In the grass-finished beef business, keeping a yearling an extra year is worth the wait.
In fact, one could hardly afford to do otherwise, because those extra 12 months can mean the difference between profit and loss, Jim Lintott told a presentation on grass-fed beef production at Ag Days.
Lintott, a grass-finisher and marketer from Oakbank, used a detailed production cost analysis spreadsheet developed by retired provincial forage specialist Fraser Stewart to show “actual, not made up” numbers from his farm. They show the total cost of finishing, processing, and marketing a forage-only beef animal at 18 months stands at $1,112 per head.
At 30 months, the number is only slightly higher at $1,275. But on the other side of the ledger, there’s a huge difference when comparing the retail value of the two because the extra beef on the older animal is where the lion’s share of the profits come from.
Even though the older animal weighs only 175 pounds more, carcass yield at 30 months is 67 per cent, compared to 46 per cent at 18 months for an 800- to 1,000-pound animal. That means cut-out meat for the older animal amounts to 432 lbs. versus 250 lbs. for the younger.
“An animal at 18 months is immature, and has a higher bone-to-mass ratio,” he said.
Lintott pegged the on-the-rail price for the younger animal at $2.25/lb., mainly due to the higher chance that it would grade only AA, while a 30-month animal “almost always” fetches 10 cents more per pound at AAA.
At 18 months, the retail margin for the producer comes to $647, while the 30-month-old amounts to $1,543 — almost $900 more — after the $300 cost of wintering the dam is factored in for both.
“It’s all about the difference in the yield on the carcass,” said Lintott.
Selling 18-month-old grass-finished animals at typical live weight, wholesale prices wouldn’t be worth the extra effort, he said, and if he didn’t have a retail market available, he would have to use a separate, lower-cost production system for those animals.
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Marketing is key
The difference lies in the marketing. Lintott sells grass-finished strip loins and rib-eyes for $17.79 per pound and tenderloin for $21.19/lb.
“I can’t keep it in stock,” said Lintott, who added that the prices reflect sales of vacuum-packed, frozen individual cuts sold at the farmers’ market.
Much of the difficulty in finishing animals earlier is due to the slower pace and higher cost of fattening animals on forages in the dead of winter without high-energy rations such as barley. On his ranch, commercial fertilizer used to maintain the energy values and yields of annual ryegrass is a major expense, but ranchers with access to cheaper alternatives such as lower-cost hog manure may enjoy an advantage.
“The total is skewed because a younger animal requires higher-quality feed all the way through its life,” he said. “You can’t just take out the grain.”
Lintott, who often buys slaughter animals from other producers, doesn’t hesitate to buy even older animals up to 36 months, so long as they are well finished.
Ken Vaags, who admits that his “designer cow” experiment in grass-fed beef production is still a work in progress, is intrigued by the possibility of marketing older animals, even up to 42 months old.
After a lifetime of believing that in finishing cattle, “younger is better,” he recalled being “floored” by an article in the Stockman Grass Farmer that reported that the highest-priced beef in France comes from a four-year-old steer.
“That just blew all my categories,” said Vaags. “The next-highest price is for a four-year-old heifer that has had one calf.”
Besides tasting “beefier,” the older animals also finish easier on forage, he added.
He was initially nervous about potential eating quality issues with 3.5-year-old animals, but so far the beef has been well received by his growing customer base.
“When I give them the choice, they want the 42-month-old,” said Vaags.