Grass-finished provides benefits over grassfed in niche beef marketsWritten by Saige Albert
“When grassfed first got started in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, people said that grassfed beef had less fat, less cholesterol and fewer calories,” says Gerrish. “Grassfed beef does, because it is typically not finished to the Choice grade.”
“The quick and dirty is that a whole lot of grassfed beef is killed when the person raising cattle runs out of grass,” says Gerrish. “The cattle won’t be as marbled or as tender, and you won’t have a good piece of meat.”
Running out of grass does not mean an animal is finished, he adds. Determining when an animal is fully finished is a skill that requires experience, says Gerrish, noting there are some indicators to determine when Choice is reached in a pasture-finished beef animal.
“When the brisket droops below the belly line, you have reached Choice,” he explains. “We also look at fat deposits behind the tail head. When it starts to look spongy, the animals are hitting Choice.”
“Pasture-finished beef requires a broad set of skills,” says Gerrish. “You have to produce cost effectively, and you have to be a very good grass manager.”
“To get a good rate of gain and good marbling on pasture, it is necessary to have high-energy pasture,” he comments. “The challenge is to provide finishing quality forage as many days of the year as possible.”
Gerrish also notes that the quality of pasture and the intensity of management is on the same level as dairy management, and providing high quality forage year-round can be challenging because of a short growing season.
“We grow all of our grass between May 15 and Sept. 15 – that’s only about 120 days of feed,” he says. “The way we stock the place, however, allows us to stockpile feed, and we’ve started running more pairs.”
Gerrish utilizes a high-intensity grazing system and he moves his cows on a daily basis. Pastures are heavily grazed for one or two days, then allowed several weeks’ rest. Using temporary fencing, the system is efficient and provides cattle with the necessary resources.
Selling a story
“Local, natural product sells just as good as organic,” says Gerrish. “If you do have a true certified organic and fully pasture-finished beef, that is where the highest premium is right now – it ranges from a 60 percent to a 140 percent premium.”
The difference between obtaining a 60 and 140 percent premium is found in marketing strategies, says Gerrish.
“Ranchers also have to really understand the consumer preferences concerning the nature of the beef they produce,” he adds.
In marketing a high quality, grass-finished beef product, a connection with the consumer is helpful.
“So much of the disconnect with consumers is in the story – they want to know who you are,” he explains. “Never sell yourself short on the story that you can tell.”
Better than organic?
“From a management standpoint, I prefer pasture-finished to organic,” says Gerrish. “Pasture-finished or grass-finished is a much better market to get into.”
He cites a number of reasons for utilizing a pasture-finished system, rather than operating as a certified organic operation, marking flexibility as a top priority.
“Flexible stocking rate is critically important,” explains Gerrish. “That means bringing cattle onto the place when you need more, and shipping them out when you don’t.”
Balancing a stocking rate by purchasing certified organic yearlings is very difficult and very expensive, according to Gerrish, who adds, “Organic producers can’t just bring sale barn cattle into the operation.”
Another advantage in a pasture-finished system is the ability to utilize all healthcare tools available, if necessary.
“We use very little fertilizer and very few pesticides, but at the same time, those tools are available if we need them,” explains Gerrish. “Certified organic operations have taken those tools out of their toolboxes.”
Pharmaceuticals also apply, and create additional complications for organic if animals get sick.
“If ranchers need to medicate, it is a lot more expensive and will be a lot more paperwork, with more hoops to jump through in an organic situation,” he continues, noting that production cost increases also include soils amendments and specialty feeds.
“Profitability starts with a sound production business,” says Gerrish. “Ranchers have to be able to grow grass-finished beef cost effectively.”