Grass feeding is not widely recognized in the U.S. marketplace as an important factor in food quality, but we think it should be. There's a close relationship between the quality of all foods that we eat and the natural environment. For example, the nourishment we get from plant foods depends on the quality of the soil in which they grow. The same is true for animal foods. The nourishment we get from these foods depends on the lifestyle of the animals—including their access to pasture, fresh air, and, of special importance, the quality of their diet.
While grass-fed foods are becoming more popular in the marketplace, it can sometimes be difficult to find nationally marketed grass-fed products. One excellent option is to find small beef and dairy farms in your local area that are pasture-based. Two websites that can help you find pasture-based farms in your area are www.eatwild.com and www.localharvest.org. On both websites, you can find a map of the United States which allows you to click on your state and find pasture-based farms that are local to you.
For cows, a natural diet consists of plants that can be "grazed" or "browsed." Grazing generally refers to the eating of grasses, and browsing usually refers to the eating of leaves, twigs, or bark from bushes or trees. Cows both graze and browse, but they are definitely more "grazers" than "browsers" and their complicated four-part stomach helps them to slowly digest relatively large amounts of grasses. From a historical perspective, consumption of ground grains has not been part of the cows' natural diet.
Scientists have acquired this knowledge of cows by studying a broader group of animals to which cows belong. The animals in this group are called "ruminants." Ruminants get their name from the activity of "ruminating," which means chewing their cud. Ruminants briefly chew their food, swallow it, allow the first chamber in their stomach to partially digest it, and then regurgitate it back into their mouth to chew it again to allow very thorough digestion. Cows are members of this group, along with goats, sheep, deer, and other animals. By studying the evolution of ruminants, scientists have been able to identify the type of food they naturally consume. The unique digestive system of cows and their thorough digestion process is a perfect match with grasses and other plants that are can be found in pasture settings.
The word "grass-fed" can be confusing because cows and other grass-fed animals may eat a wide variety of plants besides grasses. Grasses—including bluegrass, ryegrass, bermudagrass, fescue, Timothy grass, foxtail, sorghum, bromegrass, orchardgrass, quackgrass, and canarygrass—are commonly planted in pastures and almost always play a fundamental role in the diet of grass-fed cows. However, many non-grass plants are also found in pastures, including legumes like alfalfa, vetch, sainfoin, and birdsfoot trefoil as well as red, white, and crimson clover. Depending on the season and region of the country, 100% grass-fed cows may have eaten a mixed variety of the plants above, along with other naturally occurring vegetation.
The food eaten by 100% grass-fed cows is very different from the food eaten by conventionally fed cows. In conventional feeding, the diet typically consists of what are known as "total mixed rations" (TMRs) and "concentrates." TMRs are a single total food mix and usually consist of grains (like corn) and grain silages (grains that have been harvested, stored, and fermented), hays, and haylages (like alfalfa, clover, or sorghum and their fermented versions), soymeal, and what are often called "commodity feeds." The commodity feeds in TMRs may include corn gluten, distillers grains, soybean hulls, citrus pulp, molasses, beet pulp, and other ingredients. Any of the above components may be combined together to make a TMR feed. The purpose of TMRs is to provide animals with a comprehensive dietary food source that is available year-round.
Concentrates, like their name suggests, typically supply calories, protein, and other nutrients to cows in a more condensed form. While concentrates may include many of the same ingredients typically found in TMRs, their formulation often places more emphasis on higher-calorie, fat/oil-based components like cottonseed meal or linseed meal along with protein concentrates and vitamin/mineral combinations.
Research studies show clear nutritional advantages from beef, milk, and milk-derived foods (such as cheese and yogurt) obtained from100% grass-fed cows. These advantages typically include better fat quality (often involving more omega-3 fats, better ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, increased amounts of conjugated linoleic acid, and higher quality saturated fat); increased amounts of certain vitamins (for example, vitamin E, or vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene); and increased amounts of other nutrients.
Below is an alphabetized list of some commonly used terms that may help you better understand the uniqueness of grass feeding.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) is an organization offering alternative certification for grass-fed meat and dairy products. We recommend the purchase of grass-fed foods that have been certified by the AGA since AGA requirements for grass-fed labeling are more rigorous than USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) requirements. Once granted approval by the AGA to display a grass-fed label, organizations typically get approval from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA to display the USDA label as well. You can recognize AGA certified products by this logo.
