I recently emailed a local "naturally raised" farm and asked if their cows are grass fed and finished. The owner replied with "We feed them a balanced and healthy diet of grass, hay, and grain. There has been much talk of grass fed over grain fed recently but studies have proven that without grain in their diets cows rumens cannot absorb nutrients from feed due to the fact that the fermentation of the grain stimulates its development. (Dr. Jud Heinrichs, Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Drew Vermeire, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAN Healthy Calf Conference 2010)"
I tried searching for that study and couldn't find it. My question is, does anyone have any references to this farmer's claims? It seems like he's referencing some obscure study so that he can justify taking the easy way out and using grains in the feed. It makes little sense that a cow fed its natural diet would have problems absorbing nutrients due to an undeveloped rumen.
Thanks for the answers here; some really interesting stuff. I've decided to pass on this farmer. It definitely just seems like an excuse to promote cheap money-making farming practices. Besides, I happened to find a source of 100% grass-fed beef at the same farmer's market. Woot!
The short answer is that farmers have legitimate reasons for finishing animals with some grain, namely, consistency and quality.
To understand the problem, we need to make the distinction between raising an animal on grass and finishing it on grass. Cows have clearly evolved to live on a diet of grass, however, we consumers also want a certain quality of beef. We want well marbled beef, not dry tough gamey beef. The finishing process is where the cow develops those carcass qualities that we want.
Is it possible to finish a cow well on grass? Yes. Is it easy? No. The first problem is that the industry has been aggressively selecting breeding stock that finish well on grain, not grass. There are grass-feed farmers actively trying to undo this and select for grass finishing, but that effort is really in its' infancy. The second problem is that it takes a lot of skill on the farmers part. Most of the farmers that are doing it well are at the forefront of management intensive grazing (Polyface Farms type practices). The third problem is that it's even harder, or impossible, for many farmer to do this year round. The availability of high quality forage changes throughout the year. Yet your local farmer has to send cows to slaughter year round.
At the heart of the problem is that the food industry has taught consumers to view food as a commodity, not as an agricultural product. We small farmers are constantly trying to balance the desires of the consumer while growing the food in a safe and sustainable manner. Do you want your tomatoes to be picture perfect or do you want them to be free of pesticides? Each farmer is going to approach this problem differently. We all have different soils, different climates, different tools at our disposal, and different takes on what consumer wants.
If you can, talk to your farmer. Tell him what you want. Listen to why he made the decisions that he did. I for one would rather eat local beef that's only 90% paleo, than a CAFO beef, or poorly finished grass-fed.
[end farmer rant] Alex
I couldn't find the study either. But I'm inclined to agree with the assessment of the situation. Grain is effective at fattening up a cow quickly (and cheaply at that while also making said cow sick necessitating the use of antibiotics - see the Omnivore's Dilemma's section on Factory Farmed Beef), but the effectiveness of fattening the cow via grain could suggest "that the nutrients are better absorbed" (if by nutrients they mean calories). Thus the farmer can use this study to justify using grain to get their cattle to slaughter weight more quickly and thus increase profits. They can call it "Naturally raised" and make it seem healthier than the average CAFO grain fed beef, since the FDA nor USDA refuse to define what "natural" means which is why so much random processed crap will advertise itself as "all natural." Their beef could even be CAFO Beef.
It's important to also note that even grain finishing cows will reduce the omega 3 present in grass fed beef to equal that of conventional beef (though beef initself contains such little polyunsaturated fat that this issue is minor compared to what it does to the health of the cow and the environmental impact of CAFO's).
I'm inclined to say those farmers are shady as get out and that I wouldn't buy beef from them, but to look for someone who can offer grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Let me preface this by stating that I have a pet steer named Bruno and have watched his grazing behavior extensively over the years:
Though it's true that ruminants likely have been consuming some amount of grain (in the same way that they have been consuming some amount of insects) throughout their evolution due to grass going to seed etc., their preference by far is to eat young, lush grasses and will always choose these over the woodier, older grass that has gone to seed. Indeed, there are months where there is only lush grass and no grass that has gone to seed and yet they do not die from a grain deficiency just as we do not. That ruminants would have ever encountered and consumed proto-corn in amounts approaching anywhere near the levels consumed on feedlots (even "natural" ones) is not only wrong but highly insulting.
