Grass vs. Grain: Cows Are What They Eat

Did you know that, according to Cornell University’s ecology professor David Pimentel, to feed just one feedlot steer during its diminutive lifespan (14 to 16 months) uses roughly 284 gallons of oil. Yes, that’s just for one cow. That oil is used to make the chemical herbicides and fertilizers required to grow the corn which is fed to the steer.

That should make corn expensive, right? Nope. Over the past decade the federal government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, ensuring there’s enough corn feed available to fuel our exhaustive cattle industry.

Putting glaring issues aside for a moment, one of the alarming problems here is that cows aren’t designed to metabolize corn. Throughout the history of time, cattle have roamed the lands free to do what they like, and what they really like to do is eat grass from the Earth. Unfortunately nowadays they have no choice but to eat grains from a bowl. Some poor things have even had to eat candy.

Grass vs. Grain: Cows Are What They Eat

Naturally, the diet of the cow has a major impact on its health, and subsequently the health of those that eat the cow. Just like with humans, we can also say “cows are what they eat.” In fact, even small changes in their diet, for example the type of grass, greatly affects the nutrition profile of the cow.

Animal science researchers from Clemson University conducted a two-year study feeding Angus steers enclosed in five-acre lots with either alfalfa, bermuda grass, chicory, cowpea or pearl millet. They reported that each diet had a significant effect on growth, taste and meat quality, altering nutritional components such as fatty acid profiles.

As you can see it’s well established the cattle’s diet affects the quality of meat, but what about the living standards of those animals? Including the latest scientific research, let’s have a brief look at grain-fed beef cattle versus grass-fed beef cattle from a health and welfare perspective.

Lifestyle and Welfare

Grain: Grain-fed cattle “live” in large feedlots, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). I won’t beat around the bush, CAFOs are horrible places that everyone, from vegans to almost-carnivores, can agree on. It’s here that cattle are forced to live practically on top of each other in their own manure, confined to tiny spaces with unlimited access to grain-based feeds such as corn in order to fatten them up as fast as possible.

Corn upsets the cow’s stomach, as the pH-neutral environment of their stomach is suited to cellulosic grasses. As a result, corn creates an unnatural acidity in their gut, which makes the cow sick and allows parasites and diseases, including the bacteria E. coli, to flourish. To survive these diseases and unsanitary living conditions, the cattle are fed antibiotics their entire lives.

Grass: Grass-fed cattle tend to be pasture-raised animals, living on grassland for the remainder of their lives. Unfortunately the term “grass-fed” is not clearly defined, so it’s not the case 100% of the time.

The different feeding practices tend to be diverse and complicated, but generally pastured cattle don’t receive the hormones and drugs that CAFO cows do. It’s worth noting that antibiotics are allowed for particular grass-fed certification programs, so it’s best to use Label Lookup to familiarize yourself with the claims you can trust.

Nutrition and Health

Grain: For over 60 years now it has become commonplace for animal feed or water supplies to contain antibiotics in order to prevent infections and disease that are brought on by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, such as in CAFOs. In fact, 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are used on animals, and of those animals receiving antibiotics, 83% aren’t even sick.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that this “overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animals” is actually now affecting human health as well as that of the animal. It’s now believed when we eat CAFO cattle, antibiotic resistant bacteria that remains in the cuts of meat is now ruining our own natural gut bacteria. When your gut bacteria is out of whack, it causes weight gain and associated diseases.

Grass: Grass-fed beef tends to have less total fat than grain-fed, which means grass-fed beef contains fewer calories when compared pound for pound.

The composition of fatty acids is also completely different; this is where grass-fed really comes out on top. Grass-fed beef has up to 5 times the amount of healthy omega-3 fats as grain-fed beef and twice the amount of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is that fat associated with reduced body fat. Further, grass-fed cattle contain significantly more vitamin A, vitamin E and micronutrients, such as potassium, iron and zinc.

Natural Foods That Eat Natural Foods

It’s clear we need to avoid grain-fed beef at all costs, because as long as there is continued demand for it, concentrated animal feeding operations will continue to flourish.

For those who eat meat, it’s important to stick with grass-fed beef. After all the importance we place on eating natural foods, it’s only logical we eat natural foods that eat natural foods.

If anyone has some extra insights, perhaps those who’ve worked on cattle farms or with organic meat production, please share with us in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Kate S.
Kate S3 years ago


Julianna D.
Juliana D4 years ago

LOVE grassfed beef, i'm able to visit my local farm and SEE the cows outside eating grass.

GGma Sheila D.
GGmaSAway D4 years ago

It could be a posibility that some, not all, of the obesity problems are in the meat we eat if grass-fed beef is more nutritious than grain-fed, especially when you consider those antibiotics. Too bad that message won't get out because of places like Monsanto that pay to keep that info out. After all, they're in the business of GMO corn...

Dimitris Dallis
Past Member 4 years ago

We are also what we eat. Some of us are pigs, some other cows. Some people are like broccoli and some other like cucumbers...

Brian M.
Past Member 4 years ago

There is nothing better than a locally source, anti-biotic free, organic, grass fed steak. The flavor is much more nuanced; the nutrient profile is superior. Such bliss!

Carol P.
Carol P4 years ago

The ways cows are raised and fattened these days is horrifying. I don't know if it is because of this that I've developed a huge aversion to beef. Haven't touched it in years though I do seek out other sources of red meat due to nutritional needs.

Dani C.
Dani C4 years ago


Alina Kanaski
Alina Kanaski4 years ago

Interesting--thanks for sharing!