MT. GILEAD, Ohio – Ohio livestock producers are exploring grass-fed beef production to meet market demands for what many consider to be a healthful and ecologically sustainable product. However, the production side of the system can be daunting.
"Finishing animals on grass is the hardest grazing management system to accomplish," said Jeff McCutcheon, an Ohio State University Extension educator in Morrow County. "It's definitely not for beginners."
McCutcheon said that many livestock producers in Morrow County and surrounding areas are part of a growing niche of Ohio farmers who see more advantages to raising grass-fed cattle than grain-fed cattle.
"Beef cows are ruminants and many feel they were made to eat forages, not grain. Many farmers who practice grass-fed beef production may also hold strong conservation values and feel that the practice is more environmentally friendly," said McCutcheon. "They are also catering to a growing consumer base that is demanding a product that comes from an alternative production method than the traditional commodity grain-fed system."
However, pasture grazing, as opposed to the feedlot system, requires the meticulous management of balancing cow nutrition with proper forage production. McCutcheon will help livestock producers work out a viable system at the Ohio Beef Expo on March 21. He will give presentations on "Managing Animals for Grass-Fed Beef Production " at 10 a.m., and "Developing Your Forage system for Grass-Fed Beef Production" at 11:15 a.m. The Ohio Beef Expo takes place March 19-21 at the Ohio Expo Center in Columbus, Ohio. For more information, log on to http://ohiobeefexpo.com.
McCutcheon said that producers must consistently increase the animal's weight from weaning to harvest. In order to do that, they need to feed high-quality forages, which can be difficult to accomplish year-round, especially during winter and summer months.
"It's pretty easy to accomplish in the fall and spring, but winter and summer months become more of a challenge. When it gets colder or warmer, it takes more energy for cattle to maintain their normal body functions. Also when it's warmer out, cattle decrease their feed intake, so producers need to feed them high-quality forages to make up for that," said McCutcheon. "During times of extreme temperatures, the forages themselves also do not maintain a high quality and you end up with more indigestible material and a lower-quality feed."
McCutcheon said that there are different grass-fed beef production systems available, depending on the producer's needs. For example, some only grow perennial cool season grasses, like bluegrass, orchardgrass or clover, and supplement with hay. Others mix in annuals, such as oats, wheat, or turnips, to balance the forage chain.
"Producers need to determine what system works best that matches up with the animal's nutritional requirements," said McCutcheon.
McCutcheon said that grass-fed beef is a much leaner product, which many consumers like. But the lack of the marbling characteristic of grain-fed beef leaves more room for error to end up with a lower quality product if the animal is harvested too soon.
"We usually use back fat as a marker for when cattle are ready to be harvested," said McCutcheon. "I've heard people describe meat from cattle harvested too early as tough and dry. That is why finishing grass-fed beef is so challenging."
But producers who get it right can enjoy a premium for their product, said McCutcheon.