Whole Farm Planning for Grass-fed Beef

Final Report for LS00-113

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $214,069.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Ann Wells
National Center for Appropriate Technology
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Project Information


This report finalizes a multi-year, collaborative project with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, University of Arkansas Departments of Animal Science and Agricultural Economics, University of Tennessee Middle Tennessee Experiment Station and Department of Animal Science, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and multiple livestock producers.  Research conducted showed that quality grass-fed beef can be produced economically and that cattle can be supplemented with fiber-based supplements and not decrease the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) content.  The project showed that cattle will gain well on pasture if they have access to a high availability of quality forage and that the degree of success is largely weather dependent.  Case studies indicated that not all farms have the same capability of producing grass-fed beef. Constraints are the genetic composition of the herd of cattle, the productive capability and fertility of the soils, the potential of producing winter and summer annuals for consistent availability of pasture on a year-round basis, a viable number of animals for market, and the mindset to be a good grazier.  The primary limiting constraint to be considered by a livestock producer for a production of grass-fed beef is the ability and time to develop a consistent and dependable market.  Several of the livestock producers involved in the case studies for this project formed a limited liability company for marketing their grass-fed beef.  Multiple publications on the research results have been published as well as several presentations at scientific meetings.  This grant will be followed with another SARE project transferring the results to livestock producers and educators throughout the southern region.

Project Objectives:

1. Develop an educational/research program to address the constraints in implementation of a whole farm plan for production of grass-fed beef.

2. Conduct case studies of 10 farms to monitor the decision-making process and investigate the factors limiting production of pasture-fed beef carcass with a high degree of consistency and consumer acceptability.

3. Investigate animal and pasture relationships in production of pasture-based beef production to enable adequate information for producers to achieve a quality product.


Successful farmers are whole farm planners.  They evaluate their resources and formulate a management plan to use those resources to generate income on their farm.  Expenditures to manage those resources are based on the return on investment of each expenditure, and must be evaluated for each specific management scenario.  Evaluation is based on monitoring the response of the natural resources to expenditures and necessitates matching the livestock enterprise to management of the resources, both natural resources and management resources (reference: ATTRA publication Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet, developed through a SARE grant). How well the farmer monitors his/her resources and formulates an action plan with the information will determine the success of the farm.

The primary interest of this grant is to investigate constraints farmers may have in producing grass-fed beef.  The first decision to be made is what kind of product will be marketed and when, then work backward to determine whether calving dates and forage availability are timed to produce the product and whether it can be produced and marketed economically.

Completing the Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet gives farmers a starting point, helping them to focus on those areas that will move then towards their goals. Farmers must remember that every year is different and monitoring of the whole farm from season to season and year to year is important in order to see those differences.

Shown below is a listing of items that should be monitored and evaluated for the production of grass-fed beef.   The primary consideration in production of grass-fed beef is the ability to be a good grazier and to overcome negative weather influences that decrease the availability of quality forage necessary for good gains of cattle.  While weather cannot be “changed”, there are management scenarios that make the weather changes less of an influence on farms.

While it is almost a cliché that beef producers are grass farmers, the decisions needed relate to the production of the “grass” and the economic efficiency is influenced in the long run by the costs of producing and “harvesting” the grass with a grazing animal.  Items to be considered relate to the following:
Soils and fertility
Landscape (proper fencing design for increased harvest efficiency)
Riparian areas
Fertilizer and soil amendment needs (influences number of animals that can be grazed)
Influences on fertility (organic matter, plant vigor)
Pasture and forages
Forages available (cool season, warm season, legumes, annuals)
Grazing system design and management (must be intensive for good intakes)
Seasonal fluctuations (can be influenced by grazing management)
Stabilizing production
Livestock enterprises
Health (management becomes important for production of “natural” or organic beef)
Reasons for performance differences
Labor and management
Knowledge level and availability
Equipment available through owned or custom work  (no-till drill for planting annuals)


Materials and methods:

A review of grass-fed beef (Griebenow, 1997) provides a basis of thoughts regarding the emphasis on research in this grant. The research emphasis is on producing a high availability of quality forage for consumption by beef cattle throughout the year to produce a consumer-acceptable meat product. Contracts with the University of Tennessee (Middle Tennessee Experiment Station) and the University of Arkansas (Departments of Animal Science and Agricultural Economics) were secured for this effort. The primary intent was to evaluate forage sequencing and animal type to determine how a product could be produced that was acceptable. A secondary component was to evaluate the beef carcass parameters regarding fatty acid content (conjugated linoleic acid—CLA) and the omega-3 fatty acids.

Research at the University of Tennessee focused on the production of grass-fed beef and the University of Arkansas assessed the meat characteristics of the animals. Additionally, the University of Arkansas developed methodology to determine the economic opportunity at various stages of growth of cattle raised for grass-fed beef.

