Monday, September 3, 2007

Calf Birth Weight - Actual versus Tape Measure

A Truly 'laboring' Labor Day weekend!

My fall calving got started this past few days, and because one of the calves born was so very small I decided to try out a set of old bathroom scales that have a big platform and an elevated dial with big numbers for viewing weight results. This little heifer calf was a surprise finding on August 30th when the Animal Compassion Foundation was having another visit with my herd. Anne was thinking on her feet and volunteered her belt to use to measure the newborn and a pen to mark the spot. She was obviously a very little girl, and I ventured the guess that she couldn't weight more than 45 pounds.

We got back to the house and measured Anne's belt and found that she had measured 24 1/2 inches around, and it was a good snug belt measure around her heart girth, the little heifer was totally interested and cooperative. I figured the belt measure probably, because it was a thick leather belt, added some length to the measurement, and later on that evening I went out and measured her again with my tape, and I measured her at 24 inches. While 24 inches got her closer to the mark when you use the tape conversion chart in the Breeder's Guide, I still wasn't convinced that her actual weight was 51 pounds, which is what you get when you use the 4.5 pound increments to back into an off the chart 24 inch heart girth.

The following day I decided to try out my old scales on this little heifer. I found a light weight section of that stick on the floor tile type stuff in the barn, and decided that would work fine. It was nice and sturdy, yet was very manageable. I put the section of floor tile down on the ground, put the scales on my new weighing platform, and weighed her and myself twice for good measure. She was an exact 40 pound little heifer. The difference of 11 pounds is very significant, that is over a 25% error in birth weight estimation.

I decided to go through this same process with each of my newborns. Besides this little heifer, I had four other calves born August 30th through Sept. 2nd. Of those three of them were cooperative, the 27 1/2 inch bull calf born on August 30 to Hill's Dana already found it too much grand fun to scamper about for me pick him and get an actual weight.

August 31st a heifer calf was born to MsRae. She measured 26 inches, and per the tape conversion chart should have weighed 60 pounds, but in fact she weighed more! She had an actual weight of 65 pounds. I also had Mike confirm these same results himself, and it was an accurate weight of 65 pounds -- and she is pictured here.

September 1st a bull calf was born to Madonna (and I actually happened to be out at pasture hanging around in the Ranger and she calved about 40 feet away from me!). This bull calf measured 26 1/4 inches, and had an actual weight of 60 pounds. So in this instance the tape conversion to weight was quite acceptably accurate, and again I had Mike duplicate the weighing process for confirmation.

Then on the afternoon of September 2nd, Polly (pictured here to the right)decided it was time to calve. This calving went on for a bit too long for my comfort, I even called to try to reach a vet just in case I had a problem on my hands. But in between rushing to the house and calling the vet and leaving a message of impending problems, she had delivered a healthy bull calf. (So of course I rushed back to the house and left another message for the vet that all was well!) I tape measured this newborn at a whopping 27 1/2 inches, and had Mike confirm the tape measurement as well this time. We both weighed the little guy and he weighed all of 60 pounds. But, per the tape conversion he should have weighed about 67 pounds -- a greater than 10% error, which in this business is a highly material error.

So what does all this mean to the breeder who relies on tape measure conversion to estimate weight? It means you probably ought to be getting some actual weights as well until, or if, you feel comfortable visually estimating weight and understanding how the tape should perhaps be adjusted for what your eyes tell you.

As well, it could be that I don't handle the tape measure properly. With that in mind, if I haven't been pulling the tape snugly enough around the heart girth then I have a whole lot of historical birth weights that are over-estimated. However, the results from the little study shown here indicate the tape can create error both on the high and low side. I am going to continue to both use a tape measure for weight and get an actual weight with the remainder of my fall calves to get a sense of the average error rate as well as try to understand why.

Earlier I mentioned that Polly (who is also a first calf heifer) was having a more lengthy birth than I like to see. She actually was effectively yelling with her efforts, so I was even more alarmed. It's very unusual for any of my cattle to get vocal over calving. Polly's bull calf measured 27 1/2 inches, yet it only weighed 60 pounds. So, what was structurally different in Polly's bull versus Madonna's (also a first calf heifer) bull that would create an error using a tape measure? To my eye he has wider shoulders and is thicker through the heart girth, a deeper little guy -- yet at a glance looks about the same size/stature as Madonna's 26 1/4 inch bull. So obviously the confirmation of the newborn has a great impact on using a tape measure for an accurate birth weight.

