Grass fed vs grain fed beef

Grass fed vs grain fed beef

To get insight into the difference of grass fed vs grain bed we asked our local Australian farmers:

What does grass farming mean and how does it compare to grain fed beef?

Grass farming means animals that are born and raised outdoors on pastures, rotating around paddocks having a selection of clean feed to graze. It means a truly renewable, not just sustainable practice.

Grain fed beef comes from cattle that have spent part of their lives being fed a ration of grain in order to achieve a more consistent product. On average, cattle that are grain fed spend between 50 and 120 days on grain after having spent 85-90% of their lives in a grass fed environment.

What does it take to be a grass farmer?

Tenacity and dedication! Its a whole lot of management issues:
* Judging how long animals can graze each paddock
* Positioning watering points to maximize even grazing of the country
* To destock when necessary
* To stock lightly after drought to allow country to recover
* To stock extra animals in times of good seasons to reduce potential fire risks due to excess dry grass
* In some case extra stocking in some paddocks can control weeds
* Accepting the drought/flooding rain cycles are part of life
And the courage to pray when you’re not too sure which way to go with all of the above! – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

Basically, it takes the same approach that people should apply to everything else – holistic management. Decisions should be made on a balance of economic, environmental and social factors. It helps if you have a genuine love of livestock, farming and the environment. – Sue and Greg from Greenhill Farm.

What’s your favourite time of year on the farm?

After rain as the country transforms into abundant green everywhere! The animals have plenty of grass, the wildlife is abundant – its quite beautiful. And the winter months when its not quite so hot. Its about 40 degrees C as I write. – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

Spring and Autumn, during these seasons on farm you can really see the changes that the seasons bring. Autumn is a time for seeds to set, grasses seem to push up out of the ground and have a higher level of carbohydrates, readying the animals for winter so they can put on a layer of protective fat and ease through a cold snap. Spring is a really vibrant time (as long as you have the rain) where green growth pushes out of the ground after a time of dormancy. These are also the times of year that the weather is not at extremes. Its just the most pleasant time of the year!! – Miriam and Jack

What do you say to people who accuse cattle farming of causing green house gases?

What? More than mining or the effects of mining such as coal burning for energy generation? Nita and Rob, Gundooee Organics

Animals have been part of this world since they were created and there are probably far less animals than humans these days. Yet the blame for green house gases is placed at the feet of animals and those who farm them. Easy targets. We would say to those people that a good look in their own back yards for reasons for green house gasses would be a good plan. Perhaps a comparsion between the emissions from one of our cows and their car would be a good place to start! – Anna and George, Mitchell Grass Meats

The figures that all the research is based on is for grain fed or feedlot cattle. We fattened cattle on grass for the Japanese market through the nineties when we had a farm in Queensland and used to be flumoxed by the misinformation about greenhouse gasses. That is until I researched and found out that it was not about grass fed beef at all. The thing with feedlots is that a cow is just not designed to eat that much grain. The most they normally get is in Autumn when the grasses are all setting seed, and getting the cows ready for the winter by allowing them to put on fat, but this is nothing compared to the straight grain diet (or grain, cardboard and plastic pellets) that they get in a feedlot. Animals that were beautifully designed with multiple stomachs to deal with a high cellulose diet (and given the correct gut bacteria to work with that diet) just are not able to deal with all that high energy and protein feed. The feed actually kills the gut microflaura and causes all sorts of digestive troubles necessitating additives such as bentonite (much like mylanta or gaviscon for us) to stop the tummy grumbles and slow down the production of nasty gasses. I can’t even imagine the uncomfortable moments the cattle must go through. It must be much like being gluten intolerant and being fed gluten grains all the time. Imagine the pain and multiply it by four(stomachs). – Miriam and Jack, Pasture Perfect Pork

We believe that it is possible to raise cattle on grass and actually sequester large amounts of carbon – mainly in the soil but also in plants. We believe we are doing this now on our farm. We seriously wonder if grazing cattle (as opposed to other land uses for pasture land) results in increased greenhouse gas emissions, when all things are considered.

