Prior to about 1950, the vast majority of beef consumed in the U.S. was not grain fed. A certain amount of grain-finished beef was produced by farmer feeders for the “hotel trade” but this was not a significant portion of the total beef production. Most of the beef supply came from milk fat calves slaughtered at weaning and from fat young cows that had not calved. These two sources made up the majority of the kill because they were the only widely available classes of cattle with sufficient body fat to produce beef that was acceptable to the consumer. The calves were growing rapidly but received the extra energy needed to deposit fat from their mothers’ milk. The cows were able to lay on fat with only the energy supplied by good pasture since they were neither growing rapidly nor suckling a calf. Feeding concentrates to sheep is a very recent phenomena and largely unnecessary since sheep fatten well on the proper kind of pasture as do goats. Large scale grain feeding to ruminant animals is hard to justify from either an economic or an ecological viewpoint. It came to be standard agricultural practice mainly as a way to get rid of excess grain.
The end of World War II and the conversion of war industries to peaceful uses brought profound changes to U.S. agriculture. The production capacity for nitrogen products, once needed to produce explosives, afforded the means to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizers while excess war equipment manufacturing capacity reduced the cost of farm equipment. The result was a glut of farm products, primarily grain, and the resulting drop in the value of farm production in relation to other types of production. Had the market been allowed to operate, this distortion would have been corrected in time. The government, however, intervened with subsidies and production controls, which had the effect of making the reduction in value permanent. Even though farm products were cheap relative to the rest of the U. S. Economy, most of the countries of the world were in shambles from the war and there was little money available to import farm products. This abundance of cheap grain brought about the growth of the feedlot industry, which in turn brought about concentration of the packing industry and the marketing techniques, which convinced the consumer that “grain fed beef” was the only quality beef product. Grain fed beef became the standard in the U.S. not because the consumer demanded it but rather because we needed a market for the surplus grain. In the last few years, the discovery of the health benefits of meat and milk products from grass fed ruminants has spurred interest in 100% forage rations. Producers want to be able to control the production process from start to finish in order to cultivate specialty markets and they want to improve the market stability and profit margin of their product. Finishing beef on grazed forage can help meet both of these goals.
There are two distinct markets today for grass-finished beef and while there is some overlap in customers, the two markets demand very different products. One market wants a very lean product that is certified free of any sort of chemical contamination, produced under humane “natural” conditions and has the chemical composition unique to grass fed ruminant meats and milk. The second market, while requiring the same sort of wholesome qualities, prefers a product with taste and eating qualities closer to the industry standard (grain fed). The producer of grass-finished beef must decide which market to target in order to set up a viable production program. When asked, many consumers profess to prefer very lean beef but taste tests indicate that most people actually associate good taste with a high level of fat in the meat. This is not to say that a market for very lean beef does not exist, only that it is a specialized market and the producer must qualify and perhaps educate his customers if they are to be satisfied with the lean product. USDA quality grades are primarily based on intramuscular fat content with more being better. An animal fat enough to grade prime will have something like 40 % of its carcass weight made up of fat. Fat influences taste but it also affects other qualities such as mouth feel and moistness; well-marbled meat is always perceived to be more tender than lean meat. Lean meat tends to be dryer and requires different cooking techniques to be acceptable to most people who are accustomed to grain fed beef. Tenderness is a function of age but it is also a highly heritable trait and is favorably affected by high rate of gain and unfavorably affected by slow or negative weight gain. Giving up the tool of adding intramuscular fat, which is the last fat to be added to a beef, means that the lean beef producer must pay close attention to using animals with a high degree of inherent tenderness and to getting these animals to slaughter at a young age. Much of the bad press that grass finished beef has received is because much of the “grass fat” beef that has entered the trade has come from animals whose meat has coarsened and toughened with age and or suffered periods of weight loss at some time in their life. Selection for heavy weaning weights and rapid feedlot gains has greatly increased the size and the age at maturity of our cattle. Selection for reduced back fat thickness on cattle fed high grain rations has reduced the ability of our cattle to store nutrients when they are plentiful as fat and draw on these reserves when feed is scarce. The cattle needed for successfully producing grass-finished beef will be moderate sized with thick and wide bodies, early maturing, easy fleshing, docile, fertile, genetically tender and have the large rumens and wide mouths needed to gather and process large amounts of forage. The beauty is that most of these traits seem to be genetically linked so that selection for one trait selects for all of them.
