A few years ago, I taught beginner piano lessons. Even the youngest students could learn notes on the staff by remembering a few simple acronyms. “All Cows Eat Grass” is a sentence that not only helps music students identify the notes of A, C, E and G in a bass clef staff, but makes a good common sense in the grocery store as well.
All cattle really do eat grass – even those that also eat grain. This is an important similarity between USDA beef labels that describe different cattle production methods. U.S. beef is responsibly grown, whether the product label indicates grain finished, grass finished, grass fed, certified organic or naturally raised. All of these labels also represent cattle that consumed grass.
Another important similarity among beef labels is that they all provide essentially the same health benefits according to nutrition experts. No matter your preference, all beef is a high-quality source of protein and nutrients – you can’t go wrong!
Most Nebraska cattle spend the majority of their time grazing grass in the pasture – including those that are grain-finished. For example, on our farm in the southern part of the state, our mama cows graze with their baby calves until the calves are approximately six or seven months old. At that time, which is usually around October 1, the calves are weaned and the cows are moved to graze on harvested corn or sorghum stalks and rye cover crops until pastures green up in the following spring. The calves are moved to a lot where we carefully transition them to their new surroundings, and eventually, new ingredients in their diet. Our goal is to keep them healthy and growing steadily in an environment with minimal stress. Grain is gradually introduced to the calves, but they always have access to prairie grass hay. We’ll continue to feed the calves for about four months until they are marketed off our farm to a feedlot for a few more months for finishing.
At the feedlot, these calves will still be fed some type of grass or forage along with the grain. As these mature calves are able to handle more grain in their diet incrementally, they are not exclusively fed grain. Cattle always need a roughage source for proper gut function – so we might think of that “grain finished” label as “grass plus grain finished.”
It’s a concept somewhat similar to how we all learn to eat. First we drink milk – from breast or bottle – then we transition to pureed foods like cereals, vegetables, fruits and meats. Some foods, like cow’s milk, or those with more texture are better tolerated after the first year or so. Step by step, we learn to eat a wide variety of foods with great diversity of flavor, texture and nutrient content in moderation to be healthy.
And step by step, grain-finished animals consume many ingredients in addition to grain as part of a balanced diet while prioritizing animal health. In terms of sustainability, grain is actually a great addition in the finishing diet because the energy content allows muscle to grow over less time than cattle fed only grass. Ultimately, grain included in a balanced diet allows for marbling in the meat, which translates into steaks and roasts that are tender and incredibly tasty.
Despite the different choices in beef production labels, two similarities exist: all cattle eat grass and all beef provide about the same nutrients. I’m going to add a third similarity – beef is delicious, and allows us to spend time together around a great meal at the table with family and friends – that’s the best choice of all.