Note to the reader: The tables and other data referenced below are available directly from Northeast SARE. Call 802-656-0471 and request full report materials for LNE06-236.
A series of surveys, national educational conferences, comparative experiments, application of farmer production methods, and evaluation of change were used to educate farmers in grass-fed (GFB) beef production methods, provide scientific information to assist in production decisions, contribute to the scientific literature about GFB production benchmarks and for consumer responses to GFB production methods, and to evaluate the impact of new and improved production technologies on GFB farms.
Twenty-six GFB farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region were interviewed to capture specific production, marketing, and economic data. A summary of those results are shown in Table 1 (Steinberg et al, 2009).
The data clearly show the economic and production decisions being made by GFB producers, the challenges to production and marketing they face, and the economic forces in play for the enterprise. A further description of the economic forces accounting for profit in the enterprise are shown in Table 2 (Steinberg et al, 2009.)
These data are singular economic benchmarks for the enterprise in the Mid-Atlantic region. A summary of the results indicates several salient points:
? Most enterprises do not make money, but fully one-fourth of the farms could report a profit on the GFB enterprise, including for the price of land.
? There is a significantly higher cost of production for GFB compared to conventional beef production.
? Producers are using harvesting and production factors that are in use for the commodity and grain-fed beef business, but without any validation of their impact on profitability or consumer acceptability of the product.
? Producers are making production, genetic, and management decisions with no validation of their impact, economic viability, or consumer acceptability of GFB products.
? There is significant variation in beef products produced and marketed.
? There is great opportunity for cost reduction in GFB production.
? Land, equipment, and winter feed costs are more important to profitability than price of the product.
? Producers identified inconsistency of their products and the time required for marketing as the most important problems they faced in GFB enterprises.
Three years after the initial survey was completed, a follow-up discussion was held with 20 of the 26 initial respondents. (The remaining 6 respondents were not available to respond, were no longer in business, or contact information was no longer accurate.) The purpose of this discussion was to determine the changes that had taken place in the GFB enterprise on the farm in the 3-year interim, and to get a perception of changes in the collective GFB enterprise. The results of the discussion are in Table 3.
Almost half of the farmers planned to produce more GFB in the future, but further indications were this growth could be restricted by the cost and availability of additional land. The data also show the shifting priorities and skills of the producers. About two-thirds of the farmers had a different perspective of their obstacles after 3 years, and one-third had made some significant changes in their marketing program. This change to selling individual cuts of beef appeared to be a natural evolution of identification of new markets, understanding the customer, and changing price points. The most significant change identified was in pasture management. This feature of the initial survey was identified as the practice to be imposed on 5 farms with the responses below. This is also a further identification and maturity of livestock production knowledge.
The initial producer survey indicated wintering costs were significant in determining profitability of GFB farms. Five farmers were selected from the database of respondents that were not practicing rotational grazing. The imposition of rotational grazing fence structure was intended to increase the annual grazing period and reduce winter feeding costs for these farms. One producer resigned from the program early in the process, so data were available on four farms. The size of the farms where temporary fences were constructed ranged from 8 acres to 80 acres, and pastures were subdivided into nine paddocks of nearly equal size. The results indicated grazing period per paddock was reduced at a level correlated with previous grazing management. That is, if pastures were not rotated, the length of the rotation was dramatically reduced from 180 days to about 5 days. In other cases, pastures were rotated 4 times per year or monthly, and imposing faster rotations correspondingly decreased grazing time for each paddock. In all cases farmers indicated there was a longer grazing period for the farm, and the length was reported to be a range of 7 to 30 days. These results were distributed to other farmers involved in the project, and probably contributed to the post survey response where improved grazing management was a significant change for two-thirds of the farms.
National Educational Symposium.
The National Grass-Fed Beef Conference was held in Grantville, Pennsylvania in February, 2007. The purpose of the conference was to bring together GFB producers, allied industry, agency and extension educators, and academic researchers to review the GFB enterprise from a scientific and a productive perspective. It was known there was nearly no unbiased results for producing GFB in the scientific literature, so this was the first opportunity many attendants had to receive what data were available. Producers of GFB from Minnesota, Arizona, and Maryland provided insight to production practices and “lessons learned” in the enterprise. Marketers of GFB on both a small and a large scale were available to engage and educate GFB farmers in marketing their product. Twenty-nine speakers provided this information to 240 participants in the 3-day conference.
