With increasing numbers of consumers seeking meats produced in what they believe to be more humane and environmentally sustainable systems, more beef producers are entering the natural and organic beef markets to meet the rising demand. Pasture-finished beef has been one of the fastest-growing demand sectors in the entire food economy in recent years. If you're interested in entering this market, here are a few things you need to know about pasture-finishing.

First, let's get some terminology straight. There's a big difference between “grass-fed” and “pasture-finished.” A lot of producers are growing and selling grass-fed beef. This product frequently leaves consumers disappointed in their steak and producers disappointed in their profit.

Many grass-fed cattle are Standard grade, and are typically grazed until pasture runs out in late summer. The cattle have usually already stalled out in their growth and have little marbling or fat cover. The product is an overly lean piece of meat with all the eating pleasure of shoe leather.

Pasture-finishing, on the other hand, takes the cattle to a target endpoint just as in the feedlot. The typical harvest target for pasture-finished beef is high Select to low Choice. Numerous taste-preference surveys show consumers can't differentiate between these two grades.

Pasture-finishing requires a well thought out forage-production plan that ensures an adequate supply of appropriate quality forage throughout the finishing phase. To get a quality finish on pasture, cattle need to gain at least 2 lbs./day for the final 60-90 days before harvest. Longer periods at higher gain will produce an even better finish on the cattle.

Remember, all the newly recognized healthy components of beef, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), L-arginine and omega-3 fatty acids are found in the fat and are higher in pasture-finished cattle than grain-finished cattle. If we want to sell consumers on the health value of our product, it needs to be properly finished.

Many BEEF readers might be skeptical of achieving Choice-grade cattle strictly on pasture. I assure you it can be done, but it requires the right genetics, quality pasture and excellent grazing management. As an example, one ranch I worked with in 2005 finished more than 200 head of heifers entirely on pasture; 87% graded high Select or better by 19 months of age, with roughly half of those animals in the Choice grade.

For successful pasture-finishing at an early age, cattle should be small- to moderate-framed with good marbling ability. Easy-keeping cows usually produce the right type of progeny. If your cows require a lot of hay and feed to keep them in good flesh through the winter or summer drought, their progeny won't do well in a pasture-finishing program. I prefer at least 50% British genetics, with any Continental influence being very moderate in size and frame.

A season-long supply of adequate quality forage is essential for finishing. The cattle need to maintain steady gain throughout the finishing phase, just as in the feedlot. I emphasize “adequate” forage supply rather than “high quality.” Very high quality pastures frequently don't carry enough forage volume to provide a large bite for the cattle. For finishing, I'd rather let the cattle do some selective grazing and take large bites than shortchange them on total nutrient intake.

Where will it work?

No area of the country has a clear-cut advantage for pasture finishing. Seasonality of peak pasture production dictates when the optimum finishing period will be for different areas.

For instance, the South can best finish cattle in the winter using annual forages. Hot summer temperatures that depress animal performance limit the opportunities for summer finishing.

Meanwhile, in the Intermountain West, the finishing season is kept short due to climate, but a high rate of gain due to mild summer temps allow cattle to be finished in a relatively short timeframe.

Marketing your product is a critical part of the pasture-finishing process. Don't try to finish a large number of animals in hopes someone will buy them when they're ready. Have a marketing plan before you even start.

Producers who just do grass-fed are frequently left hanging when they have a 1000-lb. Standard-grade animal at the end of their grass season and nowhere to go with it. Too big for the feedlot, that animal has low value in the conventional market. Meanwhile, pasture-finished cattle can be sold on the rail if you don't get them all marketed as finished meat.

Getting into pasture-finished beef production can increase the bottom line, but it needs to be well-planned and well-executed to be successful.

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, jrgerrish@custertel.net, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.