Grass or Grain-finished Beef? THAT is the question. - September '23

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Why Waterloo Ranch Beef?

Why should you buy Waterloo Ranch beef? Well, you should buy our beef because we are certain you won’t find a more flavorful and tender pasture-raised beef on the market. Why is our beef so incredible? That, my friends, brings us back to the original question posed in the title of this newsletter. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Grass-finished or Grain-finished Beef?

THAT is the question.

Some of the most common questions we get here at the ranch are: Why do you feed your cows grain but not your sheep? Aren’t grass-finished cows healthier, and aren’t they better for consumption, and better for the planet?

The first question is for another day, so let’s start by addressing the latter.

The very short answer is: it depends. The semi-short answer is: the grass-finished vs. grain-finished beef question creates a false dichotomy, and the question cannot be answered without much, much more information. I hope you find these two answers unsatisfactory, and I hope you’ll stick around for my attempt at the long answer. In any case, here goes…

If we are to compare grass-finished to grain-finished beef on scales of health of the animal, healthiness of the product consumed, and health of the planet, we’ll need a lot more information.

If we’re assessing the quality of grass-fed, grass-finished beef, for example, some questions I might ask are:

What is this ‘grass’ you speak of?

How much of this grass is live pasture grass, and how much is grass hay?
Has any live forage been treated with herbicides or pesticides?

Has any hay been treated with herbicides or pesticides?

Which types of live pasture grass are the cows eating, and which types of grass are found in the hay fed to the cows?

What non-grass feeds that still qualify as ‘grass’, such as alfalfa and clover, are the cows eating, if any?

Where is all the hay coming from?

What breed of cattle is this?

What is the age of the cow being slaughtered?

If we’re assessing the quality of grass-fed, grain-finished beef, I’ll have all the same questions above, but I might also ask:

What grains are being fed?

Where did the grains come from?

How much grain is being fed?

Was the grain treated with any herbicides or pesticides?

The point here is that all grass-fed, grass-finished beef lies somewhere on a giant, complex spectrum. On one end, there’s the rare, premium, grass-finished cow that feeds on ample, moderately-grazed, lush pasture most of the year, and winters on local, unsprayed, grass-hay the rest of the year; but on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the not-so-uncommon, low-quality, grass-finished cow that feeds on depleted, over-grazed and/or dead pasture much of the year, and winters on the cheapest, heavily-sprayed hay that can be found.

The same is true for grass-fed, grain-finished beef. On one end, there’s the rare, premium, grain-finished cow that feeds on ample, moderately-grazed, high-quality pasture through growing season, winters on a mix of grass and alfalfa hay, and finishes on a moderate amount of local, non-GMO, grain and legume feed, free of corn and soy; but on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the ubiquitous, low-quality, grain-finished cow that is stuck on a mostly bare and small feedlot to be fed excessive amounts of the cheapest, least nutritious, GMO grain that can be found.

So, back to the question at hand: Grass-finished beef or grain-finished beef? If we’re comparing the aforementioned premium, grain-finished beef to the aforementioned low-quality, grass-finished beef, it would be hard to argue that grain-finished isn’t the way to go for the sake of the animal, the consumer, and the planet. But ironically, thanks to the gross over-simplification in much of modern, popular discourse, I could sell you that second version of low-quality, grass-finished beef from a malnourished animal at a premium pound price, and higher margin than the higher-quality, costlier version of grain-finished beef.

But what if we’re comparing the premium, grass-finished beef to the premium, grain-finished beef? Which is better? Well, both come from healthy, happy animals, and both are responsibly raised, so I’d have to say the answer here is: it’s a matter of taste.

The reality is that grass-finished beef, in general, is a bit ‘gamier’ than grain-finished beef, and it is usually leaner, and consequently, less tender. In fact, most of the fat on grass-finished beef steaks, is often so chewy as to be inedible. Some people prefer this flavor, and some people don’t eat the fat anyway. And if you’re that person, grass-finished is possibly the choice for you. But if you like balanced, flavorful, tender beef with fat that nearly melts in your mouth, and you want to enjoy it guilt-free, Waterloo Ranch grass-fed, premium grain-finished beef is the choice for you.

There are a few things that become more clear to us every day in our ranching journey. One of those things is that if you put things through some idea of a rigorous purity test, everyone and everything fails somewhere. On this topic specifically, some might say, for example, that grain can be harmful and even deadly for cattle. Well, the same is true for alfalfa and clover, and both are considered ‘grass’ in the ‘grass-fed’ beef world despite being legumes. The job of the rancher is to moderate intakes of all of these feeds, and do so in a way that preserves the health and happiness of the animal, and delivers the best finished product.

The reality is that catchphrases are often just that. They aren’t designed to fully illustrate all the technicalities and nuances of a subject. They are designed for simplicity, lazy categorization, and from a sales standpoint, they are designed to rope you in. The truth lies in the details.

At the end of the day, the questions we ask ourselves are: Are we delivering a product that we would want to buy ourselves? Are we achieving this in a way that does right by our animals and does right by our soil? The answer to both of these questions is unequivocally ‘yes.’ Waterloo Ranch beef is truly the grain-finished beef you can enjoy and feel good about.

We hope you’ll check out our Ranch Shop and reserve your 1/4, 1/2, or whole beef today. Not only do we offer a beef product far superior to what you’ll find on grocery store shelves, we offer it at a lower overall pound price because are selling in bulk. Feel free to check out our other offerings in the shop, such as pasture-raised lamb from our Katahdin sheep flock, and contact us with any questions you might have.

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