “natural” beef. All cattle consume grass for the first 6 to 12 months of life, however, afterwards some are confined to feedlots for fattening. It was abuse of the term “grass-fed” by way of that “loophole” that led the USDA to stricter regulation, and also led farmers/ranchers dedicated to raising cattle on a natural diet to adopt the term “grass-finished”.
To elaborate, qualifying for what USDA law refers to as “grass-fed” requires the animal graze in pastures year-round, from weaning to harvest, and in the winter months, forage, or be given hay or silage. During what the USDA labels “the growing season” cattle must have access to pasture. It is worth noting that cattle confined to a hay feed pen after the growing season still qualify. Grass-finishing builds on this, but goes further by allowing the cattle access to pasture year-round, supplementing with hay and silage when needed, and never confining or offering grain as a diet staple or means for putting weight on the animals.
On the opposite side, some producers find it difficult to maintain that standard, so instead, raise “grain-fed” cattle. This refers to cattle which forage first, then are confined to feedlots where they are fed grain and/or corn to finish them to a market weight, 1,200 lbs approximately, in less than a year, again, approximately. Cattle on grass-exclusive diets with no supplement of grain achieve this goal market weight slower than their grain fed counterparts, and this is viewed as undesirable by larger operations.
There are many dilemmas associated with confining cattle to feedlots, and the effects of such have proven to be detrimental in some cases: the environmental impact of the sheer effort it takes in planting, growing, treating, and harvesting the corn and grain used as feed, for example. Penned cattle are also greatly susceptible to illnesses; to counter the probability of sick animals, antibiotics are used in excess, which can, and does, create antibiotic-resistant strains of disease. These are more difficult, if not impossible, to treat, and this leads to an added threat of transmission of zoonotic super-bugs to humans.
These issues and more can mostly be remedied with providing cattle their natural diet; a task much easier achieved on a smaller operation. There are positives to grass-fed/finished cattle when considering human diet, as well. The meat has been found to contain higher levels of Vitamin E, and Omega-3 , as opposed to grain-fed cattle. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an altered Omega-6 fatty acid, is also found in higher content within grass-fed beef, which some health care providers believe can help lower the risk of cancer and heart disease.
It is important to have an understanding of trade terms. Phrases are always being created and changing with hopes to add appeal. As large scale beef producers aim to answer the demand of a health-driven public, some opt to mislabel and deceive in order to bring in profit. The best way to ensure a product and, in turn, the supplier, are everything one expects them to be is to research, ask questions, and stay up-to-date on the industry.