Isn't all beef grassfed?
One of the most common questions I am asked is whether our beef is grassfed. At Rosewood Farm we produce 100% grassfed beef as a by-product of conservation. That means that our animals graze pastures and meadows throughout the summer and autumn and are fed hay and/or silage made from grass during the late Winter and early Spring when grass growth is naturally slower.
The conservation element comes from the fact that as well as producing beef our animals are grazing with the aim of encouraging and preserving botanical diversity in the pastures. This means that our pastures are not given any artificial fertilisers or pesticides. We aim to have as much diversity of bird, mammal and insect life in our pastures too so we avoid treating our cattle with artificial wormers & parasiticides which reduce the amount of insect life in the dung and the wider environment. Many of the sites we graze form a part of a SSSI, nature reserve and/or are in agri-environment schemes but even if the land is not a High Nature Value site we treat it all the same way.
Our cattle are a native British breed called the Dexter which originated on the West coast of Ireland and is both hardy and well suited to living outdoors on an all grass diet. The way we farm is very specialised and not currently the norm for beef production. A wide range of different production methods exist to suit the farming systems and markets available to farmers in the UK.
What is grass?
Grasses are a specific family of wind-pollinated green leafy plants which include everything from wheat crops to lawn turf. Although some grasses are harvested for seed after the plant has died, during their vegetative state they are still regarded as grass and can also be grazed by animals.
What does grassfed mean?
There is currently no legal definition for what constitutes grassfed meat in the UK. Anyone can sell grassfed meat regardless of what the animals eat. Most cattle in the UK will receive some grass as part of their diet.
When we refer to grassfed we tend to include many non-grass plants that can also be grazed or preserved as winter feed as part of a mixed crop containing grasses, legumes and/or wild flowers. Often people seek out grassfed either for health, taste or environmental reasons and they tend to be looking for animals that have received no grain feeds.
Pigs and poultry are, like humans, mono-gastric animals so they lack the capacity to digest grass and cannot be grassfed. Cattle, sheep and deer are ruminants have four specialised stomachs to enable them to digest and live on leafy plants, including grass.
What does grainfed mean?
Like grassfed, there is no legal definition for grainfed in the UK. Most cattle in the UK will receive some grain or other concentrated feeds as part of their diet.
Usually when we refer to ‘grainfed’ it is to distinguish them from grassfed animals so any animal that receives some grain would, generally, be classed as having been grainfed.
What are concentrate feeds?
Concentrate feeds include;
- Grains: to provide additional energy to either replace or supplement energy from grass.
- Pulses: including peas, beans and soya can be fed to either replace or supplement the protein from grass.
- By-products from farming and food processing: may be fed to cattle as concentrates as well as grains & pulses which don’t meet the grade for human consumption.
Most concentrates are milled and mixed to form a complete feed rather than being given individually.
Several different concentrates may also be mixed with grass or maize silage to form a Total Mixed Ration. This is more common on beef finishing and dairy farms.
Does does finished mean?
Finishing is the final stage of feeding an animal for slaughter. The aim is to put more fat onto the carcass to improve the eating quality of the meat. This is usually achieved in cattle by feeding a high-starch diet of grains and/or other high energy feeds. By contrast grass finishing takes longer when bone and muscle growth reach their peak and the animal naturally begins to lay down fat.
Are cattle only fed grain at finishing?
Depending upon the system grain can be fed to cattle at all stages of life, from birth to slaughter.
What are 100% grassfed livestock fed in winter?
Animals on an exclusively grassfed diet may be fed preserved forages when grass growth naturally declines in winter. Preserving may be achieved by cutting and drying grass in the field (hay), cutting, chopping and drying grass using fossil fuels (grass or lucerne nuts) or by pickling the grass in it’s own juices (silage). This may be fed indoors or out in the field.
Is Grassfed more sustainable?
Not all grasses are equal - a 100% grassfed diet is not a guarantee that the feed has been grown in a sustainable way. Grass crops include everything from naturally occurring prairie to monocultures of cultivated ryegrass, complete with the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
Grass and forage cover crops may also form part of an arable rotation to help build fertility that sustains human food crops. The degree to which grassfed may be considered as sustainable must be taken in the context of all the other factors that affect sustainability, it is not an indication in itself.
Is there a difference in grassfed and grainfed beef?
Yes. 100% grassfed animals will have greater degrees of seasonal variation with greater levels of fat in late autumn/early winter and the least fat in early spring. The fat of a 100% grassfed animal will be distinctly more yellow in colour due to higher levels of beta-carotene in grazed animal fats. Grainfed beef will be more consistent throughout the year and generally have whiter fat.
Texture may also be different with grazed animals having more time (and space) to develop muscle tone and growth. Assuming that both animals have been fed and finished well, differences in taste will come down to personal preference.
Variations also exist within breeds and according to breeding with some animals being better suited to being 100% grassfed than others.
Is British beef/lamb grassfed?
Where the animals were born and reared gives no indication what they were fed.
Are there any guaranteed 100% grassfed schemes in the UK?
The nearest thing to a guaranteed 100% grassfed scheme in the UK is Pasture for Life accreditation.
Brassicas and root crops are permitted to be grazed in the field in addition to grazed grass and/or preserved forage (hay or silage). Prohibited feeds include all grains, maize silage and food waste. No forage or roots crops may be harvested and fed fresh to animals housed indoors (ie zero-grazed).
What is ‘Zero-Grazing’?
This is a system where the animals are kept indoors or in outdoor yards and fresh grass is cut and transported to them at least every day.
Zero-grazing enables grass to be grown on fields that are not suitable for grazing because they are unfenced, too far away from the main farm or are separated from the grazing by roads, railways or other infrastructure that prevents easy movement of the animals.
