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The niche market of grass-fed and grass-finished beef has been a growing endeavor, especially in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, there is not an agreed upon definition or standard to qualify beef as grass-fed; nonetheless, many grass-fed operations persist.
The goal of average daily gains for many grass-fed beef operations is commonly greater than 2 lbs. per day. In order to achieve that, high quality forage must be the main component of any successful operation. Whether grazing pastures or feeding harvested forage, proper timing of grazing and harvest is necessary. Once forages become mature – a seedhead emerges – the nutritional quality reduces dramatically, subsequently causing a negative effect on animal performance. Depending on the forage species, a wide range in nutritive values can be achieved; however, with proper management, the common forges in the northeastern United States do have adequate nutrition to meet the nutritional needs of cattle for gains of greater than 2 pounds per day when fed in the vegetative phase of production – or before the seedhead emerges.
For optimum forage quality, producers should implement a rotational grazing scheme to allow cattle access to only a small area of land at one time, reducing the incidence of selective grazing and in turn improving overall forage quality. Rotational grazing allows the land to rest while cattle are not on that particular paddock, giving the forage a chance to regrow and cattle the opportunity to graze high-quality, vegetative plant material.
Grass-fed beef producers must plan for high quality feed during the time of the year when pasture is not available. Dry hay and baleage should be harvested with quality in mind. Generally speaking, as forages become more mature, the amount of lignin and other indigestible cell wall components increase while crude protein and total digestible nutrients decrease, causing a lag in production for cattle growth.