Beef is sold as either grass-finished or grain-finished. But what’s the difference?

In general, cattle are born on farms and ranches across the country and have a fairly similar experience: calves are born and stay with their mothers, drinking milk and grazing on grass before being weaned between 6-9 months of age. After weaning, their paths can diverge, and then come back together when they’re ready for meat processing.

Post-weaning, many calves destined for a feedyard will spend time at a backgrounding yard until they are about 800 lb, at which point they will enter a feedyard to be finished. Grass-finished cattle may stay on the same operation post-weaning, or might go to an operation that specializes in finishing cattle on grass.

But what does it mean for cattle to be finished? “Finishing” refers to what cattle eat in the final 4-8 months of their lives—on the short end of this range for grain-finished beef and longer for grass-finished beef.


Most beef in the United States is from cattle finished on grain. There is a common misconception that “grain-finished” means solely “corn-fed,” but while a grain-finishing ration can include feed corn, it can also include other grains like oats, barley, or sorghum—and will always include roughage like hay or silage. Many finishing rations include byproducts like dried distiller’s grains, soybean hulls, cottonseed, beet pulp meal, etc.

Tan, brown and black cattle feeding out of a trough onsite at BRK Meats.

Grain-finishing is more efficient (more high-quality calories = faster weight gain) and takes less time than finishing on grass. Once they are fed out, most grain-finished cattle are slaughtered between 14-18 months of age—though in some cases they may be closer to 24 months old.

This finishing method works great if you already have an existing feeding operation (like Friesla client MTXBeef), if quality grain-finished beef is in demand, and/or if you have a local supplier of quality fed cattle.


While most beef might be marketed as “grass-fed,” meaning the beef is from cattle that ate grass for most of their lives, “grass-finished” means the animal ate only grass and forage for its entire life. Since cattle convert grass and forage less efficiently than grains, cattle finished on grass gain weight more slowly. Grass-finished cattle are often slaughtered between 18-24 months of age. However, the grass-finishing process can be considerably longer in places where the grass supply is more limited.

Beef cows grazing in a grassy field in the Montana countryside.

Grass-finished beef accounts for only about 5% of the total American beef supply and is mostly sold by independent producers and processors. However, consumer demand for grass-finished beef is increasing and is projected to gain market share over the next decade. Offering grass-finished could be a great option for diversifying your offering or building your business around a niche-but-growing market. Check out Colvin Ranch, a grass fed, grass-finished beef producer in Washington State, for reference.


So how do you decide which option is right for you? The primary considerations are customer preferences and the logistics and costs of each method. Additionally, marketing and consumer education are important factors to take into account.

  1. Customer Preferences: Grain-finished beef appeals to a broader customer base, but grass-finished beef can thrive as a niche product with the right market. What do your customers prefer? Or do you plan to cater to a mix by offering both options?
  2. Logistics and Costs: If you’re finishing cattle yourself, consider your time, space, and budget. If you’re purchasing finished cattle, focus on reliable sourcing in your area.
  3. Marketing and Consumer Education: Local meat processing has a compelling story, so leverage it! Consumers might need guidance on cooking grass-finished beef, as its lower fat content requires a different approach for the best results. (Our tip: Sear both sides on high heat to lock in the flavor and juices, then finish cooking on low to medium heat.)


Choosing between grain-finished and grass-finished beef involves careful consideration of customer preferences, logistics, and the unique marketing opportunities each option presents.

Grain-finished beef offers efficiency and broad appeal, while grass-finished beef caters to a growing niche market with its unique story and flavor profile. By understanding the nuances and sharing your operation’s unique story, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your business goals and meets the evolving demands of the beef market.