Grass-finished Beef vs. CAFO Beef

We eat meat. It was with a heavy heart that I first started eating meat again after being a vegetarian. Yet, my health improved dramatically as my diet whole, veg*n foods was much impoverished without animal foods. Yet, with a better understanding of what animal foods meant for my health and a fuller understanding of just how the nutrient content of traditionally raised animal foods differed from the animal foods that resulted from industrial processes, I absolved myself of that lingering guilt to the overall benefit of my general health.

CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and it means just that. The animals are concentrated together within a very confined space and fed. They are fed, however, an unnatural diet and that concentration equates to confinement. The confinement coupled with the poor and inadequate diet results in poor and inadequately nutritive meat.

Cows begin their lives in the fields and they are, generally speaking, grass-fed from the beginning. And though that beginning is right, the end is not. They are eventually transferred from the fields where they can graze on their natural diet of grasses to a concentrated operation in which they’re fed a slurry of corn, soy, antibiotics and sometime even candy. Yes, you read that right: candy as in gummy bears and lemon drops. You see, the unnatural living conditions and unnatural diet make them so ill that it is more effective to simply treat every cow with antibiotics than on a case-by-case basis.

As the cows are fed on an unnatural slurry, their meat loses much of its nutritive value. Indeed, by the time the animal is slaughtered its meat is virtually devoid of those powerhouses of health: Omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, the meat of these animals is lacking in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is known to fight cancer. Then there’s vitamin E. Animals in concentrated operations are systematically supplemented with extra vitamin E, yet their meat contains significantly less of the vitamin than the meat of grass-finished animals who never receive such unnatural supplementation.

Beyond the nutritional differences, there’s the very real issue of pathogenic bacteria. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that we harbor know odd concerns over bacteria; rather, we encourage its proliferation in a variety of foods; however, like everyone else we’re concerned about pathogens. E. Coli is a real and dangerous threat, yet cows grazing on their natural diets are unlikely to be contaminated by the bacteria as compared to CAFO-animals. Indeed, one study indicated that animals in concentrated operations harbor 314 times the amount of E Coli bacteria cells per gram than animals that are grass-fed. Further data indicates that the acid-resistant forms of these bacteria are virtually non-existent in grass-fed animals.

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What people are saying

  1. says

    Well said. Great post!

    I was also a vegetarian/vegan for many years. I now eat meat – but only from grass fed pasture raised animals (and grass finished), and usually only from farmers that I ‘know’, see often, and many whose farms I have visited. :)

    Denise’s last post: Thursdays..

  2. whimsygirl says

    DH and I are having a slight disagreement – maybe you can help.

    We are one of the lucky ones who can finish our own beef. We do some trading for a couple of grass fed steers, and then feed them out with corn for 60-90 days before butchering.

    DH an DFIL say they don’t like the taste of grass finished beef, (I’ve never tried it) and that corn finishing makes better marbling etc.

    I haven’t been pushing the issue, but I’m wondering how much if any nutrition we are sacrificing.

    The steers are actually kept in a large grass finishing lot (in the sun and fresh air) but they are supplemented with the corn.

    Check out whimsygirl’s last post: Green Mile theme.

    • Jenny says

      That’s a really good question. I, personally, would push as hard as you can for grass finishing but not stress about it too much because it sounds like the steers are treated very well and still have access to some grass even during the finishing process. Significant amounts of grain can really change the fat profile of beef; however, I can’t find any conclusive studies that address the type of grain-finishing you’re discussing. There’s studies analyzing the difference between grass-finishing and grain-finishing through a CAFO operation which is decidedly different from grain-finishing in a grassy paddock. It is true that grain-finishing makes for better marbling and that’s because grain is fattening for cattle–it makes them put on fat just like sugary foods make us put on weight. You might want to check out this: for more information on grain- vs grass-finishing.

  3. says

    Very informative post. Last weekend, I was speaking with one of the local farmers at our farmer’s market about grass-finishing. Their cows are grass-fed and are not confined in the manner of a CAFO. But they do grain finish the cows using certified organic, non-GMO grains they grow themselves. She said if they relied on only grass, particularly during the summer months (we’re in NC – hot!), they’d end up with some pretty sickly cows. I know this is not ideal in terms of NT. Any thoughts?