What we have here is a pack of lies.
If cows can't absorb nutrients without grains in their diet, how did they not die out long ago?
From an evolutionary perspective, wild cattle ate grass and such on the open plains, even in winter. However, their metabolic processes slowed down during the winter months to cope with less food being available, resulting in them growing less during these months.
Grass-fed, pastured cattle don't need to be fed grains in winter in order to survive. Grain feeding is profit driven, pure and simple.
Here's the link to the 2010 Dairy and Veal Healthy Calf Conference: http://www.ontarioveal.on.ca/pdfs/HCC%20brochure%20full%20FINAL.pdf
Dr Drew Vermeire is "an internationally recognized animal nutritionist working with veal, dairy beef, replacement heifer calves, and beef cattle". Here's his website: http://www.nouriche.com/Index.html
It seems to me that he makes supplimetary milk products for calves and has little to do with nutrition of older cows.
Dr Jud Heinrichs looks to be a better source. Here's a link to his Penn State page: http://www.das.psu.edu/directory/ajh
In my opinion in certain situations I could see where some grain ~10% of a cow's diet would be beneficial. These circumstances being living in more northern climates so that they can have some more fat on them in the winter.
So maybe a good question to this farmer would be to find out what percentage of each (grass, hay and grain) does he think the cows are getting. I mean a lot of paleo supporters speak to an 80:20 ratio - why couldn't this be true for cows as well?
In my grandparents' day, they'd run cattle on pasture until the last month or so, and then bring them into a lot where they could be "finished" on grain (plus hay; even then it wouldn't have been grain only). It's true that the main purpose was to add some extra weight quickly. There weren't grain subsidies or a cheap food policy back then, so grain was too expensive to feed all the time, but a little at the end could pack on some quick pounds. In the process, it also added fat to the meat, which would have been pretty lean otherwise.
I can't put my hands on it right now, but I've seen a study that showed that the o-6/o-3 ratio didn't change much in just a few weeks of grain feeding, but changed more drastically after a couple months. Maybe someone else knows the specifics about that and can back that up.
I've talked to several people who tried grass-fed beef once and never will again because it was too tough and dry. As someone already said, the standard breeds today have been selected year after year for grain-feedlot production, so it's not surprising that someone who takes an average steer and sticks it on grass for a year doesn't end up with a great product. If you want a steer who will finish well on grass alone, you may need to try a breed that hasn't been pushed so hard with grain for the past 50 years. Also, to many farmers who supplement with grain, "pasture" means "enough green stuff to keep them alive." It rarely means the kind of lush growth that by itself will enable an animal to develop extra fat (marbling).
On the other hand, my parents occasionally save back a Jersey (a small dairy breed) steer for meat, and it's great stuff. They're raised on good pasture (the kind dairy cows need to produce well) and they're not a feedlot-oriented breed, so even on grass the meat is tender and juicy and tastes amazing.
My uncle owns a dairy farm in upstate new york, around 80 cows or so. During most of the year they are exclusively grass fed, but in the winter months when grass isn't available he supplements their diet with hay and some corn. He (also a veterinarian) says too much corn will make them sick, but he has to feed them some corn because its not feasible to only feed them hay during the winter months. He doesn't believe that a small amount of corn feed for a few months negatively affects the cows health or the quality of milk
I know this response isn't scientific, but its a possible reason for some grain feed.
Logan is 100% correct. The only reason for finishing with grain is to add weight to the cows. I had also inquired to a local farm, and their reasoning for grain finishing was to add a little more weight to the cow before slaughter time. Grain has no effect on actual nutrient absorption. Thumbs up Logan!
is it possible that some of the cattle varieties that have co-evolved with agriculturalism over the last 6k years or so may need some grain to obtain larger weight? I know for sure that grain is added for an economic reason, profit. Nevertheless since the cows being bred today are quite different from their wild ancestors I say PERHAPS these varieties do not get to full weight without some grain. This is not an answer just a hypothesis, and I am far from being an animal nutritionist. Moreover we can say "who needs the calf to have so much weight" and I agree with that, but of course the farmer might think just the contrary!