As shown, 94% of the participants indicated the conference met or exceeded their expectations. These results indicated there was a need to address these issues with participants in the GFB enterprise, and there probably is a continuing need to do so.
A supporting research study conducted by Ms. Emily Steinberg at Penn State University provided some singular data relative to consumer evaluation of GFB production practices. This is one of the few studies in the literature that used consumer evaluations are the comparative response to GFB production practices. In general these studies had the following results:
? Consumers found the cooked beef to be acceptable in nearly all cases.
? Cattle were harvested at an age-constant basis of 542 days old.
? There was a large variation from sample to sample for the consumer evaluations for taste, tenderness, flavor, and overall acceptability.
? There was no relationship of consumer evaluations for flavor, tenderness, or overall acceptability based on animal final weight, final fat thickness, frame size, quality grade (low select through low choice), yield grade, or final grazing period (124 to 187 days).
? Post-harvest interventions are probably necessary to increase consistency and acceptability.
? Fatty acid profiles and cholesterol were not related to production practices, animal factors, or consumer evaluations.
? Fatty acid content including CLA and Omega 3:Omega 5 ratios was not sufficient in cooked products to imply any human health advantages.
? The influence of animal genetics and breeds is still entirely unknown.
These results are important to farmers for many reasons. First, they imply farmers have a wide range of production practices and animal factors available to them that will not significantly impact the acceptability of the final product. Therefore, production decisions can be made based on other resources available to them and marketing constraints for their marketplace. For example, for those selling halves and quarters of carcasses, final carcass size may be a constraint, but fat thickness and grazing period over 124 days long are not affecting the palatability of the product. On the other hand, producers selling cuts of beef should feature healthy, fast growing animals of various frame sizes and harvesting endpoints of fat and quality grade within few limitations.
Secondly, the implications to promotion, advertising, and product labeling must be considered. For example, CLA content of GFB (while being 50% higher than grain-fed beef at the same edible fat content in RAW meat) is virtually zero after cooking. Similar results can be shown for Omega-3 fatty acid as well. These results will require that product labels not imply there is some human health advantage for GFB for these features both from veracity as well as a legal perspective. The specific connection of consumers with food product labels in under intense scrutiny, so the GFB enterprise would be well-served to determine those aspects of consumer interest that are legal and sustainable.
Additional educational opportunities regarding GFB survey and research results were attended by 500 people in 10 venues regionally and nationally.
Recent studies have shown nearly one-third of American consumers prefer the taste of GFB compared to conventional, grain-fed beef. With an average per capita consumption of beef in the US of 72 pounds, a market potentially exists for over 4 million pounds of GFB annually. These consumers are generally younger, assume a benefit in local and “natural” beef production, and attribute health benefits to grass-fed meat. There is a deficiency in the scientific literature describing production practices for profitable GFB beef production under US conditions, and unbiased, comparative studies to make successful management decisions are needed. With few exceptions, GFB producers are small farmers that service a local market. A recent survey among 100 GFB producers identified product consistency and identification of customers as the salient needs of their enterprise. In the first phase of the project, at least twenty grass-fed beef producers in the Northeast will be identified to provide unknown benchmark production and economic data for grass-fed beef production. The second phase will include adoption of production practices determined from the results of a USDA-funded comparative study that includes wintering programs and product evaluation. Adoption and testing of these successful management practices will be extensively evaluated on at least ten farms, including evaluation of production and economic responses compared to benchmark data. These data will be provided to producers in a several ways, including as part of a grass-fed meats symposium on a national scope.
Since GFB production does not have a recent history in American beef production, and because GFB is still a small portion of total beef production, there has been little interest in experimentation and documentation that would provide sound, scientific, and validated information to GFB producers. Successful GFB operations exist in the region, and the identification of production practices and resources that make them successful would be beneficial to many others. However, this information has not been compiled. Similarly, much of the information available to the general audience of GFB producers is testimonial in nature. For example, there is a difference in the validity of these two statements:
“ My cattle are Angus and they will be more tender than other breeds.”
“ In a comparison among Angus, Hereford, and Charolais-sired grass-fed steers, the most significant source of variation in tenderness of the steaks was animal age, followed by carcass aging, then breed of the sire.”
