What Does Grass Finished Beef Really Mean?

The term “grass-fed” has been used often enough that most people come to us with at least a general idea that this is the kind of beef they’ve been looking for. But there’s another term we like to use: “grass finished.” I occasionally hear from folks, asking whether our beef is grass finished, so let’s dig into what this is all about.

When Grass Fed Isn’t Specific Enough

Originally, the label “grass-fed” conveyed an idea well. Grass fed served as a descriptive term to differentiate cattle that only ate forages growing in pastures from conventional cattle eating grain from bunks in feedlots. Cattle are ruminants, a special class of mammalian herbivores. Unlike single-stomached animals, ruminants’ digestive systems are multi-stomached, and primarily suited for extracting nutrition from large volumes of relatively low-quality plants. (Further reading here on why we don’t feed grain to our cattle.)1It is worth noting that the terms “grass fed” and “grass finished” are both a little confusing on their own. The word “grass” was never meant to be understood exclusively. Any healthy grassland will contain many other edible plants that aren’t specifically part of the grass Poaceae family. Indeed, we want a thriving mix of many plant species in our pastures. Read more.

In the conventional beef industry, cattle graze grasses and other pasture plants until they are between six and twelve months old. After this, they make their way to feedlots where all the grain feeding happens. And this is also where tricky business with labeling sometimes creates confusion for consumers. In some situations, beef is sold as grass fed even though the cattle were fed grain, using the excuse that since all cattle eat grass for some portion of their life, they all could be considered to have been grass fed. In this construction, “grass fed beef” is reduced to a nonsensical phrase, as unhelpful as “water raised fish.”

This problem extends to dairy as well as beef. In 2019, a court rejected a lawsuit against Kerrygold Butter. Even though Kerrygold’s cattle are fed GMO grains, they still label their product as grass fed. I’d call that fraud, but the courts didn’t. The ruling sided with them, stating that as long as the claim wasn’t 100% grass fed, they were within their rights to call their conventionally grain fed butter grass fed.

On basic principles of honesty, I reject this kind of labeling chicanery. Calling grain fed cattle grass fed is something that can only be seen as disingenuous, an attempt to confuse consumers by selling them something they really didn’t understand they were buying. This shouldn’t happen, but it does. So this is where grass finished comes in.

All Grass, No Grain, and No Funny Business

In the livestock world, “finishing” refers to the developmental phase where an animal reaches an ideal size and body condition for slaughter and butchering. Hence, “grass finished” describes cattle that have reached full finishing condition having only eaten grasses. If grains, grain byproducts, or any of the other weird additives like chicken feathers, urea, or black soldier fly larvae, make their way into the diet, the cattle cannot be considered grass finished.

So for folks who want their cattle to be eating the very best diet, the diet they are physiologically selected for, grass fed and grass finished are the descriptive phrases to look for. If all the food marketers were acting in good faith, we could just say “grass fed” and be done with it. I wish it were so simple, because stacking up the modifiers “grass fed” and “grass finished” in every sentence feels prolix. For brevity’s sake, I often fall back simply on “grass fed” as my primary description. But I probably should feature the phrase “grass finished” a little more prominently, just to reassure everyone that our cattle are the real deal.

The Next Wiggle Word

It sometimes feels like we’re out here doing the work of producing the food people want, but that there’s an endlessly avaricious marketing machine chugging along just behind us, co-opting all our words, stripping out as much meaning as possible, and then applying those words with sophistry to their mass-produced commodities. This makes me wonder how long the term “grass finished” will be serviceable.

As evidence that “grass finished” may have reached the end of its descriptive usefulness, I’ve seen presentations from beef companies showing their grass finished feedlots. These setups reuse their industrial scale feedlot infrastructure, where they feed thousands of cattle with mixtures of pea and bean pods, beet pulp, vegetable oil, and molasses. Since none of these are technically grains, they feel they can call the system grass finished. But this doesn’t align with what “grass fed” and “grass finished” evoke in consumers’ minds, so I’d call foul. Is “grass finished” a term with value anymore?

As at other points in our lives, we might be discouraged to learn that the world was never what it seemed to be. Yet I don’t think we should be jaded by this revelation. Of course, let’s develop basic skeptical skills so we don’t live as chumps, automatically accepting whatever the next marketing department tells us. But we can do better by becoming better question-askers. We can go beyond the basics of looking for labels. Instead, there’s more success in finding a person who can answer questions. If the sticker tagged with “grass fed” isn’t sufficiently informative, ask the producer directly, “What were these cattle eating? What kind of environment were they in? What changes do you make as the seasons progress?” This will give you the information you need to make a decision, and it will begin the process of pushing you closer together with the producer, creating a stronger and more durable social bond.

Our profound isolation from the production of most sources of our consumption stands as our great vulnerability, so that’s what needs to be changed. Our society and economy are designed to create that ignorance, to expand the gulf of ignorance. Speaking directly with the producer ultimately provides the surest grounds for confidence that the item being purchased truly is the item you want.

Grass finished cattle in the pasture at Wrong Direction Farm
The herd on summer pasture at Wrong Direction Farm

Grass Finished Standards at Wrong Direction Farm

Before we wrap up this discussion, let’s clearly lay out the standards we have for grass fed and grass finished here at Wrong Direction Farm. This applies to the beef, as well as to the lamb we sell, since both groups of livestock are ruminants. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs are very different, and we have articles about the role of grass, insects, and grains in their diets.

  1. Our cattle live on pasture year-round, grazing fresh grass during the green months and grazing bales of harvested grass during the winters.
  2. Our pastures are managed for maximum plant diversity to create the best nutritional environment possible.
  3. Our cattle never eat grains or grain byproducts, and they are never fed, injected, or implanted with synthetic additives or supplements, such as antibiotics or hormones.

It doesn’t need to be complicated. Cattle can grow on pastures without grain supplements or drugs. They’ve been doing it forever. For us, grass fed and grass finished are all about letting the cattle do what they do best. This is fundamental to creating authenticity in our food system.

7 thoughts on “What Does Grass Finished Beef Really Mean?”

  1. I pretty happy I found your farm. I admire your integrity and the way of farming. We need more people doing business like you.

  2. Thanks, Dave, for your thoughtful and insightful emails every week. Thought provoking and very informative!

    1. Thanks Sue. I hope to do a follow-up to this one in the next week or so, showing with more detailed pictures what we’re looking at in the body condition of the cattle when they are out on pasture.

  3. Robert E. Spiro

    I appreciate your candor and honesty and your article gives me an true understanding of the basics of grass fed animals. Thank you very much.

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