Tips for raising grass-fed beef
Gonsoulin Land & Cattle in New Iberia, Louisiana, was one of the first ranches to jump on the grass-fed beef bandwagon in 2005.
“We wanted to sell some of our beef to family and friends, so we decided on grass-fed,” says Shannon Gonsoulin, whose family history on this ranch goes back to the 1700s. “It’s morphed into a much larger deal.”
Now the ranch, located not far from Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, markets up to 100 head of grass-fed cattle a year. They’re all calved and raised on the ranch, are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and are harvested in the farm’s own butcher shop and sold as grass-fed quarter, half, and whole carcasses or as individual cuts in the farm’s store, at local restaurants, and online. The shop also does custom meat processing for other area farmers.
Gonsoulin shares advice for ranchers thinking about producing grass-fed beef.
Forages: Nothing special, Gonsoulin says. “We utilize what we have down here. It’s mostly common bermudagrass with ryegrass and clover planted for winter grazing,” he says, “and supplemented with bermuda hay and harvested alfalfa between grazing seasons.”
The issue with grass-fed is not so much the exact forages, but that they be top quality. “You can’t get by with poor-quality forage if you expect good gains. If the cattle go backwards, it's really hard to catch up,” he adds.
Breeds: Again, grass-fed doesn’t require anything special. “We picked breeds that do well in south Louisiana,” Gonsoulin says. “We have about one-quarter Brahman to help with the heat and humidity. We like Brangus, Beefmaster, and Braford momma cows bred to Charolais or Beefmaster bulls.” If your cows do well on your pastures, their calves probably will, too, he believes.
Growth rates: Grass-fed cattle are going to be on the ranch longer — up to three years from birth to get to a harvest weight near 1,000 pounds. That delays your returns, and you need to be prepared for the longer cycle, Gonsoulin says.
“We select for cattle that gain well on pasture,” he says. “We weigh our calves at birth, then at weaning. If they don’t gain at least 1.5 pounds per day, they don’t make it into our grass-fed program.”
Cattle inventory: The longer growth cycle means a grass-fed ranch will have more cattle in inventory than a traditional ranch selling weaned calves. Gonsoulin Land & Cattle, for instance, has about 150 momma cows, 80 to 100 head in the processing herd nearing harvest, another 80 to 100 head of yearlings, and another 80 to 100 head of weaned calves.
Harvest age: “We try to harvest most cattle under 36 months of age for our meat sales,” Gonsoulin says. “We can also harvest cows that don’t get rebred. They go mostly to ground beef, but the steaks are also excellent eating.”
Land resources: With cattle grazing for an extended time, pasture requirements are greater. “Here in the South we usually say we can produce one calf per acre,” says Gonsoulin. “But with grass-fed, if you have 100 cows you need 300 acres to graze out the calves to harvest.”
Profits: Gonsoulin says income can be three times what it would be if you sold calves the conventional route. “That’s based on the value of the retail cuts. If we cut the whole animal into retail, our gross profit is three times conventional,” he says
The meat store’s current price for whole, half, and quarter carcasses is $5.58 per pound. Individual packages of ground beef at the online store start at $8 a pound, and high-end steaks and roasts are $15.25 a pound or higher.
However, some grass-fed expenses are higher, too, mostly because of the longer production cycle. “Each ranch will have to put a pencil to the inputs and what you will be charging for the product to see what you would net. That’s true of any system,” Gonsoulin adds.
Marketing: “This is a big part of the program for us,” he says. “We have a very large internet presence on our website, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. We capture our customers’ emails and do a monthly newsletter that shows farm news and meat specials.”
Customers: Beef consumers are very educated today, says Gonsoulin. “They want something healthy and local. Local is huge! Customers like the taste of our grass-fed meat, but sometimes we have to educate them on how to cook it. If you overcook it, it will be tough.”
In summary, Gonsoulin thinks the transition to a grass-fed beef ranch is fairly easy. “But to be successful, you have to have the customers that want your product,” he adds.
Gonsoulin Land & Cattle is a certified member of the American Grassfed Association, which conducts on-farm inspections to verify compliance with its standards: grass only for the lifetime of the animals, no confinement, and no hormones or antibiotics. Members can use the AGA certification in their marketing materials. Visit: americangrassfed.org.
You can learn more about Gonsoulin Land & Cattle by visiting their page on Facebook or their website at glcranch.com.