    Check out Mary Ellen’s last post: Storm Clouds on the Horizon.

    • Jenny says

      Mary Ellen – I think there’s a world of difference between a CAFO and the habits of your rancher, and there’s a lot to be said for trusting your farmer to raise his or her cattle the way they ought to be raised. They should know the health of their herd better than anyone else. Still, I’d ask a lot of questions if I were you. Most importantly: how much is some? Cattle can do okay with the inclusion on very minimal amounts of grain and lots of grass, but it does change the fatty acid profile. Still, if this is your only option – it is worth pursuing.

  4. says

    Mary Ellen — I think the biggest nutritional difference comes from whether the grains are growing in the field as the cows eat them or whether they’re a dried input like corn or silage.

    For example, it’s always been a fairly common process in these parts to plant a few acres of oats or barley or rye and let the cows into that field once a week or so. That’s because in the summer our native grasses turn brown and dry. They’re devoid of most nutritional content.

    I believe this type of grain-finishing (particularly in hot climates) is okay. All of the studies about how much CLA and other nutrients you lose on a grain-finished diet are comparing cows in a field verses cows in a feedlot. None that I know of have addressed this issue of what to do with cows who are in a field but need a little extra something green and nourishing the last few months of their life.

    Jenny — Thanks for sharing this in today’s carnival. Very informative and stumble-worthy!

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

    Check out FoodRenegade’s last post: The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved By Sandor Ellix Katz.

  5. says

    I heard an interview with John Wood of U.S. Wellness Meats on Underground Wellness.

    I’m pretty sure it was in that interview that he said that the reason grass-finished is important is that even the short time the cow is “finished” with corn or other grain is enough time to change the bacteria and make the cow susceptible to pathogens.

    I love 100% grass-finished beef. I’m now so accustomed to the taste that I no longer like that “marbled” taste of corn-fed beef. It just tastes bland and boring to me. And too fatty or something. Grass-fed and grass-finished is so much more flavorful.

    Check out CHEESESLAVE’s last post: Organize Locavores and Support Small Farms with

  6. says

    My grandfather listened to the ‘experts’ who told him to sell his grass fed cattle to the feedlots for a fraction of what they were worth so they could fatten them on grain and make them unhealthy for people to eat. They convinced him that grass and hay was ok for cows used for breeding stock, but cattle raised for food must be fed corn. After giving up his healthy, nutrient dense beef without knowing it, he would take the little money they told him his cattle were worth and buy ‘food’ at the grocery store that did not nourish his body. Like many farmers, he did not feed his family with what he produced. He died of cancer.

    It took 34 years for me to begin grass based farming in an effort to provide healthy food for my family and to help address my health issues from a lifetime of industrial food. Watching my 2 year old ask for thirds and fourths of a grass fed steak that we raised and knowing it is not only nutrient dense, but safe for her to eat feels incredible. “How bout more take, Daddy? How bout more?”

    I know that the nutrition she and her mom were provided with has given her a great start in life, and I would not have been able to do that without being able to raise food for them in this way. She already tells me that real eggs come from a farm, not the “gocery tore.” I want to be able to continue to provide her with grass fed food throughout her life.

    Just when we seem to be making inroads, we realize we need to keep educating people, especially Congress. We can’t allow them make it harder for us to raise food for our families and our neighbors in this way. Our children’s health and future depends on it. Thanks for helping spread the word.

  7. Mike Murphy says


    I wanted to clarify, I did not write the democracy in Venezuala petition, or include it in my orginial comment post here. I have no idea how it was added to this website, and at who’s request. I have had similar things happen where I have posted the Veterans Against NAIS petition such as someone claiming to be me posting a later link to a petition against homework for students. Apparently, someone feels the need to distract from this issue by methods that have nothing to do with discussing the merits of their postition.

