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Grass-finished beef on high-quality pastures

More U.S. producers are doing niche marketing and getting a premium price.

Heather Smith Thomas

January 18, 2024

6 Min Read
Cattle on grass
Beef cattle finish on grass on Kathy Panner's ranch in Oregon.Kathy Panner

In the past 60 years, most Americans came to believe that cattle must be finished on grain to grade Prime or Choice and provide excellent eating experience (tender, tasty, well-marbled). With the advent of feedlots, utilizing concentrated nutrients, animals could be “finished” at a younger age, and this became the norm. 

Most countries around the world, however, finish cattle on grass. As grass-fed beef is currently gaining popularity in the U.S. for health reasons, a growing number of producers are doing niche marketing or direct marketing to supply grass-fed products, and receiving a premium price. Stockmen are re-learning what it takes to produce a good grass-finished beef animal.

They first must decide whether they want to direct-market (which requires more time and effort, and a cooperating slaughter plant) or sell animals to a branded beef program that does the slaughtering and marketing. For optimum direct-marketing, it helps to be able to sell meat year-round. Much of the U.S. does not have the climate for year-round grass finishing but some stockmen harvest animals during optimal months, freezing the beef for later marketing so they can market it year-round. 

“To finish well, cattle must be gaining at least 2 pounds per day during their last 120 days on pasture,” said Kathy Panner, who marketed grass-fed beef and lamb for many years on her farm in Oregon. “For your climate, determine which 120 days can provide pasture of this quality. Irrigation can extend this period.”

Timing the process

For cattle to gain 2.5 pounds a day for 120 days, figure out when you can have them large enough to finish in that length of time. Most people get their animals to that starting weight at the end of their best grazing season. You have to think about when to calve, and how to get the weaned calves through winter.

Panner said she was fortunate that her part of Oregon has mild winters. Her cows calved in March, and by the following March, if those calves were properly fed after weaning, they were 800 to 900 pounds.

“Then we had the necessary 120 days of good pasture to finish them; they could be finished at 16 to 17 months of age. You must supply adequate forage through winter so they continue to gain. It took us 15 years to figure out how to do it right,” she said.

Many ranches don’t have good enough pasture in winter. It’s hard to get cattle to finish on stored forage that qualifies for grass-fed programs. 

“You can feed hay or silage—if it’s not corn silage—but it takes high-quality silage or hay to get young cattle to gain enough through winter. Our calves wintered on orchard-grass pasture, supplemented with alfalfa hay. They gained enough through winter to go to new green pasture at a weight they could finish that summer,” Panner said.

High-quality forage

To get an animal finished to the point of high-quality eating experience, forage must have energy levels similar to a feedlot diet. During the finishing stage, they must be able to eat all they want of a high-quality pasture, and the limiting factor will be energy. A fast-growing short, green pasture will be very high in protein but very low in energy. Most people need something like ryegrass mixed with clover, 6 to 8 inches tall. At that height the animal can reach with its tongue and take a full mouthful with every bite.

Some forages are more energy-dense than others, containing higher sugar levels. Beef producers around the world have been utilizing these species in grass-fed beef production, using forages instead of grain for finishing. Ryegrass is one of the most energy-dense grasses but lacks winter hardiness. In northern regions dies out most winters and must be replanted annually. In southern areas it’s a perennial.

Annual ryegrass is ideal, but good beef can also be produced on perennial forages like tall fescue and orchard-grass. Ryegrasses need a cool, wet environment. The main thing is to use species adapted to your local environment, grazed when they are high quality. Beef can be finished on many kinds of forage, as long as it is grazed while leafy, immature and high in quality, with adequate density of stand so they can grab big bites.

For grass finishing, we need a rapidly-growing animal so we don’t have to keep it as long, and want it to reach a certain weight with adequate marbling.  If we can finish an animal at 18 months we have less investment in that animal than one that takes 22 to 24 months or longer to finish.

Harvest at the right time

Finishing at optimum age/weight and season of year for best flavor and tenderness can be a challenge, especially in a northern climate.  Fat content and flavor/tenderness is ideal when animals are butchered while pastures are at their peak, rather than in the fall when forages decline in carbohydrate levels, or during winter if you have to feed hay. 

For this reason, it’s often most practical to raise small-to-moderate-framed animals that mature and finish sooner than larger-framed breeds or crosses, finishing more readily on grass.  Some of the larger-framed animals just keep growing. Also, many customers who buy a whole, half or quarter of beef prefer a smaller carcass.

Producers targeting grass-fed markets often select genetics that have proven superior in efficiency and easy-finishing on grass. A number of breeds around the world are excellent grass converters, including Devon, Red Poll, Bonsmara, Murray Grey and many others that are starting to find a spot in the U.S.  But the breed is not as important as individual body type.  You can find good grass-finishing genetics in nearly any beef breed, especially if you find a seedstock producer who has been selecting for this trait.

Experimenting with genetics

Lance and Lisa Wheeler started ranching 18 years ago in Colorado, and now have a meat-finishing and direct-marketing operation. 

“Our herd consists of mixed breeds,” Lance Wheeler said. “This is part of our experimentation; we have some Angus and crossbreds we got from a grass-fed genetic program west of us, and also acquired some Dexter cows.  I like Dexters, even though they are smaller.

“With our finishing program, so far, the smaller cows are producing really high-quality fattened meat on grass,” he said. “Our larger cows—the Angus—are more difficult to do this with on their purebred offspring; we have to work harder to get that same quality, especially if forages are challenging on a dry year. It can be really difficult to get the purebred Angus yearlings to fatten. So we bought a Dexter bull and are raising his crossbreds from the Angus cows, to see how that turns out.” 

The hope is that this will produce animals with more moderate frame size (not as large as Angus) and a genetic profile that will work better for grass finishing. 

“We have a website and market a lot of our meat via the internet and Facebook,” Wheeler said. “As our operation has grown, word of mouth has also been a factor and many people learn about us that way, and we have a steady market for our meat.”

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