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An overview of grass-fed beef production.

Grass-fed beef can be a profitable enterprise for a small farm. Knowing how to time cattle production cycles to match the forage production cycle in cattle pastures is a secret to creating a superior grass-fed beef product. When properly managed and produced, grass-fed beef contains many health benefits to people, communities and the environment.

Creating the right blend of forages and grasses in cattle pastures to finish (fatten for slaughter) cattle is not as simple as turning the cattle out to grass. It requires timing the "finishing season" for maximum flavor and health benefits. Everything the animal eats will impact the flavor of the meat.

Grass-fed beef and grass finished are sometimes used interchangeably to describe cattle who only ate grass their whole lives. To finish cattle means to grow them to a certain age and fat cover to be ready to slaughter. A grass-finished product means that the animal ate only grass its whole life. Grass-fed generally means this too, but some companies are advertising grass-fed beef when really the animal was fed grass most of its life but supplemented with corn or other high-concentrate feeds at the end of life.

Dr. Jason Rowntree, an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Michigan State University and a Savory Global Network Hub leader, explains the critical factor is getting enough fat cover on the animal leading up to slaughter.

"Energy intake during the last 60 days of finishing and adequate subcutaneous fat at slaughter are two important factors. First, we want to see steers gaining a minimum of two pounds per day (even better three pounds average daily gain) in the last 60 days of finishing. This ensures an increasing plane of weight gain and hopefully a more marbled carcass. Our steers average around 1250 pounds with a 650-pound carcass."


Common complaints of grass0finished beef is that it has a gamey flavor, is tough and dry. Just as important as selecting the best cattle breeds for grass-fed beef for the local environment, also select for the best grass to finish cattle. Time the grazing so that optimum fat and flavor can be part of the beef product.

"My opinion is that a majority of the off flavors found in grassfed beef is a result of not having a minimum of 3/10ths of an inch of fat at the last rib on the carcass as they go from slaughter into chill. Having carcasses the are too trim leads to cooler shrink and cold shortening. The carcasses do not have enough fat to protect against drying out. Likewise, if the carcass is chilled too quickly, muscle fibers seize up causing toughness among other issues," said Dr. Rowntree.

"Gaminess" of the beef can be prevented. It is caused by the age of the plants the animal eats.

The flavor of grass-fed beef is influenced by how it cooks.

"People generally don't recognize that grass-fed beef needs to be cooked a certain way. "Low and slow" is our motto. Grain-fed beef can be seared and cooked at a moderately high temperature and the meat turns our fine. With grass fed that technique almost always results in a meal that is unsatisfactory," said Joe Bertotti, owner of Hole in One Ranch in Janesville, California.


Fattening cattle on pastures takes the same principle as grain finishers in the feedlots: more carbohydrates in the cattle's diet allows them to put on enough fat to actually finish. When finishing on forage, make sure that the animals get enough carbohydrates compared to protein.

Chad Lemke, Production Manager for Grassfed Livestock Alliance, director of the Savory Global Network Hub called Grassfed Sustainability Group, and a grass-fed beef producer in Central Texas, says that grass-finished cattle need a diverse diet. Age of the animal matters too.
TEXTURE                                         CORRECTIONS

Round, Moist Patty      Feed is Well-Digested   None Needed
with Hollowed Out

Loose and Runny         Getting Too Much        Supplement with
Stools                  Protein; Meat will be   High-Energy Hay
                        Gamier in Flavor

Manure is Blocky and    Carbohydrates are Too   Supplement with
Hard                    High; Meat will be      High-Protein Feed
                        Tough                   like Alfalfa Hay

"Animals must have sufficient age in order to produce a well-marbled carcass with adequate back fat. Most bad grass-fed beef eating experiences are because that animal is not truly finished" said Lemke.

The genetics of cattle influence their ability to gain enough fat to finish on grass.

"One of the biggest mistakes producers make is believing that any animal can be forage finished on any forage," Lemke said.

The time to start fattening genetically appropriate cattle is when forages are starting to move more carbs/ energy up into the leaves rather than growing more leaf. When grasses are lush, dark green and growing fast, the plant is higher in protein. A cattle pasture with high-protein plants will add frame and muscle on calves, but it will not get them to a finished body condition. This is a common problem for grass finishers as they will allow their cattle to re-graze plants as the plants re-grow leaves. Instead, get cattle pastures that are at maximum forage growth, but prior to "heading out," which means the plants are creating a seed head. This timing will ensure the proper balance for a fat-packing diet.

