Grass Versus Grain: Question 1

February 22, 2016 06:42 PM

By: John Maday

recently received an inquiry from a college student conducting research for a public-health class project.  She sent a list of questions regarding the relative merits of finishing cattle on grass versus grain-based rations. Her questions, while somewhat biased, reflect common misperceptions of grain feeing and the kinds of question consumers are asking. For that reason, we have adapted the questions and answers into this article, to serve as possible “talking points” for our readers as you encounter similar questions from the public.

We’ll be posting the 13 questions, along with our answers, over the next couple weeks. Here is question 1:


Do you approve of feeding cattle a corn based diet? Explain please.

Drovers CattleNetwork

Yes. But first let me outline the typical North American beef-production system and how corn fits in. Most beef calves in the U.S. and Canada spend their first 8 to 16 months on pasture, either on the ranch where they were born, or in some cases they move to other areas with more available forage after weaning. Then they move to feedlots where they consume rations containing grain as an energy source, typically for about 120 to 150 days. Initially their rations contain mostly forage, and the cattle gradually step up to rations containing more corn as their digestive systems adapt. So, while there are some exceptions, most U.S. cattle spend about 70 percent of their lives on pasture and 30 percent eating grain-based rations. That is in contrast with pigs and poultry, which eat grain-based diets throughout their lives.

An analysis from the Noble Foundation and the Livestock Marketing Information Center shows that the total amount of grain fed per pound of beef produced is equal to that for a pound of chicken (2.5 pounds) and lower than that for pork (3.5 pounds). The reason is that much of the weight gain in beef production occurs on grazing land. 

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