Grass-fed beef may never dominate the U.S. beef market, but its practitioners are optimistic about their growth prospects given recent market progress. The addition of grass-fed beef to the menu of some Arby’s restaurants in the Richmond, VA, area is one such sign.

At the recent Grass-Fed Beef Conference in Yankton, SD, producers and industry leaders explained the genetic traits critical to success.

Tallgrass Beef field representative Clay Nash says cattle that eventually carry the Tallgrass label are no more than 30 months of age with a carcass weight of 550-850 lbs., and a minimum live weight at time of purchase of 1,100 lbs.

Tallgrass Beef requires fat cover to be ultrasound-verified at a minimum of 0.25 in. at a maximum of 50 days prior to harvest, he says, with an actual ribeye area of at least 10 in. Minimum percent intramuscular fat must be 3.5% and ribeye shape score must equal or exceed 0.30. Tenderness score must register 25 or less.

“The more consistency we see in a group of cattle, the better,” Nash says. “Some producers’ genetics are very predictable. Successful grass-fed producers say easy-fleshing cows with strong maternal traits that consistently produce healthy calves over a long period of time make them profitable. John Cotton in Volga, SD, is one of the rare livestock breeders with that kind of genetics.”

Cotton, in east central South Dakota, was known during the ’80s and ’90s as “the guy with the little, dinky cows,” he says.

“My herd genetics are rooted in what my dad started in the ’60s,” Cotton says. ”He believed a successful livestock producer needed efficient cows to control input costs and raise average-sized cattle. My cows average a 4.5 to 5.5 frame score. If I have anything larger than that, I sell that animal.”

Cotton’s cattle are on pasture as long as winter permits. Once home, they feed on silage raised on his cropland. Among Cotton’s profit guidelines is maintaining cows that wean calves between 42% and 50% of bodyweight. Cows average 1,380 lbs.

He selects animals by visual appraisal. “I’ve been looking at good, functional type cows all my life. I want cows with a nice wedge shape, narrower in front than back with a deep body and pretty little Angus head. They have to be productive at least 12-15 years. It takes six years to pay for a cow. Replacing females every five years means little to no profit,” Cotton says.

Cotton agrees with longtime grass-fed producers cautioning that cattlemen can’t afford to be unforgiving of cows consistently open or raising unsatisfactory calves.

“If they screw up, they go,” Cotton says. “When a cow is dry for a year, she’s likely to become obese and have problems raising a calf. My job is to provide the best feed I can and make sure I use a good mineral program. My calves tend to be like peas in a pod – very consistent. Because my genetics go back so far, I base breeding decisions on records I keep for each animal. One trait I’ve selected for is short gestation. For Angus, the standard is 283 days. I’ve worked to get down between 280 and 278. I like easy sliders so I keep birth weights down, too.”

In selecting bulls, Cotton looks for a “John Wayne” profile.

“You want broad shoulders, wide in front, narrow in the hip,” he says. “A quality bull also has good testicle size, a clean sheath and curly haired coat. I want a good, deep chest and masculine look. With the genetics I’ve stuck with, you won’t make big bucks overnight, but you won’t lose overnight, either. I’ve never gone to extremes in any trait. If you single trait select you’ll eventually end up biting yourself every time.”

Nebraska Extension Educator Terry Gompert has raised grass-fed beef on his small Nebraska ranch for 11 years. He believes profit potential for grass-fed beef profits are at an industry peak.

“Many of our current economic factors make a low-input beef operation pretty attractive,” Gompert says. “Credit shortages and high interest rates are pretty likely in the near future. It’s also quite probable we’ll see extremes in input expenses for crops and livestock. Land prices could decrease significantly and added environmental and animal-care regulations could all stress the livestock industry.”
-- Loretta Sorensen