Grass-fed Farm Animals Mean More Nutritious, Safer Food
By Marjorie Bender, Program
Coordinator for American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
studies have shown that meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals raised
on grass are nutritionally superior to animals whose diets are based on
Grass-fed meat production benefits
When ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats are grass-fed, their meat contains four times as much vitamin E and eight times as much beta-carotene, both antioxidants thought to inhibit cancer, as compared to when they are grain-fed. Grass-fed meat also has three times as much omega-3, an essential fatty acid, that when equally balanced with omega-6 fatty acid positively affects HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, thereby enhancing cardiac health. Grass-fed products are higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural mutagen inhibitor produced by rumen bacteria from linoleic acid. CLA levels are at their highest when animals are fed a grass diet. High levels of CLA in the human diet are thought to prevent and retard cancer as well.
Chicks hatched from factory eggs contained fatty deposits in the aortas, while chicks hatched from free-range birds had no such deposits. At maturity, none of the chickens raised free-range had fatty deposits, while birds raised in confinement had significant deposits. Better health in the free-range birds was attributed to their more natural diet, including foods rich in essential fatty acids. Pasture produced eggs contained significantly more folic acid and vitamin B12. A USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research study showed the nutritional superiority of eggs from grassfed poultry. As stated in Why Grassfed is Best, "Compared with eggs from caged birds, they had 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more vitamin A, and 400 percent more omega-3 fatty acids [and] 34 percent less cholesterol."
Grass-fed milk production benefits
Milk produced from grass-fed animals is also higher in beta-carotene, and vitamins A and E. Grass-fed milk has five times more CLA than milk from confinement dairies, and contains roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fresh pasture contains more and better-balanced ratios of these nutrients than does grain or hay. Most dairy cows in Europe and New Zealand are managed primarily on pasture. Today, approximately 10 - 15 percent of American dairy farmers have switched to grass-based production.
In addition to these valuable nutrients, a grass-based diet produces less acid in the animals' digestive system. Grain creates an abnormally high acidic environment in the digestive tract of a ruminant. This highly acidic environment causes E. coli to multiply and to become more acid-resistant. Unfortunately, acid-resistant bacteria are likely to survive human digestive juices and cause disease. A study in the March 28th, 2000 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that thirty-three percent of cattle may host the deadliest strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H7), a ten-fold increase over earlier estimates.
Grass-fed products are linked to a lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, allergies, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and other mental disorders. While products from grass-fed animals present fewer disease risks to consumers than those of grain-fed animals, they are also less likely to carry chemical or antibiotic residues.
Besides providing healthier food,
grass feeding is environmentally friendly and can increase the diversity
of pasture plants when thoughtfully managed. Researcher Richard H. Hart
from Colorado State University studied plant communities for 55 years.
His study was conducted on pasture that was protected from grazing and
pasture that was grazed lightly, moderately, or heavily. The study found
that, "Moderately-grazed pasture showed the greatest biodiversity
with more kinds of plants than the lightly or heavily grazed pastures,
and was not as completely dominated by the most common species as the
ungrazed enclosures, where diversity was least."
Using rare breeds
Modern agriculture has intensely
selected livestock and poultry for uniformity, predictability, and maximum
productivity on grain-based diets. Grass-based systems, however, require
genomes with characteristics for climate adaptation, efficient utilization
of a wide-range of forages, reproductive and maternal ability, parasite
and disease resistance, and longevity. Many of the breeds, which are now
out of favor, exhibit these characteristics. In addition, their genetic
distance from commercial breeds can impart astounding hybrid vigor to
any cross. These breeds include:
This growing understanding of the benefits of grass-fed animals to both our food, health, and environment is an argument for choosing rare breeds.
William Baker's family raises Highland cattle in Orford, New Hampshire. Baker acquired the breed because it was hardy and would consume the grasses, brush, and saplings in the fir stands on his farm. Highland cattle are one of a few breeds that perform well on forage, the result of centuries of adaptation to the rugged Scottish Highlands. The breed is well fitted for a cold environment where pastures may be less than optimal. Highlands are genetically pre-potent, passing on vigor, hardiness, and beef quality when crossbred. Baker's cattle are raised exclusively on pasture as breeding stock and for meat. He describes the beef as exceptional in flavor and tenderness, though it contains little marbling. Not only does pasture-based production cost less; the meat is healthier for consumers.
The attributes that enable rare breeds to thrive in grass-based systems are prompting producers to re-examine them. These breeds and attributes, however, must be safeguarded. Extinction of these breeds would seriously reduce the options available to food producers of the future.
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Diez-Gonzalez, F., et al. (1998). "Grain-feeding and the dissemination of acid-resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle." Science 281, 1666-8.
Jensen, S. K., A. K. Johannsen, et al. (1999). "Quantitative secretion and maximal secretion capacity of retinol, beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol into cows' milk." J Dairy Roes 66(4): 511-22
Robinson, Jo. (2000). Why Grass-fed is Best! Vashon Island Press or visit http://eatwild.com.
Sinclair, H. (1960). "Essential Fatty Acid Content of Hens' Eggs." The Lancet. January 28, 1961.
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on the Composition of Food, The chemical composition of eggs produced
under battery, deep litter, and free-range conditions." Br. J. Nutrition,