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This project which began in the spring of 2006 was granted a one year extension form the original completion date because of the very poor growing season in 2006 which severely limited the quantity and quality of Brown Mid-Rib Sorghum Sudan that could be grown. The original research was to be conducted on a farm in Northern Dutchess County. Following the crop failure and other issues on the farm it was decided to move the entire research trial to a farm in Albany County.
The research trial had its official second beginning in March 2007 where a timeline was set to conduct the trial. Soil samples were taken on three fields totaling twelve acres where the BMRSS would be grown. On May 27, 2007 the BMRSS was planted. First cutting took place on July 18, 2007 with the second cutting completed on September 2, 2007. All of the first and second cutting bales were wrapped immediately after harvest. Both first and second cutting samples were sent to the Dairy One Laboratory for a complete analysis.
On November 13, 2007 twenty two steer calves were chosen from a group of seventy head of crossbred steers. Steers were split into two groups, eleven in a grass-fed group and eleven in a grain-fed group. Cattle were weighed seven times between November 13, 2007 and October 18, 2008. Carcass measurements were collected via ultrasound at the beginning and end of the feeding period.
All cattle from both groups were harvested between October 25, 2008 and December 12, 2008. Carcass data was collected from each carcass in the grain-fed and grass-fed group. The final step in the process was to conduct a beef sensory test panel to determine differences in flavor, juiciness, tenderness and overall eating experience.
- To determine if brown mid-rib sorghum sudan grass (BMRSS) can be grown on Northeast soils producing highly digestible forage which can be used as winter feed source for finishing beef cattle.
To compare weight gains between two groups of beef steers. One group will be fed BMRSS and grass pasture and the other group will receive a traditional grain based finishing ration.
To determine the difference in rump fat, rib fat, rib eye area and intramuscular fat between the two groups of cattle over the 312 day feeding period via ultrasound and carcass data.
To compare carcass quality of grass-fed cattle and grain fed cattle over the same number of days and harvested at the same age.
Compare the eating quality of the meat produced from the two groups of cattle utilizing a sensory taste panel.
Compare the profitability of raising grass-fed cattle vs. grain fed cattle in the Northeast.
- The Brown Mid Rib Sorghum Sudan, variety Summer Prince, was seeded on a Chenango gravely silt loam soil. The seeding was done with a John Deere drill with seven inches between rows. Sixty (60) pounds of seed per acre was applied. The field was rolled before and after seeding to create a firm seed bed. No herbicides were used for weed control. Two cuttings were taken when the crop was thirty-eight inches tall. The crop was conditioned with intermeshing rubber rollers and laid in a wide swath for rapid drying. It was raked into a windrow at seventy percent moisture, round baled and wrapped immediately. The bales were then stored on a clean weed free gravel site adjacent to the feeding area.
Cornell Complete Soil Analysis was taken and analyzed before the planting of the BMRSS. Field amendments will be made according to the soil analysis.
Forage yield of each cutting was determined by bale weight and number of bales.
Forage quality analysis was performed at the Dairy One Forage Lab on all forages fed to the grass-fed group in the study.
During the growing season of the crop, field observation was taken in relation to plant growth and weeds, along with insect and disease problems.
The feeder cattle were raised utilizing best management practices with rations balanced using the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System.
Cattle used in this project included Angus and crossbred steers, born in the spring of 2007. Cattle were placed in two pens for feeding on November 13, 2007 and were fed one of the two rations until they were determined to be ready for harvest on October 2008.
Each animal selected for the trial was identified with an ear tag, individually weighed on scales at the farm and scanned with an ultrasound to determine rib eye area, back fat and intramuscular fat. Every attempt was made to make the two pens as alike as possible with equal numbers of M-1 and L-1 steers and the total cattle weight of each pen near equal.
Animals in each pen were weighed seven times during the feeding period to determine weight gain. Weighing took place in the morning before feeding.
The control pen of cattle received the traditional finishing ration currently used on the farm consisting of corn silage, high moisture shelled corn, soybean meal, wet brewers grain, and minerals. The test group was fed BMRSS Cytoplasm 6 wrapped round bale silage, free choice in a round bale feeder with a mineralized salt block. Dry matter intake of each pen was determined by weighing feed delivered to the pen less feed refusal.