If fibre (cellulose) is not broken down by microorganisms in animal rumens, it is presumably either digested by soil microorganisms or oxidised during decomposition or burning. These processes emit CO2 and probably other greenhouse gases. When grazing ruminants eat and break down cellulose, and move on, they enable regeneration of the plant (both above and below ground). The resultant growth consumes CO2. An active system involving vigorous plant (cellulose) growth and then breakdown can result in deeper soils with more organic matter (& thus carbon). Greenhouse gases would appear to be both produced and absorbed at a higher rate than in a system where kangaroos (for example) continuously graze fresh green pasture and leave the rank fibre. Therefore from the greenhouse gas aspect, the net effect of using ruminants to enable plants be removed and replaced may actually be neutral (when compared to a system without ruminants).

We know that cattle, in isolation, produce greenhouse gases. But it is certainly not clear that that when everything is considered, they worsen the problem. They might even help the environment (if managed well) by enabling the remarkable rumen to cycle cellulose in the environment faster. We are both scientifically trained (Agriculture and veterinary science), and would enjoy discussing this issue with Professor Garnaut’s advisors. We think they squandered an opportunity by failing to consider important interactions between plants, ruminants, and soil life. – Sue and Greg from Greenhill Farm.

The Nourisher looks at the accusations of environmental sin directed toward meat eating in this month’s, Grass Farming: Our True Environmental Saviour.

What do you say to animal rights activists about grass farming?

We treat our animals with kindness and respect at all times. We encourage them to exhibit their natural behaviour. For example, we run “the teenagers” with the cows and calves as much as possible. The herd has complex social interactions and we encourage this because it helps keep the cattle contented. Apart from feeling good about this, contented cattle grow faster and their meat is more tender.

At various times most wild animals experience hunger, thirst, fear from ongoing predation. Females have birthing problems, and wild animals suffer from painful or debilitating disease or serious injury and often have terrible deaths. Our cattle rarely suffer from these problems (unlike the many other wildlife species that also live on our farm). – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

Grass farming would have to be the most humane form of livestock production. We also handle our cattle often so they are familiar with us, the yards, moving between paddocks, the horses etc so they are not stressed at every occasion to handle them. Our animals are able to freely roam on paddocks of native pastures in a stress free environment. Our aim is to make sure that our cattle are as content as possible for the length of their lives – it’s the best life we can provide for them, plus, we are maintaining habitat (native pastures and vegetation) for a wide range of native animals at the same time. We try to make our property a place where the natural environment benefits from our management system while also successfully producing cattle. And further, if you’d like to come and spend some time with us, please do, we have some fantastic native fauna here including endangered and threatened species that are thriving. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

We are passionate about the health of our animals – we don’t need to be convinced or encouraged to do that. – Anna and George, Mitchell Grass Meats

Is it hard to let your animals go when it’s time to send them to slaughter? Do you wish you could do it yourself? What’s stopping you?

Yes, it is hard to let our animals go. It never stops affecting us. We are very proud of them and our lives revolve around their care. Its hard to think that they are being slaughtered. Friends of ours run the abattior we use and they have high standards and humane practices. – Anna and George, Mitchell Grass Meats

We find this the most difficult day on the farm – choosing the ones to be taken to the abattoir. I get upset because I know what the next day will entail. The cattle however cannot know this and as far as they are concerned, it’s just another night on good pasture with a smaller group of peers. It is also difficult production-wise as we are temporarily losing control of our production chain through the need for the transport company to take them by truck to Cowra and the abattoir process itself. We have chosen a truck driver who understands our requirements for low stress stock handling and the abattoir as well – their reputation depends upon it as the carcass will show mishandling or stress. We are very pleased with the trucking and the abattoir. There is no easy way! It is not practical or appropriate for us to drive them to Cowra (5 hours away), stay with them in the yards and/or get involved with the abattoir process. What’s stopping me slaughtering? I grew up on a farm and I had the misfortune of watching my Dad slaughter sheep, against my mother’s advice. I hate the fact that we have to kill animals for their meat. I am very uncomfortable with it. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

