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Management characteristics of grass-fed beef operations

Jasmine Dillon and Alan Rotz for Progressive Forage Grower Published on 01 March 2016
Cattle finished on alfalfa-orchardgrass stands in Maryland

A plethora of information is available on resource use, environmental impact and the overall sustainability of beef production.

Distilling it down to scientifically sound information, however, is more difficult. In an effort to address consumer concerns about the various impacts of beef production, the Beef Checkoff is supporting a U.S. beef sustainability assessment.

As a part of this program, beef producers across the U.S. are being surveyed and interviewed to characterize the most common management practices used in each region. The information gathered from producers and other industry stakeholders is then used to develop a scientifically based analysis of the production and consumption of beef.

Grass-fed beef makes up a significant and growing proportion of the U.S. beef market and is therefore included in the scope of the study. For this analysis, “grass-fed” refers to an animal that consumed only forages for the duration of its lifetime – with the exception of its mother’s milk.

In recent decades, consumer demand for grass-fed beef products has rapidly increased. The grass-fed beef sector has responded, growing at a rate of 25 to 30 percent per year in the last decade, according to data shared by Allen Williams (former Mississippi State University Extension beef specialist and founding partner of Grass Fed Insights LLC) at the 2015 Grass-fed Exchange Conference.

Grass-fed now claims 6 to 7 percent of total U.S. beef market share and is projected by some to grow to 30 percent of total beef sales in the future.

To learn more about grass-fed beef production in the northeastern U.S., producers were surveyed and interviewed about herd characteristics, animal performance, land management practices and general marketing practices.

Survey responses

A total of 70 responses from West Virginia to Maine were included in the final analysis. Of the total, 51 responses were completed online and 19 were from on-farm interviews. A total of 9,859 acres and 1,493 cows were represented.

For perspective, data shared by Williams at the 2015 Grass-fed Exchange Conference indicates that the survey represents about 2 percent of the estimated total number of grass-fed beef producers in the U.S.

Herd characteristics and animal performance
The majority of operations were cow-calf to finish, 10 percent were finish only, and 3 percent were cow-calf operations which specified marketing their calves to grass-finishers.

The typical farm surveyed had about 20 cows, one bull, five replacement heifers and 17 finishing animals. The average mature cow weighed about 1,200 pounds, and the average calf weighed about 500 pounds at weaning. In addition, producers reported low post-weaning mortality rates. (The majority reported 0.5 percent or less.)

A major bottleneck in producing a high-quality grass-fed carcass in under 30 months in the Northeast is maintaining adequate daily gains during the winter.

Inadequate and highly variable daily gains can lead to a loss in carcass quality and an increase in production cost by having to feed cattle through a second winter.

Anibal Pordomingo, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in Argentina, suggests the following targets for producing high-quality forage-finished beef:

  • Annual average daily gain greater than 1.6 pounds per day

  • Daily gain during the last 90 days greater than 1.8 pounds per day

  • A growing/finishing period less than 15 months (after weaning)

  • An age at slaughter close to 2.5 years or less

  • Elimination of restricted growth periods with less than 0.6 pounds per day of gain

In the Northeast, the middle 50 percent of producers were finishing cattle in 20 to 26 months at 1,000 to 1,180 pounds. The average daily gain from birth to finish ranged from 1.4 to 1.8 pounds per day.

This range suggests that there may be opportunity to improve animal performance on many grass-fed operations in the Northeast.

Opportunities for improving daily gains results from ensuring growing and finishing cattle have access to high-quality forage during winter months and during the “summer slump” with genetics adapted to performing on all-forage diets and grazing alternative forages such as summer annuals.

Forage management
The total land base represented by the survey was broken down as follows:

  • 70 percent was grazed and 30 percent was cropped.

  • 88 percent of grazing land was perennial pasture, 9 percent was annual pasture, 2 percent was silvopasture (wooded land managed for forage and timber production), and 1 percent was grazed crop residue.

  • Average stocking rate on pasture was 4.8 acres per cow.

  • Average total land use (grazing land plus cropland divided by the number of cows) was 6.7 acres per cow.

Some producers reported applying fertilizer beyond that of cattle manure on pasture:

  • 17 percent applied nitrogen to perennial pasture, and 10 percent applied it to annual pasture at a rate of 20 to 150 pounds per acre.

  • The most commonly used nitrogen sources were poultry manure and chemical fertilizer (primarily urea).

  • 5 percent applied phosphorus to perennial pasture, and 6 percent applied it to annual pasture at a rate of 15 to 100 pounds per acre.

  • 6 percent applied potassium to perennial pasture, and 8 percent applied it to annual pasture at a rate of 18 to 100 pounds per acre.

  • Two-thirds of producers reported applying lime to pastures, normally every three to five years.

  • 66 percent of producers reported clipping pastures, and about half the producers who responded to the survey reported replanting pastures at some interval.

Supplemental feed
In order to carry the herd through the winter in the Northeast, many producers require supplemental feed such as hay or silage. Several different feeding strategies were identified (Figure 1).

Breakdown of responses for feed production and use

In general,

  • 50 percent harvested all feed on-farm.
  • 26 percent purchased all required feed.
  • 21 percent used a combination of harvesting and purchasing.
  • On average, 2 tons of feed per animal were purchased annually.

Dry hay was by far the most commonly purchased feed, followed by alfalfa or grass silage, while grass hay was the most common feed harvested on the farm.

Of producers harvesting feed, 18 percent harvested hay from pasture, 30 percent harvested hay or some other feed crop from ungrazed land, and 52 percent did both.

The vast majority (89 percent) of producers reported marketing all or some of their beef products directly to the end consumer. In addition, 23 percent reported marketing to a retailer, 14 percent to a distributor or wholesaler and 24 percent to multiple outlets.

Most producers were not using an official grass-fed label such as is available through the American Grass-fed Association or the USDA, and 53 percent were raising additional animal species on the farm.

Next steps

Generally speaking, the results show that grass-fed producers in the Northeast are producing at a relatively small scale and marketing their beef product directly to the end consumer. About half of the producers had diversified operations where they marketed additional species from the farm.

Many different strategies were used to ensure the herd had all supplemental feed required, including haying, cropping and purchasing supplemental feed.

Representative operations will be developed from these data to quantify the environmental impacts and economic viability of grass-fed beef production in the Northeast. In addition, a national survey will be used to characterize management practices in other regions and make similar summaries for the national grass-fed beef industry.

The next survey will capture larger-scale operations and differences between regions. This information will contribute science-based estimates of resource use and environmental impacts to the literature and validate marketing claims for the grass-fed beef industry.  FG

Alan Rotz is an agricultural engineer with USDA-ARS.

Jasmine Dillion is a graduate research assistant with the Department of Animal Science at Pennsylvania State University. Email Jasmine Dillion.

PHOTO: Cattle finishing on alfalfa-orchardgrass stands in Maryland. Photo provided by Jasmine Dillon.