As the beef quality options at the meat counter increase, so do Americans’ opinions. What is the best type of beef for you? Grass-fed?
With these questions have come more questions about the welfare of cattle. How they are treated, how they should be treated. Google it and you’ll discover endless articles, blog posts, videos and even documentaries on the topic. But these can often perpetuate myths about cattle and production. It’s better to go straight to the source.
We recently sat down with Dr. Ron Gill. Dr. Gill has worked in the cattle and beef production industry for over three decades. He helped start the Texas Beef Safety and Quality Assurance program in the early 2000s and today he trains extension agents as the associate department head for extension at Texas A&M University. He’s the perfect source if you’re curious about what’s really going on with beef.
“I’ve spent more of my career dispelling myths than I have creating new information,” says Dr. Gill, “which is sad both on the consumer side and producer side.” But it’s necessary work, especially in today’s culture where most information is consumed online, and not always from reputable sources.
“Being a science-based person,” Dr. Gill continues, “you like for the facts to be the first things you deal with.”
Grass Fed or Grain Fed?
Regarding grass-fed and grain fed beef, Dr. Gill says, “The facts are there is very little difference in the nutrient profile of grass-fed or grain-fed/finished beef. There are slight differences in omega-3 [fatty acids] and conjugated linoleic acid. That’s about it.”
And, he says, there are actually some drawbacks for the environment with grass-fed beef: “We produce more methane—‘greenhouse’— gases with grass-fed than we do grain-fed because the breakdown of cellulose creates methane gas. So the more grass they eat, the more cellulose they have in their diet. If we take grass out of their diet and put corn in instead, then they’re not emitting as much methane.”
Dr. Gill also points out the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished. Grain-fed beef indicates that the cattle were grazed grass or fed harvested forages for most of their lives but spent the last few months eating rations that contain higher levels of starch, which normally comes from grain. Grass-finished beef on the other hand comes from cattle that grazed pastures were fed only harvested forage their entire lives. The only difference in the diets of finished beef occurs in the last 150 to 250 days of production. That would represent the feedlot phase of grain finished beef.”
What do you prefer?
Really, Dr. Gill says, it just comes down to flavor preference. The flavor profiles of grass-fed/finished versus grain-fed are different. Some prefer grass-finished. The flavor is less bland to me but fat takes on the flavor of the diet and grass fed beef can be much more variable (and sometimes undesirable) in flavor than grain-fed beef. So when he is working with producers, that’s the first question he asks, “How do you want the beef to taste and does variation in flavor matter?”
When it comes to cattle welfare, Dr. Gill hopes to put consumers’ minds at ease. During the livestock vaccination process, for example, he says, “There’s no hollering, there’s no prodding, there’s nothing aggressive done to the cattle. They move themselves through the system. All the stress that’s on them, they put on themselves because they’re in that confined space.”
Dr. Gill has spent his career ensuring that cattle get the proper treatment that creates the best quality product. He was worked hard for changes to be made where necessary and he says that a lot has changed in the last 20 years, but the change has been slow, so the average consumer might miss it.
“When you look back, a lot of the things that were major issues in the 90s are no longer even identified as an issue,” says Dr. Gill. “So now, we’re onto more fine tuning of what we’re doing.”
See common vaccination issues and solutions. Click below to download the infographic: