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Grass-fed or Grain-fed - Asking the Right Question

Grass-fed meat has become quite trendy over the last 5 years.  When I working on establishing a producer-owned grass-fed beef business in 2003, grass-fed was still viewed skeptically by producers and consumers alike - it had a reputation for being tough and dry (from a consumer perspective) and an unprofitable "micro" niche (from a rancher perspective).  Since that time, we've seen the publication of several Michael Polan books espousing the benefits of grass-fed meat.  We've had cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in North America.  And we've seen one of the largest privately owned ranches in California (Hearst Ranch) start marketing grass-fed beef.

As with many agricultural trends, the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to be lagging behind.  For many years, USDA permitted meat purveyors who marketed grass-fed meat to feed grain for up to 20 percent of the animal's lifetime nutritional requirements.  While the definition has changed, it continues to create confusion among producers and consumers alike.  In our own local farmers markets, we find that the term "grass-fed" means different things to different folks.

To us, grass-fed means just that - our lambs and steers eat grass and grass alone.  While it might be easier (and cheaper) to put weight on our animals if we add a little grain to their diets, we hold fast to our personal 100% grass-fed definition - no grain, ever.  This dedication means that our meat has the higher levels of Omega 3, CLA and beta carotene that make grass-fed meat so nutritious.  Our research suggests that feeding ANY grain changes this nutritional profile.

All of this suggests that the proper question for a consumer to ask is not, "Is your lamb grass-fed?"  It might be better to ask, "Do you feed any grain - ever?"


  1. Thought some might be interested in seeing our definition of grass-fed - this is a link to our grass-fed protocols, which USDA approved as part of our meat label:

    Also, here's a link to the CSU Chico Grass-fed website:


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