MsRae's heifer is an example of the error to the light side using a tape measure. She weighed a full five pounds more than the tape measured estimate. Why? Perhaps because she has good balance all over, her dam certainly does. How does the tape measure consider a deep evenly made newborn that extends on through to the hind quarters? I don't think it can.

Regardless, I'll continue this small study of tape versus actual weight and see what the final results tell me about my own errors in tape measuring as well as errors due to the actual structure of the calf, and periodically update those results here on my blog.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

British White Beef Cattle - Environmental and Nutritional Effects on Beef Tenderness, Marbling and Overall Palatibility

J.West's Big Mac, British White bull calf sired by Elvis
Beef calves fed on 100% high concentrate grain from weaning to finish in a feedlot environment results in the least desirable beef eating experience for the American consumer, and the least desirable muscle to bone ratio in the final carcass, which directly impacts the end revenues of the beef industry. Conventional high concentrate grain feeding, from the zero pasture stocker phase on through to the continued high concentrate feedlot and finish of beef calves, is often perceived or touted as the only course of feeding that will result in tender, well-marbled beef in an animal genetically predisposed to marble well. The result of a 2002 study funded by Beef Checkoff dollars and conducted with the oversight of the Texas Beef Council suggests that is not the reality.

With the current corn ethanol craze and subsequent corn production targeted to fuel the new corn ethanol market, many cow/calf operations are re-evaluating the cost/benefit of their programs. The majority of cow/calf operations in the United States that provide beef to the American consumer are small shops bringing fifty or fewer beef calves to the local market annually. Browsing through this Texas Beef Council study conducted by Texas A&M one realizes that corn, or any grain, can be largely side-stepped for the majority of the beef calves life when there is ample grass and legume pasture available.

While this study has a bit of age on it, it remains the only study sponsored by the Texas Beef Council with the goal of evaluating various backgrounding scenarios and their impact on Tenderness, Marbling, Palatability, and other sensory factors involved in the enjoyment of a beef steak. The eight study groups were located in three distinct geographical areas of Texas in the interest of evaluating the impact of environment on the final carcass attributes. The East Texas studies conducted in Overton, Texas out-performed the other groups in many key areas: finish weight, ribeye area, and backfat thickness.   

This 2002 Texas A&M conducted study evaluated eight different pasturing and feeding regimens to try and understand nutritional and environmental factors that impact variability in Texas beef. While the stated focus was primarily carcass tenderness, the results provided insight into all the desirable primary attributes of beef. Of the eight study groups, the "McGregor-Calf Fed" (MCF) group receiving high concentrated grain rations from weaning to harvest scored the poorest in many key areas -- but perhaps most surprising was the detrimental impact on ribeye area, backfat, and finish weight. All of these attributes were noticeably deficient in the MCF group in comparison to the Overton/East Texas and Uvalde/South Texas study groups which were backgrounded on pasture and finished the final approximately 4 months on high grain concentrate -- with the East Texas study groups providing significantly superior results overall.
J.West's Elvis, British White Bull

There are two major factors in a consumers enjoyment of beef -- Tenderness and Marbling. The primary stated focus of this Texas Beef Council study was carcass Tenderness. While all study groups were within an immaterial range of one another for initial Tenderness scoring, the MCF high concentrate (post-weaning to finish)group had the actual least tender carcass upon initial harvest than any of the other study groups.
After 14 days of aging the Tenderness scores were comparable across all study groups.

What is significantly missing from this reported study is the sire parentage of the many groups. We are told that Half-blood Bos indicus (Brahman)-influenced steers raised at the Agricultural Research Center, Texas Agriculture Experiment Station in McGregor, Texas were used in this study to understand the impact of environment (south, east and central Texas) and nutrition (low versus high grain supplementation) immediately post-weaning and prior to feedlot feeding on the growth, composition and eating characteristics of beef, but we are not told if the steers in all study groups were half-siblings, sired by the same bull. This is critical information, inexplicably withheld, for purposes of evaluation of the final, very comparable, results across the board for Tenderness and Marbling.  

