I recently stumbled up Quora – a Q&A site on the web where people can pose questions in all types of categories, from parenting to management, home repair to manufacturing – and significant to me – food and agriculture. After browsing through some of the questions, I found myself looking through the corn-fed vs grass-fed beef questions. Of course if you know me, I always refer to grass-fed as “grass-finished” because almost all cattle are grass-fed at some point in their life, but a limited amount are grass-finished before they are harvested.
One question asked, “Among those who are knowledgeable about beef, which is considered to taste better, grass-fed or corn-fed beef? Are they merely different flavors? Or does the fattiness in corn fed beef give it a superior taste? Presuming excellent cuts of comparable meat?”
There were eight replies to this question, but one stuck out to me from a "3rd Generation Meat Processor”. Let me share his response:
Taste is such a subjective term and everyone has their own preference. Personally I like corn fed beef better than grass fed. Because of the consistency and marbling.
The real answer comes down to time.
A corn fed animal can reach a desired level of marbling (intramuscular fat deposits) or "finishing" after spending only 3 months in a feed lot. At roughly 16 months old a steer will be transported to a feed lot where it will go from a large frame lightly muscled animal to the equivalent of a 300 pound sumo wrestler in 3 to 5 months. On a high energy feed ration like corn an animal can be expected to gain at least 3 pounds per day and up to 6 depending on breed, food ration, weather and herd management. The animals eventually cap out their gains and become a victim of diminishing returns. At this point it’s ready for the animal to be harvested.
"Finishing" a grass fed animal to a similar level could take a year or more and is completely dependent on the quality of the grass. Southern Oregon with it’s high rainfall and comparatively mild winters yields excellent grass almost year round. Other areas of the country like New Mexico have sparse grass covering almost year round. So finishing a grass fed animal that tastes good is highly depended on the quality of feed available.
The old adage "time is money" is exactly the reason why corn fed beef is more popular and often has a superior taste to grass fed beef. It’s possible for grass fed beef to perform as well as corn fed but the input time and cost is much greater which puts it out of reach for most producers and customers pocket books.
Personally I like the taste of corn fed beef because it is more consistent and I have grown accustomed to the rich oily flavors that are associated with it.
The best indication available for beef taste is the USDA’s grading system.
In descending quality: Prime – some fine steak houses; Choice – Costco, select menu items, local butcher shops; Select – Most grocery chains; No Roll (ungraded)
Some grass fed programs have animals that meet the above grading criteria but most are ungraded because of the lack of consistency, there’s no telling if the cost of a grader will be recouped on a particular day. I have enjoyed some choice graded steaks from Corn Fed and Grass Fed cattle and I conclude that both were excellent but different.
Let me finish by adding: Consumers have a choice. One production method is not superior to the other, yet when it comes to beef, most consumers say that taste is their highest priority. However, consumers’ lifestyles and budgets have changed over time and beef production has evolved to meet those needs. For instance, we now provide consumers with corn- or grain-finished, grass-fed or grass-finished, certified organic and natural beef products. While each kind of beef offers something different to the consumer, all beef shares one common denominator that continues to spark demand: a safe, wholesome and nutritious meal.
I would also encourage all agvocates to check out Quora and spend some time answering questions that people have everyday about food production! Just as how many trust this third-generation meat processor’s answer – people will trust yours as a farmer/rancher/producer of food.