A two-year project was conducted at the Middle Tennessee Experiment Station, Spring Hill, Tennessee, under the direction of Drs. Chris Richards and Dennis Onks. Two primary production scenarios were investigated, designed to study cool season annuals as primary forage compared to supplementation with a digestible fiber rather than the typical grain supplement, which is starched based. The treatments studied were 1) the assessment of supplementation of cattle with soybean hulls, a by-product feed known as a digestible fiber base rather than a starch base and 2) production of cattle on a cool season annual pasture (wheat) as compared to two common cool season perennial pastures (orchard grass and tall fescue). Additionally, the cattle were allocated to treatments by maturity pattern and size at maturity (frame score).

The University of Arkansas took the lead in collection and analysis of the meat product information from the cattle produced on the Tennessee project (see attached references). The primary emphasis was on fatty acid content, carcass characteristics, and meat profile data that included professional taste panel data. While from an animal performance there was no difference between fescue and orchardgrass pastures, the Arkansas data separated those cattle for meat characteristics. This data is documented in several research publications available and will not be presented in detail in this report.

Case studies were conducted of farms, and a grazing trial conducted using cattle from the case study farms. This trial was conducted to assess the performance of cattle on cool season annual pastures.

Research results and discussion:

Animal performance information:
The Tennessee data has two very significant results to be considered for whole farm planning to produce grass-fed beef and one illustrates why not everyone can do it consistently. As we have known, in some areas of the country, the dependence upon cool season annuals for consistent production is not very reliable. This two-year project did not have a consistent availability of wheat pasture to ensure adequate gains of cattle, as the weather was not conducive to planting at the proper time for fall growth. This points out the importance of the phrase “availability of quality pasture” in a grazing system geared toward a high level of production. Grass farmers are at the mercy of the weather. While to some degree, pastures can be managed to maintain quality, the addition of annual forages to pastures is highly dependent on the weather. The data collected in this project illustrates that the forage quality was excellent but the availability for optimum intake was lacking. Animal performance across as well as within seasons is usually impacted more by availability than quality. Most projections are that 2500-2800 pounds of forage dry matter per acre are needed for good production on pasture and that intake is decreased when forage availability is below 1500-1800 pounds of dry matter. Unfortunately, the lack of cool season annuals was a negative in achieving one of the objectives of this project and made the study one dimensional (supplementation) rather than comparing the use of cool season annuals to supplementation. Therefore, a case study of grazing winter annuals was added to the project, as discussed later.

Note in table 2 the differences in the diet of animals where the sample was collected through rumen masticates than when the pasture was sampled through clipping all forage available. This illustrates the selectivity of grazing and shows how that selectivity changes based on the “needs” of the grazing animal. If the diet is high in degradable protein, the animal tends to select for more fiber; however, if the forage available is fairly mature, the animal selects a more vegetative diet higher in protein and lower in fiber (but higher in digestible fiber).

The second result of significance is that supplementation of cattle is needed to offset a poor availability of quality forage at any point in the life of cattle being grazed or to offset the high degradability of protein in the forage available to the animal. The primary interest in grass-fed beef is to not depend on harvested feedstuffs, particularly grain, for optimum gain of livestock. Grass-fed meats, idealistically, should be produced on sustainably-managed pastures (I cannot understand vegetarians preferring soybean diets to meat because of the destructive components of producing soybeans on farmland!). However, there is the opportunity to use byproduct feeds rather than grains as a supplement. This is where the results from this research are so dramatic. Soybean hulls (soyhulls) were chosen as a supplement because they are a digestible fiber and a by-product of the food industry rather than a starch-based grain supplement in competition with the food industry.

Furthermore, a fiber based supplement is preferable for ruminants as it does not interfere with the balance of rumen microorganisms and is a more natural feedstuff to be included in the diet of ruminants. When forage diets are supplemented with a starch-based supplement, there is generally a decrease in intake and forage digestion. This decrease does not occur when a fiber based supplement is used. Most importantly though is the impact of the fatty acid profile of the meat when fiber-based supplements are used rather than starch-based grain supplement.

Several research reports have been written with the results from this project and can be referenced for detailed explanation and results. However, there are two findings of consequence for discussion here. The first is that cattle fed soyhulls did not have decreased CLA content. The second is the larger carcass size of the large and medium framed cattle over the small frame cattle. The carcass size was larger and the backfat and quality grades were not any lower. One important point to consider here is that the animals were all of intermediate maturity pattern, indicating they were probably large volume animals with a lot of growth capacity. This yields a larger carcass that helps in defraying processing expenses of smaller framed animals. Live weights for the soyhull supplemented animals was 1190 vs 847 pounds and carcass weights were 671 vs 436. For the large, medium and small frame animals live weights were 1144, 1064 and 1034, respectively, across the treatment groups. Carcass weights were 629, 596 and 561, respectively.

Table 5 shows those CLA levels as compared to the feedlot beef. The grass fed beef had higher levels of CLA regardless of the pasture composition. Likewise, Table 6 shows the omega 3 fatty acid levels in the grass fed beef to be higher than that of feedlot beef, with a resulting lower omega 6/omega 3 ratio. The omega 3 fatty acids are the “healthy” fatty acids, and the goal is to have a ratio as close to 1 as possible.

