Forage finishing costs less, earns more
In Wisconsin research, forage-finishing beef steers is saving 25-50¢ per pound of gain during the grazing season vs. feedlot finishing, and the meat captures a premium from consumers, too.
“The cost savings alone with grass-finished beef are anywhere from $75 to $150/animal annually,” says Dennis Cosgrove, University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UW-RF) Extension forage specialist. With forages, cattle can be finished at lower costs and marketed at higher prices, he adds.
Cosgrove, along with Gary Onan, UW-RF meat scientist, are in their third and final year of the study.
“There's growing interest in grass-finished beef from both the producer and consumer sides,” says Cosgrove. “We were curious to know how it would work for us here and to have our own experiences with this practice.”
The university owns beef and dairy operations, along with several acres of crop and pasture lands. With a 60-head cow-calf herd, the researchers finish 30 steers each year. Some are finished in a feedlot on a diet of 80% corn grain, 20% corn silage and vitamins and minerals.
The balance of the herd is rotationally grazed on pastures of cool-season grasses and legumes, including bromegrass, orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, alfalfa and red and white clover. Five-acre paddocks are divided into fourths, with the steers grazing a fresh 1¼-acre area daily. After the steers graze an area, cow-calf pairs or dairy heifers regraze it.
The researchers say the key to getting good gains on pasture is to provide large quantities of high-quality forage.
“Sometimes it looks like we could leave the steers in a paddock for another day or two because there's a lot of forage there,” says Cosgrove. “But just to make sure that they have enough high-quality forage in front of them all of the time so they can maximize their intake and subsequent gains, we move them daily.”
The researchers pasture-fed 15 steers in 2008 and 19 the following year. This year, they're grazing 12. The steers, a mix of Hereford-Angus, purebred Herefords and smaller-framed BueLingos, graze from early to mid May until mid to late September.
They weigh 900-950 lbs each when grazing begins and around 1,100 lbs when taken off pasture. Average daily gains are 1.8-1.9 lbs/head. After grazing ends, they eat stored feeds for 30-60 days and are sold at around 1,200 lbs.
“We prefer selling our steers at around 20 months of age vs. feeding them through a second winter,” he says. “Feeding very-high-quality forage during winter is key to finishing these animals in that time. Many producers hold their animals over a second winter on low-quality feed and finish them in 24-30 months. That extra winter's feeding adds significantly to production costs.”
During the first two years of the study, the steers ate corn silage during winter. Last winter, they were fed only alfalfa haylage so they would meet the official grass-finished standards of an all-forage diet for marketing purposes.
In 2009, all of the feedlot-finished steers and 14 of the 19 forage-finished animals graded Choice. Also last year, the researchers got a grant from the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, which allowed them to have feedlot- and forage-finished beef analyzed by the North Dakota State University Meat Lab.
Professional tasters ate steaks from both groups and analyzed them on several meat-quality parameters, including cooking loss, flavor, juiciness and tenderness. No differences were found in cooking loss and juiciness, but the forage-finished beef was judged slightly more tender.
The panelists judged the flavor of the forage-finished steaks as different.
“The tasters are trained on the way corn-fed beef tastes and when they eat something that tastes different, that's the way they report it,” says Cosgrove. “They're not saying the forage-fed beef is better or worse, it's just different. Most fans of grass-fed beef would think that's a good thing.”
Last year, a group of UW-RF students direct-marketed the forage-finished beef, capturing the equivalent of $1.20 per pound of live weight. This year's beef may be sold to the Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative or Thousand Hills Cattle Co., Cannon Falls, MN, which both pay up to a 20¢/lb premium.