A Myth of Grass-Fed Beef


On the PBS website for the muckraking documentary King Corn-a film that roundly attacks industrial agriculture-the following declaration is made: “Before WW II, most Americans had never eaten corn-fed beef.” This claim, which has become a mantra in sustainable agriculture, is more often than not dispatched to rally support for grass-fed beef-a supposedly healthier and more environmentally sound way to feed cattle-which is to say, in accordance with the rhythms of nature rather than the time clock of industry.

Just a brief sample:

Now, it’s hardly my intention to wade into the crossfire of the grass- v. grain-fed debate (although I suspect that’ll be inevitable). Instead, I simply want to point out that any claim to cows eating corn being a recent development is, to say the least, deeply suspect.

Let’s rewind to the past:

  • “Corn is the best grain feed for fattening cattle.” (James Edward Halligan, Elementary Treatise on Stock Feeds and Feeding, 1911, p. 207.)
  • “I believe that corn is the best feed for cattle and hogs…” (W.H. Freeman, Iowa Yearbook of Agriculture, 1904, p. 345.)
  • “Green fodder corn is the best feed for milk cows…” (C.Z. Yoder, Annual Report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, 1886, p. 400.)
  • “I doubt not that ground or boiled corn is best for cattle…” (Hazel Ridge, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents, 1853, p. 319.)
  • “The fattening [of cattle] should be promoted by feeding them morning and evening with stalks of Indian corn.” (Samuel Deane, The New England Farmer, 1822, p. 63.)

Once again, I’m not arguing that the grass-fed alternative isn’t a viable response to the problems of factory farming grain-fed cows. I’m only suggesting to advocates of the grass-fed option that, if they feel so compelled to draw on the past to support the present, they should start by providing some footnotes. The romance of a pasture-fed past will only take the story so far.

Eileen Wyatt

It's a causation problem.

If you factory farm, you MUST use a feed source that can reliably be provided in bulk, e.g., corn.

If you DON'T factory farm, that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't use a bulk feed source like corn. It just means you aren't forced to by the scale and organization of your operations.

However, by exciting outrage against the bulk feed itself, the anti-factory-farming movement can (it hopes) force a change back to farming methods that don't REQUIRE bulk feed.

I agree it's bad history in the cause of politics.


there is a huge difference - in health and environmental terms - between using corn as a supplement or fraction of total calories (traditional practice) and using corn as the primary source of nutrition.

it is simply unnecessary for grassfed beef advocates to make the caveat you suggest.

Jessica Lee

Eileen point is a good one. People constantly use history as a way to making their political points whether it has any merit or not. In this case at least the cause is good as even in the articles you quote it doesn't sound to be very healthy for the cow. An interesting discussion on how people write and rewrite history:


This issue is one that plagues many of the causes I believe in. Namely, when people use bad arguments to support a good cause, it creates a legitimacy problem. Almost every single environmental/social/economic reform plateform regularly uses a flawed argument in one form or another (e.g., scientist streatching their global warming data and Michael Moore using a fish eye lens on his camera to make a european doctor's apartment look bigger to a North American audience), and I hate the fact that these kinds of lappses provide fodder for those who stand in the way of real change.

Mark McKenna


To complete the picture please tell us what the percentage of corn versus grass/other was in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, etc.

In other words: The statements made in the documentary could still be accurate.

Iowa Beauty

This is a reference search masquerading as knowledge. Certainly corn was fed to beef prior to WW II. The question is whether it was used as an energy supplement to increase the rate of gain in animals whose primary diet was forage, or whether it was used as the primary or sole diet. The reality is that prior to sometime in the twentieth century, feeding cattle nothing but grain to "finish" them was in fact quite rare.

Furthermore, two of the quotes used here are simply non sequiter: references to "Indian corn stalks" and "fodder corn" refer to the whole corn plant (chopped in the case of fodder) not to corn as a grain. Corn is a grass and if you feed the whole plant, while it's still a higher energy feed than pasture grass,it is far from the grain finishing diet referred to by "corn fattened beef," and while it may have its own issues, it does not have the profound metabolic effect that feeding straight grain does. It's also inherently more local, as chopped corn (silage) is too bulky and heavy to transport hundreds of miles to big feedlots in the arid West.