A carcass measurement was collected via ultrasound near the end of the feeding period. Animals were scanned a second time with ultrasound just before harvest. At harvest carcass data (weight, dressing percentage and marbling score) was collected. A yield and quality grade was given to each carcass.
Following harvest of all of the animals in each pen, a comparison of all factors was done comparing the grass-fed test pen to the traditionally corn fed pen. Factors to be compared were: dry matter intake per day; days on feed; percent choice quality grade in each pen; average weight at finish; feed costs per pen; change in rib eye area; back fat and marbling by pen according to ultrasound scanning. All data was interpreted and analyzed to assure accurate information was reported as a result of the project.
A taste test panel of 12 beef producers, local chefs and representatives from other agricultural organizations was utilized to compare tenderness, flavor, juiciness, and overall acceptance of cuts of meat from carcasses in each pen. The taste panel was held at a local Albany restaurant that features grass-fed beef on the menu.
Brown Mid-Rib Sorghum Sudan (BMRSS) was chosen as a winter feed for the grass-fed group of steers in this trial because of its high level of digestibility and energy levels approaching corn silage. The first step in the growing process was to select fields that were moderately well drained and fenced or could be fenced allowing the BMRSS to be pastured. The fields were chosen totaling 11.66 acres. The soil type was Chenango gravely silt loam all fields had a previous crop of corn silage in 2006. A soil test was sent to Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab on 5/23/07. Results of the analysis Appendix C showed a pH of 5.9 with a high level of phosphorus and potassium. Lime was added at 3.5 tons per acre to meet the needs of an alfalfa seeding to be planted in 2009. Only one ton of lime per acre was needed for the BMRSS crop in 2007. Nitrogen was applied at planting and after first cutting at 120 pounds per acre. Twenty 20 pounds of phosphorus was added at planting. Planting of the crop was May 31, 2007. BMRSS needs to be planted when the soil temperature is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit and there is no threat of frost. The variety of BMRSS selected for the trial was Summer Prince. The BMRSS was planted with a John Deere drill with 7 inch row spacing’s and a depth of ½ an inch. Sixty pounds of seed per acre was planted. The field was rolled before and after drilling the seed. No herbicides were applied during the season. Note that one of the small fields had a heavy infestation of yellow foxtail which did impact the yield in that field. See Appendix D “Successfully Growing Brown Midrib Sorghum Sudangrass as a High Energy Grass for Dairy Cows in the Northeast”.
The first cutting of the BMRSS took place on July 18, 2007 with 59 bales harvested, weighing 1900lbs. The second cutting of BMRSS was taken on September 2, 2007 with 42 bales weighing 1900lbs. Total harvest per acre at 80% moisture was 7.99 tons. All of the first and second cutting bales were wrapped immediately after baleing was complete. Feed tests were sent to the Dairy One forage laboratory on October 01, 2007. Results of the forage analysis indicated the moisture level of the first cutting at 79.3% and the moisture level of the second cutting at 82.3%. On a dry matter basis, the BMRSS tested:
Components First Cutting Balage Second Cutting Balage
Adjusted crude protein 19.4 22.8
Acid detergent fiber 39.1 31.2
Neutral detergent fiber 61.8 57.4
Net energy gain mcal/lb .31 .35
Relative feed value 88 105
Relative forage quantity 134 162
Based on fermentation reports on both first and second cutting BMRSS balage fermentation was excellent with the PH in the 4.6 to 4.8 range and acidic and lactic acids well within acceptable ranges.
Setting up the Feeding Trial
This trial was held on a farm in Westerlo, NY, which is just South and West of Albany. It was chosen because the owners have been in the beef cattle business for many years, starting out as a cow/calf operation with a herd of 125 charlois cattle. They quickly expanded from a cow/calf operation by adding a small feedlot feeding out about 100 head per year.
The cattle selected for the trial were selected from a group of 72 steers born in the late winter early spring of 2007. The cattle were selected based on age, weight, frame size and breed. All of the medium framed cattle chosen for the trial weighed between 550 and 680 and were 7-8 months old. Frame sizes ranged from a high medium to large. The breeds of cattle chosen were straight angus and angus/Charlois cross (Smokey colored). Twenty-two cattle were chosen for the study, eleven (11) for the grass-fed group and eleven for the grain-fed group. The cattle were split randomly into the two groups using a computer model that had all of the cattle information entered.