Taste panel results:
University of Arkansas was able to budget a trained taste panel from Texas A&M. Meat samples were sent to there for documentation of the differences in the animals in the trial. This provided scientifically based information to complement the informal neighborhood survey discussed later. Additionally, meat that had been graded “choice” and “select” was purchased to compare to the meat from the research project. The results are described in table 7. The interesting point is that the animals that had no supplementation were scored slightly higher numerically on grassy flavor, but given the range of values available to the panel (0-15 with 0 being absent and 15 extremely intense), the rating of 1.11 for grassy flavor is extremely low. This seems to be the case in most studies of grass-fed beef.

Producer grazing trial:
Since the cool season annual portion of the research trial was not a viable study, a case study was conducted on cool season annual pastures. The persons involved in the case studies assembled cattle to be grazed from December 1, 2001 through June, 2002, at one location. The grazing contractor had a high availability of quality forage (wheat, rye, ryegrass pastures) and did an excellent job of managing the cattle in a daily rotation of cattle to fresh pasture. The cattle assembled were quite variable in weight, age and body type. Harvest of the cattle began in April and continued through June. Cattle at that point that did not have enough fat cover were taken to another farm with more limiting forage resources and held over until the next year.

Calves coming into this part of the project were required to be eartagged and castrated. Most had been vaccinated. Many had never been dewormed. Animals had been castrated at various ages and there were heifers in the group. These animals came from 11 different farms, which, while similar environments, all had been raised under different management strategies. The cattle ranged in age from six to 24+ months and weighed from 450 to 950 pounds. The majority of the calves were a 5-frame score but ranged from 5 to 8.

The calves were observed daily, when being moved. This provided information on whether they were eating, what they were eating, if any were depressed, if any showed signs of disease or stress. It also familiarized the cattle with people, which calmed them down and taught them that people were nothing to be afraid of. Riding of heifers by steers was noted throughout the project and led us to conclude that heifers and steers should not be grazed together, even if the steers have been steers for a long period of time. These heifers were much more nervous when being handled and didn't perform as well as the steers.

However, with the exception of the one calf with bloody diarrhea and the ridden heifers being more nervous and harder to handle, there were no other signs of ill, unthrifty, or depressed animals.. All were in good body condition. Their good health for the duration of the study can be attributed to their initial good condition but then equally important was the excellent nutritional status provided these animals for the duration of their lives. All animals had fecals run on them twice, and only two had worm eggs present in manure, and those were below levels needed to warrant deworming. They were handled very calmly when moved every day and during the weighing, sonogramming, and body condition scoring, which sometimes occurred weekly. The calm, low stress handling was continued through slaughter, which aided the tenderness scores of the meat.

Producer Grazing Trial - Carcass and Meat data summary
Of the 50 cattle that were placed on the single grazing site by the participating farmers, 34 were actually harvested before the conclusion on the study. Those animals harvested included animals that had reached an acceptable fat cover as deemed by hand palpation and body condition scoring during weigh events, or were harvested because the end of the grazing period was reached and those animals did not have any other alternative. The remaining animals that were not harvested were returned to their owners.

The various performance measures of the harvested cattle are listed in Table 1. The data represent a very diverse group of cattle, both in body type and age. The cattle were not necessarily selected to excel in this particular situation as much as to serve as a tool for producers to see what types of cattle, types that they currently own, could be expected to perform well on grass.

Cattle were harvested in several small groups, over four harvest dates from May 6, 2002 to June 24, 2002. Harvesting and processing was conducted at the University of Arkansas abattoir, a USDA inspected facility in Fayetteville, AR. Carcasses were dry aged in the cooler for an average of 23 days until further processing.

Some of the data in Table 1 varies from typical values for grain-finished, commodity beef. Due to the leanness and possibly larger intestinal mass, hot carcass yields are lower than one would expect in fatter, grain finished beef. Average hot carcass weights of 548 pounds, were yielded from an average live animal weight of 1004 pounds. The hot carcass-live animal yield was only 54%. The lower than expected hot carcass yield could be because the final live animal weights were taken on the farm the day before harvest, and the animals were not held off pasture for any length of time prior to weighing. We did not weigh carcasses after aging, prior to processing, due to limitations within the processing plant. However, the leaner carcasses probably lost more moisture during aging than would a fatter carcass. This moisture loss, along with the production of mainly boneless retail cuts, reduced yield from the carcass into retail product to 58%. These lower percentages resulted in the final yield of retail cuts to 31.8% of the live animal weight.

