In the future, look for more grass-fed beef. With potentially less land available for grazing and producing feed grains in the future, more efficient utilization of forages is the key to keeping the beef industry profitable and competitive with pork and poultry, say leading range scientists.

"Forage management is the next place the beef industry needs to focus to implement efficiencies," says North Dakota State University (NDSU) range scientist Lee Manske.

Range scientist Rod Heitschmidt with the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, MT, echoes those sentiments. He predicts "the luxury of marketing grains through cattle" will be challenged in the next century.

Heitschmidt says the beef industry will need to better utilize grazing lands by focusing on producing cattle that have the genetics to efficiently convert low-quality forages.

"We've genetically selected cattle based on their feedlot performance. We don't know if there are animals in the feedlot that perform differently in a range setting," Heitschmidt says.

In the next year, Heitschmidt and fellow researchers at Fort Keogh will conduct a study looking at the genetics of grass-fed beef. Significant results could be 10 years away, but he's convinced the research for selecting animals based on their forage utilization efficiency will be beneficial.

"In the U.S., we may never be able to produce an animal completely on forages that would be satisfactory to all U.S. consumers," Heitschmidt says. But, such research could help in producing cattle that spend more time on grass and require less time - and grain - in the feedlot, he adds. This could especially hold true in the southern U.S., where year-round grazing is possible.

In addition to better animals, Heitschmidt foresees development of better forages to improve conversion efficiency. He expects only a small percentage of new and improved plants, however.

"We'll continue to develop forages that will do a better job of feeding animals. But, the easy conversion of rangelands to farmland has been done," he says. That means most cattle will still graze on native species.

Analyze Costs, Too Manske says the quest for efficiency should include scrutinizing input costs. With forages being the greatest annual percentage of cow costs, Manske says producers need to know how much protein is produced on a ranch and utilize it. For example, 0.6 acres of forage barley can provide the nutrients a cow needs to get through winter. It takes four acres of perennial grass hay to provide the same amount of nutrients.

Based on cost/lb. of nutrient, Manske says many producers need to consider utilizing more annual forages. The result could mean lower land-base costs and a lower cost/lb. of protein. That reduces cow costs.

Another strategy: Buy hay on a lb./protein base versus bulk rate. "The difference in the cost one pays for a pound of protein can really add up," Manske says.