An animal welfare issue that seems yet to be recognised is the closure of many smaller abattoirs. Like all businesses, abattoirs need to make a profit. Large abattoirs tend to be more economic to run than small ones, which are usually the first to close. Stringent health requirements, often geared to export needs, are expensive to maintain, especially for smaller abattoirs. The problem is that most cattle must now travel further to the nearest abattoir for slaughter, a poor animal welfare result. This also consumes more fossil fuel to transport then there and emits more greenhouse gasses. – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm, Bungendore

We understand that the purpose of the animal is to be enriching peoples lives with high quality, nutrient dense food. We thank them and say goodbye to them when we take them to the abattoir. I know that the place that I have my animals in is a really humane place, I just wish that the pigs didn’t have to have the stress of travel beforehand. – Miriam and Jack, Pasture Perfect Pork

Tell us about your connection to your animals?

Our whole lives are focused around their welfare. – Anna and George, Mitchell Grass Meats

We don’t consciously try to connect, it just happens. Although we do not feed supplements, our cattle usually gather around our us and our ute when we are in the paddock. They are curious and respectful (except when they chew stuff that’s on the back of the ute), yet show little fear. We try to understand their behaviour and work with it, just as they do with us, in their own way. We try not to become personally attached to individuals. When we do know them well, it’s usually for the wrong reason (eg “the bugger who keeps walking through the fence”). – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

It’s got to be close to anthropomorphology! I relate to animals, especially our domestic horses, cats and dogs. Our cattle are also critically important to us from the point of view that they rely on us for everything – basics of food, clean water, shelter and health care. We also provide them with a stress free environment – open places to roam on pastures, with no predators or hazards. Providing our stock with the best ‘lifestyle’ possible is what we strive for – and we always set out to produce in this way, regardless of the lack of market for this method of production and mindset. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

Ever since I could toddle, I would toddle down to the chook run or to where the goats were and sit and cuddle/talk to and play with them. To me it was a really exciting thing for the birth of an animal… the frist cracks in an egg, the white gleam of a hoof pushing out as the nanny goat was kidding (birthing). So it didn’t surprise anyone in my family that I married into an agricultural family. I was the one that the cat would come and snuggle into bed with and leave a nest of kittens there. The dogs never minded that I sat beside them as they whelped, and would often show me their bed beforehand. I never had a problem with clucky hens pecking me as I checked the eggs for the first taps of a hatching chick. My sisters did have something to say however when I first told them that I had to foster a piglet (with me) and have it in my bed so that it would stay warm all night and so that I would wake up for the feeds that it needed. EWWWW was the most memorable comment, and then there was: what happens if it has to pee? Well, if it had to pee it would squirm and grunt and wake up ( so would I… that’s what happens when something does that in your armpit, a favourite piglet sleeping place, or on your neck… the second favourite spot.) and I would take it outside to the grass, then it got a feed and would promptly fall back asleep… me too. This can happen up to 4 or 5 times a night so nursing mothers can sympathise. Luckily I usually only had the piglets for a couple of weeks, so didn’t heve to go through the whole sleep deprivation thing for too long at a time. Even when the sows are farrowing now, I love to go out and spend the whole time of the farrowing (birthing) with her, rubbing her belly and murmuring encouragement… It just feels so good to be there when life is starting and especially when I can help (sometimes a piglet is born in its sack and needs it to be torn so that it can breathe. I have even given mouth to nose to piglets when needed. I know what you are thinking… EEEEWWWWWWWWWWW!! The funny thing is, piglets and the pig birthing thing, smell the same us, as a new baby. I know this because I have been blessed enough to be invited to the birth of 3 of my brothers children. To me it is the same special feeling. I actually feel priveliged/blessed to be able to be there and help in any way I can, be it up to my armpit in a sow and helping deliver more piglets or just helping the piglets latch onto a teat for thier first colostrum, its a special feeling. – Miriam and Jack, Pasture Perfect Pork

What do you think of concern for damage to our delicate topsoil, erosion and water wastage being created by hooved creatures?

I think that a lot of the information about topsoil damage erosion and water wastage is based on set stocked grazing patterns (eg, farmer puts 20 cow in a 100 acre paddock and leaves them there… maybe moves them once or twice a year) this makes the whole area available to the cows for the whole time, so the cows can walk/trample/graze where ever they like in that paddock for the whole time they are there. This can lead to a plant that has been grazed and that is regrowing to be regrazed before it is recovered. It can also lead to tracks being made in the soil where the cows prefer to walk. Over time this will create a hard pad that is more succeptable to erosion.

