Pasture raised vs grass fed, what’s the main difference between both? In this post we’ll outline everything you need to know about them + what to check out when purchasing.
Pasture-raised and grass-fed sound incredibly similar to each other. And they definitely seem much better than the factory raised ones. But what are they? What are the differences and which one should you get from the grocery store?
So before jumping into the main differences and the things you need to check let’s get to the basics.
What does grass-fed means?
Grass-fed products come from cattle that ate grass for their entire lives, or that at least got started on a grass and forage diet.
It’s important to note that there’s not a universal standard to define it and that there’s not a lorry of oversight by federal regulations so you need to trust the certification program the producer uses to label their products.
In short grass-fed cows ate a grass diet, like all cows are supposed to eat. This label mainly refers to the cow’s diet but doesn’t factor in any additional information like living conditions.
Less than 3% of all the United states beef sales are from grass fed beef.
What does pasture-raised mean?
Pasture raised on the other hand refers to where the cow was fed and how their living conditions are.
So pasture-raised means that the cattle was fed in open pastures but their diet might have included grain or supplements.
And what does grain-fed mean then?
Grain-fed cows on the other hand were raised their entire lives eating a grain diet. This was made by farmers and ranchers because the end product is more consistent.
What’s the difference between pasture raised vs grass fed vs grain fed?
The main difference between grain-fed beef and grass-fed beef are the animal feeding operations. The latter was fed a grass diet while the first one was fed a grain (mainly corn) diet.
And the main difference between those two and pasture raised are the living conditions of the cow. Conventional beef is usually housed indoors while pasture raised ones are able to free range.
However, just because a cow is not pasture raised at all times doesn’t mean that the animal welfare is not important for the farmer or that it wasn’t raised in an ethical way. For example, during the grazing season a cow might be able to roam free on pastures but in the winter months it might be kept indoors in a barn.
Also on this note, during the winter months a farmer might feed the cow a diet of corn since there’s not a lot of fresh grass available, others might choose to feed it hay (keeping it grass-fed).
Why is grass fed considered to be better than grain fed?
Grass-fed meat is universally considered to be better than grain fed beef. One of the most important reasons is because grass-fed farming has a lower environmental impact.
Producing corn, which is the base of a grain diet for cows, requires chemical fertilizers, is energy intensive and strips the land where it is produced out of their nutrients.
Another important thing is that a diet of grass is natural for cows as opposed to corn which is an unnatural diet.
The end result is also healthier. Grass-fed cattles produce beef with higher Omega 3, vitamin D, and linoleic acid (CLA).
Which one should you get?
It depends on what you are looking for. If the living conditions are important to you try to look for pasture raised labels.
On the other hand if you are more interested in the diet, look for a grass-fed label.
In both cases try to look for those that are also organic beef. Organic labels mean that the cattle was fed with organic feed.
Do those labels only refer to beef?
Not at all! Dairy cows can also be raised on grass resulting in grass-fed milk.
Other farm animals might be raised with a grass-fed system. Like lamb and goat.
Chickens and pork on the other hand can be pasture raised but not grass fed. The reason? Chickens and pork need grain as part of their natural diets.
If you are looking for humane alternatives for chicken look for those labeled as free-range chicken (same as pasture raised).
What to check when looking for grass fed or pasture raised products?
Ideally you’ll want to investigate a little bit more and try not to take the sticker at face value.
While the term grass-fed is defined by the USDA as grass-fed cattle that was raised on a 100% diet of grass there are a lot of loopholes.
On the other hand pasture raised doesn’t have any organization verifying them.
Here are some things you can do to make sure you are getting what you want:
- Shop directly from farmers or producers you trust
- Look for those that are part of the American Grassfed Association. Only 300 farms are certified by them and they have very strict guidelines farmers need to follow like the growth hormones they can use.
- Look for an organic certification as well. A diet of organic grass results in organic dairy and organic meats and both are better for the environment and your body.
The Tl;dr of pasture raised vs grass fed vs grain fed products
The real difference between them is what they eat and how they are fed.
Grain-fed animals are raised with a diet consisting of grain or grain byproducts.
Grass-fed animals on the other hand are raised on a grass diet.
Finally, pasture raised refers to their living conditions but not their diet. They spend at least part of their day in their natural environment enjoying fresh air, and not indoors on a confined feedlot.
Ideally you are looking for a more natural meat raised in a humane way as opposed to conventional meat raised with factory farming.
Dairy products, beef, as well as lamb and gats can all come with either a pasture raised or a grass fed label.