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Beef Production


What is Grass-fed?

Blaithin's Avatar Oct 8, 2020 | 10:33 1 My thoughts on this are very scattered, so much so it's actually driven me to type it up on the computer instead of my phone. Hopefully that helps me get it into a reasonably understandable post!

The initiator: Just one more Twitter post questioning A&W.

Now I have nothing against A&W. I support what they're doing, although some of their campaign, like the vegetarian chickens, do make me roll my eyes. They did their research, they found a market that wasn't covered yet and that consumers would pay for, and they went for it. Their first hurdle was that they used language in their commercials that made Canadian producers feel... attacked? The second is that they're based in a country that has more limiting factors for this market than some other countries do. Both these hurdles meant that they began their new direction with quite a bit of outsourcing to other countries and many boycotted them. But as the years have progressed they've been able to add more and more Canadian farmers to their list. The result, they consistently see growth in their sales. Since this is the goal of any business, obviously it's working despite the angst felt in the farming community. Good for A&W for finding a way forward!

Now the discussion - What is grass fed?

This morning opened with just another tweet giving a semblance of mockery for A&W promoting grass fed when barley is a grass after all. Insinuating like barley the grain is comparable to barley the grass.

Now anyone can sit there and look at barley growing and know it's not like a handful of barley. However with most things in life, there is a point where the line blurs. In our Twitter discussion, that line ended up being Green Feed. At what point in harvest does Green Feed count as a forage option and at what point does it turn into a grain source? Obviously this will be dependant on stage of harvest, but would a late harvested, close to ripe, version preclude an animal from a grass fed scheme? Should it?

I haven't put any effort into searching for this so there might already be one, but I would like to see a break down of an average green feed bale into basic parts. How much of it is grain. 20%? 10%? Less, more? It's definitely not at levels of being a fed grain diet, but it can have grain in it. Does this mean it's not an option for a grass fed system? Or in order to be in a grass fed schematic would it have to be harvested before a certain maturity? If not, is this leaving a loop hole for unsavoury people to just feed their animals a small amount of grain and say it was in the green feed?

Nor have I recently gone to read the standards of such consumer marketing mandates. The last would have been the antibiotic free ones for McDonald's and Subway (which didn't say that antibiotics couldn't be given, just they had to be vet prescribed and couldn't be for prophylactic use.) So should these marketing decisions give a level of grain in their descriptions. Zero, less than 10% of the diet, less than 25%, etc? Obviously grazing animals are able to consume grains in their daily diets, how much is normal in just grazing I don't know. Zero would be a hard number to meet.

Unless the definition comes down to something like "feed grains". As in you added grains to the ration vs had grains on the plants in the ration.

Lots of room to narrow or widen things in this sort of legislation isn't there.

I'm not one to promote labels. I don't really see the necessity for creating certificates for things like Natural, Organic, Sustainable or Grass Fed. Mainly because of arising technicalities like this. Those labels can be very, very specific and limiting, or they can be so broad as to question why they're even specialized to begin with. Without even touching on an individuals personal opinions on what does and does not constitute grass fed.

So at the most basic, no company legislation to dictate a standard, what is grass fed?

Well... grazing pasture obviously. Tame, Native, what about grazing cereal crops? Can't see a big issue there, again, they aren't ripe at times of grazing.

In Canada we can only grow a small amount of the year but we can stockpile it and graze it in winter so, grazing works.

You can bale it as hay for those times in winter that remote grazing doesn't work due to water freezing or too much snow, etc.

What about silage? Well it is fermented and I'm not sure fermented, not mature grain, is equal to ripe grain. So I personally would include silage.

Green feed? I'd also consider green feed a grass fed option. Grain percentages are minimal and generally green feed I've fed isn't fully ripe, grain mixed in with straw, type stuff.

Swath grazing? Again, I don't see a big issue with this. Even if there is grain in it, like green feed, it's even more open to scattering on the ground or being eaten by wildlife than baled green feed is so the forage to grain ratio is plenty high enough to constitute an option as grass fed.

Fodder? Well some consider sprouted grain to still be grain, despite the composition of the seed changing drastically as soon as it begins to sprout. Starches changing to sugars, etc. Hello, Falling Numbers anyone? But fodder systems, IME, are a pain in the ass and not super feasible on a large scale. Maybe for a small chicken flock or one house cow.

So what is A&W's definition of grass fed?

Well, like I said, I haven't really hunted down their legalese criteria for it. But their Beef FAQ on their website is generically clear.

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That's very tiny so you can find it here https://web.aw.ca/en/faq/beef

So by supplemental feed do they mean a bit of a grain boost, or do they mean things like silage? Of course, silage could be "Other forage, like hay" as well.

