Grazing beef cattle year-round, over-wintering them outdoors, stockpiling forages and bale-grazing on pasture, is becoming more common in Northern Tier states. Omitting grain altogether, or feeding it minimally, and keeping animals on pasture year-round has re-emerged as an environmentally-sound, humane, low-impact way to raise meat.
But is this the best fit for livestock producers in Northern Tier states? With cold-weather limiting forage availability, the costs associated with this system may be causing limitations on operation size and viability, and the system may not be as sustainable as other alternatives. Is there another way for Northern Tier producers to raise grass-fed beef which can maximize profitability, meet the growing demand for local beef, and remain sustainable?
Dan Hudson, University of Vermont Extension Agronomist, and Joe Emenheiser, UVM Extension Livestock Specialist, conducted a workshop during the recent Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference. The economic viability of traditional northern grazing systems, and the possibility of an innovative option to add profitability and avoid the pitfalls of year-round grass-fed beef in a harsh cold weather climate, was explored.

Costs of production

Changing from a cow-calf to finish operation to one which purchases feeders for finishing instead might provide producers with “a way that small farms could be profitable without sacrificing sustainability,” Hudson said.
The typical Northeast system requires feeding stored feed during the winter months. Even with producers becoming more inclined to pasture for extended periods of time, the cost of production to get the cow to finishing condition can be considerable.
“How much per pound did it cost you to get it there?” Hudson asked. “It’s very difficult to get a break-even price. My sense is that a lot of people don’t know their true cost of production.” If the true cost of production is calculated, the actual price needed for the meat might be more than the public would support.
Sample enterprise budgets for the two grass-fed systems were presented, and producers were encouraged to enter their own numbers to accurately calculate their current cost of production. Variable costs include: feed, bedding, veterinary care, marketing and supplies. Examples of fixed costs are those associated with machinery and buildings, as well as labor costs.
The bottom-line question, Hudson said, is “how much would I have to sell this animal for to break even?”
Hudson used sample cow-calf budgets based on a May-September grazing program, with fall calving, and a final end weight of 800 pounds. He compared this to a system where an 800 pound grass-fed steer is purchased from a Virginia producer and transported to Vermont for finishing. Using an animal cost of $1.80/pound, as well as a very high transportation cost of $1.65/pound, it was calculated that the cost of production in the feeder system would be lower than in the cow-calf enterprise.
Limitations to growth
Cost isn’t the only consideration when comparing the two systems. Cow-calf to finish operations can be limited by the amount of land available. If there is more demand for the beef, can the producer obtain enough land to grow his operation?
Different qualities of feed are needed for different groups of animals within the cow-calf to finish operation. Getting the best gainers on the best pasture is one challenge.
“Managing multiple groups is challenging,” Hudson said. “If you are juggling so many different things, how well can you finish those animals?”
The equipment and building infrastructure needed to manage a cow-calf herd and breed animals on the farm is more extensive than when finishing young stock. One way to increase the total number of animals passing through the farm, without increasing the land base or labor needs, is to purchase feeder steers with a grass-only background. While some animals might not be ready to finish until spring, the number of cattle requiring over-wintering on the farm is greatly reduced in a feeder system, Hudson said.
Without a brood cow on the farm, the number animals which can be finished on the same amount of land is also increased. A producer who has the land base, has demand from customers, and plans to expand his production would still benefit by eliminating the brood cows.

Ethical Considerations

While moving away from the traditional northeastern system can have economic benefits, it may not be a good fit for other reasons. Is transporting cows ethical? Is a feeder system sustainable? How long does the cow need to be in a locale in order to be qualified to be a local brand? Will consumers accept the feeder model?
Typically, farmers need to use stored feed between October and May, Hudson said. This 200 day feed season requires fuel. Making the hay to sustain one cow requires roughly 8.7 gallons of fuel per cow. Cows purchased from warmer climates would require approximately 4.3 gallons of fuel per cow to transport.
“I don’t think that someone could say that the carbon footprint of this (feeder) system is larger,” Hudson said.
Oftentimes, winter feed — whether pasture or stored forage — is not as nutritious as prime pastures would be. Is asking cattle to survive a cold winter on less than optimal feed ethical?
While cow-calf pairs are grass-raised in southern states, modern genetics makes these animals hot-wired to finish on grain. They may be able to gain on grass alone, and reach a marketable weight, but the quality of the carcass may suffer, Emenheiser said.
“But ‘finished’ isn’t just a weight, it describes the body composition, fatness, muscle size, marbling, etc, that is needed to be desirable from a quality standpoint — and profitable from a yield standpoint — at a given market weight,” Emenheiser said. If a grass-fed animal bred to finish on grain is finished on grass, “it may be at an older age, which raises issues with meat tenderness.”
One concern the audience had was obtaining the genetics they need for their herd. One producer commented that “home-raised calves perform better than purchased calves.” Many others commented on the care they’ve taken breeding their animals, and that the quality of their herd — and their meat — would decrease if they adapted the feeder system.
Quality is a product of both the genetics, and the environment, Emenheiser said.
The environment isn’t just the climate, it is also the management. While there is some concern that animals reared on Virginia pastures wouldn’t adapt to New England forages, Emenhesier explained that for a calf backgrounded on grass, it wouldn’t be a metabolism issue with the change of forage species, but rather a behavioral issue. Although the northeast doesn’t have as many warm season forages as Virginia, Virginia has a pronounced summer forage slump in June and July. Cows tend not to eat species they haven’t seen before, so some issues could occur, depending on the time of the year.
“Performance on grass is a function of genetics, environment, and learned grazing behaviors,” he said.
“You can find feeder animals in New York and Vermont,” Hudson said. Purchasing feeders from closer locales could also be an option. “We’re not saying that this is the best way or the only way,” only that it is an alternative that deserves to be considered.
Visit www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture for more information.