Beyond Beef Basics: Grass Fed, Grain Finished & More

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When I see grass-fed beef in local markets, I imagine cattle grazing in a pasture. Those animals were living the good life, I figure, so I feel better about eating them.

As with many things, I discovered, the reality often is very different.

All cattle graze at some point. “Even in conventional feedlots, the diet is usually 15% roughage of some sort (ground hay, silage, straw, etc.),” says Jim Gerrish. As owner of American GrazingLands Services in May, Idaho, he advises producers on environmentally sustainable grazing operations.

Obviously, buying beef isn’t as simple as I thought. These are some questions to ask yourself.


Is it grain fed?

Conventionally produced meat is fed grain, often in overcrowded feedlots, because it’s a cost-effective way to produce beef. Grain-fed cattle require less land than grass-fed animals, and they mature more quickly. The meat is well marbled with fat, which makes it tender, and many consumers like inexpensive, juicy meat.

I enjoy inexpensive, tender meat, too. But there are downsides to consider. The fatter animals become on grain, the more calories and saturated fat there are in the meat. Cattle also often get sick on a grain diet and must be treated with antibiotics. Widespread use of preventative antibiotics in livestock has contributed to antibiotic resistance in humans, and earlier this week the FDA called for limiting agricultural antibiotics to therapeutic use.

Is it grass fed?

Grass-fed beef is popular among conscientious omnivores since it’s the animals’ natural diet. It’s healthier for humans too. Grass fed beef is lower in calories and saturated fat than grain-fed meat yet higher in healthy fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids (same goes for dairy products made with milk from grass-fed cows). Since grass-fed beef is leaner, you’ll want to avoid overcooking it; rare to medium-rare is the way to go. Marinating helps tenderize it, too, as I did with this Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi.

The USDA’s voluntary Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standards specify that animals have a diet of forage, but that doesn’t guarantee they graze in a pasture. “It opens the door to animals raised in a feedlot, fed harvested forage, given antibiotics and growth hormones, and labeled ‘grass fed,’” says Patricia Whisnant, DVM, owner of Rain Crow Ranch in Doniphan, Missouri, and president of the American Grassfed Association (AGA).

In 2009, the AGA debuted the American Grassfed certification to guarantee animals are raised on forage, in pastures, with no antibiotics and under humane conditions. The program includes third-party audits by Animal Welfare Approved.

But grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is expensive to produce. It requires plenty of land to accommodate cattle’s grazing needs, and animals take longer to mature. That means it costs more on the plate. Beef tenderloin is about $14 per pound for the conventional, grain-fed stuff while grass-fed, pastured beef is at least twice that.

What role does organic play?

The USDA National Organic Program’s new Access-to-Pasture Rule sounds great because it specifies that all organic ruminant livestock must actively graze in a pasture during the grazing season in their location.

Does that mean organic beef is grass-fed, I wondered? Sort of. Turns out, the new rule is open to liberal interpretations. “Grain can equal up to 70% of the diet,” Whisnant notes.

“A farmer could keep the stock in the feedlot for two days and then turn them out [to pasture] for one day, and continue that sequence year-round,” Gerrish explains. “The product of this would have essentially the same body composition profile of an animal continuously [fed grain] in the feedlot.”

How is it finished?

This is a livestock term that refers to how animals are fattened 90 to 160 days before slaughter, whether on grass or grain.

Grass finishing was standard until the 1950s, when grain finishing became the cost-effective norm. However, calories and overall fat in the animals’ tissues rise during grain finishing whereas grass-finished beef is lean.

When it comes to buying beef, you have to decide which factors are most important to you, and what you’re willing to pay. If you want beef from cattle that has never nibbled grain, look for meat with the American Grassfed seal. If the health advantages of grass-fed are your main concern, a grass-finished product may satisfy.

My choice: Buy the pricier grass-fed beef but enjoy it in smaller portions and cook it with finesse.

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Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi

Bulgogi means “fire meat” in Korean and is the name of a beef dish in which paper-thin sliced meat is soaked in a flavorful combo of soy sauce, black pepper, ginger, rice wine, and pureed fruit. In this version, readily available pureed kiwifruit stands in for traditional Asian pear to help tenderize the lean grass-fed beef. To make the beef easier to slice super-thin, pop it in the freezer for 30 minutes. If you don’t feel like firing up the grill, you can stir-fry the beef. Serve in lettuce cups with short-grain brown rice. We also love it on warm tortillas with a dollop of Fiery-Sweet Peach Salsa.

Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi

Don't let the prep time fool you -- most of it is marinating time, and this beef bulgogi recipe involves very little hands-on work. Briefly freezing the meat makes it easier to slice it paper-thin.


  1. 1 pound top sirloin, trimmed
  2. 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce OR gluten-free soy sauce
  3. 2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
  4. 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  5. 1 tablespoon mirin (hon-mirin, which is gluten-free)
  6. 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  7. 1 teaspoon grated peeled ginger
  8. 1 garlic clove, grated
  9. 1 kiwifruit, peeled and pureed
  10. 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion, plus additional sliced onion for garnish


Freeze beef 30 minutes or until firm. but not frozen.

While beef is in freezer, whisk together soy sauce, oil, sugar, mirin, pepper, ginger, garlic, and kiwifruit in a medium bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup green onion.

Remove beef from freezer. With a very sharp knife, cut beef across the grain into 1/16th-inch slices. Add beef to soy sauce mixture and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Preheat grill. Remove beef from marinade and discard marinade. Place beef in a grill basket or thread it on skewers. Grill 1 minute on each side or until desired degree of doneness.

Serve bulgogi garnished with additional thinly sliced green onion.

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  • Kara

    These are
    great tips on buying grass fed beef. My favorite place to buy
    grass fed beef
    is from La Cense Beef. Their cattle are 100% grass
    fed.  I order from their website and have
    it delivered. You should check out their fall catalog. They have just about any
    cut of meat you may want.

  • Deb

    Great article, I want to add that I have notice with my family that eating grass fed beef, pastured pork and free range chicken has not really increased my grocery bill that much as we eat much less of the meat – it is denser, more satisfying and seems that a much smaller portion is enough, even with my three very large, very athletic, teenaged boys.

    • liahuber

      Deb … I’m glad you chimed in with that. It’s a GREAT point, and one that often gets overlooked. It’s not just a shift in the type of meat you’re buying, it’s a shift in the whole makeup of the plate, which ends up balancing out on your total grocery bill. Thanks!

  • kiss it all goodbye

    why eat rotting dead animals at all…..?
    meat, cheese and eggs are all toxic crap.
    get educated.

  • Aaron Symbolik

    I’m not sure if the fat content is the issue with finishing off cattle with grain. Not to mention saturated fat is not bad for you. What is bad however is that when finishing off cattle with grain 80% of the Conjugated Linoleic Acid and Omega 3s are lost. That is the benefit aside from the omitting of preventative meds to keep the animal from getting sick.