One of the best parts of my job as an agriculture specialist is interacting with producers and offering resources and insights. Everytime I talk to or email a farmer or grazier I learn so much. Recently I had an email conversation with a producer on grass finishing beef cattle, and I thought I would share our thoughts. If you have any other ideas or comments please reply and let our knowledge grow!

Q: If winter stockpiling isn't appropriate for grass fed beef, how do grass fed beef producers overwinter? Is it frame building like they said and then extending the time to finish or hay or something else?

A: Many grass-finishers do use winter stockpile, but they need to pay careful attention to forage quality. CP should be around 14-18% and NDF over 40 and ADF over 25 with about 65% digestibility. To make up for nutrient deficits in the winter grass-finishers feed silage or balage.

Q: Is there research behind age, sex (bull vs steer, heifer etc) on meat quality? In a traditional system, the younger the better, you wouldn't think of a 2 yr old as being desirable but that seems common in grass fed systems. You also wouldn't want to market bulls for meat. But, I know a lady who keeps her bulls intact, butchers around 12 months and gets rave reviews with a grass fed system. She has even won quality competitions for South Devons. So I'm trying to wrap my arms around a new system and how to attain the most desirable end product with the greatest efficiency.

A: Conventionally (grain-fed) finished cattle require a backfat of at least 0.3 inches and a USDA quality grade of high Select to low Choice to be profitable. This usually means a finished live weight of 1,200 pounds or greater. To reach a quality grade of high Select or better in a grass-finished regime, more time will be needed during the finishing phase in addition to the animal having the right genetics to finish well on grass. Most grass-finishing producers utilize smaller-frame cattle that mature earlier, but there is a trade-off between early maturity and end live weight after finishing. Most cattle just will not grade well until they reach a live weight of over 1,100 pounds. For direct-marketing purposes, lighter market weights will often work fine, even though they may not make the USDA quality grade of high Select or better. For producers considering marketing to the retail sector (e.g., grocery, restaurant, and food service), lighter market weights (1,050 to 1,100 pounds) may not provide the necessary yield and quality grade. This is why obtaining animals with the right genetics to finish on grass is so critical.

Q: Do grass fed cattle track feedlot cattle in dressing percent based on gender and finish or are they slightly different?

A: This question gets the big “it depends” clause. This is because the main considerations for grass-finished quality are genetics, pasture quality, and how well the animals are managed to get to an end weight. There are indeed many differences between grass finished and grain finished because the feedlot industry has become very streamlined, from the kind and type of feeder animals they give premiums for to the consistency of their high carb feed rations… they can produce a product with very high rates of consistency with respect to quality grade and dressing percentage. Whereas the grass finished folks are no where near as uniform in their production. Much depends on the genetics of the animal, and the quality of forages presented. All this to say is that there are some grass finished producers who grade their product and some that don’t. Those that grade are more likely to have high faith in their production system, and have excellent genetics, so they can be consistent. They can also produce product with high marbling that compares nicely with grain fed cattle.

I have seen some stats that suggest grass finished cattle yield slightly less than grain finished… 53 to 58% vs 60 to 63% respectively. This probably has to do with total fat percentage and carcass size differences. Again, there is a lot of variation and management is key. I have seen no data on gender and can only assume grass finished tracks with grain finished with respect to steers having carcass qualities and yields slightly higher than heifers.

Q: What are the main factors that affect palatability in grass fed cattle? Is it still tied to marbling or do other factors come into play? (direct marketing).

A: Much like grain finished, this would be marbling. Whereas the grain finished folks have this down to a science, there is more variability in grass finished feed selection so there would necessarily be other factors that come in to play… namely management.

Q: Do you have any preferred directories for sourcing grass fed genetics (I'm in the SW MO / NW AR area).

A: I know that ABS has doing work in grass focused genetics, mostly in dairy but I am not sure about beef. You could certainly check them out. Mostly though, getting the best genetics would be all about matching the traits you want to the stock out there, whether semen of breeding stock.. Allen Williams has put together a great resource to help graziers identify the best stock for a grass operation [which I have attached to this thread].

Further Resources on Grass Finishing

Organic and Grass-Finished Beef Cattle Production
Adaptive Grazing - You Can Do It
Selecting for Grass Based Genetics (Allen Williams)
Finishing Cattle on Grass: Lessons Learned from PFI


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