The BMRSS group had one large frame animal and ten medium framed animals with an average starting weight of the group of 624 pounds. The grain-fed group had three large framed cattle and eight medium framed cattle with an average starting weight of the group of 627 pounds.
The feeding trial began on November 13, 2007 with all of the cattle being weighed and graded. On December 13, 2007 all cattle were weighed and ultra sounded.
Following the first weigh in session the two groups were split with the grass-fed animals going to a valley pasture field with an open front shed for protection from the elements. The grain-fed cattle went into a feedlot with about fifty other cattle. This lot had a run in shed with a feed bunk with no roof. Feed bunk feeding space per head was 6.8 inches.
The feedlot cattle started on a ration of 20 pounds corn silage, 6 pounds high moisture shelled corn, 0.5 pounds soybean meal and free choice clover hay on April 3, 2008. 3 pounds per head of bakery flour was added to the ration along with 4 pounds of molasses. In May of 2008 the ration was adjusted because the group of grain-fed cattle averaged less than 1Lb/day gain. The molasses and bakery flour were taken out of the ration and wet brewer’s grains were added at 12Lbs/head. As a result of the change in ration average cattle weight gains jumped from 0.99Lb/day to 2.68lbs/day in July and 3.21lbs/day in October.
The eleven grass-fed steers received a ration of BMRSS baleage, see feed test results and fermentation reports in Appendix A & B. Cattle received a new bale every other day fed in a large bale ring out in the pasture. A mineralized salt block was available at all times. Based on bale weight and the moisture content each steer was consuming about 86 lbs on as fed basis. This includes 10% waste.
As we completed the third weigh in period on February 8, 2008 we became concerned that daily gains had still not reached 1lb/day in the grass fed group. After much discussion it was decided that dry matter intake had gone down because the outside of the baleage was freezing and the animals were taking too long to consume the outside of the bale. It was decided to add some second cutting alfalfa to the ration to help DMI. What we found was the animals would continue to work on the baleage and consumed very little dry hay.
Later in February Jim Batz from Hubbard Feeds approached me about using some Crystalix products he would provide to us at no cost to see if it would increase DMI and weight gain. Because we were not sure what products would be best suited for this trial we started on February 29, 2008 with a tub of Buffer-Lyx and a tub of Brigade. On April 1, 2008 only a tub of Brigade was available to the cattle. A tub of Tasco 35-CP was started when animals went to pasture. The Crystalyx products helped as daily gains doubled between the February 8 and March 27 weigh in periods. Following one tub of Tasco 35-CP in pasture the Crystalyx use was discontinued.
Profiles of the various Crystalyx products from the manufacturer are as follows:
CRYSTALYX® Tasco® 35-CP is a unique, nutrient-dense, 35% protein supplement with Tasco®, designed to be fed free-choice to beef cows, stockers and yearlings that will help improve forage utilization when consuming low
quality pasture or harvested forages. Tasco® can help cattle deal with heat stress, especially when consuming endophyte infected fescue forages.
CRYSTALYX® BUFFER-LYX™ is a unique, nutrient dense, formulation specifically designed for lactating dairy cows that have the potential for experiencing subacute ruminal acidosis (SARA). BUFFER-LYX™ is formulated
with rumen buffering ingredients to maintain maximum levels of feed intake and promote increased milk production while minimizing disorders often associated with high-producing dairy cows.
CRYSTALYX® BRIGADE® Stress Fighting Formula is a high energy, free-choice supplement fortified with electrolytes and high levels of vitamins and minerals. This helps overcome nutritional stress associated with weaning, shipping, grouping and the breeding period. See fact sheets in Appendix.
