Grass-Fed Cattle Are Just Plain Better For The Bottom Line

Grass-finished? Grain-fed? Though there are a lot of confusing terms at play these days, but there's no denying the benefits of raising grass-fed cattle.

by Erica Webb
PHOTO: images by Erica Webb

The year 2022 hit many cattle producers hard. Diesel prices skyrocketed, drought forced many farmers to downsize their herd and inflation caused a dramatic increase in farming inputs. With profit margins already slim, decreasing inputs is one of the best business tactics to use to ensure enough return to stay in business.

When analyzing the multiple costs associated with growing cattle, feed makes up, on average, more than 60 percent of a farm’s annual cow cost and is often the first expense to cut when times get tough. The high cost of feed is associated with many farmers turning to grass-fed cattle, not only to save on cost of inputs but to also fulfill a need in the grass-fed niche market.

Feeding Finds

Cattle are ruminants with a digestive system designed to survive on forages. The great thing about cattle is that they can utilize rangeland and byproducts that aren’t compatible for humans, including growing row crops or other agricultural needs. However, during times of environmental stress such as fire, drought and flooding, some producers have no choice but to supplement their cattle with a feed concentrate to get their animals through a difficult time. 

But why is there such a bad stigma around feeding concentrates? From the consumer perspective, many believe feeding grain products to cattle is a welfare issue, associated with their misinterpretation of overstocked and abusive feedlots. From the farmer’s perspective, the issue is simply the high cost and financial means it takes to keep their cattle thriving.

Johnathan Wells, a bovine nutrition consultant and tech services specialist in the Southeast, discusses how feed can optimize productivity within the farm.

“Producers are losing money by not feeding their calves,” he says. “Essentially, utilizing creep feed and preconditioning calves for a minimum of 45 days post-weaning is equivalent to making an extra $100 per calf at the time of sale without really doing that much more work.” 

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Wells utilizes creep feed from an early age on his registered Black Angus farm and for many other farms he helps manage. “Starting these calves early [on creep feed], not only jump starts their rumen microbes but enhances their immune response to outside pathogens,” he says. “We see fewer sick calves and reduced stress at weaning. These easy management decisions have big implications for setting these calves up to thrive in whatever direction we decide to take them next. Whether we retain the calf to develop into a breeding bull or heifer or decide to sell for beef, getting these calves eating feed does nothing but set them up for future success.” 

It’s important to utilize all resources available to ensure there are no holes in a nutrition program. Feeding concentrates—along with providing a high-value mineral specifically formulated to fill in holes where forage is lacking—is so important for taking a farm to the next level of success and profitability.

Wells is no stranger to the hardships felt by many producers. “Our farm wouldn’t have survived last year if we didn’t grain feed some of our mommas,” he says. After a terrible summer drought that left most of the hay fields subpar, Wells explains the important role grain played in keeping his cows in a positive energy balance. 

“You run the risk of having low conception rates because if the cow can’t maintain her own body, how is she going to support a pregnancy?” he asks. “Fetal programming is also a huge factor to consider as that fetus is developing. I can’t control environmental stressors like weather, but, as a producer, it’s my responsibility to control everything I can. Fulfilling nutritional needs is something I can do with feed, despite lower quality hay and dry pastures.” 

Wells is often a speaker at producer meetings across the southeast and says his biggest challenge is helping producers understand that making nutritional investments for your cattle throughout the year yield huge financial returns, especially when calf prices are high like they are now.

grass-fed cattle

All that Grass

Contrasted with grass-fed cattle, Daniella Adams of Grove Creek Farm located in northeast Georgia, uses a grass-fed model to finish out her cattle. She raises a mixed herd mostly comprised of Georgia-native Pineywood cattle. Pineywoods are a hardy breed, bred to thrive in the environment of southeastern U.S. 

