From pasture to the table

Beef produced from grazing farming is an increasingly marketable commodity on supermarket shelves, and more and more people are willing to pay a higher price for it in the hopes of getting a healthier, better quality food. In the article below, we review what to look for in pasture-only fattening and give 7 tips for finishing cattle on grass.

Retail sales of grass-fed beef improving all over the world and doubling every year in the US. The majority of grass-fed beef offered in the american 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 growing market for grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, the appeal of producing food by feeding meat animals from your land, and the health benefits of grass-fed meat are compelling reasons to make a small-scale farmer take on the grass-fed-beef challenge.

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 $2.5 to $3 more per pound than conventionally produced beef.

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Finishing cattle on pasture takes time

 Beef cattle are most commonly finished in feedlots. It’s because most grains have higher protein content than most grasses. It’s easier to pack on the pounds and faster to bring cattle up to market weight (1,200 to 1,500 pounds) when feeding them corn than it is to finish them on forage alone. However, grazing cattle fattening is also becoming increasingly popular.

The main difference between feedlot cattle and pasture-raised cattle is that the feedlot cattle have their food brought to them, whereas, the pastured cattle get their food themselves.

Feedlot cattle will finish faster, because cattle having all of their feed brought to them means they will eat the most calories per day and grow faster.

Finishing cattle on pasture takes time. Cattle would be finished on pasture when the farmer or rancher has a market for the grass only meat, or has plenty of carrying capacity for the younger stock plus the main herd, and lives where buying in grain is just not economically viable.

Most commonly, the pasture finished beef is being sold to people who are wanting 100% grass-fed and finished beef and are willing to pay the extra price for the extra work that goes into it.

Pasture finishing cattle takes longer, a steer will be 26-28 months old when it is fat enough to make good beef. This is assuming that the grass during the growing season and the hay for the winter has been top quality, if not it will take longer.

Summer fattening on grass saves concentrates, and saves much of the labor of feeding; also the cost of making hay and handling manure.

Producing grass-fed beef requires careful management

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.

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 that 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. All of these factors play into producing top-quality grass-fed beef and 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.

Dietary requirements

Dietary requirements for finishing cattle consist of energy, protein, fiber, minerals, and water. Energy is the main driver of live weight gain in cattle and should be maximized throughout the finishing period. At grass, this is achieved by utilizing top-quality grazed grass of 1200-1600 kg DM/ha throughout the grazing season.

Later on, in the summer or early autumn time grass supply can often run tight. Cattle have a higher grass demand as they grow in size, and the energy value of grass later into the autumn reduces. At this time of year, at a rate of 3-4kg supplementation is recommended to speed up the finishing of cattle where grass quality and quality is adequate or 5-6kg where grass quality is poor or supply is low. A high-energy, low protein supplement will suffice at this time of year as protein content in the grass will be sufficient for finishing cattle.

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If the goal is excellent meat quality…

In order to achieve good quality beef, it is worthwhile to carry out post-fattening in the case of animals kept on pasture, says Ferenc Fridinger, a feeding consultant. This can be 3-6 months depending on the breed type. The expert shares the view that in areas where there is no high-quality pasture, but the farmer wants to benefit from cattle farming, it is essential to provide additional feed to the animals to achieve the right meat quality.

Supplementation with concentrates is recommended even if cattle cannot finish at pasture. Feeding supplements is often worthwhile as it reduces the requirement for more costly silage later. Also, the ‘build-up’ period to a concentrate finishing diet can be implemented at pasture prior to indoor finishing.

Because no piece of land is completely balanced in its vitamin and mineral content, the forage will be neither. Feeding a mix of minerals free-choice will allow the cattle to get a balanced ratio. Experts suggest testing pasture every year or two to see what it’s lacking and then building a mineral mix based on the results.  The mix of supplements may including oat hulls, alfalfa, beet pulp, vitamins, and minerals.

7 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.

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 feel the animal in a few key areas to assess whether sufficient fat has been laid down: the ribs, transverse processes, tailhead, and rump.

However, if we really want to fatten cost-effectively and efficiently, it is good to know exactly what the weight of the animal is. Today, there are telephone applications that allow us to weigh easily and quickly, without breaking or disturbing the animals.

3. Record weights to finish faster

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 a 1,100-pound finishing weight, but this varies depending on breed.

4. Finish on grass, no hay

 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 the 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.

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 conditions during the stress of summer and winter.

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.

6. Mix up your grass selection

A mix of summer and winter grasses, annuals, and perennials that are suited to your climate are the way to go. Chad Lemke, production manager for the Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and secretary of the American Grassfed Association plant a “buffet-style” mix on his Texas pastures: Bermuda grass over-seeded with legumes to graze in the spring and summer and Bermuda grass over-seeded with a winter small-grain annual, such as wheat, rye or vetch, to graze in the cool season. According to the American Grassfed Association, feeding cereal-grain crops is good while the plants are in their vegetative state. The grass has the highest protein content just before the seed heads develop, while putting all the energy of the plant into the stem.

7. Rotational grazing

With some temporary fencing and a good mix of grasses, intensive or rotational grazing can also be used for a bigger herd of cattle. Finishing cattle are rotated more often than breeding herds. Cows with calves and non-lactating or pregnant cows do not need such high-quality feed so they can graze half of the grass in the pasture. Market-weight animals need more nutrients and are allowed to graze a third of the grass before being moved again.

In the dry months, watering the pasture and supplementing the hay is very important because it “rounds out” the tops and valleys of the grazing cattle on the grass.

Innovations in grazing

Since the popularity of grazing shows an upward trend in many European and overseas countries, innovations in grazing are certainly needed. As a result, a number of developments have emerged to help farmers with grazing cattle. Innovative technologies have already infiltrated cattle farming. Ferenc Fridinger mentioned e.g. collars with electric beacons that allow us to track where and what animals are grazing with a mobile app. There is also a GPS rumen bolus, based on the data of which we can get a complete grazing log with a map. True, these solutions are still quite expensive today, and a lot of work still needs to be done on technical implementation, but they certainly help in keeping conscious and economical beef cattle.

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