The performance of the cattle during the winter and pasture periods is shown in Table 1. By design there was no difference in the weight of the cattle at the start of the feeding period. While there was some variability in the interim weights and ADG during the winter feeding period (185 days, November, 2007 – May, 2008), there was no difference due to diet in the May weight (872 lbs vs. 892 lb) or the winter ADG (1.34 lb vs. 1.43 lb) for forage and grain based diets, respectively. On May 16 the cattle on the Forage diet were turned out to pasture and the cattle on Grain diet remained in the feedlot. The corn was increased in the ration fed to the Grain cattle. As a result compared to the Grain diet the cattle on the Forage treatment had a lower final weight (1140 lb. vs. 1356 lb) and ADG (1.72 lb vs. 2.98 lb) during the pasture season (156 days, May 16 – October 19, 2008). The Forage fed cattle had a higher ADG on pasture than during the winter feeding period on BMRSS. Well managed pasture and good grazing management will often support higher performance than stored feeds. For the entire feeding period, the weight (1140 lb. vs. 1356 lb) and ADG (1.51 lb vs. 2.14 lb) favored the Grain fed cattle.
Table 1 Grass-Fed Weigh in Periods
Table 2 Grain Fed Weigh in Periods
Table 3 Final Weights and Dressing Percentages
Graph A Forage & Grain
Graph B Average Daily Gain
Carcass measurements were collected via ultrasound near the beginning of the feeding period and then 312 days later near the end of the feeding period. Cattle on the Forage diet were leaner than those on the Grain diet as measured by rump fat (RmpF), rib fat (RF) and intramuscular fat (IMF). There was no difference in initial ribeye area (REA) or initial REA corrected for bodyweight (REA/cwt). Due to the higher plane of nutrition of the Grain fed cattle all ultrasound carcass measurements were greater compared to the Forage fed cattle. IMF is closely related to USDA quality grade. An IMF of 2.48, 3.43 and 4.99 is roughly equivalent to the USDA quality grads of Standard, Select and low Choice, respectively. The final IMF for the forage fed cattle was 2.97 which would be place those carcasses in the middle of the Standard grade, while the 5.19 places the Grain fed carcasses in low Choice.
Table 5 Ultrasound Data
There was no difference in the incremental change in carcass traits as measured by ultrasound over the 312 day period. Therefore, plane of nutrition did not favor the rate of fat or muscle deposition. See Appendix E & F.
Data collected at harvest was hot carcass weight (HCW). The HCW of the cattle fed Forage was 183 lbs lighter than the HCW of the cattle fed the Grain diet (642 lb vs. 825 lb). The average age at harvest for the grass fed cattle was 21.4 months while the average age of cattle for the grain fed cattle was 21.1 months. The average dressing percentage for the grass fed cattle was 55.36% with a range of 51.5% – 57%. The average dressing percentage for the grain fed cattle was 57.9% with a range of 54.1% – 62.2%. One special note in relation to carcass quality is that all eleven livers were condemned because of liver flukes and no livers were lost from the grain fed cattle.
Sensory Taste Test Panel
The sensory panel taste test was conducted on May 12, 2009 at The Albany Pump Station Restaurant. The Albany Pump Station was selected as the site to hold the taste test because of Executive Chef Gerard Feck’s experience in preparing grass-fed beef dishes.
The twelve person panel was made up of a cross-section of individuals including three executive chefs, three beef producers, one Cooperative Extension Nutrition Educator and one Cooperative Extension Agriculture Educator, one representative of the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, one representative from USDA, one person from the general public and a writer/food critic from the Albany Times Union.
The taste test format used was called the “Triangle Test.” The triangle test method simply places three pieces of beef on a plate, two of which are the same and one is different. The cuts of beef in this trial came from strip loan steaks and ground beef. All samples of beef were prepared on a grill rare to medium rare. Panelists were asked to identify which one of the samples on the plate was different from the other two and which of the three samples they preferred. They were also asked what attribute of the sample they preferred impacted their choice; flavor, tenderness or juiciness.
The first cuts of beef brought out for the panel to taste were from the strip steaks. Each panelist took their job seriously, slowly chewing and consuming each of the three samples on their plate. Results of the steak test were very interesting. Fifty percent of the taste test panel was unable to correctly identify which cut was different than the other two, and of those six, three misidentified a single grass-fed sample and three misidentified a single grain-fed sample. When asked which sample they preferred, six panelists chose a grain sample, five panelists chose a grass sample and one was undecided. The panelists who chose a grass-fed as their preference cited flavor as the main attribute for why they made their choice and the ones who chose grain-fed cited all three attributes of tenderness, juiciness and flavor.
