A growing interest in “back to nature” living has led to increased popularity in pastured beef. Slight semantic differences exist for grass-fed and grass-finished beef. About 75 percent of beef is finished in feed lots just before slaughter as of January 2010.
The USDA defines grass-fed beef as cattle that has consumed only grass and vegetative forage during its lifetime. A growing segment of meat producers are labeling their beef products as “grass-fed” because the cows have been raised exclusively on vegetation.
The difference between grass-fed and grass-finished beef is in the timing. Ranchers who raise grass-finished cattle must carefully plan the slaughter season, “finishing” the animals in early summer, when they are at their fattest.
Quality of Grass Matters
The quality of the vegetation cows are consuming directly affects the quality of their meat. Cows allowed to graze into late summer are eating poor-quality feed, whereas cows slaughtered just after the rich new growth of late spring and early summer have spent the last months of their lifetime consuming high-quality grass.
Meat Fat Content
Grass-fed beef can be produced at any time of the year, according to the USDA definition. But if cattle are slaughtered during the dry, hot months of summer, when vegetation is poor, meat tends to have a lower fat content and be tougher. Beef that is properly grass-finished has a higher fat content and tends to be more tender and flavorful.
Whether grass-fed or grass-finished, beef raised in the pasture looks different than beef finished in feedlots. Cattle that are fattened on grain before slaughter will have pearl-white fat; grass-raised beef has yellow-colored fat.