Either way, if they're straddling the line and allowing amounts of grain in the animals they purchase, it's their consumer getting the short stick, not the producers, so not terribly certain why it's some producers so riled.

Some people, who don't operate feedlots and don't finish on grain anyway, that's just most likely where their calves end up after fall sales, are quite up in arms about the whole idea. This is the feeling of being attacked I mentioned. I don't know why else they would be so frazzled about it. It's not like one restaurant chain and a small niche market of consumers wanting grass fed is going to make the bottom fall out of the (granted spectacular) grain fed cattle market.

I market my calves to small families wanting to raise their own beef, am I also undercutting the feedlots?

In a world where farmers acknowledge we get the shitty end of the profit margin, holding the risk yet getting little return, it's a wonder to me that so many are so against a few developing a different market to try and make a go of it.

Should the grass fed producers who are finding sales within A&W stop because it's maybe taking sales away from their neighbour who's calves go to feedlots?

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Blaithin's Avatar Oct 8, 2020 | 11:02 2 Now just as a small exercise, and because I truly believe there's pros and cons in everything. Here's my lists for the two options. I'm not really against grain finishing and feedlots, it's meeting a demand, but I definitely prefer grass.

Grain Finishing (In feedlots)


- Quick finishing time.
- Utilizing feed grains. Creating a market for feed grains for grain farmers.
- Easy marketing for groups.
- Quantity.
- Meets demand for cheap beef.
- Less space required.
- Consistent end product.
- Workable for pretty much any animal.
- Good conversion ratio for feed to gain.


- A lot of hauling going on. Hauling animals, hauling feed, hauling more feed, hauling animals again, hauling manure.
- Animal welfare concerns and dependancy on prophylactic abx.
- Animal stress.
- Stinky, smelly, dirty, things. (Requiring regulations on lagoons, sloping, leeching, etc.) Possibility of environmental contamination.
- Feed additive concerns that can limit export markets.*
- Implant concerns that can limit export markets.*

Grass finishing (on pasture**)


- Can help conserve Native Prairie Grassland, which is an endangered ecosystem.
- Improved animal health.
- Omega 3:Omega 6 ratio benefit.
- Limited investment required in infrastructure, personnel, equipment, etc.
- Less handling.
- Less animal stress.
- Could be opening doors to export markets.
- Minimal hauling of anything.
- Using land not fit for other uses.
- In harmony with local flora and fauna. (Can help boost biodiversity)


- Time required (can especially be an issue with OTM regulations)
- Inconsistency in finished product.
- Land required.
- Higher dependancy on animal genetics.

One thing I'm not going to post in favour of the feedlots/grain finishing is the arguments that the animals, because of their quick time too finishing, consume less feed and water. (I did post their use of feed grains and improved conversion rate however). The reason I don't like those arguments as pros for feedlots is simple...

It's a water cycle. The water doesn't disappear when the animal drinks it. They drink, they piss, they drink, it becomes part of their 94% water body, they die, it all goes back into the cycle. They are part of that cycle, they aren't erasing water from existence when they slurp it up. An animal within the environment is more in synch with the water cycle than one in a lot. Their water eliminations are going towards plants. Their life is promoting plant health which promotes things like transpiration and water infiltration vs run off. All part of the cycle. Technically, in a pasture based model, they are keeping it more within the system than a feedlot where the run off has to be directed to a lagoon or risk water table contamination. It's good a feedlot animal isn't around longer to drink more as the water they used is not such a seamless step in the water cycle as animals out on pasture.

As for the consuming less feed argument. Well... animals on pasture are, as I listed, generally using land not suitable for, or in use for, other things and eating a plant that we, as people, can't get much out of. So they might eat more grass, sure, but is that a loss to us? We weren't going to eat that grass. We can't usually use that land for whatever reason. The grass is there, something might as well eat it.

I don't ever see one of these options replacing the other. There's room for both of them, they both have positives and negatives. People need to stop arguing about which is better, it's always going to come down to preference and ability to purchase.

*Both these things can be used in animals on grass as well so it's not just a feedlot option. However generally farms focusing on grass based finishing are aiming for markets that don't promote them so they're less likely to be using the tools which is the only reason I included them in one, not the other.

**I'm basing this on grass-fed animals being out on the land as much as possible. Not animals being fed a grass fed diet in a feedlot setting
Last edited by Blaithin; Oct 8, 2020 at 11:16.
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Oct 10, 2020 | 18:53 3 A very interesting read, Blaithin. I am not a very wordy person, but I would like to say this. If beef sells, it's a good thing. (although I am a little embarrassed about the cowgirl in the A&W ad) Reply With Quote
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