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Secrets of raising grass-fed beef

“The seed stock producers for many, many years now have been going in exactly the opposite direction of producing what we need for finishing cattle on grass.”

– Don Armitage

After raising grass-fed beef for eight years, Don Armitage has learned a few of the tricks of the trade.

One of the most important is to work with Mother Nature instead of against her, said the former veterinarian, who now raises cattle on Glenlochar Grass Farm near Miniota.

That’s why he targets calving as near the summer solstice as possible when the grass is lush, just like the wild animals. It makes sense, he adds, because calves are born with a summer hair coat regardless of the calving date.

“I’m a strong believer in working with nature; it’s costly not to,” he said, in a presentation outlining his production system at Manitoba Ag Days 2009.

Getting the right genetics is one of the biggest challenges in achieving the goal of producing meat that offers a “gourmet eating experience” without supplemental grain. For that, a rancher needs small-framed, easy-fattening and early-maturing cows that are able to maintain their body condition with minimal inputs. Red Devons are one breed that fits that description, he said.

“The seed stock producers for many, many years now have been going in exactly the opposite direction of producing what we need for finishing cattle on grass,” he said.

Countering trends

With animal types, there is always a compromise. High-fertility cows, he noted, are naturally low in milk production, but grass finishing favours the former. Quiet temperament is important for meat tenderness, and calm handling helps the animals stay that way.

“If you look at them from the side, you want to see two-thirds body and one-third leg. From the back you want to see a good, wide rump,” he said.

One secret to selecting quiet animals that he learned from animal behaviourist Temple Grandin is to look for the hair whorl on their forehead. If it is below a horizontal line connecting both eyes, that’s a good indicator of docility.

“If it’s above that line, then you want to be a little bit suspicious of what that animal is going to be like,” he said.

Hormone free

Not using antibiotics and growth hormones isn’t particularly related to grass finishing, but customers are prepared to pay a premium for meat raised without them. “In a lot of cases it seems like it’s the most important thing for them,” said Armitage.

Grass-fed animals must gain weight for the entire duration of their lives, or else the meat might be tough. In winter, they can be kept on a slow-gain maintenance ration, but they must never be allowed to backslide.

Calves are castrated prior to seven months of age, and weaned late at 10 months. Winter suckling helps them to develop early marbling – the critically important intra-muscular fat cells. After the calves are taken off their mothers in March or April, they are put on good-quality hay, then sent out to graze on crested wheatgrass pasture later in spring.

In the stocker phase, which covers the calves at 10 to 22 months when they are mostly building up flesh and bone, Armitage puts the animals on a high-protein diet, and weighs them every 90 days to make sure they are gaining well. Animals that are sick and need to be treated, or gaining less than 1.3 pounds per day are culled from the grass-based program.

Grazing management

With luck, rain and good rotational grazing management, the stockers thrive on his pasture mix, which starts off with crested wheatgrass, then alfalfa-brome, followed by stockpiled tall fescue and legumes in the fall.

“If it’s dry and hot, you need to be prepared to supplement them with cool-and warm-season annuals,” he said, adding that forage oats are good for hedging against poor pasture conditions, provided that it is grazed before the crop sets seed.

All grains, even those still on the stalk, are not allowed under a grass-fed program. Planting 10 acres of millet or late-maturing corn on a staggered schedule every 15 days ensures that at least some of it hasn’t set seed before the stockers go on it.

From 22 to 36 months, the calf crop enters the finishing phase where most of the weight gain is in the form of fat. During the last 60 to 90 days, he targets 1.8 pounds per day of gain or more on grass that offers a good balance of protein and energy, is highly digestible and rich in soluble carbohydrates. He recommends using the farm’s most fertile soil for this stage of pasturing, with high levels of calcium, sodium and phosphorus.

Heifers finish faster, and those off a 1,000-pound cow seem to top out at 900 pounds. Steers usually finish 100 pounds heavier than their mothers, at 1,100.

“Basically, you’re aiming for a TDN of at least 65 per cent and at least 20 per cent dry matter and 15 per cent soluble carbohydrates,” he said, adding that he uses a Brix meter to test his feed. “Protein you want to keep under 18 per cent.”

Annual crops

With enough rain, perennial pastures can meet these requirements, especially for heifers, which may be ready at as early as 26 months. But later in summer, when pasture grasses start storing more energy in their roots than above ground, annual crops come in handy for meeting the finishers’ increased feed requirements, particularly for steers which finish later.

Annual ryegrass provides the best balance, he said, and spring-seeded fall rye, which doesn’t set a seed head in the first year, offers a low-cost alternative.

When the animals are near the harvest stage, he grazes them at a higher stock density to prepare them for confinement prior to slaughter.

“Something you might want to consider is to give them a dry run through the chute, or maybe a trailer ride with a nice reward of fresh pasture at the end of it,” said Armitage.

Heifers in heat should never be sent to the abattoir, nor should grass-fed animals be allowed to mix with unfamiliar animals there, because the stress may result in tough meat.

“I never send single animals to the abattoir. I always send two so they have a friend there to hang out with. Something else you may want to consider is on-farm kill, so there’s no stress prior to slaughter.”

Dry aging for 21 days is important for tenderness, but the carcass must have plenty of fat cover, he added.

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