Quality and yield grading were conducted by Dr. Jason Apple, Associate Professor and Faculty Supervisor of the University of Arkansas Red Meat Laboratory. Average fat thickness, adjusted for body deposition, was 0.24 inches at the 12th rib. A steak was removed and analyzed for tenderness, fatty acid content, and color. Not all the carcasses received complete color, tenderness, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) analysis. Color, tenderness, and CLA analysis was conducted by Dr. Fred Pohlman, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas. Color measures for both the lean and fat portions were within accepted norms for red meat. The lean had very acceptable red beef color and the fat portion was not perceptibly yellow tinted, a common concern with grass-finished beef. The Warner-Bratzler shear force values for most carcasses were below threshold levels commonly thought of as tough (that being 4.5 kg of force). Figure 1 depicts how average daily gains and shear were related in the cattle. The red line is the threshold for tough beef; all but three animals fell below this threshold. Animals that tended to have higher average daily gains also had more tender carcasses. It is also interesting to note that older carcasses did not necessarily mean tougher meat. Two of the most tender, fastest gaining animals, were also the oldest. Animals #5 and #7 were approximately 790 days of age at harvest, but lead the pack on gain and tenderness. Figure 2 compares shear force values and adjusted 12th rib fat values. While it would appear that the regression line is downward sloped as it travels to the right, it may be influenced by a few outlying observations, if those outliers are removed the trend line remains very similar; therefore all the observations were shown in Figure 2. The body condition scores (BCS) that were achieved prior to harvest, while averaging 5.79 on a 1-9 scale, were poorly correlated with adjusted 12th rib fat (correlation data not shown). The intent was to use a simple tool to help determine fat cover as a harvest indicator. In our situation, BCS did increase during the grazing period, but in hindsight, we probably needed to shoot for a higher BCS prior to harvest, possibly more sixes and sevens to ensure adequate fat cover on the carcass. We also observed differences amongst various cattle due to hide thickness, probably due to genetics. Some of the variation in BCS might have been reduced in the group of cattle were more similar in this regard.

In Figure 3, it may seem obvious that heavier animals will have more retail value, but it is the degree to which weight impacts value that is important. In this instance, based upon the slope of the regression line, a pound of live weight was worth $1.35 in the box. So, in practical terms, as long as the cattle are growing at an acceptable rate, and in our case a pound of custom grazing only cost $0.45, it pays to put as many pounds as possible on those animals before taking them to the rail if you do not have other constraints in your process.

The age of the animals, especially when attempting to grass-finish, can be important, both economically and physically. Older animals had more total value (Figure 4), but they also were heavier. There were also some animals, for example animals #20 and 13, which had the same value, but were 200 days younger. The economics of an additional 200 days may not be viable. Similar results can be found in Figure 5, where the calves with higher average daily gains, trended toward higher overall retail values. The contradiction in this data is that the oldest animals (900 days of age) were the largest at harvest, had some of the highest average daily gains, and tended to be more tender than the other calves. There are many theories on why this may be possible, but cattle that have reached a mature frame size as those cattle had, and are placed on a high quality ration, compensatory growth and rapid tissue accretion may have resulted in these particular cattle performing rather well. The bottom line is economics, can you afford to keep cattle around that extra year. The cattle indicated that they had the genetic potential to grow and produce value once in the box, might the environment they were raised in prior to the study be changed to take advantage of that potential?

Much time and effort was spent collecting carcass data during the project in an attempt to better define some of the carcass characteristics associated with grass-finished beef carcasses. Each carcass was broken down into five primal areas, and further fabricated into retail cuts. Table 3 provides detailed information on the five primal areas. We measured the total weight of each retail cut fabricated from that primal region. The exception with each primal is that we did not measure the trimmings that would go into ground beef or stew meat from each primal individually, rather we combined all the trimmings into a category we called ground products. We have calculated the weight of the retail cuts, the percentage of the total retail cuts that were fabricated from that primal, the total value of those cuts, and the percentage of overall carcass value that is attributable to those primal cuts. The ratio calculated on the right-hand side of Table 3 is also the average price per pound of cuts from that primal. This may seem very simple, but unless you have a cut test done, you may not know the yields from the various primal regions and the value that they lend to the total. Another use of this ratio or average price per pound of primal is to determine what areas make the most money per pound. In this example, the rib area leads the pack with a ratio of 9.25. The brisket is at the low end with a ratio of 3.11. Many times direct marketers complain about not being able to market the entire animal. Why do we need to market the entire animal cut up using traditional methods? The ratio allows the comparison of the various primal regions to help find where more value might be sought out. For example, if I have problems moving cuts from the round, what are the options? By looking at the ratio, and knowing that ground beef moves very well, I might elect to make fewer round steaks and more ground beef, and in the process, not diminish my total returns, since the ratio is the same in this situation.

Table 4 contains the price list that was used to sell the retail cuts. The price list was generated based upon the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service reports for boxed beef negotiated sales, (LM_XB459) which is published weekly and contains the wholesale prices used for commodity beef transactions across the country. < http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsmnpubs/Meat.htm > Twice daily price updates are also available from the USDA, but changing prices continuously is very time consuming.