For more information about the AGA, please visit their website at www.americangrassfed.org.
Three organizations currently offer certification for grass-fed foods in the United States: the American Grassfed Association (AGA), the Food Alliance (FA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Among these certification systems, we recommend either AGA or FA certification. We view both of these certification systems as being more rigorous than USDA certification, and we believe that either certification makes a better choice when you are choosing grass-fed beef. However, we still recommend USDA-certified grass-fed beef over non-certified grass-fed beef unless you are purchasing from a vendor you personally know and trust.
A phrase that usually refers to animal diets consisting of total mixed rations and concentrates that have been designed to support maximal growth rate and which allow for year-round feeding in confinement settings.
Solid or liquid feed supplements designed to supply calories, protein, and other nutrients to cows in a more condensed form. Concentrates may include corn gluten, distillers grains, soybean hulls, citrus pulp, molasses, beet pulp, and other ingredients. In addition, formulation of concentrates may place more emphasis on higher-calorie, fat/oil-based components like cottonseed meal or linseed meal together with grow-supporting vitamin/mineral combinations.
For more information about the FA, please visit their website at www.foodalliance.org.
Plant material consumed by animals, often consisting of grasses and legumes. Sometimes the word "forage" is used to refer specifically to fresh plants growing in a pasture versus plants that have been cut, harvested, and dried or that have been fermented into silage. But you'll also see the word "forage" being used to refer to all plant materials consumed by animals, regardless of whether those materials are fresh, dried, or fermented.
A confusing term because it appears to mean consumption of grasses only. Grass-fed animals do eat a wide variety of grasses, including bluegrass, ryegrass, bermudagrass, fescue, Timothy grass, foxtail, sorghum, bromegrass, orchardgrass, quackgrass, and canarygrass. But grass-fed animals may also eat a wide variety of other plants. These non-grass plants include legumes like alfalfa, vetch, sainfoin, and birdsfoot trefoil as well as red, white, and crimson clover. Depending on the season and region of the country, 100% grass-fed cows may have eaten a mixed variety of the plants above, along with other naturally occurring vegetation.
The term "grazing season" refers to the period of time when animals are outside consuming pasture plants. Grazing season is usually specific to region and climate and differs across the U.S. Different grass-fed certifying agencies set different requirements for the length of grazing season required for livestock to be certified as grass-fed. The least amount of time required for grazing of certified grass-fed products is 120 days per year set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This is a phrase that usually refers to the raising of livestock in confinement facilities constructed and designed for large numbers of animals in which total mixed ratios and concentrates serve as the animals' food sources. Confinement facilities used in intensive production systems may include barns, feedlots, stalls, pens, feeding alleys, and sorting alleys.
Fields and pastures in which feed crops and non-feed crops are planted on a rotational basis. When planted with grasses, leys are often described as grass leys. Depending on the rotational time period involved, leys may also be referred to as "short-term" or "long-term."
The word "pasture" is sometimes used to refer to permanent grassland that does not need to be re-seeded in order to be maintained. However, it's more common for the word "pasture" to refer to the outdoor area in which animals graze, regardless of whether they are grazing on native plants that don't need to be cultivated or on feed crops that have been deliberately planted and grown from seed by farmers.
Silage consists of pasture plants that have been harvested, stored, and fermented for use as feed. Silage is especially helpful during dry seasons and other times when fresh pasture plants are less plentiful. Virtually all types of plants can be fermented into silage, including grasses, grains, and legumes.
Total mixed rations (TMRs) are a single total food mix, and usually consist of grains (like corn) and grain silages (grains that have been harvested, stored, and fermented), hays, and haylages (like alfalfa, clover, or sorghum and their fermented versions), soymeal, and what are often called "commodity feeds." The commodity feeds in TMRs may include corn gluten, distillers grains, soybean hulls, citrus pulp, molasses, beet pulp, and other ingredients. Any of the above components may be combined together to make a TMR feed. The purpose of TMRs is to provide animals with a comprehensive dietary food source that is available year-round.
To learn more about the USDA certification process for grass-fed products, please visit the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service website at www.ams.usda.gov and follow the Grading, Certification, and Verification links.