Grass-fed Beef Production
This video will inform beef cattle producers about how to properly manage cattle that are being finished on grass.
- [Instructor] There has been a growing interest in the production of grass-fed beef.
This interest in grass-fed beef stems not only from consumers looking for a perceived improvement in animal welfare or quality of the product that they purchase, but it also stems from producers looking to fill a niche market or maintain cattle in a more pastoral setting.
In this video, we will provide an overview of grass-fed beef production and management.
Despite the demand for grass-fed beef, approximately 95% of the cattle in the US are still finished or fattened on grain for the last 25 to 30% of their life.
Although the majority of cattle in the United States continue to be finished on grain, all beef may be considered grass-fed for the majority of its life.
Whether farmers choose to raise beef cattle as grass-fed or grain-fed animals, all animals spend at least 2/3 of their lifetime in a pastoral setting.
Thus, it's really the finishing, or latter portion of the animal's life, that defines its labeling.
Some of the reasons consumers may choose grass-fed beef are the perceived meat quality benefits.
However, research suggests that when finished to the same fat endpoint, about 4/10 of an inch of back fat, there is no consumer detectable difference in tenderness between the beef from grass-fed or grain-fed cattle.
Although it has been suggested, as well, that beef from grass-fed cattle contains less cholesterol than beef from grain-fed cattle, no difference in cholesterol concentrations actually exist on a gram-per-gram or pound-per-pound basis.
However, grass-fed beef is generally more lean than grain-fed beef, especially when compared at the same age.
Therefore, consumers being advised to lower their total fat consumption may find grass-finished beef or USDA Select Grade-finished beef to be a better fit in their low-fat diet.
Another reason consumers may choose grass-fed beef is the perception of a more locally-raised product.
Interestingly, however, some of the beef in the United States that comes labeled as grass-fed actually comes from outside of the US.
This is because the supply of grass-fed beef in the United States does not currently meet the market demands.
One of the reasons that the supply of grass-finished cattle hasn't grown as rapidly in the United States as some other countries, is that the amount of land that's necessary to produce both adequate quantities and adequate quality of forage exceeds our current capacities.
The picture on your left was taken in a pasture in Brazil, for example.
Note the overabundance in forage in this production system.
While the cattle in the picture on the right certainly have adequate forage by US standards, these pictures just serve to illustrate how different forages that can be used in more tropical climates are more abundant than what we can grow in our more temperate climate in the United States.
Thus, producing grass-fed beef may not be for everyone.
Cattle managers interested in grass-finishing need to assess the resources available to them to decide how to best finish cattle on that particular farm.
Two key considerations in the grass-fed beef system are forage quantity and forage quality.
We will begin with a discussion of forage quantity.
The grass-finished beef producer needs to be concerned with the quantity of forage consumed by their cattle.
Cattle need to be given the opportunity to maximize their consumption of forages throughout the whole production process.
At no time should cattle be restricted in their intake of forage.
For example, over-grazed pastures will not only result in poor long term pasture productivity, but will also cause cattle to have restricted forage intake and result in poor average daily gains.
Rotational grazing or rotating animals from one paddock after they have grazed the forage down to the desired height and then moving them into another un-grazed paddock has been shown to increase stocking rate and carrying capacity.
This picture illustrates a simple fencing system used to move grazing cattle from one paddock to the next.
For example, cool-season perennial forages, which are the most common permanent forages used in the northeastern United States, should not be grazed or mowed lower than three inches during the most rapid growing season and no lower than four inches during the slower-growing time of the year or the hot summer months.
Warm-season annuals and perennials, typically, should be grazed to a higher grazing height than cool-season perennials and usually, these warm-season annuals and perennials should be grazed no lower than eight inches.
Leaving adequate residual height ensures that there will be enough leaf mass left for the plant to continue photosynthesis, allowing for regrowth to occur as quickly as possible.
Although cool-season perennials are among the most common forages and in northeast US, their availability throughout the growing season varies.
Most rapid growth occurs during spring green-up or May through the first part of June.
After the weather turns warm and dry, forage growth dramatically slows as plants go into dormancy to survive the summer.
As the days cool and precipitation increases in the early fall, cool-season perennial growth increases until the first killing frost, in which they go back into dormancy to survive the winter.
This variability must be considered when managing for consistent gains in grass-fed cattle.
Fortunately, for producers looking to maintain forage availability, there are other options outside of cool-season perennials.
These options may be considered as a means to ensure adequate forage availability throughout the life of the cattle.
When using any warm-season forage, producers need to pay special attention to grazing management.
Warm-season annuals and perennials must be grazed in an early vegetative stage to realize adequate production parameters.
While quantity is crucial and must be the first thing considered in the grazing system, the forages that cattle are consuming in the grass-fed system must also be of adequate quality.
Forage quality, as it relates to grass-fed beef production, is really a discussion of the energy supply.
The greatest average daily gains in grass-fed cattle can be expected when the forage provided supplies between 14 to 18% crude protein, more than 20% dry matter, less than 45% neutral detergent fiber, and more than 20% non-structural carbohydrates, which are the most available energy source, and typically has a relative feeding value of at least 150, which translates to more than 65% digestibility.
That 65% digestibility is related to energy availability.
This figure illustrates those averages and percent digestibility of common forages found in the northeastern United States.
Forage quality is highly variable among forage species.
Actual digestibility largely depends on maturity of forage at the time of feeding, as well as grazing and harvest management.
The red bar indicates the range forages should fall within for the optimal cattle growth in a grass-fed system.
In addition to digestibility, crude protein, another indicator of quality, varies as well.
This figure illustrates ranges and percent crude protein of common forages found in the northeastern United States.
Actual crude protein largely depends on maturity of the forage at the time of feeding, as well as grazing and harvest management.
The red bar indicates the range forages should fall within for optimal cattle growth in a grass-fed system.
All of these reasons sum up why forage quality is so important to grass-fed beef operation.
High-quality forage is absolutely necessary for obtaining the target gains of at least two pounds per day.
Cattle in the picture have been finished on a mixture of legumes and grasses to achieve two pounds of average daily gain and are now successfully finished.
In the Northeast, however, it is rare to be able to extend the grazing season year-round, regardless of management practices.
Thus, producers should consider the need to incorporate harvested forages, such as dry hay, haylage, or baleage into their grass-fed operations.
Regardless of whether forages are grazed or harvested, forages should be used before seedhead emergence, while still in the vegetative state, in order to ensure adequate quality.
Another option to consider may be integrated grazing and crop systems.
In these scenarios, cattle can graze crop residues or annuals interceded into crops to maximize forage availability.
Farmers who have integrated cattle into cropping systems are seeing positive agronomic results as well.
Demand for grass-fed beef is greater than the supply in the United States, due to the land values and other constraints that we face.
Finishing cattle on grass can be a great way for producers to maintain a pastoral setting on their farms and to fill the niche market for grass-fed beef that consumers are demanding.