Establishing prices based on the commodity price spreads ensured that we acknowledged some of the traditional price differences for various beef cuts and did not have to start from scratch. A retail markup of approximately 90% was applied to arrive at a commodity price, and then an additional 20% was added to cover costs associated with small scale production. Our goal was that if all the beef was sold, the owner of the beef would receive about $1 per pound of calf weight at the start of the project, be able to pay for the grazing fees associated with the project, and pay for all processing and marketing costs. At the time, this price structure amounted to about a 20% premium for calves over the local market price. Realizing that many marketers of grass-finished beef are asking much higher prices, we thought that receiving a premium for the calf that was produced on the owners farm, prior to custom grazing, and then covering all the expenses involved with grazing, processing, and direct marketing, would be lofty enough to get started. In Table 5 the projected economic plan and the actual results are presented. The planning budget was based on typical industry information regarding yields and the known costs at the time prior to the grazing period. The reality budget is what actually occurred during the project. One large difference was the calf cost, producers indicated that they had lighter calves and given our grazing cost, it would have been cheaper to put the weight on by grazing than to actually purchase the weight ($1.00 per pound for a calf versus $0.45 per pound of gain while grazing). A lighter carcass saved us some processing fees, but the lack of weight and lower retail yield hurt us when we got product in the box. Overall, our costs per animal were higher and the additional $66 resulted in an additional $0.20 per pound on our breakeven. Lower yields and less retail weight inflated the breakeven to even higher levels. Our lower retail yield from the carcass could be a result of two primary factors. The carcasses overall had less fat cover than commodity beef, and combining that with a 21-day aging, additional moisture and hence weight was lost. However, there was no scale available to actually weigh carcasses as they left the cooler prior to processing. The second factor is that during processing we featured boneless cuts, such as boneless chuck roasts and round steak. Therefore a 6-percent lower yield on a smaller carcass, with higher input costs resulted in a breakeven at the end of the processing of $3.34 per pound, versus the $2.53 we projected.

In February 2004, an additional 11 head of cattle were harvested and processed from some of the same producers and genetics as the original group; however the cattle had been grazed at another location. The data for these cattle were collected to offer some additional observations on grass-finishing and is located in Table 6. Unfortunately we were unable to get individual live weights on these animals prior to harvest. Hot carcass weights on average were 67 pounds heavier with less variation. The retail carcass yield was also higher than the earlier group, but the adjusted fat thickness was lower, a full tenth of an inch lower. Due to limited funds, the only meat quality parameter tested was Warner-Bratzler shear force values, which were 5.15 kg, a full 1.68 kg more than the earlier group of cattle.

Based upon the earlier information that was discussed and presented in Table 3 regarding the primal ratios, different meat products were produced from these cattle. Round steak and round roasts were eliminated and that portion was made into hamburg patties, and priced with a higher margin than the previous products. This price difference pushed the average price/lb of retail product up $0.78 to $4.88 per pound. Some of this impact can be seen in Figure 6, where carcass yield and total retail value are compared. While this later group only produced on average 44 more pounds of retail product per carcass, the retail value also went up, to an average of $1777.00 per animal. Some of the difference in value is due to a new retail pricing structure, available in Table 7.

Figure 7 demonstrates that this group had higher shear force values, but a similar relationship between fat thickness and shear. While this relationship in commodity beef is not typical, perhaps in leaner, grass-finished carcasses, this relationship is more important to recognize if repeat customers are desired. It may also be important to note that there may be a seasonal effect on the shear force values. The previous group of cattle had ample spring forage and harvested in early summer. These cattle did not have time on spring forages being harvested in late February after consuming mainly stockpiled forage prior to harvest. Figure 8 allows us to see how the elimination of some of the whole muscle cuts from the round impacted our overall value. As the percentage of whole muscle cuts is reduced and a higher percentage of cuts went into ground products, we moved the overall retail value to higher levels. While some of this increase in value is due to pricing, it clearly shows that with a correct product mix, we were able to improve the overall retail value.

When establishing marketing budgets it is important to have realistic goals, yields, and prices. With some of the data collected here, we hope to supply more realistic goals for others interested in the production of grass-finished beef. Yields are very different than with commodity beef. Compared to common commodity beef figures that are commonly used, we showed eight to ten percent less carcass weight after harvest. On a 1000 pound animal, this results in a 548 pound carcass, not a 640 pound carcass. Ninety-two fewer pounds of carcass weight could equate to 54 fewer pounds of retail product with the same 58%retail yield. In this situation, 54 fewer pounds of saleable meat, with an average price per pound of $4.10, results in $221 less income per animal.

Also take into consideration shrink that occurs throughout the process. Not all the beef will be saleable. Accidents happen, freezers go down, holes in packaging occur, samples have to come from somewhere during marketing efforts. It could be reasonable to lose or give away another five percent, which is very close to what we found in our efforts during storage and marketing.

When pricing, realize that if you pay processing based upon the weight of the live animal, or the hot carcass weight, those costs will be multiplied as your amount of saleable product is reduced. For example, if processing costs $0.40 per pound, based on hot carcass weight, the real cost in terms of impact to your average retail price is almost doubled. Say your 600 pound hot carcass, yields 58% retail cuts. That means that the $240 processing cost needs to be spread over 348 pounds of saleable product, or in other words, about $0.70 of your retail price will go to cover just the processing.

