Tips for raising cattle for freezer beef

by Courtney Llewellyn

Raising beef cattle is only half the struggle; the other half is actually selling the meat. To help producers with both sides of the equation, North Carolina Cooperative Extension presented “Raising Cattle for Freezer Beef” as part of its “Beef: Beyond the Basics” series.

Alamance County Agriculture – Livestock and Forages Extension Agent Lauren Langley hosted the session, and kicked it off by talking about what a farmer’s goals should be in the enterprise. “Identifying who or what your market is is really important,” Langley said. If you’re going the retail route, are you selling via website, farmers market or farm stand? If you’re selling wholesale, are you selling to restaurants or butcher shops? And are you selling cuts versus whole/half/quarters or boxes? Langley noted some farms start out with retail and evolve into wholesale.

Farmers also need to determine the types of products their market desires: large cuts, lean cuts, grass-fed, organic, grain-fed or even heritage breeds. “Consistency is the big thing with any of these markets – with nutrition, genetics, forage program, consistency all critical,” she said. “Match your program to your market and not the other way around.”

As for operation types, Langley said this subject can be tackled from several different directions. “Cow/calf to finishing is probably one of the hardest things to do, but you know exactly everything going on,” she said. “You can be super hands-on and make any adjustments that are needed.” The next option is weaning to finish, which takes about a year and a half or so. After that is taking an animal from about 800 pounds to finish, which takes about six to eight months – less time is invested, but more money is spent on bringing those larger calves in.

Producers also need to choose the right breeds. Langley suggested trying to match your environment and management style to the breed you’re considering. For example, if you have pasture or hay that’s largely Kentucky fescue, don’t buy cattle that have never seen fescue.

It’s also important to understand breed differences when it comes to nutrition, finishing and end products. Jerseys, normally dairy animals, for example, have exceptional meat quality but will yield less meat and make smaller cuts. You can use a two- or three-breed system if you choose to. Beef breeds generally have more muscling and heavier weights than dairy breeds. Genetically, there is quite a bit of difference with how cows respond to feed (grain versus forage).

You need to consider your marketing efforts when choosing a breed too. Does the breed matter in your marketing efforts? In most cases, the end product is what matters and not the breed, Langley said. “Today’s consumers more concerned about how these animals are raised, how they’re cared for, and also quality of product and food safety,” she added.

When managing your beeves, you’ll want to determine your growing and finishing rations based on weight and average daily gain targets. Rations should be balanced for protein, energy and minerals based on nutritional requirements. Use feed ingredients that are readily available, affordable and work best for you. If you’re going 100% grass-fed/finished, be prepared to use perennials and annuals as well as seeking higher quality hay in winter months. “Your Extension agent can really help you here – look at hay analysis, forage analysis, feed analysis,” Langley said. “That way you’re not under- or overfeeding for your goals.”

You also want to manage for healthy cattle with herd health protocols, rotational grazing if possible, diligent recordkeeping and daily checks.

Finishing is the final stage before the processing of animals. It gets the cows to their target weights with the appropriate amount of external fat. The finishing ration is typically higher in concentrate (grain) or a really nutritious forage (an annual or an annual/legume mix) to influence fat.

The final product – that freezer beef – is affected by frame, bone, muscle, fat cover and gut capacity/fill. The dressing percentage ranges from 58% – 66%. The percentage of retail product ranges from 45% – 55%. For example, a 1,300-pound steer with a 50% retail product percentage would yield 650 pounds of beef. Generally, the yield of retail product will be 62% roasts and steaks and 38% ground beef and stew meats (and this will differ on if you want bone in or bone out).

The takeaways of aiming to raise cows for freezer beef, Langley said, start with doing your market research. Choose the breeds that work for your system and your market. Manage for health, consistency, quality and food safety in mind. (She highly recommended producers take BQA training.) And collect data, both for live animals and carcasses. You can never have enough data points. Information and experience are valuable resources.

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