At the time of this 2002 study the calcium dependent protease inhibitor, calpistatin, had been identified as a key component present in a live animal that greatly increases that animals genetic potential to express Tenderness in the final carcass product. Today, a cattle rancher can pull a few tail hairs and send them off for genetic testing to determine whether his prize bull or cow has the genetics to potentially produce a tender as well as an optimal marbled carcass in their offspring. This genetic testing has become an invaluable tool for seedstock producers seeking to create key bulls and cows that will produce offspring that will excel in the commercial beef market for Tenderness and Marbling.

However, despite this stated fore-knowledge of the impact of Calpistatin, one of two key genetic attributes for Tenderness known today in the year 2007, the results of this study cloud the impact of Calpistatin on the study results. One is left with the sense that the genetic comparability of the steers evaluated, which is a stated parameter of the test, is the driving reason for the comparability of carcass Tenderness scores. While the study addresses and theoretically evaluates the Calpistatin in the resulting beef carcasses, it mysteriously couches the tested Calpistatin results in non-layman gibberish and declines to even address its existence or significance in the final narrative summation of results -- it is found only in the summation charting. As all carcasses resulting from this study had comparable Tenderness scores via Warner Bratzler Shear Force measures, it may be that the presence or absence of the identified Calpistatin gene had no material impact on actual carcass Tenderness.
J.West's Blossum, El Presidente sired British White Heifer

Perhaps of even greater interest are the Marbling scores of the study groups. Despite backgrounding via rotational or continuous grazing in either North, South, or East Texas -- or no grazing as is the case with the high grain concentrate from weaning to finish MCF group -- marbling scores in all study groups were not materially different. However, the MCF group had significantly higher percentage carcass fat scores over all other groups, which is undesirable in today’s market and had no additive impact on actual Marbling scores of the final beef product compared to the others, and thus no positive impact on the final value of the beef carcass -- the excess fat is waste.

Of major importance to the beef cattle producer would be the expense of the constant level of "high concentrate" grain feed from weaning to finish of the McGregor-Calf Fed (MCF) group -- which had the lightest finish weight, and as well the highest fat percentage of the harvested carcass weights. While the MCF group had comparable marbling to the other groups, the higher fat level/percentage to accomplish this feat is essentially money down the drain for packing shops such as Cargill or Smith & Company, as well as for the feeder and cow/calf producer who so costly and conscientiously kept that supplemental "high concentrate" grain at the ready in their post weaning/backgrounding phase of production that they perceive should result in their highest profit at the local auction barn or via a direct order buyer.

Today, beef cattle producers are faced with increasing costs of corn. If the corn ethanol craze continues unabated in the coming years, the ease and value of shoveling corn at a growing calf will be re-evaluated for the ultimate financial gain to the beef producer, stocker, and finisher. The use of genetic testing for inherent ability to produce a Tender and well Marbled carcass will become one of increasing importance as reflected in the results of this Texas Beef Council sponsored study.
The day is likely well in hand when the small beef producer, the primary entity that grows our beef in America, must evaluate the financial pros and cons of raising their calves on expensive corn or other sundry grain mixes, or the less costly raising of their calves on pasture grasses and pasture legumes that provide both the major beef packing houses and the American consumer with an end product that has less fat and comparable to greater muscle, marbling, and tenderness on a higher nutritional plane than that of 100% grain fed and finished beef. 

The small shop beef producer who raises a high end, healthy product has only one primary venue for realizing the value that should be derived from their superior beef product, and that is the direct marketing of wholes, halves, splits, or pre-packaged cuts of their beef. While this is measurably a quite profitable venue, there remains the fact that many beef consumers have neither the time, the space, or perhaps the funds to purchase healthy, clean beef in bulk in this manner. It will be the small shop grocery markets that will on the front end provide a venue for the sale on a larger scale of this superior healthy beef product.

