Beef sits at the heart of our food culture. For many, a great juicy steak is the pinnacle of a great meal. But when it comes to choosing between grass or grain fed beef - which is the better option? For many diners, grain fed beef is considered to have more dependable eating quality, however in the hands of a good chef, grass fed beef can make for sublime eating. Let's take a look at the difference between the two.
Cattle are foraging animals that have been bred to keep their noses down seeking out the most nutritious grasses in the field. Almost all beef cattle in Australia start their life off in paddocks at their mother’s side as part of a larger herd. When weaned, they join a new herd of younger animals. Some remain in the paddocks eating pasture for the rest of their lives and some will be sent to feed lots, where they have a constant supply of fresh water and nutrient rich, grain based feed.
Grain fed beef cattle spend 70 days minimum, often 100 days or more prior to processing, eating a mix of grain and plant based feed. Animals fed on grain for 300 days or more are destined for the top end of the market. They can be housed in purpose-built feed lots, where they can rest and sleep on beds of straw with shelter from the sun and rain. They can also be grain fed in open fields where they are free to roam. Australia has some of the strictest animal welfare and environmental measures in place in regards to feed lots. Effluent ponds treat their manure and their bedding is used as compost. The meat from grain fed beef cattle is considered by many to have better consistency of quality, be more tender and have better marbling. Many customers prefer grain fed beef, as the marbled fat has a clean white appearance and the meat has a juicy mouthfeel with a lovely, nutty flavour from the grain.
Some diners prefer the flavour the pasture gives to grass fed beef. Grass fed beef accounts for roughly two thirds of production in Australia. Natural compounds in the grass, such as beta carotenes, add to the flavour of the meat. They can also add a yellow tinge to the fat, something some diners like but others not. Grass fed beef comes from cattle that free-range for their entire lives. They can have supplementary feeding of hay, lucerne or silage, but for the most part they live on grass. Many consider this a more natural way of raising an animal and better for their well-being. While the beef from grass fed cattle can have more nuanced flavours, grass fed beef is more likely to be influenced by weather and climate. Good rainfall and a mild climate can mean better pasture and better beef, while drier times can affect the quality of the steak on the plate.