Natural Livestock Diets: Why You Want Grass-Fed Beef and Bug-Eating Chickens On Your Plate

grass-fed beef

Vegetarian eggs, grass-fed beef, acorn-fed pork… It’s no longer surprising when buying meat to get the low-down of the animal’s diet before you commit to a purchase. But just because you know what the animal ate doesn’t mean that it was the best diet for the animal. Make sure that the menu choices being highlighted by different distributors are the things you want animals to be eating — that is to say, the foods that their bodies evolved to eat.

So let’s set things straight. We’ve gone to the source and interviewed — no, not the cows, sheep, goats and chickens — but the next best thing: the farmers and professionals for whom feeding our food is a profession.

What Should Cows Eat?

Cows are ruminants; this means that they have four-parted stomachs and chew cud. Sheep and goats also belong to this family of animals, and their way of digesting their food is an important characteristic when it comes to deducing what they should be fed.

This unique method of digestion (which is actually shared by over 100 other animals, including deer, giraffes and moose) includes a portion of the stomach that digests and then partially regurgitates fibrous feeds like grass, hay and silage. This is what forms the “cud” that animals chew when they are not eating, and the billions of microorganisms in this portion of the stomach means that these feeds can be efficiently used by cows, sheep and goats, as opposed to humans, dogs and pigs, who only have one stomach and cannot digest these feeds.

This natural predilection for fibrous grass is why so many people opt for grass-fed beef, lamb and goat meat — it’s far more natural and better for the individual animal. Farmer Will Harris of White Oak Pastures says that his cattle, sheep and goats are all fed high-quality, high-moisture preserved grass and hay.

While ruminants are capable of digesting grain and do enjoy eating it, too much grain can lead to increased lactic acid in the rumen, which can be a serious problem for their digestive health. That’s why grass-fed beef has become so popular, and why you should steer clear of corn-fed beef and choose grass-fed beef, grass-fed butter and grass-fed milk whenever you can.

What Should Chickens Eat?

free-range chicken

Free-range chicken image via Shutterstock: TFoxFoto

One of the newest trendy thing to hear about in the food world are vegetarian eggs or vegetarian chickens. It can seem easy to assume that because grass-fed beef popped up and was suddenly far better than the alternative that the same would be true of vegetarian eggs… but that’s not necessarily the case.

Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute highlights the fact that while bovines are indeed vegetarian, chickens are omnivores. “Chickens did not evolve to eat an all vegetarian diet,” he says. “They gain essential nutrients from having access to the outdoors where they can eat insects and other life forms, in addition to some grass and other vegetation.”

What’s more, he says that vegetarian chickens bred in a commercial poultry operation must be administered synthetic nutrients to compensate for the lack of these nutrients in vegetarian rations, which poses problems both for the health of the chickens and for the health of the resulting eggs.

That’s why the choice to allow chickens free range is the best option. Closed-loop farms can allow chickens to feast on veggie scraps from other parts of the farms, while free-range egg farmers can allow chickens to roam free in a fenced area with naturally present insects. Carey Wood of Olde Mackenzie Farm says that their free-range hens “eat lots of veggie scraps which also helps with compost and insect control at the farm.”

By staying as natural as possible when it comes to chicken feed, you also participate in animal welfare considerations, according to Kastel. “The birds might pick on their flock mates and injure them if their diets are nutritionally deficient and/or they are not able to exhibit their natural instinctive behavior by foraging outdoors.”

However, do bear in mind the additional information provided by Karin Samelson, Chicken and Eggs-a-stentialist at Vital Farms — that is, that the considerations highlighted by vegetarian chicken producers are not necessarily always with regards to insects, but more to bonemeal or other animal byproducts that may be found in chicken feed.

“Chickens are omnivores, obviously,” she says. “But the reason why egg producers stress “vegetarian fed” is to show that the feed (or supplemental feed) is high quality, with no animal by-products. They aren’t stressing the fact that chickens are vegetarians, they’re stressing the fact that they’re using ingredients that aren’t made from other animals.”

So make sure that a mixed grain, primarily vegetarian feed is supplemented by foraging by free-range chickens. While this doesn’t mean you should choose vegetarian eggs, it does mean that you should be aware of what your chickens are eating.

What Should Hogs Eat?

rooting hogs

Rooting pigs image via Shutterstock: TFoxFoto

Hogs, like humans and dogs, only have one stomach. Therefore, hogs should be allowed to forage and eat what tempts them. For farmer Will Harris, this includes peanuts and pastured chicken eggs, but it can also include a variety of other ingredients like acorns, apples, squash, and even grain. Hogs are naturally omnivores, but when allowed to forage will gravitate more towards leaves, fruits and roots than towards meat. This natural inclination should be reflected in the choice of feed given to pigs.

European producers of high-quality hams have known for generations that the feed that you choose for pigs is reflected in the final flavor. We love the organic, pasture-raised, acorn-fed prosciutto from La Quercia, as well as pasture-raised organic pork from Good Earth Farms, where pigs are allowed to naturally root for their feed.

It’s generally best to allow any animal to gravitate towards what its body has evolved to consume; the closer we steer towards what’s natural, the healthier the animal will be, and the better we can feel about consuming animal products.

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Cow image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.