The first statement is simply an opinion. The second implies that some unbiased comparison has been made, and GFB producers can depend on these results for planning their production and marketing programs. The issue at hand is that neither statement has been validated. Delivery of either statement to educate GFB producers would be misleading and quite possibly inaccurate. The scientific comparisons implied are outside the purview of this proposal.
The most critical element of this project to insure the success for GFB producers is validated information that is useful and provides profitable alternatives for GFB production. This will be accomplished in four phases of the project:
1. Benchmarking current production practices and economic values, including development of a database of producers.
2. Adoption and evaluation of the factors from a discovery phase from a corresponding comparative study on grass-fed beef farms.
3. Exchange of information on a broader scope among researchers and farmers to enhance production, economic returns, and consumer acceptability of grass-fed beef production.
At least twenty Northeastern grass-fed beef producers will provide benchmark production data and at least ten of these producers will adopt new production procedures that will improve product consistency, customer satisfaction, and profitability to the enterprise.
The target was achieved because the formal survey was completed and the follow up information indicated there was an adoption of technologies and information. The measurement of consumer satisfaction would be indicative of producers who are continuing to both maintain and grow there customer base as evidenced by the 44% of the respondents increasing the number of GFB that are marketed. Additionally, production methods related to improved pasture management was adopted by 67% of the producers. Profitability changes will need to be measured over time to account for environmental and economic issues that could drive the outcome in spite of adopted practices. This procedure will continue.
Farmers were recruited through extension educators, NRCS grassland specialists, the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), and personal contacts.
Twenty-six grass-fed beef producers were surveyed across Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland. The surveys consisted of 13 sections, which functioned to obtain descriptive information regarding the size of the farm, the pasture and forage resources, the maintenance of the farm, the number of cattle, the cattle breed, cattle harvest, processing, marketing, reasons they are producing grass-fed beef, and problems they encounter while producing grass-fed beef. The survey was used to calculate information on annual per animal costs regarding pasture and forage maintenance, facilities (including fencing), equipment, health, purchased feeds, wintering programs, pricing for products, and advertising.
In all cases, annual costs were calculated on a per-animal harvested and marketed basis. Land values were highly variable, and they represented a significant portion of the cost of production. The annualized land cost per harvested animal was calculated using the owner-estimated asset value of the land with a 5% opportunity cost (alternative value of principle). Land cost per animal/yr = [(((Estimated land value/(total ha)*grazed ha))*(0.05))/(# grazed animals intended for harvest))].
The establishment cost for each of the forages, except native grasses (no establishment cost), were calculated using custom rates as described in Pike (2007) for pastures used in the grass-fed enterprise. In general $32.39/ha for tillage, $244.32/ha for seed, and $65.21/ha for fertilizer at establishment was used. Stand life for perennial grasses was arbitrarily estimated at 20 yr, and legumes were estimated at 5 yr to estimate an annual cost of forage. Annual manure spreading (Pike, 2007) and commercial fertilizer application at prevailing costs were added to prorated establishment costs to produce an annual cost of pasture forage.
The cost of pasture mowing per animal was calculated using $43.26/ha (Pike, 2007). Pasture mowing may have been as a part of pasture management, including underutilized pastures. Fencing costs were calculated using the producer’s initial cost with an arbitrary life of 20 yr. Adjustments were made in fencing costs to assign the appropriate cost to grass-fed cattle intended for harvest if other cattle were present on the farm.
The annual cost of equipment was estimated using the producer’s estimated cost,
a 5% salvage value, the percentage of the equipment use allocated to grass-fed beef production, and an arbitrary life of the equipment (10 yr or 20 yr depending on the age of the equipment). This estimation lacks precision due to unknown age of some equipment, years of service, and true salvage value, while initial cost and the percentage of allocation to the grass-fed enterprise was more accurate.
Animal cost at turnout was a constant value of $2.26/kg based on producer-estimated incoming live weight. Only one farm did not raise all of the cattle in the grass-fed enterprise.
Purchased feed cost was calculated by adding together the cost for minerals, grain by-products, grain, and food by-products (if purchased). Additionally, hay and balage produced or purchased was considered a purchased feed. The percentage of purchased feed allocated to the grass-fed enterprise when other cattle were consuming the feeds on the farm was estimated using average animal live weight, except minerals were allocated at the same rate (0.11 kg/head/day).
