I think referring to conventional feedlot cattle as "grain fed" is unfortunate. I think it's an insult on small local family farmers who raise their cows mainly on pasture, but supplement a little grain here and there. Sometimes I buy this kind of beef. It's not terribly different nutrient-wise from completely 100% grass-fed beef. And many people prefer the taste. Furthermore, it's often very affordable, as low as $2-$4 a lb if you buy in bulk.
Such cattle might also have received antibiotics, but for sicknesses, not to promote growth or to make up for unsanitary conditions like in a feedlot. If you have a sick cow and only a few cows in your herd...you are going to want to give the cow the medicine it needs.
Conventional feedlot cattle receive much more than just grains, they often receive antibiotics, hormones, antimicrobials, and nasty industrial byproducts. Just like my post on how Americans aren't eating meat, they are eating sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched garbage, industrial cows aren't eating grains, as much as they are eating crap.
The difference between these cattle and the cattle that receive a little supplemental whole grain is like the difference between someone eating a standard American diet and someone who eats a "paleo" diet and has tacos a couple of times a week.
I was reminded of this today when I saw the headline "Farmer feeds candy to cows to cope with high corn prices"
The worst drought in decades has destroyed more than half the U.S. corn crop, pushing prices to record levels and squeezing livestock owners as they struggle to feed their herds.
To cope, one Kentucky cattle farmer has turned to a child-tested way to fatten his 1,400 cows: candy...
The chocolate and other sweet stuff was rejected by retailers. It makes up 5% to 8% of the cattle's feed ration, Smith said. The rest includes roughage and distillers grain, an ethanol byproduct.
Yum? I'm not crazy about ethanol byproducts in feed either.
Now, meat and bone meal from cows is explicitly banned from cow diets. But it ends up in chicken feed; a significant amount of it spills into bedding and ends up in poultry litter; and poultry litter gets fed back to cows.
Official numbers on just how much poultry litter ends up in bovine diets is hard to come by. But with corn and soy prices at heightened levels in recent years, feedlot operators are always looking for cheaper alternatives, and poultry litter is very much in the mix. Consumer Union's Michael Hansen claims that 2 billion pounds of chicken litter are consumed by cows each year—as much as a third of which consists of spilled feed, including bovine meat and bone meal.
So much for "grain fed" beef.
It does raise the question of what exactly should be done with America's massive amount of chicken waste? Maybe we should eat less chicken? Or as much as I hate to think about, pigs are at least better equipped biologically to eat such "food."
So if you are having a hard time affording good beef, considering buying from a local farmer that is not 100% grass-fed, but who doesn't finish on a conventional feedlot. It can be hard to find such farmers though since a lot of them tend to be older and not think of promoting their product in the many online directories that exist like Local Harvest or Local Dirt. Often such cattle are sold word of mouth to family friends and through old-fashioned social networks like churches.
But if you have a freezer, you should stock up ASAP because cattle prices are on the rise thanks to the aforementioned droughts.