Add all these costs together and you’ll find that if you give a true value to your labor and management, direct marketing can drive the cost of your beef out of the realm of most consumers. So be honest with yourself during an assessment of this marketing strategy.

A component of the process that was not part of the original project and in hindsight would best be described as woefully inadequate was the actual marketing of the retail beef. Sales lingered despite local interest and enthusiasm for our product and production methods. Customers, while voicing support, did not support us with their purchasing dollars. Ground beef and the top line steaks sold well. Roasts and other lower end cuts did not sell as well and as a result, after lingering in frozen storage for a year, the remainder of the beef was sold at a deep discount, generating just enough to cover processing costs.

Forage quality and availability studies:
A major effort was conducted to gather forage information on the case study farms. Part of the data was collected through the NRCS grazing land specialist collecting fecal samples from the herd(s) of cattle on the farms. These samples were processed through the NUTBAL program in an effort to estimate the quality of the forage in the pastures. Additionally, pastures were sampled through clipping of representative sections of the pastures. These data are summarized in a publication listed as well as shown in the case studies.

Ruminant nutrition studies with grazing animals are lacking, and when accomplished, do not include studies on various intensities of pasture rotation. Intake of forage of grazing animals can change because of individual animal behavior differences as well as by various levels of stock density on a pasture, which can be changed by grazing management. In observations during this project, the diet of the animal changed according to the ability of the animal to select higher quality forage or higher fiber forage when “quality” was high. Therefore, rough comparisons were made between clipping samples of the forage available versus evaluating the diet of the animal through fecal sampling. In some cases the results were quite different. If stock density was low, the animal tended to choose a higher quality diet, especially if the pasture was “out of control”, meaning some of the forage was maturing and the animals selected the more vegetative plants in the pasture. Of particular interest in these comparisons was the degradability of the protein content of the forage. Cool season grasses tend to have less fiber than warm season grasses and the protein degrades faster in the rumen, creating a situation where the excess nitrogen is expelled from the body. This requires energy. If the forage is low in energy, animals will tend to use their body fat to make up the difference. Therefore, we wanted to estimate degradable protein in the pasture samples. The degradable protein data indicates a higher percentage of bypass protein for warm season grasses than cool season grasses, and it also indicates that as the season progresses, cool season grasses increased in bypass protein. This reinforces the thought that cool season grasses in the spring of the year require different management than in the summer, and that as the fiber component increases, degradable protein decreases. The issue in grazing management is that the fiber component needs to be digestible, and when digestibility decreases (as reflected with ADF measurements) intake goes down.

Farmer Case Studies
A meeting of the individual producers involved in the case studies was held in October, 2003, to do a preliminary review of the case studies. Producers began by reviewing the beef cattle sustainability checksheet developed through a previous SARE grant. Members discussed the constraints of their farm in producing quality grass-fed beef. In most cases the primary constraint identified was the availability of quality forage on a year-round basis. The producers whose farm consisted mostly of fescue and bermudagrass pastures indicated the lack of cool season annuals (wheat, rye, ryegrass) in their system to achieve the high level of gains necessary for quality grass-fed beef. This constraint is due primarily to lack of equipment for production of cool season annuals. These producers then indicated a desire to contract graze their cattle with producers that had that availability to finish cattle on pasture

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:


Baublits, R.T., A.H. Brown, Jr., F.W. Pohlman, Z.B. Johnson, D.O. Onks, H.D. Loveday, R.E. Morrow, B.A. Sandelin, W.K. Coblentz, C.J. Richards, & R.B. Pugh. (2004). Carcass and beef color characteristics of three biological types of cattle grazing cool season forages supplemented with soyhulls. Meat Sci. 68:297-303.

Baublits, R.T., A.H. Brown, Jr., F.W. Pohlman, Z.B. Johnson, D.O. Onks, & B.A. Sandelin. (2004). Chemical, fatty acid and tenderness characteristics of beef from three biological types of cattle grazing cool-season forages supplemented with soyhulls. Ark. Anim. Sci. Rep. (Submitted).

Baublits, R.T., F.W. Pohlman, A.H. Brown, Jr., Z.B. Johnson, D.O. Onks, & B.A. Sandelin. (2004). Sensory characteristics of beef from three biological types of cattle grazing cool-season forages supplemented with soyhulls. Ark. Anim. Sci. Rep. (Submitted).

Baublits, R.T., A.H. Brown, Jr., F.W. Pohlman, Z.B. Johnson, B.A. Sandelin, & D.O. Onks. (2003). Carcass and color characteristics of three biological types of cattle grazing cool-season forages supplemented with soyhulls. Ark. Anim. Sci. Rep. 509:9-11.

Baublits, R.T., F.W. Pohlman, A.H. Brown, Jr., Z.B. Johnson, B.A. Sandelin, & D.O. Onks. (2003). Chemical fatty acid and sensory characteristics of beef from cattle grazing forages supplemented with soyhulls vs. USDA Choice and Select beef. Ark. Anim. Sci. Rep. 509:12-15.

Coblentz, W.K., J.E. Turner, R.K. Ogden, K.P. Coffey, PAS, F.W. Pohlman, A.H. Brown, Jr., PAS, M.B. Daniels, J.L. Gunsaulis, M.L. Thomas, R.E. Morrow, & C.A. Wells. (2004) Case study: estimating degradable intake protein in warm- and cool-season forages grown on producer farms in northern Arkansas.  Professional Animal Scientist (In Press).

Abstracts for scientific meetings:

Baublits, R.T., F.W. Pohlman, A.H. Brown, Jr., Z.B. Johnson, D.C. Rule, C.M. Murrieta, D.O. Onks, B.A. Sandelin, H.D. Loveday, C.J. Richards, & R.B. Pugh. (2004). Correlations and prediction equations for fatty acids and sensory characteristics of beef longissimus rib steaks from three forage rations and commercial USDA Choice and Select rib steaks. J. Anim. Sci. (In press).

Baublits, R.T., F.W. Pohlman, A.H. Brown, Jr., Z.B. Johnson, B.A. Sandelin, D.O. Onks, D.C. Rule, & C.M. Murrieta. (2004). Chemical fatty acid and sensory characteristics of beef from cattle grazing forages supplemented with soyhulls vs. USDA Choice and Select beef. J. Anim. Sci. (In press).

Baublits, R.T., A.H. Brown, Jr., F.W. Pohlman, D.O. Onks, Z.B. Johnson, C.A. Wells, R.E. Morrow, & B.A. Sandelin. (2003). Effects of biological type and forage feeding on carcass characteristics, fatty acid profiles and sensory attributes of beef cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 81(Suppl. 2):12.

Pugh, R. B., D. 0. Onks, J. D. Gresham, H. D. Loveday and C. J. Richards.  2003.  Cool season forage-based beef cattle finishing systems.  J. Anim. Sci. 81 (Suppl. 2):2.

Johnson, T. M., R. Morrow, C. A. Wells, M. L. Thomas and J. K. Apple.  2003.  Whole farm planning for production of grass-fed beef.  J. Anim. Sci. 81 (Suppl. 2)

Presentations of information:
Johnson, T.  July 2003  American Society of Animal Scientists, Phoenix, AZ.
Morrow, R.  January, 2004.  Vermont Grazing Conference, Randolph Center, VT
Morrow, R.  February, 2004. Upper Midwest Organic Growers Conference, LaCrosse, WI
Morrow, R.  March, 2004.  Pennsylvania Grazing Conferences
Wells, A.  November 2004.  Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference, Asheville, NC      
Morrow, R & Wells, A. November 2004.  Kerr Center Annual Conference, Oklahoma City, OK

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Grass-finished cattle can produce beef that is acceptable in terms of overall color and tenderness.

Grass-finished cattle need to be managed properly so that higher rates of weight gain can be achieved and cattle can be harvested in an economically viable time span.

Using body condition scores to predict fat cover at harvest is a useful tool but may require some adjustment to calibrate the hands and eyes with the carcass.

Grass-finished beef will have different yields than commodity beef; therefore care should be taken when putting together projections involving the volume of meat and/or dollars that will be generated.

The total weight and yield of various retail cuts is tremendously important to overall carcass value and the knowledge of the relationship of those primals values to the overall value can provide insight into enhancing profitability.

Quality products and competitive pricing will only take you so far, a well planned and executed marketing plan is essential to long term success in direct marketing grass-finished beef.

The end result, as we found in this project and which has been corroborated in other similar projects, is that a farmer who wants to produce grass finished beef must put together a program of the right genetics, excellent grazing and pasture management that also sustains and improves the soil and other natural resources in order to achieve a quality grass finished beef product that has gained 2#/day. This will require a high management system. One that can fit any size farm, but which is not going to be easy for the hobby or weekend farmer to achieve.

The calf needs to be a 1100-1200 pound live animal, aged 18-24 months, with a body condition score of 6 or better in order to have an economically viable sized carcass with enough finish and marbling for flavor, juiciness and healthy fat levels.

In order to be able to achieve the above goal, the producer will need to have all of the following, as each is equally important:
• an intermediate frame, intermediate maturing calf
• available quality forage to allow animal to graze adequately to gain 1.5-2pounds a day
• a rotational grazing setup that moves animals at least every two days and as animals approach finishing, every day moves will be required
• a stress-free environment

A few of the farmers in this project discovered that raising grass finished beef was not the route they wanted to continue to take. Other farmers found that this was a product they wanted to continue trying to produce, even if not all their cattle would fit into the grass-fed beef program. Because of this, nine farmers from this project, formed a limited liability corporation for the purpose of selling grass finished beef. This corporation gives them the impetus to continue to improve the management of their whole farm, while providing a product that many consumers are now demanding.

For the other farmers, learning how to evaluate their farm and plan how to manage it to achieve their goals was a tremendous benefit. Raising more than one product from a farm reduces the risk of farming and allows each farmer to determine what fits their system best.

