Pasture Raised vs Grass-fed
When looking for the healthiest foods to incorporate into your diet, the labels can be pretty overwhelming! Whether you’re adopting healthier eating habits for ethical reasons or simply to consume more wholesome foods, it can sometimes be difficult to decipher what the labels mean and which ones are worth the extra cost.
When it comes to both healthful and ethical consumption, we are firm believers in pasture raised and grass-fed animal products. Most of the time, animals that have been pasture raised and/or grass-fed go beyond simply organic (which mainly refers to the type of food the animal is fed) to humanely and ethically raised - which of course refers to how the animal lives. For example, chickens raised on pasture must, by law, be given at least 108 square feet of pasture per bird on which to roam, forage, and eat. Not only are pasture raised chickens exposed to a wider variety of wholesome (for chickens, anyway) foods, such as insects, worms, small animals, and plants. But, they’re also exposed to ample fresh air, sunshine, and exercise. This results in healthier birds overall, and as you can imagine...healthier birds provide healthier meat.
Grass-fed animals are also afforded a nutritious and wholesome diet, but while the terms pasture raised and grass-fed are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same thing.
What Does it Mean to Be Pasture Raised or Grass-Fed?
Simply put, pasture raised refers to where the animals graze, and grass-fed refers to what they eat. It’s not uncommon for a pasture raised animal to eat a diet that is supplemented with grain. For example, here at Pasturebird, we learned that healthy grains are a species-appropriate food for monogastric animals such as chickens. Because chickens have a gizzard, a unique organ that essentially pulverizes the grains after they’re consumed, grains are easily digestible by chickens and were actually consumed in their wild environment by the chicken’s ancestor, the red junglefowl.
When we first started Pasturebird, Farmer Paul was following a Paleo diet, and we thought that a grain free diet would be healthier for our birds as well. The more we researched, the more we learned about why certain grains can actually be beneficial for chickens, when used to supplement a diet of goodies foraged from pasture.
On the other hand, ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep have a different digestive system than chickens, and lack a gizzard. They are unable to adequately digest grains, and in fact, a high-grain diet can be toxic to cattle, causing overgrowth of certain bacteria that (if left untreated) can result in sudden-death. Factory farmed cattle are often fed a high grain diet, because it provides nutrients faster and thus results in faster growth. For an industry concerned more with maximizing profits than maximizing animal welfare, this can seem like a no brainer. But for cattle farmers focused on sustainable and regenerative agricultural processes, with an emphasis on the well-being of their animals, grass-fed is the way to go.
When it comes to choosing between pasture raised and grass fed, it’s more important to make sure that the animal has been fed a species-appropriate diet rather than a completely grain free one. When it comes to beef or lamb, grass-fed is best, for the reasons we outlined above. Pasture raised chickens that have been fed a supplemental diet of non-GMO grains are a healthy and nutritious choice as well.
Which One is Healthier?
Aha! This is a trick question. When it comes to deciding whether to buy pasture raised or grass fed, and which one is a healthier choice, it depends 100% on the type of meat you’re purchasing, and how it was raised overall.
You’ll likely never see pork or chicken labeled “100% grass-fed” - because pigs and chickens were not meant to live on grass alone! Their diet should consist of a wider variety of foods found on pasture due to their omnivorous natures, and including a supplemental grain feed is completely species-appropriate for these animals.
On the other hand, ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle are herbivores, which means that when they graze on pasture, they focus exclusively on grasses rather than eating insects or small animals. Their dietary needs are different from those of chickens and pigs, and so is their digestive system, which is why you won’t find an ethical or sustainable farmer that feeds a grain-heavy diet to their cattle or sheep - and in fact, they hopefully don’t feed grain at all. These animals don’t thrive on such a diet and as we’ve outlined above, it can often be toxic for them.
The best way to know how the meat you’re purchasing has been raised is to ask the farmer! These days, transparency means a lot more than labels do. Labels can be greenwashed or spun with the help of a stealthy marketing team - but transparency can’t be faked. Any ethical farmer worth his or her salt should be happy to share how their animals are raised, what they’re fed, and the steps they take to foster animal welfare and environmental sustainability. That’s why we offer regular farm tours at Pasturebird. We do this so that our consumers can see first-hand the pasture raised difference, and also so we can answer any questions they might have about our practices. For example, some of our customers are concerned to learn that we feed our chickens a supplemental diet of grain, believing that pasture raised chickens should exclusively be fed from foraging on pasture. We get it, we used to think that completely grain free was the way to go too. We’re happy to educate our consumers the same way we ourselves were educated when we first started farming, particularly when it comes to why we raise our birds the way we do. Transparency is one of the cornerstones of our regenerative agricultural practices, and we welcome the opportunity to share with our customers.
You can find all of your pasture raised chicken needs at Pasturebird, and if you’re looking for grass-fed beef or lamb, or pasture raised pork, look for local farms in your area or check out a site like localharvest.org that can put you in touch with local farmers.