Of perhaps even greater difficulty to the small shop grassfed beef producer, at least in this part of Southeast Texas, is finding an abattoir that is either State or USDA licensed. They are as few and far between as a cow having triplets. So a rancher producing healthy grassfed beef for the local Southeast Texas market has no retail venue to market that beef -- they are forced to sell it on the basis of hanging weight at a less than desirable slaughterhouse to their customers. Many times it matters not how much the need for aging, whether grain finished or grass finished, is important to the optimal result for the ranchers' customers. If the person in charge in the local butcher shop doesn't wish to age a carcass, or doesn't think/understand that it serves a purpose anyway, the customer gets the news when they arrive to pick up their beef --- and worse, the beef producer ultimately hears from an unhappy customer.

Maybe it is time for apartment architects, home architects, to begin to consider in their designs the presence of a large deep freeze as an integral part of home design. With this in place, more consumers who desire a healthier beef product will have the space readily at hand to store for a season the beef they wish for themselves and their family to consume as a staple in their diet.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Animal Compassion Foundation Spends a Day with an East Texas Herd of British White Beef Cattle

Pictured here is Dr. Frances Flower, an extraordinary young lady with a passion for the humane treatment of animals. Frances hales from England, and is a Research Associate with The Animal Compassion Foundation™, a non-profit organization dedicated to discovering and sharing knowledge to improve the lives of farm animals. Founded in 2005, the Foundation supports a worldwide network of producers and researchers, seeks to learn and share best practices, and leads and funds on-farm research and producer workshops. Were it not for a pair of dead batteries! I would be sharing photos with you of Frances and my cattle. The charming photo above was taken when Frances was working with dairy cows at UBC in Canada, a research project involving the impact of weaning age on dairy cows and their calves.

Several weeks ago Frances visited the ranch and we spent hours walking amongst my friendly British White cattle and visiting about the goals and programs taking shape within the Foundation. My cows were on their best behaviour, and I was pleased to see that Frances was impressed with both their beauty and their docile nature, which are of course my two favorite British White traits. I have to say that while the cattle were quietly contented, I found myself quite animated by the conversation and interest of Frances in both my cattle and my thoughts and practices on raising cattle here at the ranch, and believe I fairly wore her out with all my yakking. Frances is a very engaging and intelligent young lady that would make any parent proud, and her passion and tenacity of spirit are certainly an asset to this newly formed Foundation that is a non-profit subsidiary of Whole Foods Market based out of Austin, Texas.

The Animal Compassion Foundation was established by Whole Foods Market as a natural progression of the Company's efforts to help producers evolve their practices for raising farm animals naturally and humanely. The launch of the Animal Compassion Foundation parallels the development of Whole Foods Market's enhanced species-specific Animal Compassionate Standards.

Whole Foods Market is making a concerted effort to provide a market for locally produced beef -- but not just 'beef'. The demand for humanely raised beef, and for grass/forage raised beef, is a blooming niche market. American consumers are becoming more educated on the process that brings that beef steak to the glass case at the meat counter, and they are making purchase decisions based on that knowledge. It is that 'process' which can create great variability in the taste, tenderness, and perhaps most importantly -- the nutritional aspects of consuming beef.

Humanely treated beef cattle are much more likely to provide a tender carcass. This is supported by many studies that indicate docile steers well out score their more volatile peers who bullet themselves into and out of a head gate rather than taking a stroll to see what its all about at the other end of the alley. Nutritionally, grass/forage raised and finished beef far outscores the 100% grain and/or other weird stuff raised and finished feedlot beef -- which is what is found in the majority of supermarkets in the United States.

If you aren't familiar with the superior nutrition of grass/forage raised and finished beef -- I encourage you to check it out. You may find that a T-Bone steak from a grass fed steer isn't going to hurt your cholesterol and will provide you with a plethora of beneficial anti-oxidants. And if that beef steak originated with a gentle breed of cattle such as British White, then you've got a good shot at both a tender and a healthy eating experience.

The Animal Compassion Foundation™ provides educational workshops for farmers and ranchers. A recent workshop was Grazing Colorado Grass, which was held in June at a Colorado Whole Foods Market location with Harvey Sprock, Rangeland Management Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA), as the primary speaker. Whether you are a farmer, or an interested consumer, I would encourage you to visit the web site of the Foundation and keep an eye out for upcoming workshops in your area.

