*Both “cow” photos taken by the talented Daniel Schwen.
It’s probably not something you think about much – other than when the yard is completely overgrown because you’ve put off mowing it two weekends in a row.
While most of us view it merely as a backdrop to more prevalent things in the landscape, grass is one of the ultimate units of energy responsible for us existing as we do today. It’s the foundation of many intricate food chains that have helped us evolve as a human race, and can even be credited with stimulating our growth as a society by fueling the pre-industrial sources of power harnessed through herbivores.
Grass fulfills its function by doing what most of us do on vacation – sun bathing (minus the bikini, of course.) In this sense, grass can better be described as tiny solar panels that transfer the sun’s energy into (eventually) high-value human energy.
Recently, however – grass has taken a backseat as an energy producer to one of the most overproduced crops of our time, corn. Despite the higher cost of production, which is passed on to the taxpayer, healthcare system, and the environment – corn reigns king when it comes to feeding animals because it can be systematized and produced on predictable industrial lines.
But is that a bad thing? And does it really have any effect on us as the consumer? Welcome, my friends. You’re about to find out.
Meat From Grain
Grain feeding became popular after World War II when technological advancements, specifically chemical fertilizers, allowed corn producers to drastically improve their yields. As you can imagine, this resulted in a massive surplus of corn, which drove down the price – so much so that corn can still be purchase today for less than it costs to produce it.
All the overflowing corn resulted in the USDA making it policy to encourage farmers to feed corn to their animals, and as a result, CAFOs (Confined Animal Feed Operations) became king.
Meat From Grain: The Facilities
Today, 99% of all animal products sold in the US, including beef, chicken, pork, dairy and eggs, originate in CAFOs with the goal of producing the highest possible output for the lowest possible cost.1
CAFOs can house up to 125,000 animals under one roof.2 Because of the massive size of these operations, most animals are confined and crowded with little room to move, and hang out in a mixture of mud or litter, and their own feces.
Some animals are pumped with hormones like testosterone and estrogen in order to help them grow faster, and many are given antibiotics because of the drab living conditions.
Chickens and pigs, for example, are typically tightly-packed in massive warehouses with no access to sunlight, windows or air cooling. Egg-laying hens, which produce most of the eggs and liquid egg product found on supermarkets shelves, spend their entire lives in wire battery cages stacked on top of each other. And dairy cows often live in individual pens, having “only enough room to stand up and lie down.”3
To increase profits, conventional dairy cows are milked in CAFOs for 10 months out of the year, providing milk even when impregnated by artificial insemination. Research suggests milk from pregnant cows can contain up to 33 times more estrogen than milk from non-pregnant cows – a problem that perpetuates conditions associated with hormonal dysregulation, including prostate and breast cancer.4
And while I hate to burst your Whole Foods bubble, aside from the certified organic feed and lack of antibiotic use, most animal products labeled “organic” come from operations that mirror conventional CAFOs. Organic beef is usually from cattle confined in “organic feedlots,” and organic eggs labeled as “free-range” often come from birds tightly-packed in warehouses with access to a small door opened for as little as five minutes a day.5(That most definitely justifies the $3 per dozen increase in price, don’t you think?)
Meat From Grain: The Food
Animals in CAFOs are typically given a corn and soy-based feed, with additives mixed in like liquified fat and protein, and other “by-product feedstuffs” that could include everything from stale gummy bears and chocolate bars to bakery waste still wrapped in plastic.6 This works extremely well for animals in confinement because it makes them grow much quicker – speeding up their lifespan and fattening them up in about a fifth of the time it would take on a pasture.7
What doesn’t work so well, however – is how this feed affects the animals consuming it. Cattle, for example, are not evolved to digest corn, and doing so creates all kinds of problems for them.
This is because cattle are ruminants, meaning they are equipped with a super-cool chamber called a rumen that is able to ferment and break down fibrous and hard-to-digest vegetation such as grass, shrubs and plants. Because corn is a starchy, low-fiber grain, it causes a number of physical problems throughout their digestive tracts that makes them very susceptible to sickness and disease, and eventually would kill them (if not killed first.)
As a result, they can become afflicted with a variety of health problems, including acidosis, diarrhea, ulcers, rumenitis, dust pneumonia, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and major liver disease – to name a few.8
While other animals like chickens and pigs are better adapted to consuming grain, taking them off the pasture removes them from being able to forage on items that provide them with varied nutrition needed to remain disease-free, including things like kale and fruit for pigs, and larvae and bugs for chickens. (GASP. Someone better tell Mr. Perdue that his chickens AREN’T vegetarians!)
What keeps a majority of animals eating this type of diet healthy enough while confined in close quarters is the antibiotics they’re given, which currently accounts for 80% of all the antibiotics used in the United States.9
Meat From Grass
In an agricultural system that favors quantity over quality, the belief that “all food is created equal” is imperative to its existence. A carrot grown in the sandy soils of Florida must be seen as equal to a carrot grown in richer soils of the Midwest – despite the nutritional content of the later being greater. This is why many industry leaders go out of their way to argue against the reality that food quality exists – or acknowledge that quality has a profound effect on the consumer.
