Home > Beef, Diet, Nutrition, Science, Videos > It’s More Than Corn: Grass v Grain, Some Simple Facts

It’s More Than Corn: Grass v Grain, Some Simple Facts

I have now written seven posts pertaining to feeds and the feeding of cattle, with the hope to explain with clarity two things: corn is not the only feed fed to cattle and grass finishing cattle is less efficient than grain finishing.

Do not take this the wrong way, please. I have nothing against grass finished cattle. In fact, I fully support the marketing of the product as a wonderful opportunity to offer consumers more choices. In fact, I raise some grass-fed to meet that specific market.

What I do take exception to is when some individuals make claims that are untrue and misleading.

Claim: Grass finished cattle take the same amount of time to reach their end point.

Grass is wonderful for growing cattle, but due to the low digestible energy (DE), when compared to grain, is not an efficient means to finish cattle. Grain finished cattle reach an endpoint around 13 – 15 months of age, while grass finished cattle reach an endpoint around 19 – 23 months. An animals breed, genetics and frame size also play a role in determining how quickly an animal will reach their endpoint. However, the biggest factor is the animals diet; high energy yields quicker gains and lower energy yields slower gains.

S Curve for Grain & Grass

Grass vs Grain Sigmoid Growth Curve

The graph above shows the relationship of a grain fed animal (red) and a grass-fed animal (green). The Y-axis represents weight and the X-axis represents time. Cattle finished on grain reach their maximum size and finish sooner than grass-fed cattle.

What exactly is meant by “endpoint?”

It is also important to understand how animals deposit fat once they reach the top of the growth curve, signifying the end of skeletal and muscular growth and fat begins to deposit. Cattle begin to deposit fat beginning in the chest floor and ending at the top of the hip; from front to rear, bottom to top. Ranchers and cattlemen often refer to seeing a “doughnut” around the tail head, which is an indicator that an animal is fat and ready to process.

Fat Deposition Over Time

How Fat is Deposited

The endpoint for cattle is that point in their growth curves when they have enough fat to cover the carcass, to prevent drying, and enough intramuscular fat (marbling), to allow for a tender product. Remember, cattle only put on fat when their energy intake exceeds their bodies requirement for general maintenance and growth.

Abundance of Intramuscular Fat (Marbling)

Stages of Marbling

The graphic above shows the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, within the rib eye. The top left is a steak that would grade a US Prime (very fat). Reading from left to right, top to bottom, the bottom right steak is one that would grade a US Standard (to lean). It is important to understand that an animal deposits subcutaneous fat (under the skin) prior to depositing intramuscular fat (marbling). The endpoint is reached when steer appears, from outside appearance, to have enough fat to at least be in the modest category for marbling. Marbling is important because that is the leading factor for tenderness and juicieness. Having said that, it is possible to have a prime grading steak that is tough and a select grading steak that is tender, due in part to genetics, but marbling is still used as the determining factor. 

Claim: Grass fed cattle are better for the environment.

All cattle, raised under modern practices are good for the environment. All cattle are pasture grown. The finishing phase is where there is difference. Grain finished cattle, around 10 – 12 months, are moved to feedlots for 90 – 120 days (3 – 4 months) of higher energy intake, in the form of rations with a higher ration of grain to roughage. Grass finished cattle remain on pasture and/or are fed hay until they are finished, another 9 – 13 months.

This does not mean that one practice is better than the other, only different, in my opinion. Grain finishing is simply a more efficient means to getting cattle to their endpoint; fewer pounds are consumed in relation to pounds gained, thus, fewer days are required to finish.

Individual ranchers must assess what their own situation allows for on a regional basis. Grass finishing cattle will often reduce the number of cows an individual is able to carry on the land. Grain finishing allows an individual to move calves off the ranch to another location and favors being able to run more cows. Some regions, where winters are hard, will require significant stockpiling of hay to maintain animals through the winter, while warmer regions lend themselves to yielding grass year round, albeit lower in nutrient value during certain times of the year.

In conclusion, both grain and grass-fed cattle are viable options, depending on the circumstances. It is important to continue to be able to utilize both methods in order to offer consumers choices. Variety is a good thing. It is also important to be aware of the nutrient requirements of animals based on their phase of growth and use, to ensure that their dietary requirements are met.

