Sometimes we need to forget what everyone tells us and, in the context of the broader world, look at things through different eyes. I think the beef industry's unfortunate marriage to corn is as classic an example as I've seen.
The upward surge in corn and other feed grain prices over the last two years has left cattle feeders bleeding. Feed price volatility continues to keep feeding cattle a high-risk venture and the outlook for the next 12-18 months offers little promise of relief. What if the cost for finishing cattle weren't tied to corn price? What if finishing cattle didn't even involve corn?
We've been told for the last few decades that cattle must have so many days in the feedlot with a diet high in corn just to be fit to eat. Anything with less than 120 days on feed will be tough as shoe leather and have less juice than a dehydrated prune.
The quality argument
We've been told you might be able to get a steer to grade Select on just pasture, but it will take close to three years of age. The truth is I have several clients routinely finish cattle entirely on pasture with more than 50% grading Choice or better at 18-20 months of age.
In 2007, according to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the national average finish point for fed cattle was about 55% of steers and heifers reaching Choice or better. That doesn't look like much difference between feedlot and pasture-finished endpoints.
One client finished several hundred head on his own irrigated pastures and placed another several hundred on feed in a “natural feedlot” program. The pasture-finished cattle came in at substantially lower cost of gain and brought a greater premium price. Isn't that what we're always looking for, a premium price at lower production cost?
A recent article in BEEF reported average feedlot morbidity at 15%. Every one of those sick animals adds to production costs and has decreased likelihood of meeting the target finish grade. What if cattle didn't have to live in feedlots? They are only there so we can feed them corn.
Most pasture-finishing operations I work with have morbidity rates less than 2% through the finishing phase. The predominant problems are pinkeye and foot rot, not the common respiratory or infectious diseases of feedlots.
Disease rates on pasture-finished cattle are low because the cattle live in a low-stress, natural environment. It's the same reason people in North Dakota live longer and have lower health-care costs than people in more urban states.
The land-base argument
I've also read and heard industry leaders say that as an industry we can never finish a significant number of cattle on pasture because it just takes too many acres per head to get the job done. Some claim it will take 4-5 acres to finish a steer.
In my experience, many producers routinely finish 2 to 2.5 head/acre on irrigated pastures in the Intermountain region. If we consider the finishing phase to be 150 days of grazing where we put on 300-400 lbs. of gain, similar to a feedlot, it takes about two tons of forage/head for finishing. If you can grow 4-5 tons/acre as hay, you can finish two head/acre.
Rather than the Plains being the finishing grounds for America's beef addicted to corn, why not make the high-performance irrigated pastures of the Intermountain region our finishing grounds? Cattle typically perform very well here due to cool nighttime temperatures, low fly and parasite loads, and high-quality forage. Making expensive hay on that land, feeding it to cows for six months, and then complaining about not making any money makes a lot less sense to me.
For most environmentalists, the downside of beef production is largely eliminated as soon as we take feedlots out of the equation. Most consumer concern about living conditions for cattle evaporate when they learn they spend their entire lives out on pasture. Rather than trying to convince the public we have cattle in feedlots for their own good, why not give them what they want?
“Crackpots” and “the lunatic fringe” are what we usually call people who see things differently from everyone else. They make us uncomfortable when they question what we've always believed. “Pioneers” and “visionaries” are what the next generation calls them after they reshape an industry.
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208-876-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.