Justin James

If you look at the nutritional content of corn fed beef versus grass fed beef (particularly the Omega 3/Omega 6 ratios), grass fed beef is not nearly as healthy for you. It's not *just* about sustainability, and to allow the debate to center around that is just as short sighted as allowing the "should we pollute?" discussion to revolve around whether or not climate change can provably be traced to man-made emmissions.


Jonathan Rees

Google Books is a wonderful resource, isn't it? The problem with using this material out of context the way you are here is that the people you cite weren't proposing that cattle be fed corn exclusively, the way they do on modern feedlots.

As Michael Pollan has written in a pathbreaking article in this publication called "Power Steer,' "[Corn] wreaks considerable havoc on bovine digestion." That's why feedlots pump cattle full of antibiotics, and as far as I'm concerned that's reason enough not to eat corn-fed beef.
Grass is better for the cow's health and for your health too.


It should be noted that stalks of corn, also called silage, bear a greater resemblance to grass than to anything we would think of as "corn". Our few cows prefer corn silage to almost anything else we feed throughout the year.


Mark McKenna raises a valid point.

The recommendations of experts don't necessarily conform with practice.


I'm 100% in the cows should eat grass and rarely if ever corn camp, but it consistently bothers me when people make emotional appeals to the past or tradition to bolster their argument.

Why does it matter what people did in the past? There is a lot of ignorance in historical practices. It should be good enough that cows that a pasture raised have far fewer problems and are considerably cheaper to raise than feedlot cattle (grass is free, don't need antibiotics, etc.)


Okay, you've shown that not ALL cattle was grass fed prior to WWII. But, were most cattle mostly grass fed? Your quotes don't speak to that issue. If most cattle were mostly grass fed, then I don't really think it's a big deal that the proponents are exaggerating slightly.

David L

The number we're after isn't number of articles discussin grass vs. corn feedstock, but the historical proportion of meat consumption that came from grass-based vs. seed (corn)-based food chains.

While I'm sure some corn was used in the 19th century, it would have been extremely expensive without the benefit of modern farming methods: grass grows on its own, whereas agricultural corn, in addition to needing to be harvested, is also 100% dependent on human intervention to reproduce. Keep in mind, in 1900, 41% of the American workforce was employed in agriculture, vs. less than 2% today:


That means we've gotten 2000% more efficient at feeding ourselves (which includes feeding our livestock).

And really that whole discussion is less relevant that the discussion of health benefits to humans of grass-based vs. seed-based food chains. At this point, it's pretty incontrovertible that grass is better for us. This is one of the better articles I've read on the topic:



Aniruddha Gupta

The claim made by the sustainable agriculture groups is that "ALL beef was grass-fed". We don't need percentages to tell us that that statement is inaccurate.

People really need to more careful with their phrasing. All that advocates of factory farming need to do is prove that this one statement is a lie, and using the principle of the poisoned well, ignore all other statements made by them.

Just a little bit can go a long way.


I prefer corn fed beef. It tastes better. Less tough. That's the bottom line to me. It may be more helpful to preserve corn-fed beef but improve farming and slaughter practices.


Will the author of this muckraking post please provide some data instead of a few Googled quotes? As many has pointed out, how much of a cow's diet was corn before WWII versus after? If Mr. McWilliams is implying that corn was a major food source for cows prior to WWII, and he is correct, does this mean that grass-fed cows aren't superior to corn-fed ones?

Joe Smith

Well if traditional methods are better then we should only be eating bread made from wheat grown on fields plowed using horse drawn plows and harvested by hand.


I think beef is delicious now, this marble fat within the muscles that gives the corn is yummy. The only thing is that beef meat should be eaten in very small quantities accompanied by plant fiber.

David Wishart

I thought corn was a grass.


i don't eat animals.