The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Pasture-raised vs. grass-fed: What’s the difference?

September 28, 2013

Pasture-raised… Grass-fed.

The two most delightful phrases in animal agriculture. They conjur images of cows cavorting through fields, pigs let loose in the woods, lambs bouncing across hillsides… bliss.

But when you’re in the supermarket on a busy Tuesday evening — not so blissful. You see both pasture-raised and grass-fed steak for sale, and you know these two options are a huge improvement over factory farmed steak. But which one should you buy?

Or you’re at the local farmers’ market and you ask one of the farmers if they sell grass-fed pork. The farmer chuckles and kindly corrects you — “You mean pasture-raised pork, right?” — and you’re even more confused.

Here’s a simple way to grasp the difference between the two terms: “grass-fed” refers to what an animal eats (grass); “pasture-raised” refers to where it eats (on a pasture). So if it’s important to you that a cow ate the food it evolved to eat, which is grass — and ate little or no grain — then grass-fed steak is for you. If it’s important to you that the cow cavorted outside in its natural environment, then pasture-raised steak is for you.

Ok, but if pasture has grass on it, why isn’t a pasture-raised cow automatically a grass-fed cow?  Because a pasture-raised cow might be fed grain by a farmer, especially in the winter if the farm is in a cold climate where snow covers the pasture. That said, a pasture-raised cow can certainly be grass-fed, but only if its diet for most of its life was grass.

And why isn’t a grass-fed cow automatically a pasture-raised cow?  Because a cow can be housed indoors all its life and be fed grass (in the form of hay). This is pretty rare, though — most cows that are marketed as grass-fed spent a significant time outside on pasture.

(What about the farmer who corrects you when you ask for “grass-fed pork”?  Well, pigs can’t survive only on grass — they need some grain in their diet, as do chickens — which is why you never see “grass-fed pork” or “grass-fed chicken” on any packaging. You only see grass-fed beef, lamb, and goat, because these animals eat only grass. You do see “pasture-raised chicken” and “pasture-raised pork,” because animals on pasture can have their diet supplemented with grain.)

What else do you need to know about grass-fed vs. pasture-raised?  Ask the 100% question. Do you want 100% grass-fed beef?  A product may say “grass-fed” on the packaging, but the cow might have been “finished” on grain, meaning it ate grain during the last 2 or 3 months of its life. Select products labeled “100% grass-fed beef” if that’s what you want.

And do you want 100% pasture-raised pork?  It’s hard to find this, especially in northern climates. Ask a farmer how long their pastured animals are outside during the year, and what their indoor conditions are like.

Yes, this is all immensely confusing. I believe it’s the outgrowth of good intentions, though — the people who got these two labels into circulation wanted to highlight the special way these animals are raised. (Go here to learn how these labels are enforced.)

With this information, though, you’ll hopefully know what you’re buying next time you’re in a store or at a market. You can also impress your friends when ordering at a restaurant — or just get them so confused that they order the tortellini.

What else is there to know about meat labels?  Here’s a helpful page.

  1. Robin Klitzke says:

    I’ll be honest; I’m not one of those people who equates only “pasture-raised” with “humane”. I have been inside industrial farms, and I know that it is possible for cattle farms to have clean pens (though not all companies both) and for pigs and cattle to be very comfortable indoors. Indoor facilities allow for easy cleanup, easy vet-care, and temperature control and can be somewhat spacious if built correctly. Animals don’t want to be out in the elements anymore than humans do. But I usually buy pasture-raised meat anyway. Here are a few simple reasons:

    Cattle on indoor farms are usually fed almost entirely corn. This promotes the growth of resistant e. coli that causes stomach pains in cattle and can contaminate our meat. A steer fed 60-70% grass-based foods will be cleared of this e. coli, even with corn as a supplement. However, hay and grass pellets are expansive.

    I advocate pasture-raised cattle because it is the easiest way not only to keep them clean but also the most practical way to give them a healthy diet. Supplement with corn if you like, but make sure the main staple is grass. However, I believe indoor facilities should be kept and reserved for winter and other unfavorable weather.

    For pigs, I find indoor facilities have the potential to be suitable. However, there is one thing that turns most indoor farms from a haven into a prison: lack of mental stimulation. Pigs need mental stimuli, or they suffer from obsessive chewing and other stereotypies. They literally fall into insanity. This is the main problem with gestation stalls; the pigs become so stir-crazy that they chew on the bars until they’re mouths bleed and beat the bars until they develop sores. Even loose in groups, indoor pigs with little stimuli will chew each others’ tails off, creating the need for tail docking at a young age.