In most cases cattle were wintered on dry hay and balage in mixed groups of grass-fed cattle intended for harvest and cow-calf units. The wintering costs for hay and balage were calculated by adding together the producer’s estimated value of the hay and balage and using actual and estimated animal weights as functions of relative intake. The weight used for cattle intended for harvest was the average of turnout and harvest weight, and cow weight (if present) was set at 454 kg: Total hay and balage costs = (((Hay or balage cost)/(total number of cattle on farm consuming hay or balage)) X ((average weight of grass-fed cattle X number intended for harvest))/ (average weight of grass-fed cattle X number of cattle intended for harvest ) + (total number of cow-calf units X 454 kg).
All other costs (advertising, transportation, etc.) were derived from producer responses and prorated over the number of cattle harvested and sold. The cost per animal harvested and sold was derived by summing over all costs included in the survey responses.
The gross income for cattle intended for harvest was calculated using the average live weight at harvest, and summing over the percentage sold (kg) on live weight and average price, percentage sold (kg) on hot carcass weight (HCW; constant dressing percentage of 60% of live weight) and average price, percentage sold (kg) as individual retail cuts (using a constant value of 40% of the live weight) and average price, and percentage sold (kg) as a package of cuts (40% of live weight) and average price.
The survey also contained responses for major production and marketing problems, age and education of producers, animal selection traits, processing methods, pricing, labeling, and lifestyle choices.
Controlled Feeding and Consumer Study
An experiment was conducted with the consent of the Pennsylvania State University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC #20625). The experiment consisted of 20 pasture-fed steers and 10 pasture-fed heifers. All of the cattle were wintered together postweaning for a weight gain of 0.69 kg/d for 156 d. The cattle were progeny of Angus/Simmental crossbred cows that ranged from 25% to 88% Angus, and all cattle were sired by Angus bulls both AI and naturally with 9 sires represented.
Animal feeding and management
Prior to weaning, the cows and their calves were housed on pasture at the Haller Farm at The Pennsylvania State University. Minerals (8% calcium, 24% phosphorus, and 68% salt; Young’s Brood Cow, Minneapolis, MN) were available ad libitum. The cows and calves had access to grass/legume pasture consisting primarily of cool-season grasses (predominately orchardgrass). The mean TDN, NDF, and CP were 68.8%, 52.1%, and 17.9%, respectively. The test cattle received no grain prior to weaning at an average age of 188 d. The weaning dates were established based on age and were September 19, 2005, October 10, 2005, October 26, 2005, and November 2, 2005. The animals were then transported 2 km and wintered within the Beef and Sheep Center at The Pennsylvania State University.
There were no subtherapeutic antibiotics provided and no growth-promoting implants were administered to test cattle. Four animals were treated for foot rot with an injectable antibiotic (Liquamycin; Pfizer Animal Health, Exton, PA). The cattle were maintained in a 5.3 ha pasture, had ad libitum access to round grass hay bales (predominantly orchardgrass) in Hay Savr® (J&L Equipment, Stoystown, PA) elevated cone feeders, and were fed whole shelled corn at 3.0 kg/head/d from November 22, 2005 to January 27, 2006. The grass hay bales were sampled and evaluated for DM, TDN, CP, and NDF and the average values were 87%, 64%, 10.2 % and 66.3%, respectively. Between January 27, 2006 and April 26, 2006 the amount of corn was increased to 4.0 kg/head/d. The wintering pastures were primarily cool-season grasses. The predominant species was orchardgrass with lesser amounts of tall fescue, legumes, and weeds. Little pasture forage mass was available for grazing for the extent of the postweaning wintering phase. There were a total of six feed bunks that were 2.44 m long (0.3 m of bunk space/calf). All cattle had ad libitum access to water and minerals in a mix containing 8% calcium, 24% phosphorus, and 68% salt (Young’s Inc. Roaring Springs, Pa). The cattle resided at the Beef-Sheep Center until April 26, 2006. Grain was added to the diet to achieve a targeted average daily BW gain of 0.73 kg/d. The actual average daily BW gain was 0.69 (SE= 0.03) kg/day for the 156-d wintering period. Argentinean workers have shown a desirable grass-finished product required 0.8 kg/day ADG during grass-finishing (Pordomingo, 2007). Bruns (2001) and Pordomingo (2007) indicated marbling accretion is a function of consistent growth in growing cattle.
