Grass fed beef 101

Do you make these 4 mistakes when buying grass fed beef?

You have heard of the benefits of eating grass fed beef, right? It is high in nutrients and sustainable. Find out the secrets that supermarkets, butchers and farm shops don’t want you to know about grass fed beef. Keep your money for beef that is worth it.

Mistake #1

You buy beef with a “grass fed” label at the supermarket

You might not have bought grass fed beef at all. To get benefits of grass fed beef, it has to have been eating grass (or preserved grass) all its life.

But meat labelled as “grass fed” can come from animals that didn’t eat grass all their life.

What???

Defra and Food Standards Agency allow “grass fed” label on meat that comes from animals that could have spent 49% of their life in a barn munching grain. Sorry, no special environmental and health benefits from this meat.

What actually happens on the farm? For the last 6 months or more of their lives, cattle come in a cow shed. Here they are fed mixture of straw, grass or maize silage (fermented forage), barley, rapeseed meal, and beans or soya for extra protein. This is called finishing (such beef is grain or concentrate finished).

So majority of British-reared beef on the supermarket shelves are the same as the one with “grass fed” label on it.

How do you find real grass fed beef that only had grass all its life? Look for beef that is labelled as 100% grass fed or carries a Pasture For Life Certification. No, you won’t find such meat in a supermarket.

Only 100% grass fed cattle and those carrying Pasture For Life mark eat grass all their life.

Mistake #2

You believe your local butcher sells you grass fed beef that only had grass

The same rule applies here. The labelling law requires just 51% of cattle’s life to be spent on grass for your butcher to call it “grass fed”.

If you are unsure, ask your butcher what the cattle eat in winter. We have heard things like “The cattle eat homegrown crops in the winter”. A sign they were fed grain, just said less directly.

When someone talking to you is vague about their beef, it is a warning sign. All farmers who produce cattle on grass alone know their stuff and are proud to tell you all about it. And butchers who sell their meat display a great big sign at their shop. Proudly too.

Beware of local butchers claiming “grass fed” beef. Ask them whether their beef is 100% grass fed.

Mistake #3

You pay premium for dairy steaks (even those 100% grass fed)

Dairy cattle are inferior meat in the trade. For farmers and wholesalers alike.

Why? Dairy cattle breeds don’t have much meat on them. They are bred to produce milk, not meat. So you won’t get much of a rump, for example.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with eating retired dairy cows. They produce tasty meat. Even though it is a bit on the tough side.

So where do they come from? At a dairy, the cows that are not producing enough milk, have regular inflammation of their udders or have problematic pregnancy are removed from the milking herd. They can be sold to a farmer who puts them in the field and lets them graze for a year or more. Then they go to a slaughter.

So these cows might have been intensively grain fed to produce large quantities of milk for most of their lives, 5-10 years. Then they may spend 1 year on grass to get more fat (dairy breeds are bred to be very bony and skinny).

So do not pay premium for this meat. Dairy beef should cost the same or be cheaper than normal beef from animals under 30 months of age. Prime steak or not.

Dairy grass fed steaks come from retired dairy cows that might have been fed grain most of their life.

Mistake #4

You buy 100% grass fed beef from retired beef cattle – and pay a lot for it

Before you order your beef, do you check the age of the cattle it comes from?

Why is it important? Because out there, smart marketers are trying to charge premium for what doesn’t deserve it. It can be compared to buying a car. Would you pay higher price for one that has seen the best days? More than for a brand new car?

It is similar with beef. The gold standard is beef from animals aged at or under 2.5 years old (this is like your brand new car). Anything older than that is, well, older.

What is special about this age of cattle? Not much, but because UK law capped maximum age of beef slaughtered on a small scale at 2.5 years, the gold age standard was born. The reason behind the capping was BSE that ravaged farms a few decades ago. Animals older than 2.5 years must be slaughtered at specially licensed slaughterhouses and the spinal cord must be completely removed.

When you come across beef that comes from 3-5 year old cattle, it comes from culled cows. What is a cull cow? It is a cow that is not producing good quality offspring. Like nature, farmers select the best animals to keep in their herd. They cull any that don’t fit the mark.

As with dairy cows, meat from these cows is treated as inferior. There is nothing wrong with the taste or quality. The problem is that the farmer doesn’t get paid well for these animals. Such cattle are a cheap buy for whoever sells them.

Anyone trying to sell you over 3-year-old beef for a premium price is making a good profit. Like the cheeky car dealers who try to disguise an old car for a brand new one.

cattle on grass
Pay premium only for beef from cattle of 2.5 years of age.

How do you avoid making these mistakes?

  1. Find a good source of beef. Buy only 100% grass fed beef or one with a Pasture For Life Certification. Not just “grass fed” label.
  2. Check the age of the cattle it comes from. The gold standard is at 2.5 years or less. Don’t pay extra for beef older than that.
  3. Check whether the meat comes from an ex-dairy cow. Even if the dairy beef is 100% grass fed, don’t pay premium for inferior meat. Unless of course you buy it straight from the farmer you wish to support. Just find out how the cow lived its life and how much grain it had when it was producing milk. All dairy farmers keep good records. They can even tell you how many times the cow was treated with antibiotics.

Now you know how to choose the right grass fed beef. In the next article of this series I will show you the nutritional difference of this meat and why it deserves to be on your plate.

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The amount of feed and fertilizers per 1 beef animal

As a calf, it is fed 100 kg of feed in a creep feeder:
60 kg barley
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

growing steer (for 100 days) ratio:
350 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed

finishing steer (for 80 days)
600 kg barley

TOTAL feed per steer:
1010 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

Source: AHDB

Pesticide figure based on yearly application of pesticides on barley in 2018 (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):

spring and winter barley were mixed in equal ratio for simplicity.
Pesticides in spring barley:
157.5 g
Pesticides in winter barley:
307.5 g

TOTAL 465 g of pesticides = to litres it is about 465 ml of pesticides per year.

Source: Pesticides usage survey 284 for arable crops in the United Kingdom 2018 (National Statistics)

Fertilizer figure (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):
nitrogen: 24.14 kg
phosphate: 4.59 kg
potash: 5.95 kg
sulfur: 5.95 kg


TOTAL 40.63 kg of fertilizers

Source: British survey of fertilizer practice for 2018 (DEFRA)