Why Can’t All Beef Be Grass-Fed?

Grass-fed beef is all the rage right now. The market for it is growing and can be a nice niche for some people who live in certain areas of the United States to make more money. However, there is a misconception out there that it is time for grass-fed beef to replace all the grain-fed beef beef, for a number of reasons. Some are based on incorrect claims about environmental impact, which I and others have addressed previously (see this column and this post for information on that topic). Others are simple and forthright, like a taste preference for grass-fed over grain-fed beef.

I wouldn’t like to address those issues here. Rather, I’d like to point out how this kind of a switch is simply impossible and fails to take into account cattle biology and husbandry.

Syringe with needle

I’d hate to “inject” that debate into this post.

First, it is necessary to point out essentially all cattle start their lives out on pasture. They nurse their mothers who live in grass pastures, and are weaned around six months of age. When talking about grain versus grass fed beef, we are only speaking about what happens the last few months before slaughter. Because this is our current system, that means there is not any spare pasture to raise grass-fed beef on. This means land that is currently in row crop production needs to be changed to pasture.

Herein lies the first challenge–how land is owned. While driving down a rural highway doesn’t show it, land in the U.S. is fragmented into a plethora of small farms. And a farmer’s land is not always connected–there may be land owned by another farmer between. This means that the cattle would have to be managed in many small groups, which is quite difficult to do.

Wisconsin Plat Map

This is a plat map, a map that shows who owns what land. This is only a six mile by six mile area, which shows how many owners there are in this small of an area.

The next challenge comes from the profit potential of row crops versus grazing cattle. A recent North Dakota State study found that row crops are three times more profitable per acre than grazing cattle–and that’s for ranching, not raising the cattle to slaughter weight. Though there is some farmland with marginal yields that may be more profitable as pasture, the majority will create more profit as a row crop.

This fact leads back to the first issue–a farmer only has so much land. If you have 640 acres of farmland eastern South Dakota, you might be able to make enough money farming row crops to support your family (assuming your spouse works off the farm too). If you were to only raise cattle, except in rare cases that 640 acres wouldn’t support your family. And per this previous blog post, no we cannot simply “raise more cattle” to make up the difference.

The cows grazing in the southeast pasture

If numbers like 640 acres seem huge to you, like a so-called “factory farm”, read my blog post from last year that tells why those numbers are barely enough to support one family.

The third challenge to a nation-wide switch to grass-finished beef comes from the biology of the cows themselves. Contrary to the common mis-information, a cow should not live on grass alone. While lush summertime grass is great, the dormant grass we have in the winter in the Dakotas does not contain enough nutrients (both protein and carbohydrates are lacking) to properly maintain a pregnant cow. There is certainly not enough nutrition for a growing calf to reach slaughter weight.

Just like human mothers and children need neonatal vitamins and supplemental food, bovine mothers and calves require the same thing. These have to come from a grain or oilseed based source, often corn and byproducts of corn, soybean or cotton processing byproducts.

There are a handful of grass-fed beef producers that can make a full-time living off of their ranching, even in the frozen north of the Dakotas. But every farm’s situation is different, and for the majority of people raising only grass-finished beef would put them in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to make a living from agriculture.

Quite frankly, some of the loudest groups demanding a country-wide switch to grass-fed beef don’t even eat beef themselves–they are vegans or animal rights activists. They know that this switch is impossible, their real goal is to simply take away hamburger and steak from you and I. Don’t confuse them with the people who actually raise grass-fed beef, who are a nice group of folks that want to provide another option for people at the meat counter.

But that is the main point–it is an option. Retaining the most efficient method of beef production that also creates the flavor profile that is the most popular type should also stay on the table. Purchase whichever type floats your boat. As a native Nebraskan, mine will be corn-fed.