Cattle were transported 2 km from the Beef and Sheep Center pastures on April 27, 2006 to the Penn State Haller Farm pasture. The pasture fertilization consisted of urea nitrogen (46 % nitrogen; Helena Chemical, Warrriors Mark, PA) applied three times. The first application was March 31 at a rate of 48 kg N/ha; the second application was May 25 at a rate of 30 kg N/ha; the third application was August 31 at a rate of 20 kg N/ha. Twenty steers and 10 heifers remained on Haller Farm pastures until each group was harvested. Forage species descriptions are shown in Table 1. During the first rotation (May 5-18), twenty-eight additional yearling heifers (not commingled with test cattle and not a part of study) were rotated through the paddocks, following the animals within the study. These additional animals acted as defoliators to remove excess pasture growth. The subsequent rotations only included the animals pertaining to the current study. Twenty steers were grazed in one group and 10 heifers grazed in the other group in adjacent paddocks. Therefore, sex is confounded with grazing paddock in all comparisons. Each group of animals was rotated through 8 different paddocks, achieving a total of 16 paddocks for the study. Each paddock was approximately 0.29 ha/heifer and 0.37 ha/steer over the grazing period. The stocking rate differed due to the relative weight differences of steers vs. heifers (481 kg and 494 kg final weight for heifers and steers, respectively). They were moved typically twice weekly. Paddock sizes were variable with entry in the paddock typically at 30 cm of forage height and removal at 10 cm of forage height. This was measured subjectively. No supplemental feeds (except minerals) were used as forage was continuously available.
All cattle were weighed at turnout after a 16 hr shrink and frame scores (Beef Improvement Federation, 2002) were determined. Paddocks for summer grazing were pastures containing primarily tall fescue and orchardgrass (Table 1). Pasture collection for sward species separations was conducted on September 26, 2006. A metal grid was thrown to a random spot of the pasture and clippings were removed at a height of 3.0 cm. This process was conducted five more times in random spots along a straight path. Following the clipping, samples were immediately manually separated into specific species (Table 1). After the collection, all the samples were chilled in a portable cooler.
All the cattle were allotted to the paddocks on the same date. Pastures were sampled by randomly casting a 1 m² frame 3 cm tall in the paddock prior to each rotation and clippings were made at 3.0 cm. The samples were collected weekly from May 2, 2006 until October 24, 2006, dried at 55°C for 48 hours, ground through a 1mm screen and frozen. At a later date, samples were thawed and evaluated at the Cumberland Valley Analytical Services, Inc. and analyzed for CP (AOAC, 1990) and subjected to near-infrared reflectance (NIR) analysis, using a prediction equation constructed in-house by wet chemistry (New Cumberland Valley Analytical Services, Inc. Maugansville, MD). The information reported from the laboratory was CP (% dry matter), TDN (% dry matter), and NDF (% dry matter).
Cattle had continuous access to water and minerals (8% calcium, 24% phosphorus, and 68% salt ; Young’s Brood Cow, Minneapolis, MN) during the grazing period. Grazing continued at Haller Farm until October 30, 2006 when the final harvest group was removed. Sufficient standing forage mass was available for the entire grazing period to allow for optimum intake.
Five cattle were harvested at a constant age (532.9 d ± 5.7 d) in each of 6 harvest groups. Animal age was held constant to avoid possible confounding effects of age on carcass and consumer values. The first harvest group spent 124 d grazing and the last harvest group spent 187 d grazing. All cattle were harvested at a single facility (N. S. Troutman and Sons, Freeburg, PA) after a 2 hr haul. An age-constant basis variability of carcass traits was expected and desired for evaluation over a wider range of values. Fat thickness, marbling score, percentage KPH, final weight, and ribeye area were collected after a 24-hr chill (2.2-3.3°C). All marbling scores were evaluated by a single trained grader. Following data collection, the 9-12 rib section of longissimus muscle was removed from the left side of the carcass, freezer wrapped, and transported to the Pennsylvania State University Meats Laboratory. Three steaks, 2.54 cm thick, were removed, labeled based on the position on the carcass, vacuum packaged (Bizerba, Piscataway, NJ) within 1 hour after cutting in 3 mil-vacuum pouches (Koch Supplies, Kansas City, MO) and frozen in a -4°C freezer for a maximum of 144 d for the shear force test, 68 d for the consumer test and 302 d for the fatty acid and cholesterol analysis. The steaks were not aged before freezing.
