Yes, you can finish high-quality beef on grass. To do so, you need to feed the soil, feed the plants, and feed the animals. The grass-farming model relies upon nutrient-dense forages to promote average daily gain. While selecting animals with the genetics to turn forage into fat, and to thrive on pasture, is one part of the equation, rotating those animals through the pastures to optimize energy intake, promote forage regrowth, and build the soil is the other.
The goal of grass farming is “to reconcile topsoil formation and livestock gain on grasslands,” Abe Collins, Collins Grazing LLC, based in Winooski, VT, said, speaking at the 2016 Grassfed Exchange Conference.
For Collins, finishing beef on grass is an efficient and effective manner of building topsoil. Feedlot beef operations, and growing the grains to support them, deplete the topsoil, leading to erosion and environmental concerns. Growing grains to feed ruminants — who by definition and biology are designed to eat forages — has proven to be a recipe for eroded land, dirty water and dead soils, he said.
“We’ve used up most of our topsoil,” Collins said. “We’ll need a lot more livestock” to reverse this decline. “We’re going to need a lot more cattle. Finishing cattle on grasslands is a way to rebuild soils.”
Beef cattle can finish exceptionally on well-managed grass. Finishing cattle on grass isn’t quite as simple as finishing beef on grain.
“That grain is such an easy energy source. Bam… they make fat,” he said.
Adding a minimum of two to three pounds of gain per day on grass is very achievable. During his first season of grazing, Collins had average daily gains of at least two pounds per day, and the animals finished at 19 months.
“I’ve had animals gain, for some months at a time…at four or more pounds per day,” Collins said. “But that points to genetics. Certain animals are well suited to grazing on grass. Regional variations in finishing potential” of cattle on grass exist, and there is “an overlap between soil formation and livestock performance.”
The key to livestock gain on pasture is soil health. To successfully finish beef on grass, there are several things that need to happen. The gain has to be a minimum of two pounds per day. The forages must have energy, protein and mineral density. There must be high biomass production per acre, and a supply of good, clean water. Animals need a low stress environment, where everything from handling practices, to temperature, to feed quality enhance well-being. The animals need to have a high intake of forages, with a reasonable rate of passage through the digestive system.
“How can we get this energy into our forages, so that the animals can finish and make the proteins, and make the fats, that make for a fast-growing, finished animal?” is the question, he said.
Managing the needs of the soil, that of the forages, and that of the animals, in order to optimize soil building and result in nutrient-dense forages, which are then transferred into animal gain, is the objective of grass-finishing beef. Successfully finishing cattle on grass begins with the soil.
“Getting started in compacted, lifeless soil is tough,” Collins said. “We can grow a new topsoil. It is within our power. Growing new topsoil is about bringing soils back to life.”
To grow topsoil, there must first be: physical permeability; air; water; minerals; moderated warmth; living things in the soil; living things on the soil; and intermittent disturbances, which are provided by hoofs and grazing. Getting carbon into soil is most efficiently done via plant root exudes. Adding back carbon is required as carbon is the foundation for regenerating soil life.
Keyline soil development is one way to do so. It involves physically loosening the soil via successive subsoiling, in order to make room and prime the soil environment for plant roots. As plants regrow, roots will develop more fully. Repeated disturbance and regrowth will keep adding a carbon flush to the soil, and promote pasture growth and soil health.
“It isn’t just dragging steel around on pastures, there’s much more to it,” Collins said. “Allowing the roots and the microbes to grow in between the physical loosening events, and insuring that there is adequate fertility for robust plant growth and humification. Because making stable soil organic matter takes minerals other than just carbon.”
Keeping soil covered always, and green as long as possible, stops erosion and keeps the soil microbes thriving. Living plants provide sugar and amino acids which serve as food for the soil microbes.
“We can grow more grass just by how we time our spring grazing,” Collins said.
Grazers need to manage spring green up of cool season perennial grass to allow for the most grass reproduction. By grazing when there are 3.5 leaves on the plant, but before flowering, the plant’s sap will drop into the roots, feeding the mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi help to provide phosphatase, which allows bound phosphorous — as well as other nutrients — to be released and made available.
Phosphorous provides energy to plants and to cattle. Plant growth will be enhanced for the remainder of the year from this spring grazing protocol.
There are also hormonal effects to the plant, and this grazing technique stops the apical dominance of the plant, forcing the grass to tiller. Tillering is a more efficient means of cool season grass reproduction than seed formation. This also enhances plant nutrients.
One challenge on lush pasture is the limited amount of energy available, and the excess of protein. Excess protein is converted in the gut, and results in ammonia production. Excess ammonia must be secreted, and taxes the liver and the kidneys.
Grazing in the afternoon, after plants have been able to make sugar, will increase the amount of dry matter and is “an easy way to get better animal performance,” Collins said. Afternoon strip grazing, allowing cattle to take that first bite and then move on to new ground, optimizes the energy they are consuming, and is a benefit both to animal gain and to pasture health.
“Afternoon sugar burst is a big deal,” Collins said.
Because the top part of the forage has the most energy, grazing tall — allowing the animals to consume just the tops of the forage, when it is at its maximum vegetative stage, just pushing the boot stage, and stopping them from grazing in order to keep residual leaves — benefits every aspect of the system: soil, plant and animal.
Grazing tall promotes soil organic matter, animal performance, and nutrient density in pasture forages. Root and rhizome development is enhanced. Because every plant has its own root exudes, which support a given type of microbe, pasture diversity enhances soil health by allowing many types of soil microbes to thrive.
Without a living soil, whose microorganisms, nutrients, and physical properties support plant health, livestock gain will suffer. Livestock, in turn, promote soil and plant health via grazing and trampling pasture forages, building up organic matter and promoting healthy soil environments.
“Finishing cattle, for me, on grasslands, is more than just the cheap thing to do,” Collins said. “This is really an environmental improvement. We need to be harnessing those foraging cattle to grow that topsoil.”