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'Happy cows:' do they produce healthier meat?

Traveling in Ukraine some years ago, I noted the guide often referred to “happy cows” when passing herds of bovine roaming freely on pastures beside the road. I soon discovered this phrase was used to differentiate these cows from those confined to feedlots in much larger operations.

In the last decade, there has been a growing interest among ranchers in Canada and the United States to send their cows to pasture to forage on grass—their natural diet—instead of feeding them a diet of grains in confined facilities. In most cases, the grass-fed cattle are not treated with hormones or antibiotics, or fed growth-promoting additives. The question is: are there valid reasons to seek out meat from animals raised on pastures considering it is not widely available in mainstream stores and is often more expensive?

The question in essence is, are pasture-raised cows indeed “happier” than their counterparts, and does this make a difference in the quality of meat? One can’t read a cow’s mind, of course, but common sense would tell us that an animal’s quality of life when roaming freely is superior to one which is confined and it is happiest in its native environment. It seems to be true that pasture-fed cows lead low-stress lives and thus there is less of a need to treat them with antibiotics and other drugs for disease control.

Less saturated fat

Although more research needs to be done on whether grass-fed meat is healthier than grain-fed, there are definite indicators that this may be the case. Testing shows that meat from livestock raised on pastures—be it beef, bison, pork or lamb—has less fat in total including less saturated fat and cholesterol than meat from grain-fed animals. In the case of beef, there is a significantly higher content of both conjugated linoleic acid (a unique form of omega-6 fatty acids) and omega-3 fat in grass-fed meat, both of which have important health benefits including reduced risk of heart attack and immune and inflammatory system support. Cholesterol content has repeatedly been shown to be lower in grass-fed animals than those conventionally fed which also has direct implications for the cardiovascular system.

Other health benefits that grass-fed beef appears to offer in comparison to grain-fed is more beta-carotene (vitamin A) and vitamin E and a marginally higher content of several minerals such as zinc and selenium. These nutrients are antioxidants which mean they play a role in protecting the body from cancer and boost the body’s immune system among other things.

Most of the meat we purchase in supermarkets has been raised in large “factory farm” operations where the diet is designed to boost productivity and lower costs which makes economic sense. The main ingredients are corn, soy and other types of grains high in starch and energy, sometimes supplemented by growth hormones to speed up the process of preparing the meat for market. A high-grain diet may cause physical problems for ruminants (cud-chewing animals) which are born to eat grasses and other plants. This along with close confinement which is prone to spread disease quickly makes it necessary to use chemical additives and a near constant dosage of antibiotics. A recent concern has been the increasing prevalence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics when it comes to treating humans (as well as animals).

Disperse organic fertilizer

In addition, animals raised in feedlots deposit their waste in a small amount of space; this manure has to be hauled away, which is an expensive proposition. Pastured livestock spread their waste as they naturally move about—which means one has to take care to avoid stepping into cow pies, but which otherwise disperse organic fertilizer over a wide area.

It should be noted, however, that beef in the supermarket is safe to consume since Canada has strict regulations for all food products that appear on grocery store shelves. The beef you buy will be free of residues from antibiotics and synthetic hormones. All veterinary drugs used in producing meat for public consumption have to pass stringent tests set up by the Food and Drug Act. It is also true that all beef is a good source of protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals (iron being an important one).

Thus the reasons you might choose meat that comes from animals which are pasture-fed would be for the slight nutritious edge, to improve welfare of livestock and help sustain small-scale farmers and rural communities. Look for grass-fed meat in health food stores, farmers’ markets or directly from farms in the area.

It is important to remember that beef—whether grass or grain-fed—should be eaten in moderation since it is a source of saturated fat. Put it on the table once or twice a week and keep serving sizes at four-ounces each. The leanest cuts of beef are the inside and outside round, strip steak and flank steak with sirloin, tenderloin and T-bone steak higher in fat and thus juicier.