Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef: A Comparison, Part One
Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef: A Comparison
Part One: Feeding Cattle Grain during Finishing

By Joan Ruskamp
My husband and I run a cattle-finishing operation and raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa on our farm in Dodge, Nebraska.

Over the past few years, we have received more and more questions from consumers interested in how we feed our beef cattle and why we make the feeding choices that we do. I’d like to talk about our beef operation and how we handle grain finishing our animals.

In the beef industry the cattle that are raised for food go through three phases. In the first phase a baby calf is nourished with milk and grass until weaning. The calf then enters a growing phase. The finishing phase is the third phase, where more muscle is added.

Beef cattle operations tend to specialize in one of those three phases. Our family farm operation specializes in the finishing phase. We purchase cattle that weigh approximately 650 pounds. The cattle are placed on a nutritional program. The program starts with a ration or recipe that is higher in forage (edible grasses) and progresses over the next 6-8 months to a higher percentage of grain (corn).

Our primary concern during the six to eight months that we have the cattle is to keep them healthy and thriving. By managing the day-to-day nutritional needs of our cattle we are able to do just that. The feed is measured by weight and dispensed into the bunk (where they eat) twice a day. We also want to make sure the pen (where they sleep) conditions are comfortable. We want cattle to have sufficient space to eat, drink water, walk around, and lay down.

There are generally two categories of finishing: grass-fed and grain-fed. We use primarily grain to finish our beef, for two reasons. First, consumers have demonstrated a preference for the tenderness, marbling and flavor that comes from grain-fed beef. Second, using grain allows us to source our feed locally, from other farming operations in our area. Our cost to produce a pound of beef is much less when using grain.
Grain_Fed_Common_Ground_blogOur approach to the nutrition of our cattle is very scientific. We work with a veterinarian and a nutritionist to determine the exact amount of feed and the exact ratio of nutrients that we feed to the cattle every day.

The basis of our animal feed is modified wet distiller’s grains (MWDGs), which makes up at least half of their nutritional intake. MWDGs are a by-product of producing ethanol, which comes from corn, and they are readily available in our area. Along with the MWDGs the cattle receive a blend of roughage (hay and edible grasses), corn and a mineral supplement.

At our operation, we are committed to quality care for our cattle so that we can provide high-quality beef to our customers. We utilize a scientific approach to animal welfare and animal nutrition. We also work hard to engage with curious consumers who are interested in learning more about why we do what we do.