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5 Tips for Finishing Cattle on Grass

Retail sales of grass-fed beef are doubling every year. The majority of grass-fed beef offered in supermarkets is imported from Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, and Brazil but there is a notable demand for domestically produced grass-fed beef as consumers’ appetite for local farm products is also climbing. The debate over country of origin labeling is fueling the local food fire even further, as current USDA rules allow imported meat products to be labeled “product of USA” if the meat undergoes further processing stateside.

This presents a lucrative opportunity for beef producers, who can realize major price premiums for grass-fed, pasture-raised, or local meat. On average, grass-fed beef sells for $2.50 to $3 more per pound than conventionally produced beef according to Consumer Reports. There are several different marketing channels for grass-fed beef, as well, including selling finished animals to a packer or direct marketing grass-fed beef to local consumers, chefs, and co-op grocery stores.

Careful Management Required

It’s not as simple as parking the feed truck in the garage for good, however. Producing grass-fed beef requires careful management of forage and, most of all, knowing when an animal is ready for butcher. While grain-finishing is largely a plug-and-play proposition, finishing on grass is much trickier.

“So much goes into finishing an animal on grass. There are so many variables to consider, including a visual and tactile inspection of the animal to ascertain fat deposits, the time of year, the type of forage the animal is currently eating. Forage growth rate and diversity are different from season to season and even from year to year. This becomes even more variable if a farmer changes pasture leases, calving seasons, or even cattle breeds,” James Maginot, a grass-fed beef producer and owner of Beyond Organics farm in West Fork, Arkansas, explains. “All of these factors play into producing top-quality grass-fed beef and less than 100% attention to each of these details could affect the end product.”

Because of the price premium, however, many producers and companies are doing anything they can to cash in on the grass-fed trend. As a result, there has been a serious debate over the use of the term grass-fed in labeling. Rumors of food fraud where companies label products or list menu items as grass-fed when they’ve really been grain-finished have made some consumers leery of whether spending the extra cash is worthwhile.

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service oversees labeling of meat products in the U.S. and requires producers who engage in retail sales of beef to obtain prior approval of labeling information that makes claims about how animals are raised, including whether they are grass-fed. Producers are required to submit documentation to support the animal raising claim before the label is approved, but whether farmers adhere to these requirements on their farms when FSIS isn’t looking over their shoulder is another question.

No matter how big the grass-fed beef craze becomes or how the labeling wars are resolved, however, consumers won’t convert unless the product tastes good and meets their expectations on a consistent basis. This is especially true for farmers who direct-market their products. Picking up an off-tasting steak from the supermarket is unpleasant, but when the subpar product came from a local producer at a farmers market stand, the customer may be more apt to shun others or to make broader judgements about the farmer’s entire operation.

“We offer local grass-fed beef whenever we can because it’s so popular with our customers. The ability to connect their food to a local farmer and to offer a dining experience instead of just a meal gives them something special,” says Chef Alan Dierks of Vetro 1925 Ristorante in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “But being able to offer a consistently high-quality product that meets their expectations is even more important. One bad steak can turn them away for good – from our restaurant and from grass-fed beef in general. We work with experienced local farmers at Ozark Pasture Beef who make proper finishing a priority and for that reason, we are happy to advertise their name on our menus.”

Here are five tips for finishing cattle on grass.

1. Patience is a virtue.

Finishing animals on grass is a lengthier process than grain-finishing, often requiring between 24 and 30 months. By comparison, steers can be finished on grain in three to five months depending on how old the calves are when the graining process begins. Calves are typically weaned and sold to a feedlot or backgrounding operation between seven and 12 months of age, or when they reach approximately 500 pounds, but this varies.

Even if your phone is ringing off the hook with orders for grass-fed quarters and halves, don’t run out and load up the first steer who runs by. With grass-fed beef, supply must be prioritized over meeting demand. Explain to the customer that grass-fed beef requires careful finishing and create a waiting list. Send seasonal updates to let customers know that their high-quality product is on its way.

2. Looks can be deceiving.

One of the simplest ways to monitor an animal’s progress toward finishing is through a visual inspection, paying special attention to the ribs and rump. But looks can be deceiving especially in winter when a long hair coat can disguise an animal’s true form. Before selecting steers for butcher, load them in the chute or head gate and feel the animal in a few key areas to assess whether sufficient fat has been laid down: the ribs, transverse processes, tail head, and rump. Cattle lay down fat from head to tail, so pay particular attention to the tail head. A finished animal will feel similar to the way the heel of your hand feels. If it feels more like the back of your knuckles when you make a fist, chances are the steer has a ways to go.

3. Record weights to finish faster.

If you have a scale or access to a scale, recording weights can be an excellent way to know whether your grazing program is leading to gains. Ideally, take weights once every two weeks at the same time of day, e.g., first thing in the morning before cattle have grazed. A successful grazing management program will yield an average daily gain of at least 2 pounds with 2.5 pounds being ideal. If you aren’t hitting these numbers, adjust your grazing program and measure again in two weeks. Another good rule of thumb is to aim for an 1,100-pound finishing weight, but this varies depending on breed.

4. Finish on grass, not hay.

The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ holds true for grass-fed steers. Finishing during times of the year where forage is flush results in far better flavor than finishing on hay or scant pastures in deep summer or late winter. The type of forage an animal consumes before butcher can affect flavor as well as intramuscular fat deposits, e.g., marbling. Finishing on hay may give the meat an off-tasting flavor and it may be less economical since you’ll be feeding more hay to achieve daily gains instead of winter maintenance. And if you cut your own hay, you may want to consider purchasing it elsewhere in order to put your hay-season pastures to better use like stockpiling forage for winter grazing or forward-grazing steers ahead of the rest of the herd to help them reach finishing weights even faster.

5. Select animals that do best on grass.

Not all animals are created equal, even among breed types. Select fast-growing, moderately sized cattle that are deep bodied with ample milk production for optimal grass-fed beef production. Larger framed animals have higher forage intake requirements and may have more trouble keeping condition during the stress of summer and winter. They will also likely take longer to finish. A deep bodied animal suggests a large rumen capacity, which means it can fill up on plenty of forage during each grazing session. Early maturing breeds will begin to lay down fat more quickly allowing you to make the most out of its first grazing season after birth, while breeds known for ample milk supply will keep calves full without needing to supplement their diets to support lactation. 

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