    Mike Murphy

  8. Jenny says

    Hi Mike -
    At the time of your original comment, this site used CommentLuv – (you can no longer see the opt-in button because we’ve disabled it due to compatibility issues) – a service that tracks the feed of the website you link to and posts the last item from that feed. The service is meant to provide cross-linking for bloggers who make up the vast majority of commenters on this site.

    Unfortunately, since the website you linked to was, CommentLuv pulled petition2congress’s last post which was about supporting Democracy in Venezuela.

    I’ve removed the link from your comment. Take Care!

  9. Mary McCall says

    I refuse to eat beef unless it’s been grass fed. The problem is, I live in San Diego, and I don’t know where to purchase grass fed beef or which restaurants serve grass fed beef. As a result, I have not consumed beef in months. Is there a website or any other resources that I can go to?

    Thanks for your help.

  10. Bill Clark says


    The best method for raising beef is the MIG way.

    Mig stands for Management Intensive Grazing.

    Cattle are kept on grass their whole life.

    Thank you, Bill

  11. says

    In response to feeding grain, I like to tell folks that this 100% grass-fed and finished is like pregnancy–either you are or you are not. What the research shows (Susan Duckett-Clemson University) is that as soon as you feed corn/grain in any form you change the omega 6: omega 3 ratio of the meat. This is like a finger print–she can precipitate the fat out of a piece of meat, measure this ratio and tell you whether that animal ate grain/corn. Of course the imbalance of this ratio (10 omega 6 to 1 omega 3) found in grain finished meat is the cause of the health related problems we have all heard of in red meat. The nearly 1:1 ratio found in grass-fed and finished is perfect for human health. These are EFA”s essential fatty-acids and critical to important things like brain function. It is critically important that the consumer understands this and insists on it in the market place. Everyone in the market place claims to be “grass-fed” now because the consumer wants it but almost all is pseudo, sort of, kind of , almost grass-fed and finished. Research shows a “bit of grain” ruins the ratios. Get educated visit for the data.

  12. says

    I have to keep going after reading a few more comments. There are so many good excuses to feed grain to cattle (they are still wrong), but there are cattle that get fat looking at grass and to feed grain would make them obese. These easy-fleshing cattle were listed as a “rare breed” as recently as 2002 because they do not work on the industrial feedlot. For grass they are a wonder. I imported a whole herd of these cattle from New Zealand last year: they are Devon cattle that I purchased from the Rotokawa stud or farm–visit for more info. These are cattle like the cattle that were around before the feedlot craze in the 1960′s. Many folks will have to “prop” up their cattle with grain if they are “industrial cattle”–you have to find/breed grass cattle to have success on a grass-only diet. Many folks are having great success–we buy from 20 producers to supply the cattle we harvest weekly and sell in NYC and Boston-visit The real key is the consumer getting educated and then insisting on what she/they want. This will provide the “pull on the rope” instead of the “push on the rope” many of us are trying.

  13. Susan says

    I already get the daily email from The Nourished Kitchen and enjoy it greatly. I would invite my siblings to a bbq of grass fed meat. Some of them just don’t believe there is a health, or taste difference, and the ones that do would be happy to enjoy it with us.

  14. Magda says

    I have been getting into eating solely locally-grown food an loving it! I am currently on a hunt to find the farmer who “has it all” in terms of meats – 100% grass-fed and finished beef and lamb and soy-free chickens raised without hormones, steroids or the use of chemicals. I believe I’ve found them in Lancaster and wanted to ask some questions regarding ordering wholes and halves of beef and lamb. I am a single college student and wanted to know how much typically come in either and what size of chest freezer is reasonable. What size and brand of freezer does your family use?

  15. says

    Howdy, You’ve got executed an unbelievable employment. I’ll unquestionably bing the item and also individually highly recommend to my girlfriends. I think they are benefited from this web site.

  16. says

    Jenny, Thanks for all the great info. Never heard of CAFO before…to add just one more fact to your blog:
    Grain-fed cattle farmers, on the other hand, have to use approximately 15 million pounds of antibiotics on grain-fed cattle just to prevent them from getting sick. That’s enough reason to pay the extra for grass-fed beef.

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