When BSE was announced in 2003 we knew that if we didn’t lower our input prices, we couldn’t continue to raise beef cattle. The downward trends have continued and switching to a grass management system has kept us in the cattle business.
When we decided to switch our beef cattle to a grass-based managment system, it wasn’t trendy. In fact a lot of people told us that grass-finished meat (beef from animals that have been finished on pasture) would be tough and unflavourful. It would shrink badly and there would be no marbling. We have found that with careful genetic choices, these are misconceptions.
We had never fed much grain but we did feed it at different production stages. 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 an ice cream pail of chop a day for six weeks prior to butchering. We were being advised to feed up to 20 pounds of grain a day on a finishing ration. That was not profitably, so we decided to head back to the past.
It quickly became apparent that not all of our genetic lines were going to be able to grow and finish without grain. The bull we had at the time needed grain to maintain his weight unless he was fed second cut alfalfa. His heifers were the same. So the first thing we had to do was cull all of those cows and heifers. With BSE underway, shipping them wasn’t economically feasible so we butchered the bull. It was an easy decision as he had turned mean. My husband was the only one able to water him. The bull would charge anyone else. We then purchased a Black Angus bull that had been raised without grain (potatoes and forage had been his diet) and stopped retaining any heifers born from daughters of the first bull. Then we started slowly butchering off the hard keepers. Butchering all those animals taught us that you can stop feeding grain and keep your steaks, too. The secret is to butcher them in the fall when they still have their pasture fat.
BENEFITS OF GRASS FEEDING
We have been butchering, for our personal use, animals two to six years old. We have been very pleased with the results. My husband and I are finding that it tastes a lot like the farm beef we remember eating when we were growing up.
Grass management has proven to be a healthier way of life for the cattle. While we save on feed bills, we also save on vet bills.
I have also started reading a lot of research on why eating this grass-finished beef is healthier for people. Scientists tell us that the ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 fats from this beef are a healthier balance for us than in grain-finished beef. Grass-fed beef also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has promise in suppressing cancerous tumors and the ability to moderate body weight, body composition, glucose metabolism and the immune system. Some research shows that for full health benefits, grass-finished beef animals should be butchered when mature.
So for our health and economic welfare, we have pushed along with grass finishing. The current bull we have is a textbook example of an animal suited for a grass-based life. He has lots of body and is a very easy keeper. Because he was never on a high-grain ration, his rumen flora didn’t need to adjust to living here and he has done very well. He is also the most easy-going bull we have ever had, which makes him a very valuable animal in our yard.
We chose the replacement heifers that calved this year from our best cows. The ones that calf 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 also do not feed lick tubs. We only feed loose cobalt salt and a high-quality mineral. Our cows do have a Quonset for shelter after calving, which also helps them to maintain body condition.
Breeding our replacement heifers was a challenge. We didn’t want to buy another bull that wasn’t going to move us forward and we didn’t want to have two bulls here for about fifty cows. Because commercial grass-based genetics really weren’t that prevalent a few years ago, we decided my husband should take an artificial insemination course. It is the best investment we have made next to quality grass genetics. With more and more breeders turning towards commercially-based forage genetics, finding AI sires is becoming easier. The foundation sire list is growing and good stock is closer to home than it used to be. Looking at sites such as www.nerbasbrosangus.com,we are sure breeders are getting to a point where they can soon offer private treaty semen that is from proven seed stock.
If lower feed costs, fewer health problems and fewer chores (don’t have to haul those grain pails) isn’t enough to convince people to give this a try, then the fact that consumers are willing to pay more for this kind of beef should also be considered. Producer organizations such as www.manitobagrassfedbeef.cain Manitoba provide mentoring.
Our family is sold on this management system. We want to continue raising beef cattle. With low prices and high feed costs, this is the only way we can see our herd making it into the future.
Debbie Chikousky farms at Narcisse, Man.
E-mail her at [email protected]