American Veal Association - Confinement Phase-Out or Fake-Out?

I have to wonder what kind of folks actually sit on the Board of the American Veal Association, what kind of folks it takes to actually stick a baby calf in a crate and feed it for early slaughter, and not just one every now and then -- but rather there are multitudes of mewling calves confinement crated and fed every day by humans as a matter of the course of their daily business life. It's one of those things I rarely let my mind wonder about or ponder too long. It makes my stomach hurt, and my eyes glare at unknown culprits out there sharing the same blue sky I'm looking at right now.

While one might be inclined to give a hearty slap on the back to the American Veal Associations baby (calf) step to bring an end to the crating of calves for veal production, I'd much rather give them an extra kick in the pants to see if perhaps they might cut that absurd ten year phase-out by at least half.

Further, a ten year phase-out of the crating of calves for veal production is hugely, and might I say strangely, at odds with those one would assume are it's most influential members. As per the following article ". . .considering that the nation's largest veal producers have already committed to a two-year phaseout. . ." Those two widely varying positions - by essentially the same parties- do not sit well together, smells just a little rancid.

HSUS: Statement On American Veal Association’s Veal Crate Announcement

WASHINGTON (August 6, 2007)—Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle released the following statement:

“The Humane Society of the United States welcomes the news that the American Veal Association has recommended that the confinement of calves in crates should come to an end. For years, the humane community in the United States has said that these crates are inhumane and unnecessary. We are pleased that the industry now agrees and is taking some steps to phase out this confinement system. Last November, Arizona voters approved a ballot measure to outlaw veal crates.

The American Veal Association's recommended ten-year phaseout is a long time, especially considering that the nation's largest veal producers have already committed to a two-year phaseout, but it is a step in the right direction that further makes the writing on the wall clear: Veal crates are too cruel and inhumane even for the veal industry to continue defending.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Great Article for Guidance on Grass Genetics in Cattle and Producing superior Grassfed Beef

Jolley: Five Minutes With Ridge Shinn

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.

Ridge Shinn is a one man conglomerate - Hardwick Beef, Bakewell Reproductive Center, even a home building company. It must be that old, New England, Calvinistic work ethic that’s been buried deep within his bones. You might say he’s as genetically predisposed to hard work as his cattle are to giving up gourmet cuts of beef.

He’s a grass farmer, an avid advocate of sustainable agriculture and one of the leading experts on getting gourmet beef from grass-fed cattle. What he’s managed to do is take a product that has been uneven in quality and elevate it to a status that makes foodies drool and gourmet magazines seek him out. How many ranchers do you know that are quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines? And whose products are described with the same effervescent terms used for hundred dollar a bottle wines?

Have we gone from Clara Peller searching for “the beef” at Wendy’s to finding it in the most upscale of institutions? Has beef attained the status of a Joseph Phelps 2000 Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon which Wine Advocate describes this way: "The 2000 Insignia reveals a smoky, rich, cassis characteristic, medium to full body, and an open-knit, lush, generous style . . . Expansive, fleshy and seductive, it should drink well for 15–16 years."

Can we really talk about a t-bone steak that way? Let’s talk with Ridge Shinn and find out.

Q. How did you get into the cattle business?

A. I started milking cows in the 1970’s as a herdsman on a typical New England dairy (100 cows). Spent 20 years in the building business and returned to cattle when I started the New England Livestock Alliance (NELA) in 2001. NELA’s core business was figuring out how to finish and sell 100% grass-fed beef.

Q. You’re involved in Hardwick Beef, the Bakewell Reproductive Center and a home-building company called Hardwick Post and Beam. It makes for a busy daily schedule. When you do get a little free time, what do you do?

A. When I do have spare time I generally spend it on my farm. I have a home farm and lease a 150 acre farm in Hardwick and have a herd of Devon cattle there. It takes any spare time I can find.

Q. The Bakewell Reproductive Center is a cooperative venture with Gearld Fry that aims to build a “grass-based bovine gene pool that produces gourmet beef.” You’ve been quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines, two publications aimed squarely at the gourmet crowd, so you must be making some progress. Can you define gourmet beef for me and tell me what you’ve done to build a gene pool that meets your standards?

