Glenn McElfresh is the CEO and co-founder of The Bos Creek, the first online subscription service for pasture-raised meats. He started The Bos Creek when he had a hard time sourcing tasty, grass-finished beef in Wisconsin. At that point he decided to quit the corporate life and help people eat healthier. He loves to cook, lift heavy weights, make new foods in the kitchen and currently lives in Denver, CO. Feel free to reach out to him at [email protected] He loves to talk! Connect with The Bos Creek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
At Bos Creek, we get asked a lot of questions about how our cows eat and live. We love getting these questions because we know each question we answer leads to at least one more informed person who will make our food system better! One of the most common questions we receive is what is the difference between grass-fed and -finished beef versus pasture-raised beef? This is a great question because these labels are getting more and more press on the blogs, in grocery stores, and at farmer’s markets. We’re going to explain the difference between these two labels and give you questions to ask your sources so you can make an informed decision about what you want to feed your family.
The simplest way to learn the differences between grass-fed and -finished and pasture-raised are to remember grass-fed and finished makes a distinction about WHAT the cow eats, and pasture-raised makes a distinction about WHERE the cow eats and lives. For example, some cattle spend their whole lives in a picturesque field with green grass, clear skies, and clean running water, but the rancher feeds them corn during the last three months before slaughter. This animal would be grass-fed, corn-finished, and pasture-raised.
If those same cows didn’t eat corn but instead ate grass during their last three months, they would be grass-fed and -finished, and pasture-raised. Here’s a picture of Bos Creek cattle that really illustrates the point.
Now that you have a couple of examples of grass-fed and pasture raised and their differences, let’s dive a little deeper into what these terms actually mean. There are exacting government requirements for a cow to be labelled grass-fed or grass-finished, but in plain english it means cows can ONLY eat the vegetative part of plants. If a cow eats anything else, it has to be called “grain-fed” or “grain-finished.” If you’re looking for more detail about the technical elements, click here.
Now you’re probably thinking, “What’s the difference between ‘fed’ and ‘finished’?” and that’s a great question. “Fed” refers to what the cattle eats before the last three months of his life, and “finished” refers to the last three months of a cows life. A lot of farmers like to fatten their cattle up with grains during those last three months, so it’s a good thing we have this label!
Now that we’ve cleared up a little bit about what the cattle eat, let’s move on to where the cattle eat, or the “pasture-raised” part of the label. As defined by the USDA, pasture raised, “means animals have had “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle.” And for red meat products, “never confined to a feedlot.” This is great because it lets you know the animal spent most of its life outdoors and wasn’t confined to a tiny area. The one drawback of the pasture-raised label is that it doesn’t differentiate the types or quality of grass the animal eats. This is usually reflected in the taste of the steak, and doesn’t affect the nutritional quality of the product. At the end of the day, a steak with a pasture-raised label will probably taste great and come from a humane ranch. A win-win!
Grass-fed and -finished, and pasture-raised are really helpful claims to help you understand what a cow eats and where a cow lives out its life. Let us know what you like to feed your family in the comments!