A Tale of Two Steaks: Grass-finished vs. Grain-finished

Grass-fed, grass-finished, grain-finished; what’s the difference? And why does it matter?

Well, truthfully, the difference between a grass-finished steak and grain-finished steak is about is about as wide and gaping as the Rio Grande Gorge. As with many aspects of our modern lives, a lot of it comes down to mere semantics and marketing and often lacks the depth of substance we’re hoping for.


To help clarify, here’s a breakdown of the process of what goes into a typical steak:

As anyone who’s driven by a cow field knows, cattle are grazers. They seem to have been born to spend 90% of every day gently sauntering about, head down, kissing the earth and grazing. Cattle have an incredible, complex digestive system (including their famous multi-chamber stomachs—anyone else remember learning about that in fifth grade science class?). As ruminants, they have an incredible ability to convert grass and forage into protein. I know there’s a lot out there these days about the vegan body builders and the like, but humans aren’t designed to convert plants into protein anywhere near as efficiently as cattle and other ruminants do.

In nearly all cases of the beef that’s available commercially today, the cattle spend most of their lives on pasture, grazing, typically with some supplementation during the winter months. But most all beef was “grass-fed” for the majority of its life. The quality of grass and water available is another story, but we’ll save that for another day.

Where things get interesting is when you get into what’s called “finishing.” Finishing is just what it sounds like: it’s the last several months of the animal’s life prior to harvest. Until about a century ago, all cattle were grass-finished. In fact, ranches from all over the country used to transport their herds to the Tallgrass Prairie to finish them because the grasses there are so abundant and nutritious that the cattle would quickly gain weight and yield the taste and texture desired by consumers all over the country. However, at some point, someone came up with an idea to speed up the whole process and now, 99% of finishing takes place out of the animals natural habitat, with no access to what they naturally eat (grass!).

If you’ve ever driven by a feedlot, you can almost sense the cruelty of the situation. First, the smell is unmistakable. If you know, you know. No need to say more. You’ll look over to see the animals, standing with their heads erect, in what basically amounts to a pile of mud and poo. They’re crowded and have no access to the thing they do most naturally and have almost no room for movement. This process usually lasts about 2-3 months, during which the animals are only given corn and grains to eat, both things wholly unnatural to them. Because their digestive system isn’t made to process this type of feed, it typically results in severe inflammation and disease throughout their bodies, which then requires massive amounts of antibiotics to treat. All the while the cattle, with their limited opportunity for movement, are experiencing massive muscle breakdown and deterioration.

And, after about three months of this lifestyle, they’re harvested. There’s a lot more to be said about this and the lack of integrity and respect for the animals involved in this method, but for now we’ll just let these two images speak for themselves and leave you with the question: which do you want to nourish your body and your family with?

Aside from the altruistic issue that feedlot finishing is undoubtedly a cruel and unnatural way for the animals to spend their last months on Earth, if it’s true that we are what we eat, which would you rather be made up of?