Cattle finishing on grass

by Tamara Scully

Finishing beef on grass to achieve a USDA Choice grading (or the equivalent eating experience without grading) is possible with high-quality feed, enough time to finish and excellent winter management, said Rod Ofte of the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative. Although the cooperative does not officially grade their beef with a USDA inspector, Ofte expressed confidence that their own inspector’s assessment is equivalent to the USDA’s standards. They grade “to USDA standards,” he said.

At Ofte’s own Willow Creek Ranch, 82% of his grass-fed cattle finish at the Choice grade. Ofte spoke during the recent 2021 Catskills Regional Agriculture Conference.

Gaining on Grass

Rotational grazing is one of the necessary management protocols for properly finishing grass-fed beef. With a rotational system, upwards of 30% more forage can be grown and harvested by the animals on a given land base than with standard grazing. When land is overgrazed or continually grazed, the pasture plants suffer from root stress. But if cattle are closely managed and allowed to eat half of the plant and leave the rest as residual, the forage regrows rapidly and retains its nutritional value and solid root system.

“We can’t graze all year long,” Ofte said, so a variety of approaches help to maximize the quality and availability of forage even during the non-grazing season.

Some pastures are utilized for both grazing and making hay, and this flexibility allows him to manage the fields according to the demands of the season to maximize forage production.

He also no-till drills an annual forage of sorghum-Sudangrass on 20 acres to bulk up forage production. When seeding annuals, it’s imperative to remember that they’re warm season grasses, and to seed them when soil temperatures are high enough to support their needs. He seeds in July, after the second cutting of hay.

Ofte has averaged 35 additional bales of hay in his third cutting on fields interseeded with annuals, compared to when no annuals are sown. With each bale weighing in around 1,000 pounds, he has gained 35,000 extra pounds of forage, all from a $600 investment in seed each season.

“Anytime in your operation, that with a little effort, you can net $3,000” is a bonus, he said.

Ofte also recommended stockpiling forages. He stockpiles his annual forages and grazes them in early November, which allows his cattle to gain “at a time of year when forage is usually pretty sparse,” he said. “This type of forage abundance, and the high energy levels of sorghum, can really, really let you put on weight.”

It costs four times as much to feed harvested forage as it does to let the cattle graze. Extending the grazing season – he can go until December – is a cost-effective measure if high-quality pasture forages are available.

They’ve never had any prussic acid toxicity issues when grazing their stockpiled sorghum-Sudangrass. The annual is mixed in with the other pasture forages, so any prussic acid is diluted, and they don’t graze it when the likelihood of toxicity is higher, such as immediately after frost.

The sorghum-Sudangrass dies out the next season, and other perennial pasture forages grow back fully without issue. Ofte believes that he’s gaining some beneficial soil effects from the seeded annuals, boosting the quality and productivity of other pasture forages. Enhanced water filtration has been seen in his pastures where annuals were interseeded.

When feeding harvested forages, feed quality, palatability and nutritional content are all important. There is ongoing debate on whether dry hay or baleage is best. The increased moisture content of baleage enhances palatability, as the fermentation which occurs is very tasty to cattle and provides higher nutrient levels than dry hay. With baleage, leaf content isn’t lost through drying and raking the hay, and you save time and energy.

“I know it is more expensive,” he said of baleage. “But there’s so many values. I’m a really big fan of wrapped baleage.”

When finishing cattle, avoid limiting feeding. When calculating feed needs, an increase of 3% of body weight per day is needed, and planning on having extra feed on hand to achieve this goal is warranted.

“You can gain really well in the spring, summer and fall, and you can be almost totally set back through poor winter management,” he said.

Herd Management Factors

Winter feeding can be managed through bale grazing techniques, using feeders on pasture or rolling out bales. Whatever feeding methods are used, it’s important to keep animals gaining weight through the winter months.

Cows need to eat as much as they want to consume. In cold weather, adding a molasses supplement will increase energy. A Quality Liquid Feed (QLF) with unlimited access boosts energy in grass-fed cattle, while a kelp supplement increases immunity. Free choice salt and minerals are also needed throughout the winter.

A good QLF can “make that marginal feed really scrumptious” and be a cost-effective way of adding gain, Ofte said.

Managing body temperature has an impact on gain too. The critical temperature for cattle is 20º F. Below this, and the animals will need to divert energy into keeping warm. For each degree below the critical temperature, whether from wind, moisture or the actual ambient temperature reading, an animal will increase its maintenance energy use by 1%. Shelters, windbreaks, dry bedding and the use of south-facing slops can keep herds warm and dry.

Ofte recommended separating finishing head from cow/calf pairs. Water is crucial and is a limiting factor, so having fresh water in each paddock is optimal. Poor water quality or water sources too far from the grazing area can limit gain. When cows consume snow, it decreases their body temperature and can decrease their feed intake, causing losses in gain.

The Finish

Genetics matter in forage-based production systems. Ofte’s herd is 80% Lowline Angus genetics, which enables him to sell on the conventional market if needed, with a mix of Red Devon and Belted Galloway. His bulls are typically Lowline Angus, and he breeds using AI and a backup bull.

Ofte selects for longevity and high fertility, low to moderate milk (beeves don’t need large udders) and moderate frames in both cows and bulls. He’s seeking a phenotype that’s well adapted to the pasture environment.

“Energy requirements with that size of an animal [mean that] you will never be able to finish him on grass properly,” Ofte said of big cattle with high frames. If a cow doesn’t finish well, take those genes out of the breeding pool, he recommended.

Cattle are not finished just because you run out of winter feed. They are finished when they’ve put on the fat so that the meat will marble well. This can be judged by assessing the physical characteristics of the cattle as they mature.

The tailhead of a properly grass-fed finished cow will have a lump, and the flank will be flat. Ribs should not have any indentation, but be smooth. The brisket should be full and “jiggly” and the heart girth should be thick.

“Start getting those traits in an animal and you know you’re getting closer to finish,” Ofte said. “It simply takes longer if you don’t have the crutches,” such as growth hormones and high-energy grain-based feeds used in conventional grain-based systems.

While customers will initially purchase grass-fed beef for animal welfare or nutritional reasons, they won’t continue to do so if the taste isn’t up to par. Finished grass-fed cattle take an average of 26 months at Willow Creek Ranch. The extra time is important, Ofte said.

“Finish is an indicator of the eating experience. The [grass-fed] industry has come a long way in the past 10 years,” he concluded.

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