After a short break and the cleansing of the palate with Italian bread and water, each panelist was brought a plate with three samples of ground beef. After tasting the three samples the panelists were asked the same questions as they were for the strip steak samples.
When asked to identify which sample of ground beef was different on their plate, nine out of twelve were not able to correctly identify the one that was different. Six of the nine who were incorrect chose a grain-fed sample as different when each had a single piece of a grass-fed sample on their plate. When asked which sample they preferred, nine out of twelve chose a grain-fed sample. The reasons why they chose their favorite sample ranged from some giving flavor high marks to tenderness and juiciness high marks. One other interesting fact is that only one panelist chose grass-fed as their favorite for both the steak and ground beef.
Looking at the numbers and analyzing the data, it appears to me that the grass-fed beef and the grain-fed beef were very close in taste, tenderness and juiciness. If nine out of twelve panelists could not tell the difference between samples of ground beef and six out of twelve could not pick out which sample of steak was different, I would have to conclude that there was not much difference in the eating quality of the two products. I can’t explain why nine out of twelve panelists chose the grain-fed burger over the grass-fed burger. My guess would have been that the grain-fed burger was juicier but when you look at the attributes chosen that does not seem to be the case.
I firmly believe that choosing a restaurant and chef that knew how to prepare the different beef products made a big difference in the results of the taste test. The burger and steak were seared on the outside and presented to the panel rare or medium rare.
Finally, I would like to share a few comments that were made by panelists after the taste test was complete. Noah Sheetz, Executive Chef at the Governors Mansion indicated he prefers grass-fed beef and he uses locally grown grass-fed beef at the Executive Mansion.
Gerard Feck, Executive Chef at The Albany Pump Station indicated he has featured locally raised grass-fed beef products on his menu for a couple of years. Regular customers look for it on the menu. One panelist indicated that all the samples were of excellent eating quality which made it hard to choose. Steve Barnes of the Times Union preferred grass-fed steak but thought the grass-fed burger was dry. On the other hand one panelist thought the grain-fed burger was greasy and preferred the grass-fed burger. I also preferred the grass-fed burger but I did not participate in the panel.
As a result of this study comparing grass-fed beef cattle to grain-fed beef cattle several changes have occurred locally. Gerry Boone will be raising fifty grass-fed cattle starting in 2009. Gerry has been a traditional feedlot feeder for many years and has learned from this project that there is a fast growing market for grass-fed beef and that he can raise these cattle profitably with very few labor inputs. Another local grass-fed producer is looking to shorten his calving period allowing him to finish his cattle without going through two winter feeding periods. This will allow him to cut costs and enhance meat quality.
Another grass-fed producer has planted brown mid-rib sorghum sudan for the first time in 2009 to try to increase his gains during the winter months. At least two seed stock producers are looking at adding a line of genetics that will fit the needs of local producers as more grass-fed beef is produced and marketed in the area.
Noah Sheetz, Executive Chef for the Governor of New York State will be featuring grass-fed beef at the Governor’s Mansion and as part of his cooking demonstrations at local farmers markets.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
As various parts of this research project have reached a conclusion, results have been published in the Agricultural News, a local Cornell Cooperative Extension publication. One article on the sensory taste test did appear in the Albany Times Union. All of these articles resulted in phone requests for more information and an increased interest in raising grass-fed beef.
A PowerPoint presentation will be prepared from the results of this project. The first presentation of this PowerPoint is scheduled for a special pasture program to be held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The information will also be presented at the New York State Beef Producers annual meeting in January 2010 and at the second annual Winter Green-Up Grass-Fed Beef Conference. The Winter Green-Up Grass-Fed Beef Conference was held in Albany last year with over 200 participants from seven states.