Another way that producers can manage for the best-tasting product is selecting what forage mixes the cattle will have access to during the last few weeks of life. Design cattle production cycles: calving times, weaning times, finishing times to complement the grass production cycle. Some ranchers plant a pasture of annual plants for finishing cattle. This is effective because annual crops such as wheat, rye, and oats can be planted early in the year. They provide ample energy to the grazing animal as soon as the fourth leaf is mature. Later in the year, if cattle are finishing in the height of summer, consider planting warm season annuals such as grazing corn, sorghum, sudangrass or legumes that will maintain throughout the summer heat. Another option is feeding stockpiled feed such as high-quality hay or haylage.

Monitor how well the stock is metabolizing feed. This can be checked (not scientifically) by learning to read manure. Cattle eating a balanced ration that their stomach biology is adapted to will produce manure that is moist and well-digested. Learning how livestock is utilizing the feed provided in cattle pastures helps maximize fat and flavor in grassfed and finished beef.


The key to talking about grassfed beef benefits is understanding why a conscientious consumer is interested in grass-fed/finished beef. Consumers tend to choose grass-fed/finished beef for three primary reasons:

1. The health benefits of grassfed beef.

2. Animal welfare issues.

3. Knowing their farmer and buying local food.

"Most people want grass-fed beef because of the health benefit --but it goes much deeper. The folks who want grass fed tend to be much more interested in how the animals are raised and the environment that we maintain for them. After health benefits, I think that customers (friends) genuinely value their relationship with their ranchers," said Joe Bertotti.


Several studies show that grass-fed beef contains higher omega-three fatty acids, as well as Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), compared to grain-finished animals. This is important for an American population that is battling record rates of heart disease and cancer. The best dietary source of CLA comes from grass-finished beef and dairy.

"CLA has even been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, in both experimental and case-control studies. It appears to work primarily by blocking the growth and metastatic spread of tumors, controlling the cell cycle, and by reducing inflammation," according to an article by Chris Kresser on

Other studies have shown that CLA can help with Type Two Diabetes and weight loss.

Few fats have been studied as thoroughly as omega-three fatty acids. They have wide ranging health benefits, such as heart health, eye health, and brain function. The best sources of dietary omega-three fatty acids are fatty fish, but a diet rich in grass-finished beef provides health benefits. Discussions about omega-three fatty acids are usually about their ratio to omega-six fatty acids in foods. A healthy ratio of omega-three fatty acids to omega-six fatty acids is about two to one omega-six to omega-three. Grassfed beef has a two to one ratio. Perhaps nature knows best what we need to be healthy!


When discussing the health attributes of grass-finished beef, remember that the fat contains the health benefits. The grass-finished beef must be fat enough at the time of slaughter. Many grass-fed beef ranchers are looking at beef breeds that finish on the grass at a younger age and maintain maximum marbling or intramuscular fat. One such breed is the Akaushi. These cattle come from Japan and have been selected to fatten on forage rather than on grain. Yielding a wonderfully marbled and premium piece of meat. Another small breed is the Highland. Knowing breeds of cattle and the beef they produce will help with communication and marketing about the beef product.


Grass-fed beef benefits extend beyond health. Many consumers are concerned with animal welfare. This gave rise to labels such as Animal Welfare Approved. This lets consumers know that the beef they are purchasing enjoyed a good life while consuming healthy forages, that care was taken in the day-to-day life of the animal to ensure it was healthy and handled in a low-stress manner. Stress is a big influencer in a grass-finishing operation because stressed animals do not gain weight. The pounds that they do put on tend to be leaner and less palatable to the consumer. Taking good care of animals has multiple benefits. The story of the farm or ranch, the family managing it and the animal are important to consumers.

When talking to consumers about grass-fed beef benefits, first know why you produce this product.

Producing grass-fed beef can be a meaningful enterprise for a ranch or farm. The grass-fed beef benefits extend beyond health to animal welfare and supporting the local economy. Learning to synchronize cattle production cycles to forage production cycles allows the farmer to create a healthy, local product that works with nature.


Caption: This grass-fed steer is gaining well on pasture. When harvested, he will supply us with a nutrient-dense, well-marbled, delicious product for our customers.

Caption: Grass-finished beef should be finished. This is a rib steak out of a beef we harvested this fall and the flavor is fantastic due to adequate fat cover and intramuscular fat, also called marbling.

Caption: Maezy Smith cuddles with her cow, Belle.

Caption: The Smith Family enjoys a family meal and the health benefits of grass-fed beef. Being able to tell your consumers why your beef is a high-quality product, comes down to educating them about the health benefits of grass finished beef for the consumer, ranchers, and ranching communities.
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Author:Smith, Abbey; Smith, Spencer
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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