There’s a big difference between the nutrition level of meats from the massive factory farming operations and pastured, grass-fed animals.
Let’s start with a few things to consider when you shop for your dog’s raw meat. First, here’s what you need to know about factory farming.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
Most of the beef produced in the United States comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). They’ve led to the demise of the family farm and a change in the standard of farming practices.
CAFOs can contain tens of thousands of cattle, confined in close quarters. These feedlots enable beef producers to control the environment and fatten animals as quickly as possible. Once calves are weaned at 7 to 9 months of age, they’re brought to these facilities where they live out their days in congested conditions, indoors or in open feedlots.
What Is Grain-Fed Beef?
Grain is only one ingredient in the diet of cows raised on feedlots. Feedlots offer factory-style efficiency so calves gain weight quickly on a diet of corn, soy and grain distillates (leftovers from biofuel operations) and “by-product feedstuff.” That can include by-products from the distilling industry, potato waste, orange peels, and even candy. Feeding genetically modified (GMO) grains to cows is part of the practice too.
And each year these animals are given millions of pounds of non-therapeutic medicine, growth hormones and supplements to promote faster growth. These operations house thousands of animals so they’re given low-dose antibiotics and antimicrobials to make up for the unsanitary, stressful and crowded conditions. It’s considered a successful operation when cows get to market weight in less than a year.
And when your dog eats a conventional meat diet, even in processed kibble form, those antibiotics, hormones and drugs build up in his system too. And that leads to long-term health issues and chronic disease.
Nutrition From Factory Farmed Meat
Cattle, dairy cows, goats, bison and sheep are supposed to eat fibrous grasses, plants, and shrubs … not starchy, low-fiber grains and feedstuffs. Given a diet of grains instead of greenery, many get sick and are given antibiotics.
Factory-farmed, grain-fed cattle have less vitamin E, beta-carotene and low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). And with GMO grains as a major part of their diet, these animals are high in omega-6 fatty acids which are inflammatory. And this is passed through their meat into meat products and dog food and into your dog.
What Is The Environmental Impact Of Factory-farmed Cattle?
This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the costs of these massive operations.
It takes 1 pound of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. Raising an entire steer requires 10 times more calories than are eaten. Americans spend an estimated $1 billion per day on food that could be better used to grow crops. Livestock eat a huge amount of grain, so that means there are large areas dedicated just to growing grains to feed them.
It takes vast amounts of oil and chemical fertilizer to grow corn, a primary crop for feed. There’s increased soil erosion, decreased water quality and higher fossil fuel costs. And even more fossil fuel is used for the waste removal and trucking involved with feedlots.
Animal Waste And Contamination
These large numbers of animals create large amounts of manure in a small amount of space. They take their environmental toll on the soil, air and water table. And manure is often dumped close to the feedlot to cut down on the high transportation costs. Manure contaminates groundwater with pathogens, phosphorus and nitrogen. Manure storage also releases dangerous gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane into the air. And that endangers farm workers.
Now let’s look at grass-fed and pastured animals. These are meats you’ll usually find locally, within a hundred miles or so of the farm. They aren’t raised and processed in huge numbers to be shipped country-wide or even state- or province-wide. They are raised to serve the local community of restaurants, families and consumers.
What’s The Difference Between Grass-Fed And Pasture-Raised?
Pastured animals are raised outdoors on sustainable farms where they can move freely, enjoy natural behaviors and eat a natural diet.
But grass-fed and pasture-raised can be different. Grass-fed means what an animal eats (grass). And not all grass-fed cows graze outdoors, unless the meat is certified by the American Grassfed Association (AMA) (more on that later).
Pasture-raised is where the animal eats (on a pasture). If it’s important to you that the cow lived outside in its natural environment, then pasture-raised meat is for you and your dog.
When cows are pasture-raised, most of their food comes from pastures where the cattle live and roam. Because these pastured animals eat grasses that aren’t as dense as grain and soy, the amount of time it takes to bring them to market weight (18 to 30 months) is longer than for those animals raised on factory farms.
Is Grass-Fed Meat Free of Antibiotics and Added Hormones?
Yes it is, when it’s certified and labeled by the American Grass-fed Association (AGA). This ensures:
- All certified animals are born, raised and finished on only grass and forage.
- Animals are raised in open grass pastures and are free to graze with no confinement.
- AGA-certified meats are guaranteed antibiotic and growth hormone-free.
- All animals are US-born and raised on family farms.
What’s Healthier: Grass-fed Or Grain-fed Beef?
Research shows that grass-fed, pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products have higher nutrient levels and better health benefits for your dog than grain-fed options.
Health Benefits Of Grass-fed Beef For Dogs
Grass-fed, pastured animals have …
- High levels of vitamins A and E
- Higher amounts of K1 which converts to K2 and supports bones and arteries; K1 is only available in grasses
- Higher levels of zinc, iron, selenium, calcium and other important nutrients
- Higher in cancer-fighting antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase
- A healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats
- 25-50% lower fat content … meaning lower calories
Fatty Acids In Grass-fed Beef
A cow is what it eats … you can see that in the fatty acid composition. Compared to grain fed beef, grass-fed has …
- A lower amount of monounsaturated fat than grain-fed beef.