A. Gourmet beef is beef that is tender and tasty. All beef should be gourmet. Over the years in its quest for volume, the cattle industry lost sight of quality. The industry rewards pounds of beef and size of frame. The result is lower quality (read leaner or less marbled) and tougher beef. The continental breeds that were imported to increase size and volume brought with them lack of marling and slightly tougher beef. In a quest for gourmet beef, one always returns to the “British Breeds”. Historically they had the best fat and tenderness.

Wine Spectator and many others say our beef has a “more robust flavor”. What most people find remarkable is that we can produce beef that is well marbled and tender on a grass-only diet. Visit our web site ( to see the results of testing done on our meat at Clemson University‘s meat lab. In the first sample, the meat was 87% choice or better and the tenderness values measured by the Warner-Bratzler shear test were better than restaurant quality (average of 3.2 KG of force versus 4.1KG of force for restaurant quality). Remember this is a grass only diet and the cattle tested were steers produced by our Rotokawa® Devon bulls bred to commercial Angus mother cows.

Bakewell Repro imported 12 females from the Rotokawa® Devon herd in NZ and semen from Rotokawa® Devon bulls. Bakewell has harvested embryos and started new herds of Devon cattle in Wyoming, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and a number of herds in the Northeast. Using semen from these bulls on commercial cattle is the quickest way to move toward a set of cattle that thrive on grass. Every cattleman and woman has some cattle in their herd that will work on a grass-only diet-the challenge is to evaluate the herd and then concentrate on the breeding of these cows.

Q. At a time when ‘Angus’ has been marketed as the best source of top quality beef, you’re raising Devons, an old English breed. What advantages do you see in Devon cattle?

A. Angus was a premier breed for top quality beef. I use the past tense because today the “Angus” breed has been polluted by many other breeds. Because black covers all sins, any cattle bred to Angus come out black-indeed the Rotokawa® Devon cross Angus steers are black unless the mother cow has a red Angus gene. Even the Certified Angus Beef programs will admit that quality has gone down hill since it’s hey day. Recently, CAB announced they would not accept any carcasses over 1000 pounds. I am positive that none of the “good old Angus premium beef” came in a 1000 pound Hot Carcass. The success of the CAB marketing and the quality of the beef created tremendous demand and the breed made the mistake of accepting cross bred black cattle into the registry which diluted the original quality. It’s a sad story of a breed’s popularity being its undoing.

The North Devon or Red Devon breed fell out of favor in the ramp up of all other breeds to become “feedlot friendly” cattle. The Devon breeds only crime is that it is too easy-fleshing-they get fat too fast. The feed lot does not want this trait and it won’t work on the feedlot-the Devon will go to yield grade five or six in ninety days on full feed. But if your production method is grass-only you want an easy feeder that is easy fleshing that will get fat on grass. The breed also was never bred for frame size so most of the Red Devon cattle are still moderate in height (48” to 50”) a trait that correlates to early maturity and function on grass.

The Devon historically was known as the butcher’s breed and has always had an excellent meat to bone ratio because of its fine dense bone. When it was popular in the 1960’s and 70’s it won a great share of the carcass competitions they were placed in. Fortunately the breed changed little in the feedlot years and therefore the breed is ready to put back in production on a grass-only diet and return to prominence as the Butcher’s Breed.

Q. Raising grass fed cattle requires a very different management technique to be successful, something that’s foreign to most cattlemen today. Can you walk me through the process?

A. To succeed in raising quality grass-fed cattle one must choose the right kind of cattle. By quality, I mean cattle that will fatten and be tender on a grass-only diet. They need to be moderately tall and wide and deep (some folks say they need short legs but they need a deep body). Look at photos of the cattle from the 1960’s and those are the kind of cattle you need. You can choose a subset of the right kind of cattle from any of the British Breeds but will struggle with the continentals on grass---most cattle in Europe are not harvested until 36 months of age.

