The grass-fed calves Pat and Mary Lou Guptill raise on their Quinn, SD, ranch won't go to market this fall as they have for the past 10 years. Because of the abundant summer moisture in their area, the Guptills will keep their calves through the winter and make use of the extra forage they were able to produce.
“We've had drought for about 10 years in a row,” Pat says. “Because of that, we sold our weaned steer calves in the fall because we knew we'd be short of feed. With this year's beautiful rains and corn prices so high, we'll allow our calves to mature before we put them on the market.”
While the Guptills' situation may not be widespread enough to impact buyers of grass-fed-cattle, the demand for grass-fed beef already surpasses supply and consumers could see higher prices, shortages or a mix of the two in the year ahead.
The Guptills have transitioned from grain-fed to grass-fed cattle over the past six years. Among the many things they've changed is the way they utilize their available forage.
“We've been trying to fit our herd size to the resource in order to make the most of our grasses,” Pat says. “We're not sure just how many cattle that means we should run, but we want to be able to harvest the grass we produce each year. Since that will vary, we'll market our yearlings at different times, depending on what our feed situation is. That will work pretty well for us because our yearlings can be sold just about any time during the year.”
Managing grasses to maintain a continuous 12-month chain of forage is among the biggest challenges grass-fed-beef producers face. In periods of higher moisture, the challenge is easier.
“At least if you make a mistake and overgraze something, you can correct it when there's available moisture,” Pat says. “We sold some of our cows during the drought, and this year we could be running four times as many as we have. Last year, we were right at the limit in terms of how many cows our grasses would support. You just have to have a real good understanding of what your land is producing in order to make the most of the grass.”
The Guptills live on the ranch where Mary Lou was raised; they know all too well how quickly grass supplies can dwindle.
“All you need is a few days of hot, dry wind and you can be totally out of protein for those cows,” Pat says. “Since we breed late to calve in April and May, we must monitor our grasses closely and move the cattle into a different pasture if necessary to keep their nutrition intake high. There's quite a bit to think about if you're going to make the grass work for you.”
The lack of a “safety net” for grass-fed-beef producers is one factor Pat believes keeps many producers from making the same transition that he and Mary Lou have. The minimal scientific evidence to affirm the validity of practices they and other grass-fed-beef producers use also serves as a barrier.
“We just did what our folks did when they raised cattle,” Pat says. “Most of our learning comes from other people doing the same thing we are. We network and share what was successful and what wasn't. Then we go home and try to incorporate some new things into our operation.”
The Guptills know the grass-fed operation they've established isn't a model just anyone could adopt. Because every ranch situation is different and every producer's financial structure is unique, making a transition to grass-fed beef may not be realistic.
“If a producer is working with a bank loan and has to sell their cattle at a certain time and a certain weight, they may not have the flexibility to go to grass-fed,” Pat says. “Some producers use government lands for grazing and there are guidelines that go with that. This isn't for everyone.”
The latest change the Guptills have enacted in their operation is mob grazing their yearlings. Using electric fence, they move the yearlings daily to make thorough use of their grasses.
“A lot of people are curious about the grass-fed industry and where it's going,” Pat says. “People are talking about the huge changes they believe will take place in the cattle industry over the next five years. The profit margins aren't large enough to justify feeding $8 corn, but many cattlemen in this area can't do what they need to in order to produce grass-fed beef.”
The Guptills don't use implants, and “we don't use antibiotics unless we absolutely have to, but our cows have been a lot healthier on the grass diet,” Pat says. “If we do use antibiotics on any of the cattle, they won't be in our herd the following year because they're not suited to what we're doing here. We're raising a quality product and we expect the demand for the kind of beef we raise will continue to grow.”
Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.