What’s the Difference Between Grain-Fed and Grass-fed?

Pasture-based farmers who direct-market their meats are forever answering the same questions from new customers:  “What, exactly, are the differences between conventional meats and grass-fed?”  Most of us have a bevy of replies on the tips of our tongues:  We launch into lectures about the environmental devastation caused by the factory farming industry, we give in-depth explanations about carbon sequestration and how good grazing reduces global warming.  We define CLAs and Omega 3s and quote nutritional studies verbatim.  We expound on peak oil and demonstrate grazier’s reduced reliance on fossil fuels.  We preach about the value of local economies and our role in rebuilding sustainable communities.  We bear the simple (albeit noble) title “farmer,” but to do our jobs well, we’ve evolved into chemists, biologists, sociologists, nutritionists, environmentalists, animal rights activists and preachers.  Whatever our explanations of the differences may be, the next question we almost always hear following our diatribes is, “But it’s tougher, right?”  No. More than ever before, folks are willing to try bringing grass-fed meats home for their families.  Yet still, the myth prevails, even among grass-fed advocates, that the eating just won’t be the same as the good ol’ grain-fed days. It’ll be better.  In my experience, unless there has been a serious management problem on the farm, grass-fed meat is not tougher than grain-fed.  In fact,

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One thought on “What’s the Difference Between Grain-Fed and Grass-fed?

  1. Hi Shannon,
    I believe reports in the literature are inconsistent regarding tenderness of grass vs grain finished beef. Variability is likely traced to a number of factors mainly fat cover, muscle glycogen, and age of the animal. With limited fat cover, if post mortem chilling is rapid, you can get cold shortening, which is a pronounced rigor contraction due to an imbalance between intra myocyte (muscle cell) calcium release and uptake, where lower calcium pump efficiency results in greater intracellular calcium levels which triggers contraction. If this rigor does not resolve during aging, the meat can be tougher. Grass finishing can also at times lead to lower muscle glycogen levels, related to differences in rumen volatile fatty acid profiles. When more forage is in the diet, their can be less propionic acid produced in the rumen, which is the precursor for gluose and ultimately glycogen synthesis in the muscle (glucose is not stored in the muscle itself, but is used to make glycogen, which is a polysaccharide). On a grain based diet, you can also get more bypass of starch from the rumen, which can be digested to yield glucose for absorption in the intestine. Muscle with less glycogen does not undergo as extensive anaerobic metabolism, and less lactic acid is produced from glucose (arising from glycogen), and muscle pH does not drop as much as normal. The meat can be darker as a result, and I believe sometimes resolution of rigor (i.e. Tenderization over time related to aging) can be impaired. Regarding the age of the animal, I believe connective tissue in animals older than about 16 months of age starts to toughentoug related to collagen cross linkage. The collagen can, however, be solublized with cooking at a lower temperature for a longer period. In your article you mentioned something about contraction during cooking and moisture loss. I don’t think this is actual muscle contraction, but relates more to connective tissue shrinkage. I hope this info helps sheds some light on why grass fed beef can at times be tougher than grain fed.

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