Shear force test
The shear test was conducted at the Meats Laboratory of The Pennsylvania State University. Before the test began, 30 steaks were thawed for 24 hr in a refrigerator (2-3ºC) within their vacuum package. The oven (General Electric, Model # JBP26W4WH; Louisville, KY) was preheated to 176.7ºC. Six random steaks were unwrapped, fat and connective tissue were trimmed, and a pre-cooked weight was taken. Each steak was wrapped in aluminum foil on a metal tray with steaks arranged in two columns and three rows. The tray was put in the preheated oven for 20 min. After 20 min the steaks were probed with a thermocouple (Model HT680A, Cooper Instrument Corp., Middlefield, CT). Each steak was removed once it reached an internal temperature of 70°C. After all the steaks were removed from the oven they were cooled at 22°C for 15 min, blotted to remove excess fluid, and weighed to determine cook loss (Mean = 29.9% SE = 0.69). Once the steaks were cooled to 22°C for an additional 1 hr, three cores (1.27 cm cores) were removed parallel to the muscle fibers (Model TMS-90 Texture Test System, Food Technology Corporation, Rockville, MD.). The cores were then sheared perpendicular to the cut surface. Peak shear force was recorded as kg of force, using a Warner Bratzler type shear cell (Model CW-2 Meat Shear Cell, Food Technology Corp., Rockville, MD). This entire process was repeated until all 30 steaks were assigned shear force values as the average force over the three samples from each steak.
Fatty acid profiles were conducted in the laboratory of Dr. Susan Duckett within the Department of Animal and Veterinary Science at Clemson University, Clemson, SC.
Frozen steaks were packaged in dry ice and sent via Federal Express to Clemson University for next day arrival. All longissimus muscle steaks were thawed in a refrigerator at 2-3 °C and prepared for analysis by removal of external fat and connective tissue. A food processor (Waring ProPrepTM WCG75 Chopper-Grinder, Torrington, CT) was used to process the muscle. The muscle was immediately placed into a clear plastic storage bag, frozen, and freeze dried. A food processor was used to grind each frozen dried muscle into a powdered sample. The freeze dried sample was then stored at -20ºC for less than 30 d prior to analysis. After sample preparation, total lipid content was measured in duplicate using hexane in an ANKOM XT15 Extractor (Ankom, Macedon, NY). Samples were transmethylated according to the method of Park and Goins (1994). Fatty acids were analyzed and separated according to the method of Duckett et al. (2009). Total cholesterol content of the meat sample was measured using gas liquid chromatography (Du and Ahn, 2002).
Steaks were utilized for a shear force test, fatty acid and cholesterol analysis, and consumer taste test with the same steak location number for each test. The Proc Mixed procedure of SAS (SAS, 2002) was used for each of the 3 objectives. First, weight gain, final weight, frame size, sex X paddock, fat thickness, rib-eye area (REA), yield grade, shear force, marbling score, and percentage of kidney, pelvic and heart fat (% KPH) factors were compared with the response variables from fatty acid and cholesterol analysis in a backward elimination procedure. The fatty acid or cholesterol value that had the greatest P-value, greater than an alpha level of 0.1, was removed from the model for each iteration. After each variable was removed, the procedure was repeated until all the variables left in the model resulted in a P-value less than 0.1. After the final model was determined, a correlation analysis was conducted for those variables that remained in the model to determine the partial correlation coefficient and the standard error of the correlation.
National Educational Conference
Participants in the national educational conference were recruited by placing advertisements in national grazing publications, use of a web site designated for the conference, and email blasts. Subsequent audiences were recruited through extension educators and periodicals.
Summary of Audience Recruitment
Since there is very little organizational structure to the GFB enterprise, a generalized approach must be made to engage the audience. As such, periodicals and other publications were the best forms of communication. Secondly, organizations such as PASA were very helpful in identifying this fairly narrow base of farmers who could provide the benchmark data from the surveys. We were not as successful in recruiting participants in the national conference. It appears that may GFB producers do not have a history of association with livestock commodity groups, university extension education programs, and other traditional sources of contact. Further, with this lack of previous association, there was less confidence in the academic community to provide information of use to some GFB producers. Since this was the first conference designed to engage the academic community with GFB producers on a larger scale, this result could probably be suspected. We also found that imposing production practices of known value on some farms was not as successful as we hoped because farmers readily reverted to less efficient practices by habit or lack of conviction.