    These problems are correctable: get rid of gestation stalls and give the pigs they’re favorite toy: straw. Straw has proven more exciting for pigs than plush toys, squeaky toys, balls, ect. They love each new sound, taste, and smell they get every time they break a piece of straw, and they will chew a pile of straw to bits before it becomes uninteresting. Farms that buy straw, not for bedding but for a “toy pile” in the corner of the pens, have pigs that are less anxious, less aggressive, and less likely to chew on any random object, including each other. Indoor living is doable for pigs; it’s just hard to find indoor barns where the pigs’ mental needs are properly tended to.

    Not do the indoor facilities have these common problems, but not all cattle and pig indoor facilities are spacious or allow sociability, and the non-see-through walls allow for cruel practices, such as a lack of vet care, hitting, and crowding, to go unnoticed, as many uncover videos reveal. They encourage bad behavior in humans because there is no reinforcement for good behavior and plenty of reinforcement for bad behavior.

    As for the egg and poultry industries, they are so far overboard in inhumane treatment that pasture-raised chickens and turkeys are practically the only poultry you can be sure led a good life.

    Are indoor farms evil? No, they don’t have to be. But right now, very few are treating their animals correctly. If the meat does not say pasture-raised, or in the case of cattle, grass-fed, you might want to do some research before you buy the meat, dairy, or eggs before you can be sure.

    • Claudia says:

      Hi Robin,
      I thought your response was very informative. Would you tell me how I can be sure that cows, pigs, and poultry were not feed GMO corn or other GMO feed?

      • Humaneitarian says:

        Hi Claudia – Your best bet is to buy certified organic meat, as organically-raised animals are not allowed to be given GMO feed. Hope this helps. -Caroline

  2. This is a great article, but unless you see the American Grassfed Seal on your 100% grassfed beef package, that beef may still be full of antibiotics, hormones and fed in confinement. It also doesn’t mean that the beef is from American Family Farms. Ask for the seal.

  3. Eve K Searle says:

    I am a cattle rancher raising cattle on western grassland, and I agree that grass fed beef sounds the best. But I have also lived in Mexico, where grass fed beef was the only option, and the meat was as tough as a boot.

    So I guess that my choice is what we are already doing – grass fed for most of its life, then grain fed for a couple of months before slaughter, to produce the best cut of meat.

  4. Derek Schroeder says:

    Great article. On our farm in Southern Oregon, we refer to our pork as “Hazelnut Fnished” because we supplement their lack of winter forage with delicious, hearty hazelnuts from a local grower just down the road from us. The pigs love it almost as much as our customers. Feel free to check out our blog about how we raise our meat. I believe transparency is the key to making food systems healthy, more so than a label on a package as you elude to. It’s as simple as showing your customers what you’re doing and why. Check out our farm blog for articles about how we raise our meat.

  5. Hi, you can raise chickens completely on pasture year round. We are in zone 5 so we get snow (granted not feet of snow the whole season. I’ve found that by putting a nice thick insulating layer of straw on the ground and ‘seeding’ it with leaves, manure, and grass that’s been cut. They especially find lots of good bugs to eat in the garden this way. The trick is making sure the straw insulates the ground and letting them go tearing through it. This year I’m going to throw seed from beans, pumpkins, popcorn and peas throughout it too and hope they’ll sprout and grow enough to give them some yummies to eat. I figure I can go lift some area up and toss a handfull through the season too. But, this way they’ll have fresh greens to scratch for.

    I also grow fodder for my goats, pigs, chickens, ducks and rabbits. They’ll all have fresh grass to eat in the pasture this way even when winter has told the pasture to stop growing. 🙂


  6. Danielle says:

    I’m just curious how you know what the cows want? I mean honestly you cannot factually say that the cow would rather be indoors than outdoors. honestly i think even if a human had the choice they would not want to be indoors 24/7 their whole life because sunlight and space are so essential to our happiness which is not only why i would go with pasture raised meat but also because of the other relevant pro’s that you stated claudia.

  7. David says:

    Cows are animals… without human intervention, in nature, the cows would be outside in the wild. You guys are over thinking this.