Pasture-based Operations FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Greener Pastures explores the practical benefits of pasture-based cattle operations from a comprehensive, scientific perspective. It is the first report to:

  • Review the nutrition, environmental and animal health benefits of pasture-raised beef and milk.
  • Conduct a comprehensive analysis of all the studies in English that compared the amounts of several nutritionally important fats in grass-fed beef and milk to those in beef and milk from grain-fed animals such as those raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).
  • Compile and summarize the levels of fats in 25 studies comparing fats in products from grain-fed and grass-fed cattle.
  • Calculate amounts of fats on a per-serving basis that allows analysis of the potential for labeling and advertising claims.

The following are some common questions about pasture-based approaches.

Is there something wrong with the beef and dairy products most Americans consume?

In the short-term, there is nothing wrong with American beef and dairy products, except that most of them are slightly less nutritious than they could be if produced by different approaches. In the long term, however, the way the vast majority of beef and dairy cattle are raised in the United States poses big problems for human health, animal health, and the environment. For example, massive CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) generate enormous, unmanageable quantities of manure that contribute to air and water pollution. CAFOs in the San Joaquin Valley in California are a bigger source of certain air pollutants than cars.

The way we are raising cattle also leads to other problems. Animals in massive CAFOs are fed large amounts of corn and other grains, but some of them—particularly cattle—cannot easily digest this diet. To stave off the illnesses that would otherwise result from this unnatural diet and the close confined quarters of CAFOs, most CAFO animals are routinely fed antibiotics. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of all U.S. antibiotics and related drugs are given to animals that are not sick. This overuse of antibiotics contributes to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, with the result that antibiotics we commonly use are becoming less effective in fighting human illnesses, including some life-threatening infections.

Fortunately, there are choices available to put food production on a practical and healthy track. For example, modern alternatives we’ll call smart pasture operations (SPOs) take advantage of new scientific knowledge and maximize natural efficiencies to produce better food, without creating the costs and problems associated with CAFOs. There is a growing movement among U.S. farmers to adopt sophisticated animal production practices, like SPOs and other types of operations that avoid the enormous negative consequences of CAFOs.

Are you suggesting that beef and milk producers go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals?

No, not at all. What we are suggesting is that we use the scientific knowledge we have and combine it with new, sophisticated techniques to achieve the most constructive approach possible. For example, we now know a lot about how beef and dairy cattle are biologically adapted to graze on pastures and eat grass, not grain. Pasture-based farming takes advantage of this natural process, rather than ignoring or struggling against it.

The sophisticated techniques employed by modern pasture-based farms are anything but old-fashioned – even if some aspects of the approach borrow from the best of traditional practices. New pasture rotation methods, better genetics, and new understandings of pasture ecology, animal nutrition, meat quality, and marketing are all components of today's grass-fed farm operations. Such farms already produce healthy, productive animals. With more research support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and others, they will become even better.

You say that pasture production is more profitable. So why aren't more farmers raising cattle on grass?

Smart pasture operations (SPOs) take advantage of low-cost grasses on well-managed pastures that require less maintenance, energy, pesticides, and water than the feed crops on which CAFOs rely. That’s why there is a growing movement among farmers to adopt these practices.

However, changing the way cattle are produced, slaughtered, and distributed can be a challenge. Existing policies and infrastructure tilt the field in favor of the industrial approach, despite its hidden costs and inefficiencies. Very large producers have virtually monopolized slaughterhouses, making it difficult for pasture-based and other small and mid-size operations to bring their products to market. And producers of grass-fed animals have not received enough support from USDA research agencies, which give most of their attention to CAFOs. Finally, grazing cows efficiently requires developing new skill sets and new approaches to management and marketing.

As we overcome these hurdles, even more producers will be able to make the change to SPOs.

How do the fatty acid levels in grass-fed beef and milk compare with levels found in beef and milk from grain-fed animals?

Grass-fed beef and dairy have less total fat and higher levels of "good fats" (omega-3 fatty acids) compared with beef and milk from animals fed a grain diet like that in CAFOs. For example, in our study the average amount of heart-healthy EPA/DHA in a serving of grass-fed steak is about 35 mg (the highest value was 70 mg per serving), while steak from non-pastured cattle had only 18 mg per serving. The average amount of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA in a glass of pasture-raised milk is about 80 mg (with one sample at 155 mg), but milk from non-pastured cows has only 55 mg of ALA.

The levels of omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef and milk are not nearly as high as those found in high omega-3 foods such as wild salmon and flaxseed, but they are certainly an improvement over CAFO products. More research is needed on how these fatty acids work and what levels are needed in the diet to produce various health benefits.

I'm confused about labels. Are pasture-raised products the same as organic or natural foods?

No. "Organic" and "natural" are different from "grass-fed."

The USDA has defined grass-fed as meat from animals raised solely on grasses, hay, and other non-grain vegetation. The department has also stipulated that products bearing this label must come from animals that have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Though it is not stipulated in the USDA’s standard, virtually all grass-fed cattle are also raised without antibiotics and hormones.

