Since Corn is a Grass, Does Corn Fed Count as Grass Fed?

I first heard about grass fed beef while I was in high school. In the context of the discussion, someone was talking about grass fed as something different than corn fed beef. I wasn’t convinced.

From gardening experience, I had a little knowledge about corn, at least as far as growing sweet corn. I had no qualifications or knowledge about cattle. But that didn’t inhibit my rush to pass judgement. I had an adolescent’s firm confidence in the supremacy of a slam-bang-pow argument. I learned how to do linear proofs in geometry class. Why not do the same thing here? So I strung things out to their logical conclusion thusly:

  • Cows eat grass.
  • Corn is a grass.
  • Therefore, corn fed cows are grass fed cows. QED.

As stated, my logic was valid but my conclusion was false. I was unaware that I had proven a semantic point without understanding the pragmatic meaning of anything.

If you had asked me at the time if a tomato was a vegetable, I likely would have been quick to correct you that a tomato was technically a fruit. It took me a while to appreciate that facts and truth are related phenomena, but they are not interchangeable. In same way, corn is a grass, but corn fed is a world apart from grass fed.

Why Corn Fed Cows Are Not Grass Fed Cows

What I didn’t know back then was the practical difference between the words “grass” and “corn” as they applied to the practices of raising and feeding cattle.

So, yes, corn is a member of the grass family, as are other grains commonly encountered in farming: barley, millet, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. Among the grains, corn wins in the contest of yield per acre. And it grows better in a wider variety of places. Giving credit where it is due, corn is an amazing plant. In the the United States corn dominates as the standard cattle feed.

The important distinction is in the grain itself, the corn seed. Over millenia farmers bred a plant capable of depositing high levels of starchy carbohydrates inside the seed kernels. These kernels, with all those carbs to provide energy, allow cattle to grow quickly, far faster than they would grow when simply grazing a grass pasture.

Three Problems with Feeding Corn to Cattle

But feeding corn has three major downsides not found in grass feeding. The first is internal to the cow, the second is environmental, and the third is social. Each of these issues would probably warrant some individual exposition as full length articles, but for the purpose of this discussion I’ll summarize them as follows.

Corn Fed: Problems for Cattle

The first problem with feeding corn to cattle is that their digestive systems are poorly suited to the starches in grain. Cattle are ruminants, animals that have a multiple-stomach arrangement that allows them to ferment and slowly extra nutrition from large quantities of long-fiber plant forages (grasses and leaves). Feeding corn causes their rumen and its carefully balanced microbial community to shift toward an acidic state. Unlike a pig or a chicken, animals that have a strongly acidic stomachs, cow’s rumens cannot tolerate high levels of acidity. Corn feeding, especially in the concentrations used for beef cattle, creates acidosis. These cattle suffer from debilitating problems, somewhat comparable to stomach ulcers in humans. This leads to cascading immune responses, liver failure, and eventual death. Overuse of antibiotics and ionophores stems from this choice to feed cattle an inappropriate diet. Bottom line: grass and green leaves suit cattle, but high starch diets do not.

Corn Fed: Problems for Environment

The second problem related to corn feeding manifests at the environmental level. Cultivating any crop, whether we’re talking about corn or tomatoes or lettuce, is hard on soil. Tillage, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, all tend to harm soil health. Cropland creates negative externalities for insect and wildlife populations. This is counterintuitive to many people, because we have a long cultural history of viewing field work as a positive thing. But cropping, especially in the context of the chemical warfare model that prevails, is environmentally costly. So growing corn to feed to animals that shouldn’t be eating corn in the first place? This is absurd. All those acres could be growing grass for cattle, and that would improve the soil, reduce our runoff problems, restore habitats, and continue to create plenty of food for us.

Corn Fed: Problems for Society

The third problem is social. Corn feeding is what enables and fuels the incredible consolidation and concentration we see in our food system. Government subsidized corn creates an artificial incentive for agribusinesses to feed corn to cattle at prices below the true cost of production. This abundant corn goes to giant feedlots, capable of holding tens of thousands of cattle at a time. Just a few transnational companies process all this feedlot beef, resulting in the most concentrated, anticompetitive food system imaginable.

Flavor, Anyone?

Flavor is a consideration that may get short shrift when we talk about food. But I think we err when we overlook it.

Comparing corn fed beef to grass fed beef, it becomes immediately apparent that corn fed beef is bland. Yes, it may have the appropriate color and texture, and it may sizzle equally well. But after eating grass fed beef, I find the transition to corn fed beef jarring. Corn is one of the mildest grains. It contains very few flavor compounds that transfer into the beef. Grass fed beef by contrast actually reflects the seasonal abundance of the pastures the cattle have been grazing. Flavonoids from grasses deposit in the fat and create terroir specific to a unique place and time.

In discussing food, it seems our cultural preference in America is to rank quantity over quality. But I believe we can’t have truly good food unless it is both nutritious and tasty. Don’t forget flavor.

Grass Fed Simplicity

We advocate for grass fed beef because we know that cattle are ideally suited for their role as grazers of grasses and leafy greens. They fit this ecological niche perfectly. They can graze these plants year after year without the need for tillage, sprays, fertilizers, irrigation, or publicly subsidized grain. As they graze on our farm, they improve the plant diversity, the soil health, and the water cycle. They take an endlessly renewable natural resource (grass) and convert it into wonderfully nutritious proteins and fats.

When cattle are eating a natural diet, unsurprisingly they are healthier. On our farm we aren’t fighting against disease, propping cattle up with antibiotics. They thrive in our pastures because they have all the nutrition they require. When I consider the kinds of food I want to be eating, the vibrant health of a grass fed steer seems much more appealing to me than choosing a corn fed steer suffering from months of digestive system dysfunction.

Grass fed is a system that works on its own. It doesn’t allow much room for manipulation and its inherently distributed nature prevents extreme market concentration. That is why honestly-produced grass fed beef is so hard to find in the United States. The fertilizer companies, pesticide companies, farm equipment companies, pharma companies, and genetically-modified seed companies can’t make money off it. And the big meat packers can’t control it.

Grass fed and grass finished beef cattle, grazing as they always do at Wrong Direction Farm.
Cattle doing what they do every day at Wrong Direction Farm: grazing grass.

Grass, Not Corn

So while corn belongs in the grass family, when we talk about grass fed beef we never include feeding corn or any other grain to the cattle. Grain feeding takes things into troubling territory and misses out on all the benefits of straightforward grass feeding.

Choose grass, not corn. It’s just better every which way.

3 thoughts on “Since Corn is a Grass, Does Corn Fed Count as Grass Fed?”

  1. This is a fabulous breakdown of what I absolutely stumble over trying to explain! Curious, do other companies claiming “grass fed” on their labels feed corn, since it’s a grass? Sort of like greenwashing?

    1. There are many companies selling grain fed meat and dairy as grass fed. If you dig into what they are really doing, you’ll find that they are feeding grass plus grain, so they call this grass fed.

      In the US it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, as long as grass is involved. Europe is more regulated, but there they explicitly allow for grain feeding, so their definition seems quite weak. (For example, all those Irish butter and cheese products sold as grass fed allow for grain feeding.)

      I’m not really sure that better standards are ultimately effective, as the people who have the most influence over how the standards are created are also the people with the most motivation to make those standards fit within their existing industrial infrastructure. It seems to me that the only way we have to know what is actually happening with our food is either to grow it ourselves or to understand what is happening on the farms where it is grown.

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