Feature image of a cow peeking into the camera in a luscious green field

Grass-Fed vs Grass-Finished: The Facts You Need To Know

With all the talk about grass-fed beef these days, you may be wondering what exactly is the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished beef. Both terms get thrown around a lot, especially in grocery stores and restaurants, but it’s not always clear what they actually mean.

When you see “grass-fed” or “grass-finished” on a label, are you really getting beef from cows that ate only grass their whole lives? Is one type that much better than the other?

And most importantly, is the extra cost worth it? With so much confusion around grass-fed vs grass-finished beef, it’s hard to know which is the right choice for you.

This guide will clear up all the confusion and outline the key differences between grass-fed and grass-finished beef. You’ll learn why grass-fed cows produce meat with more health benefits.

We’ll cover how most beef cattle actually live and what “grass-finished” really means. I’ll also explain why 100% grass-fed beef costs more and whether or not it’s worth paying extra.

By the end, you’ll understand the real difference between these terms and have the knowledge to make the right choice for your family. Let’s dive in and demystify grass-fed vs grass-finished beef once and for all!

Ever wondered about the health benefits of organ meats? Check-out my post here. What about tallow or lard?

What is “Grass” Anyway?

In my naïve head, I picture grass-fed cows eating grass chowing down on luscious blades. But during the research for this post, it quickly became clear this isn’t entirely correct – only partly.

According to the USDA, a grass-fed diet should only include forage consisting of grass, forbs (legumes & Brassica), browse, and/or pre-grain – vegetative state – cereal grain crops.

So they’ve quite a diverse range of options that I assume would be their natural diet.

What is Grass-Fed Beef?

Raw steaks on a chopping board

Again, according to the USDA, grass-fed beef means, except for early milk consumption, the cow should be grass-fed their entire lives without being fed grains or grain by-products at all with continuous access to pasture.

However, despite this definition, since 2016 it has not been enforced – resulting in much of the beef sold with a grass-fed label coming from cattle that are partially grass-fed and the remainder of their lives, grain-finished.

So in short, grass-fed means the animal has eaten grass a some point in its life, but not necessarily its whole life.

What is Grass-Finished Beef?

Now, due to the above bombshell, suppliers started stating their ruminant meat is grass-finished. You’ll notice many will say “grass-fed and grass-finished”.

These grass-fed cows are never fed grain or corn. Instead, they graze on pasture, consuming grass and other greens that are part of their natural diet as grazing animals. Grass-fed cattle get to live outside year-round, grazing on open pastures and rotational fields… Nice!

Other terms you may see are 100% grass-fed and 100% pasture-raised cattle.

What is Grain-Fed beef?

Grain-fed beef comes from cattle that have spent most or all of their lives in feedlots eating a grain-based diet, primarily corn.

The vast majority of conventionally raised beef cattle start eating significant amounts of grain after they are weaned from their mothers’ milk.

They are moved into crowded feedlots where they are fattened up on a rich high-calorie grain diet with the goal of getting them to quickly gain weight and get them to slaughter weight.

Grain-fed cattle spend most of their short lives in confinement, with little to no access to pasture or their natural grass diet.

Their feed is also supplemented with antibiotics and growth hormones to prevent disease and speed up weight gain in the feedlot environment… Not good!

Why Is Grain-Fed Bad?

cows eating grain in a feedlot

There are a few reasons why grass-fed advocates consider grain-fed beef to be inferior:

  • Less nutritious – Beef from grain-fed cows is lower in antioxidants and healthy fats like omega-3s since grains don’t provide the nutrients of green grasses.
  • Less humane – Feeding high-calorie grain instead of grass creates health issues for cattle not designed to eat it. And the crowded feedlots are stressful.
  • Less sustainable – Raising cattle on pasture avoids the resource demands of growing grain just to feed animals. The manure from grass-fed cattle also enriches soil.
  • Potential public health issues – The grain, antibiotics, and hormones used to fatten cattle quickly could have negative health impacts for people eating the meat.
  • Less natural – Cows evolved to live off greens on pasture. Grain-based diets fed in confinement go against their natural grazing behavior.

