Grain is fed to cattle for a number of reasons, but primarily because adequate grass is not always available year-round in Australia. Grain is natural, highly digestible, meets many nutritional requirements of cattle, and is readily available as a by-product from human grain production. Grain is also easily transported and can be stored for reasonable lengths of time without major quality impacts.
Feedlot cattle diets are developed by animal nutritionists and comprise grain (such as wheat, barley, sorghum), fibre (such as hay and silage), protein (such as sunflower and lupins), water, vitamins and minerals. Whilst cattle require a short period of time to become accustomed to a grain-based diet, this process is easily managed by qualified feedlot nutritionists and professional feedlot managers. It is easy to forget that grain is essentially the seed of grass, hence is a natural product that cattle have been eating for millennia.
In Australia, the most common grains used in feedlot rations are barley, wheat and sorghum. Other grains such as corn, millet, lupins, rice and oats can also form part of a feedlot food ration.
To ensure a healthy and balanced diet and to maintain the right levels of protein, energy and fibre, additional foodstuffs are added to the grain-based rations at a feedlot. These include seeds or plant by-products, energy foods such as molasses and fibre such as hay. Strict industry regulations ensure that no animal by-products are ever fed to Australian cattle in feedlots.
Every load of grain that enters a feedlot is tested for quality standards and safety before being accepted, to make sure the grains meet the highest food standards and are safe and free from chemical residues.
The definition of a beef cattle feedlot is, as outlined in the National Beef Cattle Feedlot Environmental Code of Practice, a confined yard area with watering and feeding facilities where cattle are completely hand- or mechanically-fed for the purpose of beef production.
The result being a place where cattle are provided a balanced and nutritious diet for the purpose of producing beef of a consistent quality and quantity.
Feeding grain helps to provide nutrition when grass is unavailable, and also helps to meet market specifications for product quality and consistency.
Grass fed beef tends to vary in flavour, texture and tenderness due to Australia’s considerable differences in availability of grass, grass quality and type, soil type, topography and climatic conditions.
Grain fed beef generally has a smooth texture and delivers a more consistent eating quality as a result of the professionally formulated diet and environment of grain fed cattle. Grain fed beef is generally higher in intramuscular fat (marbling) than grass fed beef due to the high energy rations that grain fed cattle eat.
Beef provides a wide range of essential nutrients including: iron, zinc, omega-3s, protein, B vitamins, selenium and vitamin D. There is no nutritional difference between grass fed and grain fed beef.
All Australian grain fed beef cattle are raised on grass at the beginning of their life, in fact they spend the majority of their life on grass, before transitioning to a feedlot to be finished on grain for an average period of between 50-120 days.
Most beef on offer at a supermarket is grain fed (unless labeled otherwise), and comes from cattle that are around two and a half years old.
The best way to find out if the beef you are purchasing or consuming is grain fed is to ask your butcher when at the point of purchase or simply ask the waiter if ordering at a restaurant about the product origins.
You can be assured that there is independent oversight through the supply chain to ensure that beef labeled as grain fed, meets strict product quality and production standards.
Grain fed beef is gluten free. Fresh, unprocessed beef is naturally gluten free and suitable for those on a grain-free diet. The presence of gluten in an animal’s diet does not result in gluten being present in the meat from that animal.
Meat Standards Australia (MSA) is a quality assurance program that sets a standard for eating quality. It is designed to provide reassurance that the product carrying its approval meets the highest industry standards during the supply chain production process.
Any breed of cattle can be grain fed but the amount of time they spend in a feedlot will vary depending on what meat characteristics are being sought and the market for which they are being prepared.
Almost any breed of cattle can enter a feedlot on a ‘short fed’ program – where cattle are finished in a feedlot for the last 35-100 days of their life. Longer feeding periods, of 150 days or more, tend to favour those breeds that have a genetic propensity to lay down marbling, the flecks of white fat you see within the muscle. These are British breeds such as Angus or Shorthorn, or Japanese breeds that are called Wagyu in Australia. These cattle are more suited to a long feeding period where their diet means they grow slowly and can gradually lay down marbling that is favoured by many customers and consumers.