How Does Forage Finishing Affect Meat Quality?

by Evan DeMarco on Aug 16, 2022

How Does Forage Finishing Affect Meat Quality?

If you’re a carnivore, it’s worth considering what kind of meat you eat—and how those animals are raised. Unless you’re from an agricultural background, the difference between “finishing” is probably not at the forefront of your mind when you’re at the grocery store.

The way animals are fed before processing can make a big impact on the quality of the meat. Labels like “grass fed” and “grass finished” can tell you how the animal was fed, and even how it will taste.

Here’s what you need to know about forage finishing for beef.

Industrial ranching

Commercial cattle ranching has been around for decades, but it has undergone some changes in the last 70 years.

Before World War II, cattle were primarily forage-, grass- or limited-grain fed. This produces leaner cattle. In the 1950s and 1960s, ranchers found that feeding cattle a grain-based diet resulted in heavier, fatter cattle. Not only does this help boost profits, but it seems that consumers responded to what they considered a superior texture, flavor and juiciness.

Grain-fed cattle continue to be popular. However, as we pay more attention to climate change, nutrition and our global food supply, more people are opting for environmentally friendly foods.

Forage vs. grain finishing

“Finishing” simply means what the cattle was fed for a specific period before slaughter. A grain-fed cow might be forage-finished, or vice-versa. (Tip: if you care about forage-fed and finished beef, look for the “grass fed” label.)

Forage-fed cows graze on grasses and other plants, just as they would do in the wild. Cows are turned loose in the pasture to feed at will. This results in a leaner cut of beef with a distinct flavor.

If you’ve been raised on grain-fed beef, forage-finished cattle will probably taste different to you. Forage-finished beef tends to have a “grassy” flavor and distinct cooking odor, at least when compared to grain-fed beef. The fat may also look yellower than grain-fed beef fat, thanks to the carotenoids present.

There are many people who prefer the flavor of grass-fed, forage-finished beef. It tends to be leaner: studies from 1978 to 2013 show “cattle finished on pasture gained 1 pound less per day than cattle fed high-concentrate diets in confinement…Forage-finished cattle were finished at a lighter weight (~950 pounds) than grain-finished cattle (~1,100 pounds) …[and] forage-finished cattle had 0.2 inches of back fat vs 0.5 inches for feedlot finished.”

Typically, leaner beef is not as tender and juicy as its grain-fed counterparts—but that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean “tough and flavorless.” However, it has a higher nutritional content and more heart-healthy fats. In fact, grass-fed feed contains two to six times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef—and because omega-3 fatty acids are key to preventing heart disease, autoimmune responses and stroke, that’s a bonus. It’s also packed with antioxidants, which prevent cell damage and diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Raising and consuming grass-fed beef is also a good method of combating climate change: regenerative agriculture often relies on cattle foraging to help manage crops and protect topsoil quality.

Grain-fed and -finished cattle tend to be more popular with consumers. As we become increasingly aware of how agricultural practices can affect climate change, however, there’s a larger demand for grass-fed and -finished beef.

What’s the catch?

Right now, grass-fed and forage-finished beef is more expensive to produce than grain-fed beef. That translates into higher prices, which can deter consumers at the store. If you eat a lot of beef on a weekly basis, the sticker shock alone might convince you that grain-finished beef is a superior choice.

Ultimately, what cows are fed has a significant impact on flavor, fat content, price and the environment. Permanently switching to forage-finished beef might not be economically feasible for many households, while others may simply prefer grain-fed flavor.

Dr. Carol L. Lorenzen. Ph.D, from the Division of Animal Sciences, University of Missouri – Columbia, reports that while there’s a push to revisit cattle feeding choices every couple of decades, this might be the time it sticks: with the rise of “niche marketing efforts” to produce forage-finished beef products, like partnerships with the USDA and Whole Foods, make it “fashionable, if not more profitable.”

The bottom line

Understanding the difference between forage-finished and grain-finished beef can help you make savvy nutritional choices at the grocery store. The next time you’re craving a steak or burger, why not opt for a forage-finished version? You’ll benefit your health and the environment, all at the same time—and you might end up preferring the flavor.