For cattlemen looking at the niche market of grass-fed beef, bigger may not be better, at least as far as mature size of the cattle are concerned.

That's the consensus of a number of trials and reports looking at the viability of grass-finished beef. According to Lee Rinehart, ag specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), selecting body type is more important than breed type for pasture-based operations.

“Pasture-finished beef cattle are usually marketed between 16 and 24 months of age. Select animals that have mature weights under 1,100 lbs., as these will most likely finish at the proper time,” he says in “Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers” (http://attra-ncat.org/attra-pub/pdf/cattleprod.pdf). That means an early-maturing animal that can put on external fat and marble quickly and easily.

“In general, you want an animal that combines maternal traits like milking ability with early maturity and tenderness,” Rinehart says. “These three traits are important because a cow must calve on pasture and raise a thrifty calf that lays down fat quickly because the grazing season may be limited.”

For this reason, he says the moderate body-type English breeds usually fit best with grass operations.

“However, it is important to remember that there is wide variability in the expression of the traits important for pasture-based systems, even within breeds. Select for particular production traits in breeds such as Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn and other rarer breeds such as Devon, Dexter and American Low-Line,” he says.

University of Arkansas research bears this out; it shows smaller-framed, early-maturing cattle are better suited for pasture-finishing operations.

The Arkansas research, a nine-year study conducted during the 1990s, found small-framed, early-maturing and intermediate-framed, early-maturing cattle finished on pasture had carcasses with higher marbling and quality grade scores than larger-framed, later-maturing cattle. Steers in the intermediate-framed category were current pedigree Angus, and the small-frame steers were represented by Angus cattle similar to those popular in the 1950s.

The researchers pointed out, however, that generally, smaller-framed breeds of cattle tend to yield carcasses with higher degrees of marbling on an age-constant basis. However, they say it's also been shown that forage-fed beef carcasses tend to have lower mean marbling scores and lower mean quality grades than grain-finished beef carcasses.

Selling the beef

Marbling is important when developing markets for your pasture-raised beef, says Jan Holder, an Arizona cow-calf producer and co-founder of Ervin's Natural Beef. “Meat marbling is definitely one of those personal preference issues,” she says in her book “How to Direct Market Your Beef” (www.sare.org/publications/beef.htm). “Some particularly health-conscious customers don't want any marbling in their beef. Others claim their beef isn't tender without a little fat. You'll need to discern what most of your customers like and plan your breeds accordingly.”

Based on what Jan and her husband Will have learned about genetics, here's their basic conclusion: Cattle that tend to marble well include Angus, Jersey, Hereford, Red Angus, Highlander, Murray Grey and Tarantaise. Leaner cattle with less marbling include Brahma, Brangus, Gelbvieh and Braunvieh.

However, Holder points out that one thing you often hear is that there are more differences within a breed than between breeds. “There is an element of truth to this,” she says. She also says good genetics has a lot to do with profitability. “There is a 20% difference between our best cattle and our worst in the weight of our high-end cuts.”

Quality forage important

A four-year project involving NCAT, the University of Arkansas, the University of Tennessee, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and multiple livestock producers found that cattle will gain well on pasture if they have access to high-quality forage and that the degree of success is largely weather dependent.

“Constraints are the genetic composition of the herd of cattle, the productive capability and fertility of the soil, the potential of producing winter and summer annuals for consistent availability of pasture on a year-round basis, a viable number of animals for market, and the mindset to be a good grazier,” the report summarized.

“A few of the farmers in this project discovered that raising grass-finished beef wasn't the route for them. Other farmers found this was a product they wanted to continue to try to produce, even if not all their cattle would fit into the grass-fed beef program.”

According to Holder, “No matter how much you feed your animals or how good the forage is, they will not start to marble until they are mature.”

For their grass-fed program, the Holders are looking for something that will mature in two years or less. “With that in mind, we've been looking to raise an animal that will mature at 800 to 1,000 lbs., a figure sort of pulled out of a hat. We chose 800-1,000 lbs. because it seemed doable without getting into an extreme breeding program,” she says.

Combining grass and grain

The conventional wisdom on combining grass-fed finishing programs with grain feeding is that it doesn't work.

“These systems are usually not very efficient because the grain depresses forage digestion and feed-to-gain conversion is poor. The problem is the cattle are in that inefficient middle ground between an all-forage diet and a high-grain diet,” says Bill Phillips, research animal scientist at the USDA-ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory at El Reno, OK.

However, Phillips has found a combination of grass and grain production that produces high-quality carcasses with less total feed than conventional grain finishing. “We stocked warm-season grass pastures with 2,800-3,200 lbs. of body weight/acre,” he says. With 800-lb. calves, that's about four head/acre.

“The available forage is harvested in 20-30 days; we then provide a self-feeder with a corn diet to meet the animal's energy needs. The calves take about 21 days before they're consuming 90-95% of their daily dry matter intake from the feeder. By the end of the finishing period, they spent 20-30 days on a 100% forage diet, 21 days in transition, and 80-90 days on a high-concentrate diet.”

Philips says the calves in his experiments had less backfat than their peers fed in confinement, but similar quality grades. He says the advantages of the system are:

  • Less grain to achieve finish weight

    Calves finished on grass need 235 lbs. less feed than calves finished in confinement. At a stocking rate of 3.6 calves/acre and feed cost of $166/ton, one acre of pasture had a feed cost savings of $70.20.

  • Marketing cattle locally

    Producers can retain ownership of stockers coming off wheat and market them locally as pasture-finished. Buyers can pick out their calf and have it processed to their specifications.

  • Manure disposal

    No confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit is needed, and the manure is dispersed by the animals. Phillips estimates as much as 130 lbs. of nitrogen/acre is added back to the soil from manure.
    — Burt Rutherford