The second product market is probably larger than the market for very lean beef at this time but the production process requires more planning. The product of this market will be a tender carcass with enough intramuscular fat to give the taste and eating qualities to which people are accustomed. The producer must start with animals possessing the proper genetics and then align in space and time; animals at the right state of maturity and unlimited amounts of high quality pasture presented at the correct stage of growth. The critical factor in finishing beef on pasture is energy management. The best forage at the peak of quality contains, per pound of dry matter, one half or less of the energy found in the same amount of grain. Fat contains almost twice as much energy as does muscle tissue; 4.26 Mcal/lb. vs. 2.54 Mcal/lb. on a dry matter basis. Since more energy is required to deposit fat and forage contains less energy than grain, fattening cattle to grain fed standards on grass requires knowledge and skill. Attempts to finish (fatten) animals that have not obtained most of their adult size will encounter several obstacles. Young animals require energy for growth, which includes both increasing the number of cells and filling these cells for the first time, Also rumen development and size are less in young animals so they lack the capacity to process enough the of rather low energy forage to produce sufficient energy for fat deposition. Finally, intramuscular fat is not deposited to any large degree until the animal attains about 65 percent of its’ adult size. It is this intramuscular fat or marbling that is mainly responsible for the taste and eating qualities most people want in beef. If the goal is to deposit marbling into the muscle tissues, then the program should be timed so that the period of peak pasture production, both quality and quantity, coincides with a stage in the animals development where they are; able to process large amounts of forage, able to deposit intramuscular fat and yet are young enough to yield tender, fine textured beef. Breeds mature at different rates but the earliest time when all these criteria are met will be when the animals reach 65 70% of their mature body weight. On the other end of the time frame, the flesh of most breeds will began to coarsen and toughen somewhere past thirty months of age. For most grazing operations and most breeds of cattle, the point when the animals first have both 65% of mature body weight and fully functional rumens will be when they are around 12 to 16 months of age. From the standpoint of economics this normally will be the time when unlimited quality pasture should be made available. There are some situations, however, where it might be advisable to move the finishing or topping off period later into the animals life. This might occur when ample, growing quality forage is available over a long period of time while very high quality forage is available for a short period of time. In this situation it may be advantageous to grow the cattle to a heavier weight and consequently older age before finishing them on the short period of quality pasture. The rationale here is that you do not want to expend the energy to fatten the same cattle twice. If cattle are too young or too thin going into the period of peak quality to reach the desired condition of finish before the period ends, it will be necessary to either extend the period of peak quality or change the condition of the cattle. While the carcasses will be heavier and the cuts of meat larger, very acceptable even exceptional beef can be produced from cattle slaughtered at 24 to 30 months of age. These older cattle have the advantage of being able to consume large amounts of forage and gain rapidly on this type diet. A second advantage is that much of this gain will be deposited in the form of fat so that the finishing period is shortened. A major disadvantage of this program is that, in most operations, the cattle will have to be carried through two winters. The cattle will have attained most of their growth prior to the start of the second winter though and can be wintered with reasonable gains on lower quality forage than would be required for younger cattle. Rapid fat deposition due to the already established muscle matrix and cheap spring grass will help offset the cost of the extra winter. This is a good place to bring up another factor in producing high quality beef. A factor that is important in any beef production program but critical in pasture programs. It is very important that the animal be gaining at a rapid rate at the time of slaughter. If the animal is gaining slowly or worse losing weight at the time of slaughter, eating qualities of the beef will suffer. This phenomenon helps explain the lack of consistency of quality in grass-finished beef. Once fat, the nutritional needs of a slaughter animal are only those of maintenance. These animals may be held on a low-level diet for prolonged periods with little or no apparent change in body condition. Changes do occur in this situation though and they tend to reduce the eating quality of the carcass. Along the same lines, the manner in which an animal is handled just prior to and at the time of slaughter has tremendous effect on the eating qualities of the beef. Fright, anger or stress of any kind brings on hormonal changes that tend to reduce the eating qualities of the meat. The ideal situation would be one where the animal is killed on the property without ever being stressed.
Success in producing grass finished beef requires knowledge of what is required and also how these requirements can be met in a practical and economically feasible way. Beef production starting with either purchased or raised calves consists of two main stages.
1. A growth stage where the animal develops frame, muscle matrix and the ability to process large amounts of forage. Adequate protein is vital during this stage since new tissues are being formed.
2. The finishing stage is where the desired degree of fat deposition takes place. During this stage, energy becomes the most critical need since fat is very energy dense. If the animals are fed a high percentage protein diet during this stage, gains will suffer and off flavors in the meat may occur. The growth stage presents few challenges since all that is required is to keep the animals in good health and gaining sufficiently for good normal growth. The finishing stage should be a period of maximum gain in order to insure top quality in the beef. Rapid gain is desirable for both lean and marbled beef. The desired degree of fat deposition will determine how long this period of rapid gain continues. Aside from the ability to process large amounts of forage, rapid gain is obtained by providing the animals a non- stressful environment with unlimited amounts of forage at the density, mix of species and stage of growth that will maximize energy harvest. Mixtures of grasses, forbs and legumes will almost always outperform forage monocultures. Even reputation forages such as alfalfa are not as valuable as mixtures for stability and rapidity of gain. Assuming that anyone seriously interested in producing grass finished beef is already practicing good grazing management, there are two ways that the needs for quality and quantity of forage may be met. The first is to maximize the ability of the animals being finished to select their diets. This can be done by giving these animals first chance at large amounts of forage by having them first in a leader, follower rotation or by allowing them to move rapidly through a large number of paddocks taking only the cream from each. The second is to provide ample forage quantity and quality by very closely monitoring the stage of growth of the forage, the amount of forage on offer and the length of the graze periods. This can be done either by adding and dropping paddocks from the rotation or by breaking out areas with temporary fence. In either case the ability of the animals to select their diets will be reduced so the ability of the grazier to identify and provide quality forage becomes very important. Energy is required any time an animal performs work. Grazing, walking to and from water and rumination all require energy and energy used in these activities is energy not available for gain. If the grazier does a good job of providing the quality and quantity of forage, the animals can do a good job of producing beef. It is popular in some quarters to maintain that “rotational grazing”, what ever that means, produces better gain per acre but poorer gain per head. Indeed most of the research trials show a consistent 10 % decrease in gain per head for “rotational” vs. continuous grazing. Graziers, who are proficient at their craft, typically have above average production both per acre and per head. The solution is to analyze what is needed by the animal to maximize gain and then use the grazing techniques required to produce the desired results. If stress free animals are provided with ample clean nutritious forage of the proper species at the proper stage of maturity and of a density that allows them to harvest their requirements with a minimum of expended energy, gain per head will be limited only by genetic potential. It is the graziers’ job to make it so.
