Trying to understand the difference between grass fed, grass finished, 100% grass fed and pasture raised

If you have heard the phrases, ‘grass fed,’ ‘100% grass fed,’ ‘grass finished,’ and ‘pasture raised,’ and ‘organic,’ but feeling confused on what’s the best option, then you’re not alone! 

I’m here to break it down very simply and easily, but first we must begin with the basics: “grass-fed” refers to what an animal eats (grass) while “pasture-raised” refers to where it eats (on a pasture). A more complex answer refers to the amount of grass they’re fed.

Grass-fed beef is an important term, but still consumers must pay careful attention as not all grass-fed beef is created equal. Grass-fed could mean the animal ate grass once upon a time, grass finished could mean the cow was fed grass in the months leading up to market.

  • Grass-fed may be used to label meat from animals that were started on a grass diet but have either received supplemental grain feed or are finished on a fully grain-based diet. Grass-fed does not mean that the animal spent any time in a pasture, they could have been fed hay in a feedlot.
  • Grass-finished comes from animals that ate nothing but grass and forage for their entire lives until harvest.
  • 100% grass fed is the same as grass finished.

What about pasture raised? 

A pasture-raised cow can certainly be grass-fed, but only if its diet for most of its life was grass. A pasture-raised cow might be fed grain by a rancher, especially in the winter if the ranch is in a cold climate where snow covers the pasture.

According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, animals must spend “at least some portion of their lives on pasture or with access to a pasture, not continually confined indoors,” to qualify as “pasture-raised.”

So a pastured cow can also be a grass-fed cow, but only if the pasture in question has ample grass to sustain the herd all throughout the year. A pasture fed cow could also be raised, or at least finished on nothing but grain, yes even GMO grain.

For instance, most cattle, even feedlot beef, are born on pasture and raised there at least until they’re weaned. The USDA allows producers to use “pasture-raised” if they also define their practices, so the definition can vary from ranch to ranch, label to label. Additionally, the USDA does NOT verify the claim (beyond reviewing the paperwork) or require any third-party verification.

“Grass-fed” was a little more clear for a while, but in 2016 the USDA withdrew its standards for this label. Previously, the standards included the requirement that “grass, forbs, and forage needed to be 99% or more of the energy source for the lifetime of a ruminant species after weaning.” Currently, there is no governmental standard that defines “grass-fed.”

If you want a steak that is 100% grass-fed, be sure to look for that specific designation on the label. This means that its diet was not supplemented. If a package says “grass-fed” but does not say 100%, it means that the animal was likely “finished” on grain and other supplemental feed the last two to three months of its life. At your farmers’ market, a certification that all packaged meat products are processed and packaged in USDA-approved facilities is required.

If you see “certified organic grass-fed beef” on the packaging, this means that the animals must have been raised on land that is certified organic, be allowed access to pasture, and be fed only organic material. The best of both worlds would be organic 100% grass-fed meat.

My favorite ranches to source the meat are Force of Nature (CLICK HERE for 10% off and use code MEGMB) and White Oak Pastures. Use your best judgment!