Adams’ grass-fed model is mostly used to maintain the integrity of heritage breed cattle, but it also helps to reduce her overall inputs. “I’m constantly learning and evolving to find better ways to make our farm more sustainable and efficient,” she says, giving a lot of credit to utilizing summer annuals to optimize nutrition. “We finish our cattle in the summer, so providing a high-quality summer forage right before processing makes a huge difference on the finished product.” 

By utilizing rotational grazing methods and maintaining a stocking ratio of about 3 acres per cow/calf pair, Adams can graze her pastures almost year-round. Putting up good hay is an important aspect of her operation during those times when grass runs thin. “Luckily, we don’t have to feed much hay during the winter,” she says. “But when we do, they get a combination of ryegrass hay and baleage; it does really well for making up for where the pastures are lacking.”

Additionally, Adams combines her grass-fed cattle management practices with a veterinarian-advised vaccination and deworming protocol. Together, these practices have proven to minimize mud and parasite burdens across her herd, minimizing loss due to sickness or death.

Adams can’t keep up with the demand. One issue Adams noted about grass-finished beef was the time it took to get them to finishing weight. On her operation, cattle are finished between 22 to 24 months of age which she notes is partly due to the genetics of the type of cattle she is raising along with the fact they aren’t being pushed to grow by eating energy dense concentrates. For Adams, it’s a way that she and her family feel as though they can remain stewards of the land and use their farm to its highest potential while remaining sustainable in the process. 

grass-fed cattle

Where’s the Beef?

Marketing comes easy at Grove Creek Farms. “Our customers aren’t necessarily looking for grass-finished beef, but they love knowing where their animal came from and how it was managed throughout its life,” Adams says. Unfortunately for the beef industry, there is a lot of misinformation about how beef is raised. Due to the lack of feed lots in the Southeast, and education about how they are managed, consumers often share their negative viewpoints around the beef growing process.

Adams’ goal is educating customers about raising beef in general, not just on her farm. “Customers want the visual of a cow in a grassy pasture, and I joke if they want me to send them a picture of their animal,” she says. Customers often come to the farm with so many questions. “I spend a lot of time educating them about the differences between vaccines and antibiotics and explain when each are necessary. Keeping records of each animal then becomes important for validity as I can show the customer everything their animal has received.”

It’s important to stay transparent while also aiming to produce a valuable product, and Adams has done just that.

In a consumer-driven industry, it’s easy to gear your beef business based off consumer needs, and it’s no mystery that grass-fed beef has become a trend in today’s health-conscious individuals. Unfortunately, most consumers get lost in the sea of labeling innuendos. 

It’s important to understand that all cattle are grass-fed, but labeling tactics create a story of two separate scenarios: grass-fed vs grain-fed, one good and the other bad. According to USDA regulations for grass-fed beef “the diet must be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products.” This claim, however, includes cereal grains still in their vegetative state which allows grass-fed producers to utilize corn silage as a source of feed—a product that would soon become part of a grain supplement if harvested just a few short weeks later. 

The major difference between the two is in how the animal is finished, and labeling is evolving to include this terminology in packaging, i.e. “Grass-fed and Grain-finished” or “Grass-fed and Grass-finished.” 

Most U.S. cattle fall in the spectrum of production where they’re weaned on grass, backgrounded on a mix of grass and grain, and then finished with a balanced concentrate diet. This seems to yield an efficiently grown animal that produces a higher quality and tasteful product. Additionally, finishing these cattle earlier in life has been shown to reduce the carbon footprint by reducing the amount of total greenhouse gases produced per pound of beef, leading to a more sustainable product. Everyone should be excited about that feat.

From an industry standpoint, efficiency is key to beef production. How many pounds of beef can be put on an animal in the shortest amount of time and yield the greatest return? Despite each producers’ individual goals on how they want to raise cattle, the beef industry remains focused on one final endpoint: producing pounds of beef. 

Efficiency and management tactics will vary greatly from location and producer. So how do we answer our big debate? Which feeding tactic is better? It’s difficult to say, but despite the way cattle are finished, supporting all kinds of beef should always be at the top of the priority list. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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