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There is a fit for grass-finished beef

Some on-farm experimenting shows genetics plays a big part in tenderness

When we started raising grass-finished cattle, part of the decision was based on a reduction of input costs. We don’t grow grain and feeding it would involve a lot of infrastructure (troughs and equipment) as well as feeding labour. Since the cost of feed grains was increasing we were sure there had to be a better way.

We also had a lot of people telling us there was no way grass-finished beef could be as tender and flavourful as grain-finished. We had to consider the public might think grass-finished is the way they want us to produce our animals, but would it be sustainable if the end product tasted gross? In our own experience we have found it very possible.

As with most of our farming decisions we spent time talking with our elders. When I thought about how my grandfather finished a steer, we realized that people hadn’t always fed like we do today. He used to put the steer in a box stall, and feed it a four-litre pail of grain ration a day for six weeks prior to butchering. Our 4-H children were being advised to feed up to 20 pounds of grain a day on a finishing ration. So we decided to head back to the past.

It quickly became apparent not all of our genetic lines performed the same. Some of our cow families were just not equipped to grow on forages alone. The problem we encountered most was heifers that were too small to breed at 15 months in order to achieve their first calving as two-year olds. Some grass-finished producers accept this and just have them calve at three but that added too much to our feeding costs. Our choice was to cull hard and only keep replacement heifers from cows that fit our production model.

When we decided to focus on a totally forage-based diet we chose a Shorthorn bull. Our original cow was a Shorthorn cross which we had been breeding to purebred Black Angus bulls. We learned that within breeds there are genetic lines that will perform solely on forages and those that just don’t.

The first Angus bull we had at the time needed at least 10 pounds of grain to maintain his weight unless he was fed second cut alfalfa and his heifers were the same. So the first thing we did was cull all of those cows/heifers. We then purchased a new Black Angus bull that had been raised without grain (on mostly a potatoes and forage diet). We stopped retaining any heifers born from daughters of the problem bull. Then we slowly started butchering the hard keepers. With six of us at home, including four hardworking men, the experiment was an easy one to handle.

This experience taught us a lot about how much about meat quality is really determined by an animal’s genetic potential. Meat tenderness is actually related to marbling — the fat running through the meat — that helps make it tender and flavourful. The amount of marbling is influenced by both genetics and feeding.

An excellent tool for studying genetic potential is the EPDs (expected progeny differences) of the herd sire. Bull genetics, as shown by the poor-doing bull we once had, had an influence on half of all his offspring. The EPDs are produced for sires’ traits such as marbling, rib-eye area, carcass worth, maternal traits and growth. In the United States there is a category for cow energy value, which predicts how much it will cost to keep the cow fed.

Key is in the selection

We believe the key to grass finishing is in choosing the “good doers,” as the old timers would call them. We chose the replacement heifers from our best cows. Those cows that calve every year, without assistance, milk heavy and do not need supplemental grain to remain in acceptable shape. We expect them to lose some weight but not get skinny. We only feed loose cobalt salt and a high-quality mineral.

To achieve the highest amount of fat cover the animals must be processed when they still have their pasture fat. The fall of 2014 was the culmination of many years of hard work. All our finished stock were sold to private buyers, processed through our local abattoir, with all customers ordering again for next fall. Our goal is to have our steers marketable at 18-24 months old depending on when they are born. Spring-born calves are usually overwintered as weanlings then leave the following October. Fall-born calves are often market-ready at two years of age.

Grass-based management has proven to be a healthier way of life for the cattle. Not only are we saving on feed bills we are also saving on vet bills. We are finding the cattle are healthier without the grain supplementation they had before. I have also started reading a lot of research on why eating this grass-finished beef is healthier for people.

Scientists are telling us that the ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fats from this beef are a healthier balance for us than in grain finished. They also contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which research is showing has promise in areas including the suppression of cancerous tumours and the ability to moderate body weight, body composition, glucose metabolism and the immune system. There is some research showing that for full health benefits, grass-finished beef animals should be butchered when mature — at a point where the animal is no longer putting nutrients into growing their own healthy body.

If lower feed costs, less health problems and fewer chores (don’t have to haul those grain pails) isn’t enough to convince people they need to explore grass finishing then the fact that consumers are willing to pay more for this kind of beef should also be considered.

Our family is sold on this management system. We want to continue raising beef cattle and with low prices and high feed costs this is the only way we can see our herd making it into the future. We would be very pleased to have our breeding stock find homes on other farms where they can help others make a living and stay on the farm.

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