So while grain-feeding enables cheap beef, many see it as inferior in terms of nutrition, ethics, environment, and health compared to naturally grazing grass-fed cattle.

The Differences Between Grass-fed and Grain-fed Beef

There are some notable differences in the taste and texture of grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed:

  • Grass-fed beef is typically leaner with a lower fat content. This can make it slightly less tender and juicy. The leanness produces a more muscular, earthy flavor profile.
  • The omega-3s in grass-fed beef provide a richer taste. Some describe grass-fed flavor as more complex.
  • Since it contains more CLAs, grass-fed beef has a higher melting point fat that results in a firmer texture.
  • Grain-feeding leads to well-marbled beef with a soft, buttery texture and milder taste.
  • Grass-fed beef tends to be chewier due to having less intramuscular fat. Proper cooking and cuts like ribeye can improve tenderness.
  • The flavor and quality of grass-fed beef can vary more based on the quality of pasture and the genetics of the cattle.

So grass-fed beef offers a leaner, slightly chewier bite and deeper, more nuanced taste. Grain-fed provides well-marbled tenderness and delicate flavor. It comes down to preference, but cooking method can help bridge the textural differences.

Why Is Grass-Fed Grass-Finished Beef More Expensive?

There are a few key reasons why beef from grass-fed and grass-finished cattle costs more:

  • Slower growth – Grass-fed cows gain weight more slowly on a pasture diet than cattle fattened up on grain in feedlots. So it takes longer to get them to slaughter weight, meaning higher costs for the rancher.
  • Lower stocking rates – A grass-fed herd needs a lot more land area for grazing than cattle crowded into a feedlot. This increased land requirement drives costs up.
  • Labor – Moving and rotating grass-fed cattle between pastures to ensure a high-quality diet requires more hands-on labor.
  • Loss rates – Grass-fed cattle may have higher predation or weather-related death losses when living on open pasture.
  • No government subsidies – Grass-fed beef operations don’t benefit from grain subsidies like conventional feedlot farms do.

Due to these factors, true 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef is inherently more expensive to produce, making it cost more at retail as well. But many feel the added nutritional benefits and sustainable practices are worth the extra cost.

Beef production in the United States

The vast majority of beef cattle in the U.S. are conventionally raised on concentrated grain feed in feedlots. Grass-fed makes up only a tiny fraction – around 3-5% – of overall beef production.

Most cattle spend the beginning portion of their lives grazing on pasture with their mothers before being weaned and transferred to giant feedlot operations. They are fattened to slaughter weights of around 1,200 – 1,500 lbs over 4-5 months by feeding mineral-fortified grain diets designed for rapid weight gain.

While not all feedlots use growth hormones and some have stopped routine antibiotic use, this grain-based production model still dominates the U.S. meat industry to maximize efficiency and profits.

However, grass-fed beef production and regenerative farming has been growing steadily as consumer demand increases for more natural, sustainably raised meat.

What is Regenerative Farming?

Cows grazing in a field

Regenerative agriculture is a sustainable farming approach to food production that aims to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil health and biodiversity. Cattle grazing using planned rotational patterns is a key technique.

Thoughtfully managed grazing stimulates plant growth and draws atmospheric carbon into the soil, while enhancing water retention and preventing erosion.

So well-managed pasture-raised livestock can actually benefit the environment. When sourcing grass-fed beef, look for farmers using regenerative practices like:

  • Rotational grazing with adequate rest periods for pasture to recover
  • No pesticide or chemical fertilizer usage
  • Integration of compost and cover crops to nourish the soil
  • Promotion of soil microbe biodiversity
  • Limited tilling to avoid soil disruption
  • Usage of organic practices and natural supplements

Regenerative farming with cattle as a core component represents a holistic, nature-based approach to food production that restores ecosystems, sequesters carbon, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigates climate change impacts.

Supporting regeneratively-raised grass-fed beef is an impactful way to use your food dollars to drive positive environmental change.