One of the most prevalent examples of this can be found in the lush, grassy pastures that serve as an endless “salad bar” to the animals who live on it. Grass is rich in beta-carotene, vitamin E, folic acid, carotenoids and Omega-3 fatty acids – all of which end up as part of the composition of the animals consuming it.
Where’s the Beef?
Compared to cattle raised on grain, grass-fed beef is higher in antioxidants including in beta-carotene and vitamin E, B vitamins, and important minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.10
This superior nutrient-density is also found in the milk, cheese, and butter from dairy cows that are grazed entirely on grass, which is why each has a much richer flavor and deeper color. 
But the glories of grass don’t end there. Meat from cattle pastured on grass is not only leaner and contains less fat (and calories), it’s also a significant source of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which is known for its association with lowering body fat, increasing lean mass, and reducing inflammation.14
And while a reduction in fat content doesn’t equate to better health, the fact that grass-fed beef has a similar fat content to skinless chicken meat says quite a bit about how cattle were created to exist.
Perhaps the most impactful difference found in grass-fed beef is the fact that it has five times as much Omega-3 in comparison to grain-fed beef.15 Omega-3 fats are produced in the leaves of plants, which is why Omega-3 content takes a nose dive when animals are removed from grass. When animals are fed corn, Omega-6 fat, which is produced in the seeds of plants, increases dramatically.
This is the biggest hit against grain-fed meat, especially since the uprising of Omega-6 fats (in relation to Omega-3 fat intake) is now being associated with the development of chronic disease in our modern society.
It also gives some explanation as to why observational studies have associated “red” meat with cardiovascular disease – yet traditional cultures, both in the past and alive today, consume greater amounts of red meat and remain entirely free of the chronic and degenerative diseases that plague our progressive society. Looking back in history suggests it has less to do with the animal, and more to do with how the animal lived – and what it ate.
Do the Chicken Dance.
Chick-a-dees allowed to peck out in the pasture contain more concentrated amounts of vitamin D3, vitamin E, and can have an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio as low at 3:1, down from 15:1 found in “standard” conventional birds.19
But the real magic happens with their eggs. Since the 1970s, it’s been well-known that eggs from hens allowed to roam free out in the sun and forage on grass have significantly more folate and vitamin B12 than those produced industrially.20 More recent studies also show pastured eggs have less fat and cholesterol, and more beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin E, and three to six times as much vitamin D. In fact, eating just two eggs will supply you with 63-126% of your daily vitamin D needs.21
Pigs, Turkeys, and Lambs… Oh my!
While the research on the nutritional quality of pasture-raised pork, turkey and lamb is limited, we can assume that being exposed to significantly more sun, space, and nutrition provides a much higher quality of life for the animal, which as a result – passes greater nutritional benefit on to us.
An example of this can be found in the research that shows pastured pigs pass on 300% more vitamin E and 74% more selenium to their piglets through their milk than those raised in CAFOs. Stronger mothers create stronger, more healthy offspring based on their diet and lifestyle.24
You are What They Eat
Let’s summarize. Humans took animals, placed them in confined feeding operations, fed them corn, antibiotics and hormones, and as a result – we get meat with significantly less nutrition, more fat and calories, and an Omega-6 content that’s unnatural to our biology.
Instead of making the correlation that we are what they eat, we spend millions of dollars on scientific research to try to figure out why what we’re eating has resulted in an epidemic of chronic disease in the last 100 years, hoping to “observe” some correlation between certain diseases, and specific foods.
The answers may simply exist in the previous thousands of years in which cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s were virtually nonexistent – a time in which factory farmed animals, refined grains and vegetable oils coincidently didn’t exist either.
The Take Home
Aside from the whole, insanely inhumane treatment of animals outside of how nature intended thing, animals that spend their lives on pastures basking in the sunshine provide incredibly superior nutrition than those confined in CAFOs.
The best way to make sure the meat you’re consuming is 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised is to get your food from surrounding local farms. Eating local means supporting diversified farms that practice sustainable agriculture and rotate crops and animals in order to cultivate nutrient-rich soil (and the enormous resident population of organisms living in it.)
Not only does this type of farming build vibrant soil from the bottom up, it also increases the nutrient content of the things that are grown in it – including fruits, vegetables, and the grass that feeds the animals who graze on it.
For more information about how you can start eating locally, check out my Top 6 Ways to Start Eating Locally.
Sounds like a win-win-win to me.
For better visualization, you’ll find the benefits of grass-fed vs grain-fed are summarized below.
Do you choose to consume grass-fed meat? Why or why not? Let me know below!
Keepin’ it human,