Grass-fed vs grain-fed beef from a butcher’s point of view

Published 16th June 2021
Why Free Range Feeding

Seth & Scott Perkins from Bearded Butchers in Ohio posted a video on their YouTube channel to explain the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef meat.

If you are a true meat-lover or a farmer who wants to get a processing experts’ opinions, you should definitely watch this 45-minute video! No time today? Don’t worry, you can read our short summary article below in just three minutes! 

Carcass size for grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef

Even though the breed of cattle used for the video is different, there is a big size difference between the grain-fed carcass (407lbs) and the grass-fed carcass (266lbs). There is already a difference in the color of the meat. The grass-fed one has a little bit more yellow fat (and obviously a leaner carcass).

Dry-aging process in grass-fed and grain-fed beef

The dry-aging process is no longer an industry standard according to Seth and Scott, primarily because so much moisture evaporates naturally from the carcass during the process, and weight loss can mean value loss at market. Even so, the two brothers have decided to carry on with this process for three reasons:

  1. Enzymes break down the muscle fiber during dry-aging, making beef that is more tender.
  2. Less moisture creates more flavor. 
  3. It’s safer. At this temperature for this amount of time, pathogens (bacteria like e-coli or salmonella) cannot survive. The Bearded Butchers say they’ve never received a positive pathogen test in their dry-aged meat.

In this video, both grass-fed and grain-fed carcasses have been hung for 19 days and they have both lost 17lb (about 7.5 kg) each. The grass-fed carcass dropped a higher percentage of weight (since it started off more than 30% lighter than the grain-fed carcass) “because it has less fat cover,” Scott explained “and that fat will hold more of the moisture in”. Typically, bison meat can’t be hung for long because it would dry out too quickly due to its very lean carcass. Of course, the butchers have bought the carcasses directly from local farms!

Demand for Grass-fed beef is growing because of concerns related to the environment

As the two brothers say early on in the video, “the customer is the boss” and demand for grass-fed beef is increasing at the moment. 10 years ago, the demand was almost exclusively for grain-fed beef. They are quick to point out however that they do continue to offer prime quality grain-fed beef at the moment.

Even if the animals are raised ethically in both farms and there is no difference for their welfare, grass-fed beef is still considered a healthier option. Though this is by no means guaranteed, the grass-fed beef is generally considered to have been raised free from chemicals. And there is also a belief that ruminating animals like cows are only supposed to eat grass. According to the brothers, there is also a little bit better balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats with grass-fed beef.

The environment is also a big concern for the customer, with grass-fed beef, “you don’t have manure on the feedlot, it’s just going right back into the grass” Seth explained. The farm where the brothers buy their meat from, Green Vista Farm, has also a strict soil and waterways conservation program. This also explains why grass-fed beef is more expensive for the consumer at the grocery store: grass and pasture management can be quite expensive compared to buying grain. 

Grass-fed and grain-fed beef cuts

The Bearded Butchers decided to compare four primal cuts in the video: tenderloin, strip loin, rib eye section and sirloin from both grass-fed and grain-fed carcasses.

The carcasses are cut a little differently depending on the customers. “The grass-fed customer typically asks for a healthier version or a perceived healthier version,” said Seth. So this kind of customer is looking for smaller pieces and the tomahawks are not cut as much out of the grass-fed. For the grain-fed beef, the cuts are a little bit bigger, “it’s a little bit more for that person who really likes to put it on the grill, see that flare up and just get that nice beefy mellow texture,” Seth concluded.

As the grass-fed carcass was smaller, the cuts were also smaller. It also produced fewer pieces of steak per side.

A butcher tip from Scott: “If you go to the local processor while you’ve been processing grain-fed beef your whole life and you always get 12 strip steaks back every time, then you deliver the local processor with grass-fed beef and all of a sudden you get only eight steaks, don’t call him to complain because a lot of it has to do with the animal that you delivered to him.”

The color is also very different when the meat is cut, a deep red for the grass-fed meat with a yellow-ish lean fat and a cherry red for the grain-fed meat with more marbling and more back fat. 

Is grass-fed tastier better than grain-fed beef?

The type of grass used can have a great influence on the taste of the meat. “Things like fescue can off-flavor the beef and you’ll get a beef that is not palatable,” explained Seth. “Grass-fed beef takes longer to finish than grain-fed beef, and it’s actually cheaper and more efficient to finish an animal out on grain,” Seth continued but there is a noticeable difference in the taste.

Scott and Seth tasted the beef they have just processed. Scott reckons that the grass-fed meat gets “a richer beefy flavor, a deeper beef flavor,” and Seth adds that there is “almost a little bit of a grassy taste.”

All-in-all, demand for grass-fed beef continues to grow despite premium prices on grocery shelves, and the trend is supported by both farmers and meat processors, because more customers are wanting to consume in ways that help, not hurt – at least in their judgement – a more sustainable world.

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