Other Things to Consider When Sourcing Meat

When looking for the healthiest, most ethical meat options, grass-fed and grass-finished beef are great choices but there are a few other factors to keep in mind:

  • Organic – Organic grass-fed beef ensures no antibiotics, hormones, or chemical pesticides were used.
  • Animal welfare – Look for beef producers that use humane practices and give cattle good living conditions.
  • Slaughter practice – Find farms that practice humane slaughter practices. Some will have based or has their animal handling designed by Temple Grandin, such as White Oak Pastures.
  • Environment – Try to support grass-fed beef operations focused on regenerative grazing practices that benefit the land.
  • Price – Grass-fed beef commands a premium but cheaper options from small local farms may offer good value.

Being thoughtful about where your grass-fed and grass-finished beef comes from can help you find the healthiest, most ethical and eco-friendly option for your budget.

Where To Source Grass-finished Beef

There are a few great options for finding quality grass-finished beef:

  • Local farmers – Check out farmers’ markets and local meat CSAs to find a grass-finished beef producer in your area. Purchasing directly from the farm is best.
  • Butcher shops – Many specialty butcher shops work with local farms to offer grass-finished beef. They can connect you with the farmer.
  • Online Meat Suppliers – A few reputable online companies like:
  • ButcherBox who work directly with grass-finished cattle ranchers and offer home delivery
  • Thrive Market – This online grocery store works with regenerative farms and offers grass-finished beef options.
  • Crowd Cow – Functions as an online marketplace connecting consumers to small grass-finished cattle ranchers.

When sourcing grass-finished beef, try to go local first either directly to a local farmer or through a butcher supportive of regenerative agriculture. Online retailers can also provide convenient access to humanely raised, grass-finished beef if local options are limited.


Unfortunately, there’s no ‘black & white’ when it comes to knowing for sure where the beef we buy comes from.

In my mind it’s simple; you can only say it comes from cattle that have eaten grass 100% of their lives. But as so often is the case, it seems it can’t be that straightforward.

However, if it’s important to you that the ruminant animals you eat are 100% grass-fed, of high quality with no unnecessary antibiotics and other nasties, and not forgetting that the cows spend their lives happy eating grass and forage as they’re supposed to, then do your homework.

Ensure the cattle eat grass their entire life, get looked after, and end their lives humanly – preferably from somewhere that uses regenerative farming.

Try to find a local farmer or an online meat supplier. Or if you buy from your local grocery store, ensure they have their beef labeled with the AMA stamp or similar.

If you’re interested in finding out more about organ meats and its health boosting benefits, check out my post here. Or maybe you want to delve into the mysterious world of offal.

Have a nutritious day!

FAQ: Grass-Fed vs Grass-Finished

Which is better grass-fed or grass-finished?

100% grass-fed is usually considered better and more nutritious than grass-finished. Grass-fed cows consume only grass and forage their entire lives which leads to higher levels of antioxidants like vitamin E and beneficial fats like omega-3s in the meat.

Does 100% grass-fed mean grass-finished?

Yes, 100% grass-fed and grass-finished mean essentially the same thing – cattle that have lived entirely on grass and forage their whole lives without ever eating supplemental grain. The term grass-finished helps emphasize that the cattle continued eating just grass and were not transitioned to grain-feeding close to slaughter like conventionally raised beef.

Does grass fed grass-finished beef taste different?

Yes, grass-fed and grass-finished beef has a fuller, richer taste compared to more delicate grain-fed beef. The omega-3s give it a more complex flavor. Grass-fed also has a chewier, firmer texture due to being leaner with a higher conjugated linoleic acid content. Grain-fed is well-marbled resulting in a softer, more tender mouthfeel and milder taste.

Grass-fed offers a nuanced, earthy flavor profile while grain-fed tastes subtly sweet. The grass-fed flavor is preferred by many, but comes down to personal taste preferences. Proper cooking can help improve tenderness.

Does grass fed and finished mean organic?

No, grass-fed and grass-finished beef is not always certified organic. Organic means no antibiotics, hormones or chemical pesticides were used, in addition to a 100% organic grass diet. Grass-fed/finished just indicates the 100% forage diet.

So organic beef is grass-fed/finished, but regular grass-fed beef may not be organic, unless the producer uses organic practices. Check on the methods if you want organic. But grass-fed/finished alone doesn’t guarantee organic certification.

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