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What Size Cow Is Right for Grass-Finishing?

By   /  May 22, 2017  /  3 Comments

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One of our On Pasture readers sent us this question:

I would like to know what size I should be buying cows in order to grass finish before slaughter. I know grass fed beef is different than grain fed beef. Can you help?

Since John Marble frequents sale barns for some of the stock on his pastures, we asked him for a response. Check out John’s thoughts, and then share your own below. We know there’s more than one right answer out there!

I looked at this question and I immediately thought, “Sweet! A short and simple question.” Turns out, the more I think about it, the more it turns out that just ain’t so.

Personally, we don’t produce grass-fed beef, at least not to any great extent. We do produce and sell a certain amount of grass-fed burger for friends and family. Our guarantee is that we don’t supply any grain, supplements, hormones, etc. and that we try to do a good job taking care of our land. I feel pretty comfortable calling our burger “clean” and natural, because we typically run a cow on our grass for at least 90 days prior to harvest. 90 days is approximately twice the withdrawal period for all drugs, wormers, etc that that cow might have had access to. What I really like to do is harvest cows that have been with us for quite a lot longer than that. Still, every cow we butcher for meat originated from a sale yard and our knowledge of her history is zero.

 So, we only do burger. No steaks or roast, no quarters or halves. And there is one, simple reason for that: producing high quality, consistent, high value grass-fed slaughter cattle is extremely difficult, complicated work. Here’s why: you have to be competent at several complicated things, things like this:
Grazing.
Producing restaurant-quality grass-fed beef absolutely requires expertise in grass management and a functional grass ecosystem and a functional grazing system.
Genetics.
Producing consistent, tender, flavorful meat by grazing absolutely requires proper genetics. This means you need to be in control of the cows and bull genetics.
Business and marketing.
It is essential that anyone considering jumping into the Grass-Fed business have a logical business plan that includes marketing, supply, logistics, etc. (Just like any other new business). In my experience, the success rate for new folks in grass fed is not very encouraging. It’s just plain hard.
Now, all of that gloom and doom aside, if you’re simply thinking of buying a cow and running her on grass for a while and then grinding her up for your family, well, great. Anything beyond that requires experience, time and great skill.
Sorry to be a kill-joy. Grass-fed is a tough business.
What do you think? Do you have advice for this On Pasture reader?

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

3 Comments

  1. Joan Schleh says:

    We have been doing grass raised and finished Highland cattle for 7 years with very good results. We are of course, grass farmers first which requires rotational pasturing as well as sacrifice areas in our muddy winters. We are fortunate to live in very lush river bottom land so the grass is supreme once it comes on. The Highland breed is a slow growing breed so that extra grow time really helps the meat to develop flavor and tenderness which is key to grass fed beef. Butcher age is between 20 and 28 months. Also, the Highland cow was never developed to be a stockyard, grain finished animal so those original grown on grass genetics are still there. I think that many of the heritage breeds share these same traits and that is why they are desirable.

  2. We sell grass fed/grass finished beef since 2005. If the cattle have been fed grain at any point in their lives (even that couple of weeks at weaning) it changes the nutritional profile for the end result. (Wish I could find the University of Utah study I read on this a few years back. Anyone?) My customers would want to know that I couldn’t guarantee 100% forage-based beef.

  3. Richard Moyer says:

    Good questions! Others please jump in on this one; here are my thoughts. This is our 11th year of producing beef on local grass/forages alone, in the S. Appalachians of SW VA, selling direct to consumers at a farmers market. So we get lots of feedback on the quality of our beef. Still lots to learn!
    Some random thoughts:
    —I’d not ‘bet the farm’ on producing quality grass-fed beef from unknown genetics/temperament at the sale barn, so…
    —Find someone doing this well (forages, soil and grass-fed cattle) and learn from them. We worked on another grass-fed operation for 15 months before buying our own herd.
    Then bought pregnant heifers from that herd; known genetics that finishes well on forages alone. Was also my job to sell the grass-fed beef, another learning curve as John mentions above.

    —Attend pasture walks/grazing conferences, even if you have to drive, to see best practices of rotational grazing in your area. Again, to meet folks producing and feeding forages matched to their animals’ needs all year long, and learning how to do this in your area. NRCS also has good resources; tell them your goals and ask for assistance and mentors.
    —Docile animals trained to a single hot wire makes rotational grazing much easier. Avoid ‘wild’ animals, unless you have multiple, small paddocks well fenced.
    —I agree with John, there are so many unknowns at the sale barn on genetics and life history of that animal, it could be tough, literally, to finish those animals on grass.
    —You don’t say where you live, but you need to have your animals going into winter in good shape, and keep them there. So the size of the animals you buy may depend on the severity of your winters. Again, find those cattle wintering well on forages alone in your area, and learn from those managing them. We pay more for quality hay (money well-spent), stockpile as much fescue as possible, and feed winter annuals; learning late-summer annuals.
    —Test your soils; and follow recommendations. This is money well spent, as is money on quality seed, such as clover and other legumes.
    —Test hay before buying it. Some hay is very poor quality, and animals can’t eat enough of it to maintain body condition in winter.
    —Consider having dry cows in winter, calving in spring; again I’m assuming you live where forage access is limited in winter.
    —Learn body condition scoring, as there are limited times during the year (often spring and fall) where animals have the most fat, are best to process for meat. Depending on where you live, you can do a lot with annual forages, warm and/or cool season.
    —Develop a good relationship with your butcher, they will make decisions when processing my beeves on which steaks and roasts are best for that animal, with all the rest going into ground.
    —Develop a good relationship with one or more chefs/beef afficianodos who care about grass-fed beef, who know what they are looking for. Give them steaks and roasts and ask for honest feedback.
    —Last, learn to read about this area. There are many good authors here at “On Pasture”, and many good books have been mentioned here. Jim Gerrish and Victor Shelton have been most helpful to me. Jim’s “Management Intensive Grazing” gives lots to think about and put into practice, shorts bits at a time. “Southern Forages” is a great resource for much of the country; I keep going back to that one. Plus there are good monthly publications devoted to grazing beef.
    —Others, please chime in!

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