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GRUB | In Australia most cattle are grass-fed but most beef is grain-fed

In Australia most cattle are grass-fed but most beef is grain-fed

by GRUB6. February 2013 16:43

There are an increasing number of people who understand that grass-fed (and finished) beef is nutritionally beneficial to our health, in stark contrast to grain-fed beef which is harmful to our health.  However there seems to be growing confusion about how much beef sold in Australia’s supermarkets and butcher shops has been finished on pasture compared to grain. 

People wanting to dismiss the nutritional distinction as being irrelevant argue that since most cattle in Australia are grass-fed we really shouldn’t worry too much about the whole grass- vs grain-fed issue.While this argument is based on a fact, the logic is flawed.  That most cattle in Australia are grass-fed is true, but it tells us nothing about the beef being sold in supermarkets and butcher shops.  In fact, 80% of the beef being sold in these places is finished on grain, not grass.

To understand what’s going on we need to look more closely at the numbers.There are currently about 720,000 head of cattle in Australia’s feedlots, out of a national cattle herd of 28.5 million.  This represents about 3%.  So, however you look at it, the vast majority of cattle in Australia are grass-fed.  But as consumers looking at it from the perspective of nutrition, we are interested in the beef on our plate, not 'cattle’ in the paddock.  It’s what gets slaughtered that is relevant. See, most of the cattle in the nation’s paddocks are cows, calves, bulls, cattle for live export and the dairy herd - none of which are headed for imminent slaughter.

Returning to our grain-fed number, '720,000’ represents the number on feed at a single point in time.  Throughout the year these cattle get slaughtered and are replaced by more cattle.  So much so that around 2.5 million head are sold annually as 'grain-fed’.  Even at 2.5 million, this substantially understates the number being finished on grain. See, only those cattle that spend 70-days or more on grain can be marketed as being 'grain-fed’.  And there are huge numbers of cattle that are finished on grain for periods less than the 70-days.  As such, the actual number 'finished’ on grain is considerably more than 2.5 million.The precise number of cattle slaughtered in Australia that have been finished on grain is not known. 

We do know 8 million head are slaughtered each year in total.  And we know that some number more than 2.5 million are finished on grain.Adding to the picture, we also know that around 45% of the beef from the cattle slaughtered is exported.  And that most of the exported beef is grass-fed (much of it minced cows and bulls for hamburger patties).  So a very large proportion of the grain-fed beef is staying in the domestic market.In fact, the Meat and Livestock Association and the Australian Lot Feeders Association estimate that 80% of beef sold in Australia’s supermarkets is grain-fed.  And, while I’ve never seen an industry estimate, experience tells us that the proportion of grain-fed beef in butcher shops (who account for only 28% of the retail beef market) would not be drastically different to the supermarkets. 

So the next time someone tries to tell you not to sweat the grass- vs grain-fed beef issue because the "majority of Australian cattle are grass-fed anyway", don’t be fooled.  It is an attempt by apologists for the grain-feeding industry to mislead and deceive.  The fact remains that Australia’s beef retailers sell vastly more grain-fed beef than they do grass-fed.The grass-fed beef issue always mattered.  And always will. 

Note:  Data for this article was sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Meat and Livestock Association and the Australian Lot Feeders Association.

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