Is grass greener?

Environmentalists, vegos, animal-rights activists – the list of people who have a beef with meat continues to grow. But for a lot of us, a barbecued steak goes hand in hand with summer. So what’s a carnivore with a conscience to do? First of all, know what your meat was eating. “Grain-fed” seems to be a selling point on menus, but do you really know what it means? Research actually shows that beef from grass-fed cattle is leaner, more nutritious and less costly to the planet.

According to Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), 75 per cent of cattle in this country are grass fed, roaming paddocks to graze at will. The rest are grass-fed to 17 to 21 months of age, then moved to feedlots and fed twice-daily on grain (wheat, barley and/or sorghum), hay or silage for the final 50 to 100 days of their lives, or up to 400 days for highly marbled beef (such as Wagyu). Australia’s National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme stipulates there be at least nine square metres per cow in a feedlot, where they’re also fed antibiotics – “for therapeutic purposes and disease prevention”, according to MLA.

So why disturb their grazing? Well, grain-fed cows gain up to 2kg per day, while the max daily gain for grass-fed steer is 1.25kg. Plus, according to MLA, a uniform grain ensures the quality of the meat, while grass quality is subject to our unpredictable weather.

We’re no Doctor Dolittles but, says Dr Cynthia Daley, a professor of animal science at California State University in the US, “In my opinion, if you gave [cows] a choice, they’d choose grass over grain every time”. Animal rights organisations support this opinion: “In feedlots, cattle are confined in small spaces, unable to roam,” says Katrina Sharman, corporate counsel for Voiceless, Australia’s Animal Protection Institute. “They may struggle for personal space, which can lead to stress, bullying and aggression, particularly around food and water troughs; they experience stress when established hierarchies are disrupted – cows partner with specific individuals for grazing and social grooming and individuals from one herd rarely mix with others; and they can be subject to stress-related diseases including bovine respiratory disease, a major cause of death in feedlots.”

O-mega stars

What seems to make herds happy also makes their meat healthier. “Since Australian red meat is predominantly grass-fed, it contains lower levels of total, saturated and trans fats, and higher levels of omega-3s than grain-finished red meat,” says WH nutrition expert Sharon Natoli, director of Food & Nutrition Australia. It also contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which research has shown may help with weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, according to Dr Kate Clancy, a senior fellow at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

The Journal of Dairy Science has also reported lower levels of E. coli in grass-fed cattle. Dr David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, US, says grain creates a hospitable environment in a steer’s stomachs (they have four of ’em), adding to the likelihood that the meat will be contaminated with E. coli during processing.

The eco effect

Yes, beef production leaves a bunyip-sized footprint on our environment, but Holistic Management International (HMI), a non-profit organisation promoting resource management, argues that properly managed pasture feeding can be part of a climate change solution. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) agrees: “You can reduce environmental pressures by choosing pasture or grass-fed beef instead of grain-fed,” says Rebecca Petit, ACF’s GreenHome Victoria coordinator. Grain production to feed cattle requires fuel for harvesting machines, plus fertiliser. “With grass-fed, very little fertiliser is used,” says Dr Ed Charmley, officer in charge of the CSIRO’s JM Rendel Laboratory, who stresses that assessing the ecological effects of production is complex. “Dung does return nutrients to the soil, there is a benefit there.”

Then there’s the water used to grow grain – according to ACF, a 150g steak takes around 200L of water to produce, mainly to grow grain and wash abattoirs (it takes an average of 1000L of water to grow 1kg of wheat, according to Agrifood Awareness Australia).
Of course, grass-fed cattle are often also blamed for farting out more methane than grain-finished cows (according to the CSIRO, about three times more). Why? “Generally, grass-fed cattle grow more slowly, so are a bit older when they’re slaughtered, so they’ve produced more methane,” explains Dr Charmley.

But Dr Pimentel concludes that, overall, it takes half the fossil-fuel energy to produce a kilo of grass-fed meat than it does the same amount of grain-fed meat. (His research covers the US, where most cattle are grain-fed mainly on corn which, according to renewable energy service provider DynGlobal, is less water-intensive than wheat and barley.)

Claim your steak

The simplest way of telling the difference when buying beef is the colour of the fat: grain-fed fat is usually white, while grass-fed fat comes in various shades of creamy yellow – from the healthy betacarotene in grass. And the more marbled the fat is through the meat, the more likely it was fed grain.

Taste Tactic

What your meat put in its mouth affects its taste: “Grass-fed beef has an earthier, beefier, perhaps even cleaner taste; grain-fed beef tends to be more marbled, which gives it a sweeter and oilier taste and texture,” says Anthony Puharich, co-founder of wholesaler Vic’s Meat and owner of Victor Churchill, a meat retailer in Sydney. “A tip for getting the best out of your grass-fed beef – since it tends to be leaner – is to cook it a little less than you would grain-fed,” he says. “And, personally, I prefer to simply season grass-fed beef with salt as I really enjoy its natural, earthy, beefy taste.”