There is not currently a formal government standard for meat labeled pasture-raised. The USDA once proposed a standard for this label, but it was ultimately withdrawn. Informally, pasture-raised is a term used to describe dairy cattle and products, and loosely, means cattle have had access to pasture and have not been confined in CAFOs. Organic is a federally certified label available for both meat and milk that requires cattle be raised under a comprehensive set of standards established by the USDA. These standards require, among other things, that the corn or other grain fed the animals be organically grown, but they do NOT require that animals be grass-fed. In the case of the organic dairy standards, cows must have "access to pasture." Under the loosest interpretations, animals could be given only token access to pasture but still qualify for the organic label. Efforts are underway to ensure that the pasture requirement mean a substantial portion of an organic cow’s nutrients come from grass.Natural, according to the formal USDA standard, refers only to minimal processing and the absence of additives. However, many meat producers use the word "natural" to mean raised without antibiotics and hormones. In either case, the natural label does NOT mean that cattle were grass-fed. Many "natural" cattle are fed in CAFOs, although often in lower numbers and with other amenities not found in CAFOs.

In an attempt to distinguish meat that matches this second meaning of "natural," the USDA has proposed the creation of a new label, "naturally raised." In the USDA’s latest proposal, meat could be labeled as naturally raised if it originated from animals that were never fed animal by-products or administered antibiotics or added growth hormones. UCS applauds the effort to provide a clear label for such products, but urges the USDA to do it in a way that better distinguishes the terms "natural" (meaning only minimally processed) and "naturally raised." Such a clear distinction will help to eliminate consumer confusion and aid farmers who adopt more sustainable animal production practices

I've heard that grass-fed beef tastes different than grain-fed beef. Do consumers like grass-fed beef?

Many people, including chefs, prefer the somewhat different taste and texture of grass-fed beef. Because it is generally less fatty, grass-fed beef needs to be cooked somewhat differently than grain-fed beef. Cooking grass-fed beef for either very short or very long times can enhance its flavor and texture. For more information, see http://stockmangrassfarmer.net. The age of the animal, its genetics, or improper cooking can contribute to less tender beef, regardless of whether it is grain- or grass-fed.

Why is it hard to find grass-fed beef and milk in stores?

There are currently not enough grass-fed beef or dairy producers to meet demand. As more farmers adopt and refine smart pasture operation (SPO) methods, more and even better grass-fed beef and dairy will become available. As citizens, we can speak out in support of farm policies that will encourage the spread of SPOs.

Where can consumers buy grass-fed beef and milk?

Grass-fed milk products can often be found at co-ops or grocery stores like Whole Foods. Grass-fed beef can be found in some supermarkets, at farmers' markets, on the Internet, and from local producers. The American Grassfed Association maintains a list of producers at www.americangrassfed.org

What are the environmental benefits of pasture-based systems?

The environmental benefits of carefully managed smart pasture operations (SPOs) are numerous, including:

  • Manure is produced in amounts suitable to fertilize the land, unlike CAFOs that produce unmanageable mountains of waste.
  • With less waste, there is improved air and water quality and reduced fish kills when compared with CAFOs that pollute waterways.
  • Healthier waterways allow for restoration of wildlife habitats, which support a diverse number of wild animal species.<
  • Healthy pastures decrease soil erosion and capture heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
  • With lower transportation costs for feed, there is decreased fuel use, which results in a reduction in heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
  • Since grass-fed animals are healthy, antibiotics are rarely needed, helping to keep medically important antibiotics working for people and animals.

This is an area that needs even more research and we encourage public and private institutions to fund appropriate studies.

Where is the increased pastureland needed to produce grass-fed beef and dairy going to come from?

In general, smart pasture operations (SPOs) are good ways to use agricultural and range land in the United States and UCS believes that SPOs deserve a prominent role in the mix of future U.S. agricultural land uses.

For the time being, the land use implications of grass-fed beef and dairying are not pressing questions because the number of grass-fed beef operations is small, but as the demand for grass-fed beef and dairy increase, there will be growing interest in acquiring or converting land to pasture.

The United States currently devotes nearly 75 million acres of land to the production of soybeans, most of which are fed to animals. Similarly, much of the nation’s 80 to 90 million acres of corn is fed to livestock. A move to pasture-raised cattle would free up some of that land, and several studies have shown that rotational grazing of cattle can yield a better economic return to farmers than corn production. In addition to the economic benefits, the switch to grazing could reduce the negative health and environmental consequences of CAFOs and corn production such as soil erosion, water pollution, and declining health of downstream aquatic ecosystems. Underutilized lands in the southeastern United States and other regions might also be good sources of pasture.

Hasn't grazing in the western United States done a lot of damage to the land?

Yes, badly-managed grazing on public and private lands in the arid West has caused a great deal of ecological damage. However, even in the West, cattle can be grazed in ways that benefit rather than threaten the environment. And 90 percent of the beef produced in the United States is raised in areas that are less vulnerable to mismanagement. We support smart pasture operations that manage pastureland carefully to enhance soil, water, and wildlife conditions.

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