Cost Analysis Grain-Fed vs. Grass Fed
Corn silage (cs) $45.00/ton
High moisture shelled corn (hmsc) $130.00/ton
Soybean oil meal (som) $395.00/ton
Wheat flour $52.00/ton
Wet brewer’s grain $52.00/ton
Grass hay $75.00/ton
Brown mid-rib sorghum sudan (bmrss) $50.00/ton
600 lb animals consuming 13.2lbs DM
25 lb cs $ .63
6 lb hmsc $ .39
.5 lb som $ .95
3 lb flour $ .07
800 lb animals consuming 17.6 lbs DM
30lb cs $ .75
6 lb hmsc $ .39
5 lb som $ .95
3 lb flour $ .07
1100 lb animals consuming 24.2 lbs DM
40lb cs $ 1.00
10lb hmsc $ .45
.5lb som $ .95
15lb brewers $ .39
1300 lb animals consuming 28.6 lbs DM
40 lb cs $1 .00
15 lb hmsc $ .97
15lb brewers $ .39
Total days on feed 361
Total feed cost $848
Total yardage cost @ $ .40/day $144
Total cost feed + yardage $992
Feed cost + total cost/day $2.74
Total cost per lb of gain $1.17
600 lb animal consuming 13.2 lbs DM
65 lb bmrss $ 1.63 hd/day
850 lb animal consuming 18.7 lbs DM
90 lb bmrss $ 2.25 hd/day
Note- Crystalyx tubs were added on February 29 with animals average weight of 850 lbs. Two different tubs were tried at the same time. Brigade $.54hd/day and Buffer-Lyx at $.50hd/day. After 28 days only Brigade was used at $.54hd/day. One tub of Tasco 35-CP was placed in the pasture for the first 30 days of pasture season at a cost of $.49hd/day. Weight gains went from 0.92 lbs/day to 1.77 lbs/day up to 2.10 lbs/day when Crystalyx tubs were available.
1000 lb animal consuming 22.0 lbs DM
Pasture $.40 hd/day
1200 lb animal consuming 26.4 lbs DM
90 lbs bmrss + pasture $2.65 hd/day
No Crystalyx Supplement Supplemented with Crystalyx
Total days on feed 381 381
Total feed cost $717 $755
Yardage 184 days at $.40 $74 $74
197 days at $.05 $10 $10
Total yardage $84 $84
Total feed cost plus yardage $801 $839
Total cost/day $2.10 $2.20
Total cost per lb of gain $1.40 $1.47
Table 6 Income Per head
Average age at slaughter 21.4 mo 21.1 mo
Average daily gain 1.51 2.14
Total average cost $801 $922
Total cost per lb gain $1.40 $1.17
Average income per head $1218 $1237
Income minus total costs $417 $245
In this study it appears that the grass-fed cattle were more profitable than the grain-fed cattle. This is due in part to the fact that the grain-fed cattle were ready to market about sixty (60) days earlier than they were sold which placed most of the animals in the mid choice to prime grades as seen in Table 3. On the other hand the grass-fed cattle were just starting to show some degree of finish when they were sold at a $.40 lb premium price. The Crystalyx products seemed to enhance winter gains on the grass-fed cattle at a cost of $.50/day.
In order to be profitable with grass-fed cattle, winter gains need to be 1.5lbs/day and summer pasture gains over 2.0 lbs/day. Over wintering cattle over a second winter feeding period increases costs dramatically. If this is done a much higher premium will be needed to justify the cost. Keeping animals over a second winter with grass-feeding could have an impact on meat quality but was not looked at in this study.
This research has generated a great deal of interest in raising grass-fed beef profitably. As producers look at some of the results of this study, they are beginning to realize that we can raise grass-fed cattle in the Northeast and are
able to market a quality animal at 21-24 months of age. This along with the increased demand for the product at a premium price has increased the number of cattle being raised grass-fed on local farms. There have been at least two producers who have added grass-fed beef to their operations this year.
Some of the changes that are taking place as a result of this project include; cutting grass hay earlier for better winter feed, brown mid-rib sorghum sudan being grown for a winter feed, improved pasture rotation and management and changes in genetics coming from our seed stock producers.
Areas needing additional study
There are several areas that could use additional study that were not adequately addressed in this project.
Genetics of the cattle raised. Is there an economical benefit to changing genetics on local farms or can we use existing genetics and still be profitable?
A more detailed study of steers vs. heifers of varying frame sizes; L-1, M-1, and S-1.
From the meat quality aspect we need to study more closely the quality of the final meat products harvested in the fall vs. harvested in the spring. Local restaurants have indicated there is a difference, and they do not buy animals that were over wintered a second year. This study could include an enlarged taste test panel and more extensive testing for tenderness.