A grass-fed beef primer

With input prices skyrocketing, low prices for weaned calves at the auction barn and an increased consumer interest in local food due to supply worries and high grocery prices, many cow- calf producers now try to market their beef directly to the consumer.

Consumers are often disappointed in the quality of their purchase. A better understanding of cattle production can help to select good breeders and avoid disappointment.

Beef production consists of three steps: cow-calf production (until weaning at 600-700lbs), the semi-finishing phase (until 800-900 lbs, or 500 lbs carcass) and the finishing phase (until 1400 lbs, or 800 lbs carcass).

Cow-calf production

Until weaning time, pretty much all calves qualify as grass-fed. Semi-finishing beeves on grass for the season, is as old a day and used to be known as stocker calf production. Under perfect conditions, a beef can gain about 300 lbs during the short season in Quebec.

Despite revolutionary claims, there is nothing new under the sun. For example, rotational grazing has been researched and widely practised since the fifties and continues to be used extensively on conventional cattle farms today.

While stocker calf production has been largely abandoned for lack of profitability, the grass-fed premium has led to a revival, and stockers calves are now increasingly sold directly to the consumers as grass-fed beef, baby beef or even grass-fed-and-finished beef in the fall. Many such producers do not even own cows but buy calves at the stockyard.

Green oats for semi-finishers in the summer

Beeves with a carcass that weighs about 500-650 are certainly not ‘finished’, even if they ate grass all their lives. Unfortunately, the finishing phase is important, and omitting the finishing phase leads to bland tasting, overly lean beef, poor profitability (or very high prices) and really has no positive environmental impacts.

The problem is that finishing beeves on grass (up to 1400 lbs) is terribly difficult and requires more than one season. Finishing beeves need lots of energy to sustain their metabolic functions (called Net energy for maintenance). At the same time, rumen space and digestibility put a limit on how much an animal can eat. Grass, and especially hay, are not very energy dense and pass the rumen rather slowly. On a cold winter day, a stomach full of the best hay will barely contain enough energy for maintenance. There will be almost no energy left for growth. Only on lush spring grass will growth resume.

There is no pasture in winter.

So while the beeves are parked out there in winter hardly gaining any weight, they are consuming tonnes of maintenance energy, they are belching and shitting and farting, and thus releasing copious quantities of potentially harmful waste products in the atmosphere for nothing. We are talking about forests and forests of CO2 equivalents. And like old cows, slow growing beeves develop yellow fat which is a quality problem.

We did not want to grow lower quality (unfinished) beef, park beeves for winter or grow beeves on a conventional diet consisting of energy-dense corn or barley, and ionophores (a class of antibiotics), growth hormones and growth promotors, so we needed to come up with a solution.

For years now, we have been recycling vegetable cuttings from a local vegetable cutting plant. These vegetables help our beeves grow at acceptable rates, even in winter, and at a very low cost to the planet.

Basically, we get the goodness of grass-fed beef, combined with the superior quality and improved economic performance of finished beef (that is why our prices are lower!), and all that at while increasing the sustainability of our operation.

An 800 lbs carcass to the left

Over time, this increased economic performance allowed us to invest in high-end genetics. Cattle that are more performant, convert feed into pounds of meat more efficiently, so there is less waste, and increased growth. Good genetics can help improve quality, and eliminate common health and conformation problems, so animal welfare is increased as well. Improved docility makes cows easier to handle and reduces stress and increases safety for everyone involved.

We count on building our genetics program for years to come and hopefully we will make a small contribution to future lineages of more performant cattle that will make life better for all producers while reducing waste. Our regenerative farming dream is not about bashing conventional farmers, but about breeding cattle that are more sustainable by nature, for generations to come.

Embryo donor Tar Donna 614