Economic Analysis

Economics of grass-finished beef
The concept of managing a farm in its entirety may seem overwhelming to some folks. Too some managing is the work they do everyday, whether it be in the field, barn, or on the tractor. To others management is viewed as something that left alone will take care of itself. However, another group views management as the active involvement and coordination of resources to achieve a defined set of goals. It is the purview of this project to provide assistance to a group of farms interested in improving their management toward a goal. This project also has the responsibility to not only report the results but to provide information and tools that might be useful to others that might be interested in the same pursuit.

The economics of any business, be it a retailer looking for particular items that sell better on the end cap, a restaurateur assessing what menu items to drop to due lack of interest, or a farmer deciding to sell cattle, all are a making small decisions about their business. The key to management is how all those small decisions add up so that when the day, week, or year is done, each has been successful and the goal achieved. In our simple scenario, the goal was to evaluate the production of grass-fed beef. How that goal is achieved has as many possibilities as there are farmers. There are however a few fundamental pieces that needed to be present in order for a reasonable expectation of success. Land, cattle, grass, and labor, all four must be present in some quantity if progress on the goal is going to be made. In order to test several components at the same time many of the farmers involved worked on various fundamental pieces, some at different times of the year, some receiving more attention than others, depending on where they wanted to be and what resources they had to get there. In addition to the home farm and to allow some comparison of the results, cattle were also grazed on a common farm together, allowing producers to compare how performance of their own animals might lend itself to the opportunity of finishing cattle on grass.

Ultimately grass-finished beef if yet another choice producers have to market a farm product. The key being, do farmers understand what it takes to produce a quality product that will continue to have a market once produced? The cattle industry is unique in some regards due to the on-going marketability that cattle have. Cattle can be marketed at almost any weight, age, color, previous background, etc. Most products, farm products or retail, have a defined market. The fruit is ripe, the flowers in blossom, the corn dry, the auto assembled, and the sweater sewn. Many products do not have a customer for half-done, almost complete items. Cattle producers can make marketing decisions at many points along the production pipeline. Will this group of calves be sold at weaning, backgrounded until 800 pounds and then sold, sent to a feedlot under retained ownership until ready for harvest? The farmer has multiple decisions at multiple points in time to make in order to achieve his goals.

The main consideration with whole farm planning is that in order to keep it manageable and to make better decisions, many farms like to practice enterprise analysis. In the application of enterprise analysis, the business or farm is broken down into discrete parts. On a beef cattle operation, those parts may be the cow-calf operation, the forage operation, a heifer development program, and a finished cattle operation. The number of working enterprises on any single farm is up to the owner, it can be as many or as few as they are willing to keep track of. On most operations, a good starting point would be to separate the cattle and the hay production to see where the money goes and where it is generated. If one was to consider grass-finished beef, from an evaluation standpoint, it would be useful to evaluate the calves from a typical event that would lend itself to comparison. For example if you typically sell calves at weaning, a suggested starting point for grass-finishing would be the weaning event. This is the point at which a marketing decision is made, calves will either get sold or go into your new finishing program. Since calves will probably be managed as a separate group, it makes for an easily tracked enterprise. If some resources are used in both of the enterprises, say your tractor, simply allot a portion of those expenses and labor to each one based on your best guess. Some items do not lend themselves to exact splits and an educated guess is often the best solution.

The next point along the production path maybe a decision to market calves at about 700 pounds, or sending them to a commercial feedlot on a retained ownership basis, or continue with grass-finishing.

The final decision along the path if you did select grass-finish might be to market the retail beef yourself or sell them to another party who will market the retail beef with the attributes of your production process.

Each phase of the process brings along another set of decisions and another set of opportunities. The key is having a plan, but also having enough information to execute your plan. Keeping good records is critical to both long term success and being able to repeat your prior achievements.

During the project, we did not get into detailed financial management with the participants. We focused on how each farm made decisions, how those decisions may be related, and how to improve the forage base on the farm so that they could take advantage of the decision to grass finish if they so desired.

In light of the many unique parameters, both financial and with resources, that each farm business faces, a livestock feeding analysis tool was developed by University of Arkansas agricultural economist Dr. Michael Popp entitled Livestock Feeding Analysis Tool. The goal of the tool is to assist producers in making informed marketing decisions based upon costs, including pasture, and pricing points along the production timeline to help make better decisions. The template is an Excel spreadsheet that is available by contacting ATTRA.


Areas needing additional study

Production of grass-fed beef is an economic reality but quality control remains an evasive issue. To some extent, the same standards used in traditional beef marketing applies. Further study needs are primarily defined from comparison of carcass characteristics of animals produced on warm season versus cool season grasses as well as characterisation of tenderness as influenced by the time of the year the animal is harvested.

Additional studies are needed in areas of supplementation of grazing cattle at times of forage deficits, with a complete study of carcass and meat characteristics. The supplementation studies should include harvested forages such as cool season annual and warm season annual baleage.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.