Cows are herbivores (mainly grasses).
A cows’ natural diet is typically a “grazing” diet. “Graze” comes from Middle English grasen, from old English grasian, from graes grass. When you put the cattle “out to pasture” it is traditionally out to the pasture land where the cows will graze on the grasses that are growing. On their website at cattletoday.com the authors state
“Real cattlemen show their true colors and don the hat of a “grass farmer.” Not “sodbuster,” but yes, “grass farmer.”
“Grass farmers” then do not rely on expensive, oil consuming machinery to harvest the crop, they rely on “machines” of the four-legged variety who can not only harvest the grass, but also fertilize the next crop. Repeating this process over the same areas of pasture if called “rotational grazing” or “managed grazing.” We have seen this ourselves on a small farm here near Phoenix at Farmer Goose. Here they explain “Managed Grazing.”
Cattle were not designed to eat a diet consisting of grains such as wheat, corn and their byproducts. They especially weren’t designed to have candy mixed into their concentrated feed (read here how farmers are feeding candy to cows because corn prices increased.) Grains are an excellent energy source and when cows are confined in feed lots (industrial farms) that energy can’t get burned so it converts to fat. This gets that cow up to weight so it can go to slaughter sooner. It also creates a cow with higher fat content and this is where the marketing machines kick in and call fatter cattle as having “superior marbling for better flavor”, as opposed to the leaner grass fed cows.
The conditions pictured above look idealistic right? However, the American demand has been “more food for less money.” Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper! How many of us have bragged about how cheap a food purchase we made was (guilty!) That has led us to the industrialized feed lots which aren’t exactly ecological havens (see Google Earth pictures of a feed lot here). That’s a whole lot of brown by the satellite image. Does this system do what the consumer has demanded? Yes, and they do it very efficiently with the latest technologies. However, it’s not healthy for the planet, surely not healthy for the cows, and it’s definitely not producing healthy food for us.
Grassfed products tend to be much lower in total fat than grainfed products. Grassfed products have an added benefit of having the highest levels of CLAs (conjugated linoleic acid). Studies show that a small amount of CLA in your diet will greatly reduce tumor growth. A Finnish study has shown that women with the highest levels of CLAs in their diet had a 60 percent lower risk for breast cancer. Sources found in footnotes 12 and 14 on the bottom of this page at americangrassfedbeef.com.
The grain-fed diets produce cows that have normal amounts of Omega-6 and are virtually devoid of all Omega-3. As humans, we need a balance of both at a 1:1 ratio. A typical western diet has a ratio of about 15-16.7:1 high in Omega-6 fatty acids. This imbalance can cause cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases per the National Center for Biotechnology Information found here. Dr Weil also has a good write up on his site here on the differences in Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. Grassfed products have 2-6 times more Omega-3s than their grainfed counterparts.
Fats are still fats and fats should not be the base of our diet, so we should consume in moderation and at healthy levels. However, our bodies do need the right fats to be healthy. Eating the healthy fats and eating them in the correct proportions will greatly increase our health and/or reduce our risk for certain disease.