The survey respondents were a key feature of the project. It was necessary to glean as much information from them as possible, but to get the information in simple numeric data that they readily had at hand. Therefore, the survey instrument was developed so important data could be calculated with simple, verbal responses. For example, the farmers did not know what their annual per acre or per steer pasture costs were, but they knew how much land was used, how much fertilizer was purchased, what waterers and fences cost, and how much tillage was used. From these data, an estimate of annual pasture cost could be calculated. Secondly, it was necessary to gather the data on a one-on-one process in the farmer’s home. A mail response and a called meeting was scheduled to gain subsequent data, but these methods failed to engage the farmers for many reasons. The subsequent data were gathered in the same way as the initial data by one-on-one interview.
While survey respondents were very accommodating to the interviewers, it was also apparent they were not confident with making changes in their production until they saw some of the calculated costs of production for their enterprise. For example, the initial data revealed that many participants owned cattle for an excessive period and harvested them at an age that would severely impact profitability of the enterprise. However, they were not willing to change those processes until it was revealed what their costs were, and 67% of the farmers made changes in their pasture management program. There is also a natural evolution of an enterprise such as GFB production. Many farmers have experience in producing cattle, but few had experience in the nuances of pricing, advertising, and packaging food products. This evolution in change for production practices as it affects marketing methods and changes is expected to continue as the enterprise matures. Evidence of these changes are shown by farmers moving from low input marketing of carcasses to marketing specific cuts of beef in several venues, including restaurants.
There were extensive opportunities to provide educational and research publications, seminars, and meeting proceedings. The National Grass-fed Beef Conference was an extensive effort with 30 speakers from 3 countries. The proceedings of the conference have been distributed to 500 people and was used as course material for the Feed Technology course in the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State. A series of natural, organic, and grass-fed beef production seminars were held in three locations in Pennsylvania in 2007.
Steinberg, E. L. and J. W. Comerford. 2009. Case Study: A survey of pasture-finished beef producers in the northeastern United States. Prof. Anim. Sci. 25:104.
Steinberg, E. L., J. W. Comerford, V. H. Baumer, and E. W. Mills. 2009. Production characteristics of pasture-fed beef. Prof. Anim. Sci. (accepted for publication 5/09).
Steinberg, E. L., J. W. Comerford, V. H. Baumer, and E. W. Mills. 2009. Case Study: Production and consumer characteristics of pasture-fed beef. Prof. Anim. Sci. (accepted for publication 8/2009).
Steinberg, E. L., J. W. Comerford, and V. H. Baumer. 2007. Relationship of animal, production, and carcass traits to consumer acceptability of grass-fed steaks. J. Anim. Sci. 85 (Suppl. 1): 92.
Steinberg, E. L. 2008. Production, carcass traits, consumer evaluations, and production data for grass-fed beef production. M. S. Thesis. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Comerford, J. W. and E. L. Steinberg. 2006. The Relationship of Animal, Production, and Carcass Traits to Consumer Acceptability of Grass-Fed Steaks. Proceedings of the National Conference on Grazing Lands, St. Louis, MO.
Comerford, J. W. 2007. Biosecurity for the Farm. Proceedings of the National Grass-Fed Beef Conference, p. 221. The Pennsylvania State University.
Comerford, J. W. 2007.Animal Genetics for Effective use of Pastures. Proceedings of the National Grass-Fed Beef Conference, p. 68. The Pennsylvania State University.
2006: The Business of Beef Quality
Jornada Internacional De Produccion Bovina
Santa Rosa, La Pampa, Argentina
2006: The Relationship of Animal, Production, and Carcass Traits to Consumer Acceptability of Grass-Fed Steaks
National Conference on Grazing Lands
St. Louis, MO.
Pasture Beef Production. Northeast Farming. December, 2007, page 24.
Costs and Returns for Pasture-Raised Beef in the Northeast. Northeast Farming. December, 2008; page 47.
In Search of the Silver Steer. Northeast Farming. July, 2009: Cover story.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
The most important outcome of the project was to raise the awareness of GFB farmers that the academic community was able to assist them in their production and marketing program, provide useful and unbiased information, and listen to their needs and goals. The benchmark data provided by 26 farmers in Table 1 is a starting point for making change because it will allow the measurement of change. Without these data, no measurement is possible. This template for information should be revisited every 5 years to determine change in the enterprise.
