Grass-finished beef can command premium prices, but the production side of the equation can be daunting, says Jeff McCutcheon, an Ohio State University Extension educator in Morrow County.
“Finishing animals on grass is the hardest grazing management system to accomplish,” says McCutcheon. “It’s definitely not for beginners.”
Unlike feedlot finishing, grazing requires meticulous management to balance animal nutrition and forage production, he adds. Animal weight must increase consistently from weaning to slaughter. That requires providing high-quality forages year-round, which can be difficult.
“It’s pretty easy to accomplish in the fall and spring, but winter and summer months become more of a challenge,” says McCutcheon. “When it gets colder or warmer, it takes more energy for cattle to maintain their normal body functions. Also when it’s warmer out, cattle decrease their feed intake, so producers need to feed them high-quality forages to make up for that. During times of extreme temperatures, the forages themselves also do not maintain a high quality, and you end up with more indigestible material and a lower-quality feed.”
Grass-fed beef is a much leaner product, which many consumers like. But a lack of marbling leaves more room for error and increases the odds of ending up with a lower-quality product if the animal is marketed too soon.
“I’ve heard people describe meat from cattle harvested too early as tough and dry,” he says. “That’s why finishing grass-fed beef is more challenging.”
Many of the growing number of Ohio farmers raising grass-fed beef feel cattle are made to eat forages, not grain. Plus they believe grazing is more environmentally friendly and are catering to a growing consumer base that is demanding a product that comes from a production method other than the traditional grain-fed system.
Some only grow perennial cool-season grasses like bluegrass, orchardgrass or clover, while others mix in annuals such as oats, wheat or turnips to balance the forage chain.
“Producers need to determine what system works best that matches up with the animals’ nutritional requirements,” says McCutcheon.