What Are Feedlot Beef, Organic Beef, and Grass-Fed Beef?

faces of three cows

Kathy Collins / Taxi / Getty Images

Opponents of factory farming are increasingly turning to grass-fed beef and organic beef. But what do these terms mean, and how are they different from feedlot beef?

What Is Feedlot Beef?

Cattle in the U.S. start life on a pasture, nursing from their mothers and eating grass. When the calves are about 12 to 18 months old, they are transferred to a feedlot where they eat mostly grain. Grain is an unnatural diet for cows, but raising cows in feedlots is cheaper than raising them on large pastures, where they can roam and graze on grass. Because the cows in feedlots are crowded, they are more likely to become sick and are more likely to be given routine antibiotics as a preventive measure. Cows raised in this way are also typically given growth hormones so that they can reach slaughter weight faster. Because grain-fed cows grow faster, farmers can produce more meat in a shorter amount of time. After approximately six months in a feedlot, the cattle are sent to slaughter.

Raising cows in feedlots is environmentally harmful because of the concentration of wastes and because of the inefficiency of feeding grain to cattle. Estimates of the number of pounds of grain required to produce a pound of beef range from 10 to 16 pounds. Many people also have health concerns regarding hormones and antibiotics.

According to Dr. Dale Woerner, assistant professor with the Center for Meat Safety & Quality at Colorado State University, 97% of the beef produced in the U.S. is grain-fed feedlot beef, while the other 3% is grass-fed.

What Is Grass-Fed Beef?

Grass-fed cattle start out the same way as feedlot cattle – raised on a pasture, nursing from their mothers and eating grass. When 97% of the cows go to feedlots, the other 3 percent remain on pastures and continue to eat grass, a more natural diet than the grain that is fed to cattle in feedlots.

However, grass-fed beef is also environmentally destructive, because more land and other resources are required to raise the animals.

Cattle raised to be turned into grass-fed beef are usually a smaller breed. They grow slower and have a lower slaughter weight.

Organic Versus Grass-Fed

Some people confuse organic beef with grass-fed beef. The two categories are not the same but are not mutually exclusive. Organic beef comes from cattle who are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and are fed an organically-grown, vegetarian diet. This diet may or may not include grains. Grass-fed beef comes from cattle raised solely on grass, hay, and forage. Grains cannot be included in the diets of grass-fed cattle, but the grass and hay may or may not be organically grown. If the hay and grass in a grass-fed cow’s diet are organic, then the beef is both organic and grass-fed.

Although producers of organic beef and grass-fed beef both claim that their products are more eco-friendly and more humane than feedlot beef, all three types of beef are environmentally destructive and result in the slaughter of the cattle.