- About the same amount of omega-6 fatty acid.
- As much as 5 times the amount of omega-3s. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants and known for its anti-inflammatory qualities. It’s found in grasses on pastures where cows graze.
- As much as 5 times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in their milk and meat. CLA is known for its cancer-fighting properties, and its ability to reduce cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes risk.
Phytonutrients In Grass-Fed Meat And Milk
There’s now research showing livestock that eat grass-based diets have more health-promoting phytonutrients in their meat and milk. In fact the amounts are comparable to those found in plant foods. These are nutrients known to be anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and support cardiovascular health. Phytonutrients are notably absent from the meat and milk of conventional beef.
What About Organs From Grass-fed Animals?
Grass-fed animal organs are rich in vitamin A, vitamin B12, coenzyme Q10, bio-available heme iron, selenium and enzymes. Like the origins of grass-fed meat, they come from animals that have been pasture-raised and kept hormone, antibiotic- and pesticide-free. Farmers raising animals this way try to maintain unpolluted lands for healthier animals right through to their organs.
RELATED: How to feed your dog organs …
Does Grass-fed Pork Exist?
No. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re selling grass-fed pigs. They need grain in their diet to survive. But pigs can be pasture-raised and have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than factory farmed pigs. Pork also has high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamin E and beta carotene.
But goats, lambs and cows will be happy on a grass-only diet.
RELATED: When to feed your dog pork …
Raising Animals Sustainably on Pasture
When farmers use a wide variety of practices to raise animals humanely, they produce better products. They’re also committed to building soil health and offsetting the effects of greenhouse gases. They apply manure at a rate that the land/pasture can handle, causing less damage to the environment and providing organic fertilizer for the land.
Raising livestock on pasture costs more because it takes more labor and money. As a result, meat, milk and eggs are more expensive. You pay more but it’s a long-term investment in a food system that’s healthier for you, your dog and the planet.
Is Your Dog Eating Factory Farmed Meats?
There isn’t a way to visually look at meat to determine how it was produced. But consider the source. If you buy meat at a regular supermarket, it’s probably from a factory farm. You’ll soon see that you can find meat raised and produced on smaller farms in alternative grocery stores, health food stores and farmers markets.
Package labels will have third-party certifications that say organic, sustainably-raised, locally raised on pasture-based farms, humanely-raised, free-range, Certified Humane. If there isn’t a certifying body you can check with, then the label isn’t legit.
Finding Grass-fed And Pastured Meat, Eggs and Dairy
Sourcing better products for your dog takes a bit of research. Independent butcher shops and farmer’s markets are where you can talk to the source and find out where their meat is coming from. And once you’ve found what you need, you can build a relationship. Your farmers’ market should have pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products. Or ask the vegetable producers if they know of local farmers. It’s one big community and you’ll be part of it.
There are also Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations that offer shares of meat, eggs and milk along with fruits and vegetables. Local butchers usually have pasture-raised meat or know where to get it for you. You may need to buy your meat in bulk and freeze it.
Websites like EatWild also provide information on local food sources throughout the US and Canada.
Benefits of Buying Locally Raised, Grass-fed Meat
Nutrition is an excellent reason and here are several more:
- Support and get to know your local farmers.
- Locally produced foods are fresher.
- Foods close to home don’t incur huge transport costs or use fossil fuels.
- Less transportation costs means less cost for you.
- Enjoy local foods in season.
- Eliminate the middleman and buy directly from the farm or co-op.
- Less handling, less contamination, less bruising.
- You’ll need freezer space … but you can save by buying in bulk from local farms. Butchers offer a ¼ or ½ cow or pig, or a ½ lamb.
Is Grass-Fed Meat Worth the Extra Cost?
The extra cost supports the health of your dog, the environment and the producers that ethically raise the animals. Retail pricing for pasture-raised meats, dairy and eggs can cause sticker shock due to the true costs being reflected for labor, environmental stewardship and animal welfare. And of course, the larger the animal like cows, the greater the cost to raise them. Compared to industrialized beef, pastured, grass-fed beef is 33% more expensive and pastured chicken is four times as expensive. But it translates into better health and less inflammation and disease in the long run.
And isn’t it a small price to pay to know where your dog’s meat is coming from and what’s in it?
Van Elswyk, Mary E., et al. Impact of grass/forage feeding versus grain finishing on beef nutrients and sensory quality: the U.S. experience. Meat Sci. 2014 Jan;96(1):535-40.
Van Vliet, Stephan, et al. Health-Promoting Phytonutrients Are Higher in Grass-Fed Meat and Milk. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 01 February 2021.
Li, Yaokun, et al. Transcriptomic Profiling of Spleen in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Angus Cattle. Journals Plos. September 14, 2015.