How America eats is changing how cattle producers raise their stock, says Gerald Alexander, Hempstead County, Ark., staff chair for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Most beef produced for human consumption is finished on a high-energy grain diet in a feedlot.

“A new wrinkle in beef production of recent years has been the production of slaughter cattle fed only a grass diet,” Alexander says. While the numbers produced as “grass-fed” are relatively small, the practice is gaining momentum because consumers are demanding a leaner and healthier product.

Several producer associations have emerged to promote grass-fed beef. In 2006, it was estimated that about 60,000 head of grass-fed cattle were marketed in the United States, a number likely to increase this year and in years to come.

The term “grass-fed beef” doesn't have an official definition as yet, but the USDA proposed a definition that animals be fed grass (although not necessarily in a pasture) 99 percent of the time from weaning to slaughter. That definition raised a storm of controversy, and a new definition will likely emerge some time soon that will satisfy all concerned.

“Proponents of grass-fed beef promote its healthy nutritional aspects. When compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef contains less saturated fat and more healthy essential fatty acids not produced in humans or animals,” he says.

Producers have strict management guidelines to follow if their products are to carry the grass-fed label. Typically, producers must agree to source and age identification of animals from birth to sale; use no antibiotics, growth hormones or feed additives; keep all feeds and supplements, except forages, out of the diet; and follow animal handling practices established by their association.

Grass-fed beef is a niche market that will likely grow as demand for the product increases. By being faithful to consumers' needs, American beef consumption can increase, Alexander noted.

Consumers also have a hand in how cattle are raised — albeit indirectly.

“Requests from major fast food restaurant chains have been successful in recent years in prompting suppliers of meat and poultry products to change the management programs animals are raised under to avoid perceived inhumane treatment.

“The suppliers have agreed to their demands, and their producers have been forced to change to meet their demands.”

While the animal rights debate goes on, livestock and poultry producers should be aware some commonly accepted animal husbandry practices could be perceived as cruel and unusual treatment.

Alexander said an example of this was a farmer helping a cow having difficulty giving birth to her calf in a pasture beside a highway. A passerby noticed the situation and called the police thinking the cow was being mistreated. Several police units responded to the call, and the farmer had to explain what he was doing.