Many farmers are moving towards rotational grazing especially grass farmers who want the best nutritionally dense food for their livestock,(eg farmer puts 20 cows in 2 acres and moves them every 2 days) which gives all of that 2 acre paddock a total break from being walked on or eaten for at least 100 days. This gives each and every plant there the time to fully recover and thus not be overgrazed. It also gives time for the macro fauna, and micro fauna, to carry out their breeding cycles uninterrupted by trampling. It give the soils time to recover (the microbiology in the soil help with this) and so you don’t get hard pads and tracking in the paddocks. This process most closely recreates the time in Australia when large herbivores such as the diprotodon ranged the grassy plains in herds much as the bison did in America and the vast herds of grazing animals did in Africa.

In our experience as cattle farmers and pig farmers, it is the management of the animals that is the crucial thing. We are the ones who must monitor and make the decisions to improve the land, using the animals as a tool to always improve the water, and mineral cycle as well as the biodiversity of the plant and animal life on the farm. We were able to turn muddy, unreliable creeks into clear streams that ran continually by carefully planning grazing and recovery times and thus improving the plant physiology and biodiversity, reducing and infact reversing erosion (building soil instead of losing it) which in turn improve the water retention of the soil, creating a more stable soil environment. – Miriam and Jack, Pasture Perfect Pork

Our country is described as ashy downs black soil. Hooved animals actually help to improve soil such as this. Without hooved animals grazing this country it tends to open up developing large cracks. Their hooves push the grass seeds into the soil and help to compact it. The grass they knock down becomes mulching leaf litter. Their manure nourishes the soil. We pipe the majority of our water from an artesian bore to troughs – there is very little water wastage and certainly not because of our animals. Unless one gets stuck in a trough and causes it to overflow! We only have a small amount of erosion near roads that are graded around our property . We use different grading techniques to minimise this erosion. Its not caused by the animals. – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

We are pleased that there is such concern out there as it suggests a heightened level of awareness. We can also suggest that it is important not to generalise about the damage caused by farming in Australia – especially if we want to eat. We have pretty good knowledge of the environment we live in, and the limitations and special needs of our place. We avoid fragile areas such as light soils or steep country and our large stands of native vegetation are fenced off from stock, along with the riparian areas. We allow regeneration of native pastures and vegetation on our ‘usable’ paddocks by maintaining a rotational grazing system. Our farm is divided into areas by soil type and managed accordingly. We have witnessed healthy regeneration of native trees and pastures as a result – even though we have gone through/are going through one of the driest times in history. Our place was one of the only farms in the district with ground cover during the height of the dry time in 2006. When it did rain, there was minimal runoff of topsoil into creeks and rivers. We encourage native animals and they co-exist with our stock. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

Our topsoil is usually delicate because it is low in organic matter, often because the parent soil is poor or saline AND the land has not been managed properly. We manage to make the soil more robust by maintaining ground cover and increasing organic matter. We also use biodynamics, which involves a range of management practices. These include avoiding over and under grazing. We also use tight rotational grazing, which creates high animal impact for a short period, then allows he plants a long regeneration period. We spray with the biological preparation BD500 every Spring and Autumn (moisture permitting), and being certified organic and biodynamic, we do not use artificial chemicals. We plant trees and fence erosion gullies.

Our farm is actually more than sustainable, it is slowing healing. Our soils are increasing in organic matter, erosion gullies are improving, and plant biodiversity increasing. At the same time we run a business, and supply the highest quality healthy beef direct to the public. We think this is a win-win for all concerned. – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

Do you see a future for your farm in carbon sequestration and trading carbon credits?

Yes, we hope so. Most people think of trees, and trees are great. But the biggest potential carbon gains are in the soil, and it is vital that this properly considered. – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

I think that the carbon trading scheme a great resource for a farmer. It could also act as a carrot to farmers not yet embracing the ideas of planned grazing, monitoring and making decisions for a truly sustainable and renewable farming future. – Miriam and Jack, Pasture Perfect Pork

As we understand it, carbon sequestration is greatest with healthy growing vegetation. There are a couple of points here:

* We manage our native vegetation in a way that encourages natural regeneration.
* Our place probably stores a huge amount of carbon in vegetation and the soil as a result of our management.
* We will only improve our management style in terms of the environment, not because of a carbon credit scheme.
* We disagree with carbon credits as the attention is moved away from the problem – the excessive generation of greenhouse gases – this is where the focus should be instead of playing around with ‘innovative’ NRM economics. We are still allowing people to pollute as such, just ‘offsetting’ the effects. The idea is fraught with potential for cheating, the science is shaky and people are not interested in fixing the problem. We are all going to lose as a result of climate change and there is not enough political will to make the change.
* However, if a carbon credit scheme is attractive enough to encourage less conservative farmers out of farming, then it can only be a good thing overall. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

We find this subject quite bemusing. There is a huge loss of reality in many of the arguments. It is grossly & emotionally over played by media, large companies and government. – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

Is climate change affecting the way you farm?

Yes, we receive less annual rain and our rain is less reliable. The unreliability makes it harder to plan and maintain stocking rates. Dry periods provide an advantage to weeds, especially serrated tussock, which is gradually overtaking our entire region. – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

The way we farm is partly in response to climate change. Ultimately it is our belief that farms are going to have to be much bigger in order to absorb the effects of climate change. To manage conservatively as we are at the moment, we need more country. If this is the case and all farms need to get bigger, this will invariably flow on to the consumer but at the moment, government policy is hell bent on facilitating the fragmentation of farm land for the rural small holdings or lifestyle market – but that ’s another story. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

We have good seasons and droughts in cycles – just as the world has experienced since time began. Go back to many of our early civilisations and many since then – they’ve all had crippling years due to droughts too. Some civilisations ceased because of drought. Its nothing new – just hard to experience. – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

Can you see any way you could contribute to re-localisation and closing the circuit between land and people in your region? What would help you create a consumer-direct trade for your farm?

At the moment there is no demand for our beef and/or production method locally. We are sought after in a modest way in Sydney but otherwise people out here don’t seem concerned enough about where their food comes from to create a demand. I would be more than happy to supply to people who understand what we are about. The problem is of course, green miles. And the financial crisis. If there was expression of demand in another part of NSW then we’d try to supply. I’d also encourage people to come and visit if they want to get a feeling for what we do. I’m not suggesting we are ‘gurus’ by any means, we are passionate about the environment and agriculture and we can learn from others who are doing similar things elsewhere. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

We sell direct to our customers now. But several things would make it would be easier, and allow more people to do it. For example people need to try and get behind farmers markets. The produce is almost always better than in the shops, because its fresh and the farmer puts his name and reputation to it. Farmers market organisers should give clear priority to farmers rather than resellers (who often buy from Flemington Markets). Councils can help by encouraging farmers markets and providing suitable venues with plenty of parking. Farmers markets can be great community events, and encourage food stalls, cooking demonstrations and other attractions. Many our our customers are very interested in what is happening on the farm, and like to know more about what they eat and how it was raised. We’ll have a field day for our customers next Autumn, when our strawbale house is finished – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

We already do this through our company Mitchell Grass Meats – Ann and George, www.mitchellgrassmeats.com.au

Some last thoughts..

The fragmentation of farm land and removal of food production capacity is something we will pay for in the future – these will be high costs for the the benefit of a few enjoying a rural residential lifestyle now. – Nita and Rob, Gundooee

We are keen to see people becoming aware of where their food comes from. We want to give a healthy alternative to the meat available in mainstrean supermarkets and to encourage the use of the whole animal. – Anna and George, Mitchells Grass Meats

An extremely important aspect of grassfed meat is the health benefit. Grass fed meat is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats found in fish and olive oil. It’s also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (which helps prevent some types of cancer and diabetes), and vitamins A and E. The evidence for this is compelling and nutritionists are slowly catching on. – Sue and Greg, Greenhill Farm

And now we have sung them. Our true heroes of a new, ‘old’ world.

Please feel free to continue this conversation with our wonderful contributors in the comments below.