The major keys to success in raising grass-fed cattle are to get your breeding season in synch with nature. You want to calve when the wild ruminants have their young---May or June in most parts of the country. You want to have the calf nurse on the mother cow for at least ten months and then be weaned (with virtually no stress) onto green grass. With the right kind of easy fleshing mother cows you will develop reproductive problems if you do not make them work through the winter. Today, the industry typically weans at 6 months so our tall, hard-doing, late-maturing mother cows can build back some condition to make it through the winter. We find that the calves that stay on the mother for 10 months will gain about 15% more than the calf weaned in the fall. With this head start, and being weaned onto green grass, the steers can finish in 18 months on a grass-only diet.

Grass feeding requires grass management. There is no better feed for a ruminant than green grass. The key to success is learning how to keep the grass vegetative throughout the growing season and then figuring out how to extend the grazing season. Every ounce of stored feed fed is extremely expensive. Any time the bovine can walk out and harvest its own feed is like money in the bank. has to give up on a lot of paradigms and be open to learning some new ways of grazing-MIG or management intensive grazing emphasizes the management because that is the intensive part-it is different on every farm or ranch and it is different every season of every year. Electric fence and plastic water pipe to deliver water to paddocks are two of the tools that are critical to our success. Obviously many areas of the country have different challenges, but the key is to let the cattle graze in great density and then move them to let the grass rest and re grow-the circuit around the ranch might be as long as once a year or as quick as every 23 days depending on rainfall, sunshine, etc. The model is the buffalo that moved in herds of incredible density but then they moved on. We need to replicate this with our cattle.

Another level of management of our grass is to measure the Brix of the grass with a refractometer to gauge the nutrient density and sugar content of the grass. The rumen is a remarkable compost facility that needs the proper carbon nitrogen ratio as well as the right amount of protein, energy and minerals to function optimally. It is our job as a grass farmer to optimize the inputs to the rumen in terms of quality, if our expectation is to get quality in the meat that we harvest.

Although this all sounds complicated it is not unplowed ground. New Zealand has spent years farming this way principally because, as well as being the healthiest for the rumen; it is the lowest cost of production. They have to produce efficiently if they are going to access markets that are oceans away.

Q. “Grass-fed” has become a fast-growing niche in the beef business. Some foodies even use terminology similar to that used to describe fine wines when they talk about it. Are those kinds of glowing description justified? And can “grass-fed” escape the niche business?

A. Grass-fed is the current clamor of the market. Many folks do not know what it means. My feeling is that it is critically important that people understand the terms and what they mean. I like to compare 100% grass-fed beef to pregnancy-either you are or you are not. All beef producers want the “grass-fed” claim since all cattle do eat grass for a substantial part of their lives.

The real changes to the tissue and the health benefits of the beef occur when the cattle begin to eat grain. When cattle eat just grass they cannot get Mad Cow (the consumer doesn’t want this); they have almost immeasurable levels of E. coli because acidosis does not occur in the gut. Read about the Cornell research at There are no nutrient loading problems since manures are spread evenly daily and incorporated into the soil. Once you remove grain from the cattle raising equation, you eliminate plowing, petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soil compaction, fossil fuels for tillage, harvest and transport.

The real compelling part of the story is that the fats in 100% grass-fed beef are much healthier for the human. The ratio of Omega 3 Omega 6 is very different in the grass versus grain fed and nearly a perfect 1:1 ratio.

The “story” of 100% grass-fed and finished beef is a compelling story and most people will buy it. The only way that “grass-fed” can escape the “niche” status it has today, is if producers learn to produce gourmet beef on grass and then they put a great piece of beef in the hand of each consumer that buys the “story”.

The challenge today is that many consumers have heard pieces of the story and they find it compelling once they do-the challenge is how we produce enough quality beef to satisfy the demand. As I said to a restaurant crowd in NYC a while back, it took me 2 ½ years to grow the piece of meat you are eating tonight-from a gleam in my eye, to breeding the cow takes 2 ½ years to the plate-so it is hard to ramp up a product like this.

Today with fuel prices, many cattle men and woman are beginning to be open to other options. The feedlots are feeling the pinch and the time of opportunity is upon us. It is a rare time in history when the producer is demanding quality, clean (no antibiotics or hormones), healthy food and they are willing to pay for it-It is a time of opportunity for the cattle industry.

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.

Copyright 2007 Integrated Management Information, Inc.