Don’t jump into the grass-fed beef specialty market without doing research and identifying customers, says Guillermo Scaglia, a beef researcher at the Louisiana State University AgCenter Iberia Research Station.
Experts predict that grass-fed beef could capture up to 15% of the beef market, says Scaglia. Some upscale retailers, institutional food services and consumers are demanding forage-fed beef because of the meat’s health aspects.
Weight gains for forage-fed cattle usually follow the changes of forage nutritive value through the seasons, he says. “Once they get that high-nutritive-value forage, they will gain a lot of weight per day.”
A research project to evaluate steers fed three different 100% forage diets – what he calls “forage systems,” is under way at the Iberia Research Station, Scaglia says. Forage systems are evaluated in terms of productivity and economics of production, and cattle are evaluated for the performance, carcass characteristics and fatty acid profile of the meat produced.
LSU researchers offer several forage options for grass-fed herds:
• Clover has good potential as a forage that will increase cattle weight, says Wink Alison, an LSU AgCenter research agronomist. It can add nitrogen to the soil, but, if grazed, the nitrogen is removed with the plant. Clover is also a finicky crop to grow, while ryegrass, another option, is predictable.
• Baled, high-moisture hay wrapped in plastic can provide beef producers with high-quality stored forage, says Mike McCormick, an LSU AgCenter cattle researcher at the Southeast Research Station. “We know some people who have 600, 700 or 1,000 calves on this system.” AgCenter researchers are studying ryegrass and when it could or should be wrapped. The study will show how much protein is lost when hay is cut at different growth stages, McCormick says.
• Dwarf elephant grass has good forage potential that can lead to 2 lbs of weight gain per day on a calf, says LSU AgCenter research agronomist Buddy Pitman. The plant requires well-drained soil and must be planted vegetatively because it doesn’t produce seeds.
• Eastern gamagrass, cowpeas and perennial peanut are good forage alternatives for specific purposes, Pitman says. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities that we really haven’t tapped for forage-based beef production.”