The research reports from Steinberg et al. (2009) and the Proceedings of the National Grass-fed Beef Conference (2007) are probably the most extensive sources of information now available from unbiased sources for the GFB enterprise. These data show some distinct advantages for the collective GFB enterprise including:
? Consumer acceptability of the product is reasonably good
? There are GFB producers who are profitable
? The potential population of GFB consumers is about 20% of all beef eaters
? GFB producers are innovators in marketing their products
Coupled with the advantages that have been identified, there are several sources of concern that will need to be addressed. These concerns are primarily as a result of scrutiny of popularly-held beliefs about the GFB enterprise:
? It costs significantly more to produce GFB than grain-fed beef and pricing must account for this additional cost
? There are probably no human health benefits for GFB
? There is too much variation in GFB products available to the public
? There is no uniform set of best-management practices available
? Animal factors and animal harvest should be driven by production economics and the market and not by frame size, animal breed, forage varieties, and other esoteric factors.
The future of the GFB enterprise was in a small way revealed by the products of the study and their adoption by the stakeholders. That is, production methods will need to be coupled with harvest and post-harvest interventions. Engaging new customers and subsequent growth of the enterprise with a higher price point than commodity beef will occur when there is a superior eating experience for the customer. What constitutes a superior eating experience for any given consumer for GFB is still virtually unknown. There is a significant need to research production, processing, labeling, and post-harvest intervention steps that will enhance the acceptability of GFB to consumers. A set of best management practices must be ascertained that producers can use with confidence to improve consistency of their cattle and gain access to markets that will feature a consistent GFB product. This is a singular deficiency in the GFB enterprise.
The table below is a projection of the economic impact of a 5% change for each of the items listed. These data are based on the farmer survey inputs. The increase in returns or gross values would be a cumulative effect of improvement in several aspects of production including animal genetics, pasture quality, grazing period, cost reduction, animal health, and others. The 5% increase is both conservative and achievable for these farmers.
The grass-fed beef industry is fraught with testimonials, speculation, and salesmanship as the source of information for producers. This is typical of new and emerging agricultural enterprises, partly because there has been little scientific research to provide unbiased comparisons for production decisions. The benchmark production and economic data provided through this project was the first step in providing data that could be used as a means of comparison and evaluation of future changes. The results of the followup survey showed clearly that there is a growing maturity of the enterprise, and production and marketing decisions are becoming more sophisticated as a result. What many grass-fed farmers have discovered, and are relating to their enterprise, is that the basics of beef production and marketing are not unique. That is, healthy, productive cattle in a well-managed environment is the first step to success regardless of how they are fed. As one producer in the followup discussion noted “ We have finally found out we have to have good cattle and a good product to sell people, and we need to measure our success by the customer we have.”
The grass-fed beef enterprise was founded in many ways on the concept that it would be safer, more nutritious, healthier, and more suitable for the environment than grain-fed beef. As scientific scrutiny of these features increases, there is an increasing awareness that these features are either false or of little consequence. This could imply there will be a reduction in grass-fed beef production if producers recognize this result. It is also possible that the market penetration to customers who specifically make a purchase decision based on grass-fed production has been reached or is nearly reached. Future consumers are going to demand more from the product. However, marketing research for beef products clearly shows grass-fed beef can have a substantial impact in beef marketing because of other features including local production, naturally-raised, animal well-being, and other factors. Future growth and support for the enterprise will be predicated on using these features as marketing tools. The remaining caveat is making sure the eating experience for the customer will exceed the experience with other types of beef products so the premium price point can be maintained.
Areas needing additional study
As the grass-fed beef enterprise matures, producers and marketers will find they are faced with the same issues that most food marketers face. That is, there must be product consistency, knowing the key marketing concepts, increasing the efficiency and reducing the cost of production, constantly recruiting new customers, and many other issues. The lack of consistency in grass-fed meat products has been identified as a major problem for producers and marketers. Since GFB is priced entirely by weight and not priced as commodity beef by quality and yield grade, this lack of consistency will continue. It is imperative to this enterprise that some best management practices be developed that include production factors, harvesting endpoints, carcass processing factors, labeling dynamics, and post-harvest interventions that will contribute to product consistency and increase consumer value.