As quite a few people have found, producing the product is the easy part. The tough part is getting the product from the producer to the end user in such a way that the needs of both are met. The health benefits of grass fed meat and milk that are now being recognized will help to further remove graziers’ products from the commodity market. The same is true of the desire of people to support products that are produced with attention to the well being of the animals and without degrading the environment. These are significant advantages but to prosper from these benefits, the producer must solve a lot of problems. Who are my customers, what products do they want, how are customers reached and convinced to buy, can supply be mated with demand in both time and quantity, how is the product priced, how is the product to be processed and by who, how does the product get from processor to end user, what happens to unsold product and finally can this be done and be profitable? People are doing it and making money. The hardest question for most of us will be, do I have the desire and energy to make this work?
Walt Davis 1998
1. Know what product meets the demand of the targeted market. Understand the difference between “grass fat” and “lean, grass fed” and make sure that the product advertised is the product being sold. It is critical that no grain be used in the production of the product in order to protect its chemical composition.
2. Understand what management techniques are required to produce the chosen product. This is “fast track production” much like grass dairying and not a good time to learn grazing management or forage production.
3. Qualify and if necessary educate customers to insure satisfaction with the product. Even if the product is excellent and exactly as advertised, people will be dissatisfied if it is not what they expected. It takes twelve very pleased customers to undo the damage done by one dissatisfied customer.
4. Understand that tenderness and other meat qualities are controlled by genetics, age, stress and rate of gain. Rate of gain is important at all times but especially so in the weeks prior to slaughter when a high rate of gain is critical to quality meat. Starting with genetically tender cattle is a must. Cattle that stop gaining or lose weight at any point will produce tough meat. It is especially critical that calves receive proper nutrition during their first two weeks of life and during the adolescent period that will vary from 10 to 16 months depending upon genetics. It is during these periods that the fat cells that become intramuscular fat or marbling are formed and animals that are nutritionally deprived during either of these periods will not have the ability to fully marble.
5. Understand the differences between feeding a high energy grain ration and a lower energy forage ration. Energy will be used first for maintenance, then for growth and only last, if any is left, for depositing fat. It will be necessary to create a forage flow plan to provide the quality and quantity of forage needed to produce finished animals that maintain good gains over the entire period from birth to slaughter. As animals began to fatten rather than grow, slightly more mature forage with more energy and less protein gives better results. Very high protein forages should not be used in the last weeks before slaughter as they can cause off flavors. In most cases annual plants such as cereal grains and warm season annual grasses and legumes will be needed to provide the quality of forage required.
6. A cattle becomes efficient in converting forages into gain only after it is old enough to have a well developed rumen. If very young calves are to be fattened, they will require rations with more energy than is available in all forage diets.
7. Intramuscular fat has great effect on what most people consider to be desirable eating qualities while rind or exterior fat has little effect on the same qualities. Very little intramuscular fat will be deposited until cattle reach 65% of mature body size.
8. Success is much more likely if the producer starts with the right genetics. As a rule of thumb, steer cattle will finish at a weight about ten percent greater than their dams’ mature weight. Large cattle mature slowly and utilize a larger percentage of energy intake for maintenance than do smaller cattle. Moderate sized, early maturing cattle are more apt to be easy fleshing and will finish at a younger age. Tenderness is highly heritable and seems to be correlated to high butterfat content of the milk.
9. Animals must not lose weight at any point in the process or quality of the meat, especially tenderness, will be reduced. To produce high quality meat, the animals must have access to feed and water continuously up to the time of slaughter. Fasting reduces the glycogen in muscles which raises pH causing darkening, off flavors and loss of tenderness. If fasting is prolonged, marbling will be reduced or eliminated.
10. Lean carcasses are prone to too rapid cooling in units designed to handle large numbers of fat carcasses; this causes muscles to be cold shortened and toughened. It may be necessary to shroud lean carcasses for the first 12 hours to lengthen the cooling period. If meat is frozen, it should be done quickly to prevent the formation of large ice crystals that rupture muscle cells and cause loss of juices on thawing. For the same reason thawed meat should never be re-frozen.
Walt Davis 2004