In the world of labeling and marketing beef, there are some terms used that might seem confusing, or at least deserve some definitions for home cooks who want to make the best decisions for their families.
Finishing is the term used to describe the final phase of feeding for cattle, in order to make the most tender and tasty beef. Since the earliest era of producing beef for nation-wide consumers, beef were finished with an energy-dense feed, mostly using grain, such as corn so that the beef had marbling and a cover of fat that resulted in tenderness and the best flavor. The demands of this process created the use of feed lots and mass- availability of beef for people in cities and later became the standard for all beef in the general marketplace.
In the last decades, consumers have become very interested in choosing high quality ingredients for home cooking and for restaurant dining. More beef buyers in the marketplace are looking for environmentally sustainable and health boosting qualities and now are aware of the terms pasture-fed or grass-fed to indicate the best value.
The economics have proven the value to beef providers and small-operation ranchers have been in a position to provide the locally available, high quality beef. The grain-finished beef product has given way to the pasture-fed and grass-fed labels. But, beef can be grass or pasture-fed, and called that, but still be finished on grain. So, pasture-fed and grass-fed might also be finished on pasture or grass, which offers the optimum of healthy components.
Some grass-fed beef will be on the pasture, but if the pasture grazing is not managed well, cattle may have slowed growth when the pasture runs out in late summer and the beef will likely have little marbling or fat cover and will be overly lean and tough. Pasture-finishing or grass-finishing needs careful planning so that the cattle have access to quality forage right up to and through the finishing time frame. Pasture and field rotations must be well-planned so the grass has time to re-grow and stay healthy.
Pasture-fed or grass-fed both describe a method of raising beef, but the finished on pasture or grass is the only method that can truthfully claim the recognized and highly nutritious components in all cuts of beef. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), L-arginine and Omega 3 fatty acids, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Selenium, Zinc, Phosphorous, Vitamin B12, Iron, Potassium and more are all included in all servings of beef. (1)
Locally, here in the Intermountain West, the finishing season is short, but a high rate of gain in these few weeks is possible because of the mild summer temperatures. The result is a very high quality beef.
Beef Magazine October 1, 2006