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  1. June 7, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    This was a very interesting post and I learned a lot.

    I’m curious about this statement:

    “All cattle, raised under modern practices are good for the environment.”

    What do you mean by good for the environment?

    According to the United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” there are significant impacts from meat production particularly cattle:

    http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm

  2. June 8, 2011 at 4:16 AM

    Also, out of curiosity, why do you track sigmoid growth as opposed to overall weight or size?

    • commonsenseagriculture
      June 8, 2011 at 8:46 AM

      Ben,

      First, thank you very much for the questions and comments…they are great ones. I’ll start with this one and get to your others hopefully this afternoon and this evening.

      Weight is the primary value tracked. Weights are taken and recorded at birth, weaning, when the animal reaches a year of age and at processing. Each of these weights are used to develop “Expected Progeny Differences” for selection and culling. A full list of EPD’s are available on this post http://commonsenseagriculture.com/2009/06/02/agricultural-acronyms/.

      Some people also record the height of cattle at a year of age. The height is measured at the hip and indicates what we refer to as a “Frame Score” which is also a helpful tool when making selection choices.

      As far as the use of the sigmoid curve, it is simply a reference to indicate how cattle grow and the points of growth where the nutritional requirements of the animal change. It indicates the changes in growth pattern based on feed intake, nutrition and environment.

      Thanks again.

  3. Ratfink Bassturd
    December 9, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    some people believe that grass fed cows yield better tasting milk as opposed to any other types of feed… though this is clearly an opinion, is there any information about the quality of milk that grass fed cows yield as opposed to grain fed cows? do you have any information on fruit feed also? your information is very useful and might even be relevant to sheep and goats…

    • commonsenseagriculture
      December 20, 2011 at 7:11 AM

      I’m familiar with the differences in flavor of meat and milk based on feed consumed, but not aware of any studies on the subject. Back when we were still milking cows, I preferred the milk when we were feeding meadow hay with a grain ration of corn and barley. Straight grass with no grain supplement resulted in milk light in butter fat. With meat, I like both grass fed and grain fed. You are absolutely correct, it all depends on the palate of the person consuming.

  4. Tyler
    January 16, 2012 at 9:00 PM

    I think that the primary argument for improved environmental consequences of grass-finished cattle compared to grain-finished, is the reduction of acreage growing annual crops (corn, barley, other feedstuffs, etc) that can be put into perennial pasture instead. There is a whole host of benefits of pasture/grasslands, from reduced soil erosion, nutrient loading of watersheds, reduced reliance on non-renewable sources of energy (i.e. petroleum…i’m not saying it’s bad, but as of right now it’s non-renewable on a human time frame and thus sets our food production system up for udder (pun-intended) failure), improved wildlife habitat, to greater energy and material flow at the landscape level to carbon sequestration (which was the process that gave us the wonderful resource of oil in the first place). It’s not that grain is fundamentally a bad thing…but with our current production system it’s a problem to which we have yet to come up with decent solutions. But with alternative cropping practices like Pasture Cropping or Advance Sowing techniques that produce abundant grain in no-killed and no-tilled perennial pastures (largely in Australia right now but I see no reason why we clever farmers in North America and elsewhere in temperate regions of the Earth can’t figure out how to make it work) OR the phenomenal work being done in Burleigh County North Dakota with no-till, cover-crop cocktail, integrated grazing systems, we could overcome many of the problems with annual, tillage-based cropping systems. And at that point, you’re back to consumer demand and whatever makes sense on a purely production standpoint. I’m starting grass-finished beef this spring because it makes sense in today’s ag context and consumers are interested in the purported health benefits and quality of life of the animal that’s been on pasture alone (and because I think the animal is healthier on high quality forage). Yet, I have read several studies that show that especially when pastures are too lush in the spring and lignified under heat-stress of late summer, a little bit of grain can really help the animal convert/use that lower quality forage. At the same time there are ways to fill in those production gaps and balance out the ration better without feeding grain (annual crops, high-quality hay supplement). So again it comes down to management decisions and consumer preference.

  1. January 25, 2012 at 6:06 PM
  2. April 21, 2012 at 3:41 AM

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