Early research results at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences indicate that pasture-fed beef has less fat and higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), indicating that it may be a healthier choice. CLA is a combination of different types of fatty acids.. Animals change the chemical structure of these acids that are found in plants, in their digestive system. Studies are continuing on the value of CLA in human health.
Research into pasture- vs. grain-fed beef is in preliminary stages. The goal is to develop innovative concepts and practices to enhance the efficiency, profitability, and sustainability of grassland-based beef production systems in the Appalachian Region, said Joseph P. Fontenot, the emeritus John W. Hancock Jr. Professor of animal science at Virginia Tech. The project, which includes eight Virginia Tech faculty members among 25 scientists, is in its fourth year of a 10-year study. It is partially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service along with funding from the universities involved, West Virginia University, the University of Georgia, and Virginia Tech.
This project is the first to include a health aspect, Fontenot said. "Virginia Tech is a participant in this study because it hopes the findings will benefit not only consumers, but also cattle producers so that they can provide a better and more efficiently raised animal for the market," he said.
Each of the project's phases takes place at a specific organization. Virginia Tech is responsible for the spring calving, weaning, and backgrounding stages of the animals. The cattle are then transported to West Virginia University where the steers are held for the stocker stage. Heifers are used for heifer development work. Steers move onto either a pasture-finishing or a feedlot situation at Virginia Tech's Shenandoah Valley Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Steeles Tavern. The animals are sent to slaughter in the fall and their meat is evaluated at the University of Georgia.
The meat evaluation stage takes one rib from each steer and tests it for cooking qualities, taste, and fat and bone content. The meat is analyzed for minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids, especially those that are beneficial to human health such as conjugated linoleic acid. The results have been positive in all fields. Specific findings indicate that there is no taste difference between pasture finished and grain fed steers.