Do any UK supermarkets sell 100% grassfed meat?
No, not at the time of writing.
Is Organic meat grassfed?
Organic certification requires animals to be at least 50 or 60% grassfed (depending upon the certification body).
Is British meat hormone-free?
Hormone growth promoters were banned in the UK in 1988 ahead of an EU-wide ban on the use of growth hormones in livestock and import of hormone-treated meat.
Is British beef antibiotic-free?
The UK & EU banned the use of antibiotic growth promoters in livestock in 2006 and from 2022 the EU also banned the import of antibiotic fed meat. The 2022 legislation also bans the preventative use of antibiotics in groups of livestock (previously healthy animals could be fed antibiotics to keep them well in intensive systems).
Farmers and vets are still allowed to use antibiotics if an individual animal needs them to treat an ailment and records must be kept of doses given. In cattle and sheep this is usually by injection. Pigs and poultry can still be treated as a group using medicated feed but only to treat (not prevent) disease.
Is British Beef better than in the US?
Growth promoter use (both hormone and antibiotic) is allowed in the US and there are some farms operating at a larger scale in the states but in terms of feeding there is little difference between the UK & US. The range of different production systems which exist there are mirrored by those in the UK.
Beef Production systems in the UK
There are a diverse range of beef farming systems in the UK which can be broadly split into two categories;
Animals from dairy herds which have one or both parents of a dairy breed. In order to keep producing milk cows calve each year but only 20% of these calves are required as herd replacements. The vast majority of the remainder, which includes almost all male calves and the females not required for breeding, are reared for beef. There were 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK in 2020.
Animals in dedicated beef herds are usually either beef breeds, crosses of different beef breeds or crosses of beef & dairy breeds. Some calves will be kept to provide future breeding stock and the rest are reared for beef. There were 1.5 million beef cows in the UK in 2020.
Under current UK law any animals that die while on the farm must be incinerated. At the end of their breeding days, many cows (and bulls) from both beef & dairy herds will be selected to send to the abattoir (ie culled) to enter the human food chain too. It is the farmers responsibility to pay for the disposal of dead stock so regaining some income from cull sales makes an important contribution to farm finances.
Calves, like all mammals, begin life with an under-developed digestive system and can only digest milk for the first few weeks. Their ability to digest forages develops over time but they can more readily develop the ability to digest concentrate feeds from a younger age.
There are two main ways of rearing calves in the UK;
Hand reared calves
Most dairy bred calves are taken away from their mothers within 24 hours of being born but, crucially, only after they receive the first milk (colostrum) from their mother (which provides antibodies that are vital to establishing the calf’s natural immunity to disease). After that they are either fed cows milk or milk replacement powder from an artificial teat or bucket. Most hand reared calves are weaned off milk and onto concentrate feeds and some forage after 8 - 12 weeks.
Most beef herds rear the calves on their own mothers from birth through to 6 -10 months of age. It is common practice to supplement suckled calves with concentrates via a creep feeder which allows only the calves (and not the adults) to access the feed while at grass.A small number of dairy herds in the UK now operate mother-reared calf rearing systems. These take the surplus milk while still allowing the cow to feed her own calf directly. Others may use foster mothers to rear multiple dairy calves that are not their own.
In a herd group it is not unusual for calves to feed from several different cows. Some cows will be more amenable than others to feeding calves that were not born to them and some calves are more determined to ‘steal’ milk! This natural behaviour enables calves to thrive even when their mothers produce little or no milk.
After weaning there are several rearing systems with varying amounts of concentrate feeding involved. With grain diets being more expensive per day the aim is to finish grainfed animals more quickly.
All grain rearing
Dairy bred calves often remain indoors and are most intensively fed after weaning to finish as quickly as 12-15 months of age on a predominately grain diet (supplemented with good quality straw or hay for fibre). This can preserve grass for rearing herd replacements and the dairy herd itself. This was the system used on my family's dairy farms with calves weaned onto bought in concentrates & hay and then later transferred on to home grown barley. The beef calves were kept indoors throughout their lives, loose housed and straw bedded. Male calves may remain uncastrated to be reared in single sex groups as bull-beef in fully housed systems.
Grass & grain rearing
Dairy calves and sucklers may be fed a mixture of grass and grain which will reduce the cost of feed after weaning to finish more slowly at 18 - 24 months. Grains supplementing a forage diet will add energy to the diet and may improve the utilisation of grass based feeds.
Calves may also transfer to an entirely grazed grass diet from either creep-fed suckled or dairy reared systems. This provides a less costly diet but at a longer finishing time. The finishing age will vary according to the timing of birth and the feed quality of the grass (see below) but the vast majority of grass reared calves will go on to be grain finished.
Again, there are a number of different systems for finishing ranging from 100% grassfed to those that gain the majority of their protein & energy from grain feeds. Finishing is an important process and may be carried out in specialist beef finishing units. By feeding to meet the ideal market specification, finishing also helps to achieve the best prices for beef animals.
Most animals, from both grass reared and mixed systems will go into a period of finishing on a high quality grain diet. This commonly happens indoors on UK farms, although it differs little from the US feedlot system where cattle may be corralled in outdoor yards (possibly with covered lying areas) for this final stage of their lives. The finishing diet produces high liveweight gains to offset the increased cost of both the buildings and the feed.
Grass finished animals may take 24 - 36 months to finish, depending upon the breeding of the animal, time of birth and nutritional value of the grass diet.
Grassfed finishing units may use higher energy grasses (such as modern high-sugar ryegrass) or better quality hay/silage to finish cattle at a specific age. Alternatively they may allow animals to finish on the regular grazed diet as they reach the stage of maturity that they naturally begin to lay down fat.